Sunday, September 15, 2013

Halloween on Display

Hear that? It is the sound of crunching leaves, rain against the window and audible gasps as we go from 90 degrees to 58 in the same week. Yes, fall is upon us once again and that means my fireplace mantle is about to spend the next three months decked out for the holidays (flowing right from Fall/Halloween to Christmas come the day after Thanksgiving).

I broke out the holiday totes and unloaded all the goodies i had to work with. I try to do a little something with the display each year, without going overboard and buying all new items. I do let myself buy one new addition to the family, and only time will tell what makes it onto the mantle. Something from a shop found on our upcoming New England trip? Possibly.
The biggest change for the year has to be the mantle scarf. Made with love and an introduction to the sewing machine back in July, it is finally getting its turn to be on display. 
A couple scarily-titled books, with their book jackets removed, sit in front of a hurricane filled with pumpkins  made of various materials (real, cloth, candle and porcelain) with a ghost looking on.
I created a subtle background to the scene with a few Halloween cards that show a starry night sky, stack of pumpkins, ghostly tree line and a zombie cat in the distance. Just enough to offset the hot pinkness of the art that lives behind my little ghouls!

I put the scarecrow, witch and devil on top of a plastic box leftover from some of the pumpkin candles to give them a little more height in the background, with the box covered with the garland to hide it.
I'm not sure why, but when I look at this scene I see the little cat looking on nervously as the raven eyes up the ghost's head as a potentially tasty treat to grab. 

Happy Fall!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Losin' It

As my quest for everlasting organization continued, a small pile of "stuff" started to accumulate in our household. These were things not quite large enough for the effort of Craigslist, but too worthy to just give up and donate to Salvation Army. As I contemplated what to do (yard sales without a yard are a little tough to manage here in the city), my mom happened to complain about a similar issue. She had tons of items for a yard sale, but living back in the Northwoods meant that there wasn't a lot of drive by traffic.

We decided to ask my Aunt Christine (Mom's sister) about hosting us in her Madison neighborhood for a Labor Day weekend sale. Soon enough, we were splitting up responsibilities and I was completing a major purge of every nook and cranny of our house. 

Originally, my plan was to drive up to my parents' house first so we could help transport some of her goods that wouldn't fit in their smallish car. However, after getting all of my own stuff loaded we quickly found there would be no room at all left in the Escape for anything extra!
I prefaced the sale by posting to Craigslist and a couple Garage Sale sites. My mother took care of picking up a few stakes and bright yellow signs announcing Yard Sale that Bob would help punch up and put out at various corners of the neighborhood.

We drove up Friday evening and started unloading the cars by 7am on Saturday, trying to keep things in general categories like kitchen, household, holiday and games. My aunt had borrowed two long white tables from a friend, and Bob and I had taken apart one of our plastic shelving systems from our storage area to use as two separate table options. 
Another shelf we had brought up displayed books and games for about 10 minutes before someone made an offer on it, so the books went back into shallow boxes on the ground!

At my sister's house the weekend before, Bob and I were envious of their glass drink dispenser filled with water and sliced oranges. What a perfect way to keep drinking water all day. I've been at work functions with fruit water of all varieties, I think my favorite was Starfruit water. Seriously, give it a try! We decided to buy one on our own, but in time to have for the yard sale to put out for thirsty customers. If it was really going to be 90 degrees out, we needed folks to stay hydrated if we wanted them to spend more time at the sale! We ended up buying a double dispenser from Bed, Bath and Beyond. With a $25 gift card from our wedding and a 20% off coupon, we spent about $2 on it! We filled one side with sliced lemon and the other with cucumber from my parents' garden. A stack of cups alongside and a box underneath the table for garbage and we were Live.
There was a steady flow of customers on Saturday, but Sunday was much slower. All of the die-hard American Pickers made sure to get there early in the weekend to find the best stuff, I suppose. In the end, we made about $240. Not bad considering most items were capping out at 50 cents or a dollar!  We definitely priced stuff to move. We had tracked each purchase by putting the price sticker in a notebook, or writing down the purchase item, price and initials of owner if no price tag existed. We all used different stickers, so it was pretty clear whose was whose. 

Why yes, those are 150 yarn balls from wedding centerpieces I attempted to sell! I got rid of a few, but still have a large pile at home that I need to figure out something for....
My mother and Christine thought of a good way to add a clothesline for purses and hanging items. A line of jute was strung up from the porch and clothespins kept hangers in place. We didn't go overboard in trying to sell clothes, I had read that clothing doesn't sell all that well at sales like this. I didn't bring any myself, but a Packer raincoat for sale certainly made one guy very happy. He came back later that day with his family, proudly wearing the coat in 85 degree heat.
Throughout the weekend, our Yard Sale mascot was Emmy Lou - my Aunt's tortoiseshell cat. Emmy is pretty much the friendliest cat in the world, and is never shy around people. She made sure to greet each customer and demanded attention. The whole neighborhood seemed to have an Emmy Lou story. 
After driving up to Madison in a hail storm the night before, we were certainly concerned about the weather. We had a few tarps at the ready, but luckily for us the rain held off until Sunday at 4pm. Otherwise known as: 15 minutes after we closed up shop and put everything away!

Tips and Lessons Learned:
- Have a zippered money bag that doesn't leave your sight. We'd put it in the house if we didn't have anyone lining up just yet. Or, if you are very fashionable, opt for a fanny pack.
- Make sure there are enough tables so customers don't have to bend over and dig through too many boxes. Get creative - we used the totes and boxes that we carried our stuff in, shelves we were planning on selling and plastic five-tier shelving broken out into two.
- If your sale is with multiple people, plan an accounting system that works for you and tracks whose stuff is selling.
- Keep an eye on the weather, have tarps ready to protect the goods should a sudden shower hit. This is where Garage Sales have advantages over Yard Sales!
- My parents own a bar, and we found it was the old beer signs, mirrors and collectibles that sold the fastest. We heard more than one mention of, "Man Cave" over the weekend. Books and kitchen utensils seemed to be our most popular items. I'm sure if we would have gotten baby stuff from my sister to sell it would have been a hit, but we were lacking in the toy department at this particular sale.
- Prepare for early birds. We made about $40 in sales before we even had half of our stuff set out! 

Our yard sale weekend coincided with Taste of Madison - so we headed up to the Capitol Square on Saturday evening to take in some sights and food. Vendors from all over the city had set up shop and were selling their unique items. For instance, what else would you expect from a place called Fried & Fabulous?
My aunt enjoyed a gyro, my mom an italian beef, Bob dipped into tacos. I ended up with a bacon cheeseburger slider with peanut butter. Yes, peanut butter. Yum.
Bob and I walked away from the weekend with a nice little profit of about $85. And then we stopped at the Outlet Mall on the way home. The end.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Crockpots Rock

We tackled two crockpot meals over the last couple weeks and I figured it was time to share. Both hail from the Slow Cooker Revolution cookbook and one was a recipe we had successfully tried months earlier and had the taste for once again.

First up, Old-Fashioned Tamale Pie. This Tex-Mex dish was easy enough once we found all of the ingredients, including Minute tapioca and instant polenta. The latter of which I spent about 4 trips down the same grocery store aisle searching for until it was finally pointed out right in front of my face.

Old-Fashioned Tamale Pie
Serves 6-8
4 hours on low

2 1/4 cups water
3/4 cup instant polenta
Salt and Pepper
1 cup shredded cheddar
1 Tbs butter
1 minced onion
1 Tbs vegetable oil
3 minced garlic cloves
1 Tbs chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
4 cups shredded cooked chicken
1 15-oz can rinsed and drained black beans
1 15-oz can creamed corn
1 10-oz can enchilada sauce
2 Tbs Minute tapioca
2 Tbs minced fresh cilantro
Lime wedges for serving

The ingredient list may look a bit daunting, but it all came together quite easily. The water, polenta and 1 teaspoon salt were mixed in a bowl and microwaved until water is absorbed, about 6 minutes. Stir the polenta and continue to microwave until polenta is creamy. We stirred in the cheddar and butter, more salt and pepper and kept covered off to the side.
The onion, oil, garlic, chili powder and cumin were mixed in another bowl and microwaved for about 5 minutes. I had to read that a few times to make sure they were truly telling me to nuke the onion and not saute in a pan, but lo and behold it worked!

The onion mixture was laid out on the bottom of the crockpot and quickly topped with the chicken, beans, corn, enchilada sauce and tapioca. 
For the cooked chicken, I used the KitchenAid mixer chicken shredder trick seen on Pinterest and detailed here in one of my shortest posts ever. 
After stirring together the crockpot fixins, the polenta was spooned on top and smoothed into an even layer. We heated it for 4 hours on low before dipping in and topping with cilantro and lime for serving.
Great flavors and hardly any work? Sign me up.

The recipe we had made once before to rave reviews was the Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna.  I first heard of making a lasagna in a slow cooker when I witnessed my sister whipping up dinner this way a couple years ago and thought it was quite the cool idea.

Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna
Serves 6-8
4 hours on low

Cooking spray
8 lasagna noodles, broken in half and cooked
Salt and Pepper
1 Tbs olive oil
1 1/2 lbs white mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
2 minced garlic cloves
20 oz frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry, chopped coarse
1 15-oz jar alfredo sauce
15-oz ricotta cheese
1 1/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup minced basil
1 large egg
1 lb shredded mozzarella

This recipe taught me how to make a foil sling within the crockpot to keep it nice and clean and provide a way to easily remove the lasagna from the dish for slicing and dicing in while not losing its shape.

A foil collar is created by folding over a piece of tin foil a few times and lining against the back (the hottest) part of the slow cooker. 
Then, perpendicular pieces of foil and fitted within with enough hanging over the edge for easy grasping. Spraying down the sling with cooking spray ensures no sticking, though I accidentally missed this step and did not have a disaster on my hands!
After cooking the broken noodles and setting aside, the mushrooms, garlic and 1/4 tsp salt are cooked in a covered pot with shimmering hot oil. After about 5 minutes, uncover and cook until liquid is evaporated and mushrooms are browned. Stir in spinach and alfredo sauce and season with salt and pepper.
In a bowl, mix the ricotta, parmesan, basil, egg, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper and set aside. Spread a bit of the mushroom sauce into the crockpot, over the top of the foil sling. Place 4 lasagna noodles over the mushroomy bottom and then dollop with the ricotta mixture. Add 1 cup mozz and another layer of the mushroom-spinach mixture. Repeat noodles, ricotta, mozzarella, sauce layering two more times.

Top with remaining 4 noodles and the rest of the sauce, sprinkle with leftover mozz and parmesan. Cover and cook for 4 hours on low.
Using the sling, we transferred out of the crockpot and cut up after letting it cool for about 20 minutes. 
Half went in the fridge, half went in the freezer for future meals and lazy days.
Because these recipes called for four hours on low, we ended up doing both on a Sunday at home as opposed to popping them in on a weekday and not arriving back to the homestead for at least 9 hours. We made the tamale pie first and then got all of the lasagna stuff together so it could cook while we were eating and we could freeze it when all finished. It was a busy day in the kitchen, but not having the oven on during a Chicago heat wave was certainly a nice treat.

With fall upon us, you can bet this crockpot will be getting a lot more use.