Saturday, November 19, 2011

Getting cozy with graphic T-shirt pillows

The clothes we choose to wear, our sense of style, lets us express who we are and what's important to us - they tell people a lot before we even open our mouths. In my opinion, few people have a style with T-shirts as my boyfriend. Over the years he's cultivated a wonderfully graphic T-shirt collection from DBH that's uniquely his. Neither of us wanted to part with his treasured T's, even though we agreed it was time to take them out of his wardrobe rotation.  Each T-shirt spoke to him when he bought them, and they still say something to (and about) him today. So I suggested we reuse the textile art and make them into pillows to express his personal sense of style at home.


Sewing T-shirts into pillow requires pretty basic sewing skills - it's mostly straight lines - and requires basic sewing supplies.

Shopping List

  • 14" pillow forms
  • Fusible iron-on interfacing (sheer weight)
  • 7-10" zippers
Each shirt had a small caption in the lower left back
We cut a 15" cardboard square to serve as a template (14" + 1" for a 1/2" seam allowance) and used that to select the best graphics for the shirt.

We really liked how each shirt has a title to the artwork - it's part of the character we wanted to preserve. Here, you can see I saved the label from the back of the shirts to include as the back of the pillow. 

Iron fusible interfacing bolsters wimpy T-shirt fabric
We then ironed on interfacing to the inside of both pieces of fabric. This gives the thin jersey knit of a T-shirt a bit more substance, and helps limit the stretching that we love about T-shirts as clothing - which makes sewing this fabric a lot easier. If you skip the interfacing step your pillow is likely to end up lumpy or misshapen and you'll need to use a knit stitch to allow for some stretching that will otherwise break straight basic seams.

Rotary cutters rock!
We found it necessary to trim again before sewing to get back to a 15" square, this time using the rotary cutter - one of my favorite sewing tools.

We place the two pieces of fabric (front & back) right-sides together. Then, drew a 14" square centered on the fabric to mark our sewing lines. We sewed the bottom first to accomodate the zipper, then sewed each side, followed by the top of the pillow. The order is important to accomodate for any stretch in the knit fabric that might distort your pillow shape.

We managed to whip up 3 this afternoon with great success! Now, if only finding new clothes was this easy...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Roasted birds make the best leftovers: Chicken Gumbo!

It's fall. It's the time of year when I like to fire up the oven and roast a chicken, filling the house with luscious warm smells that only make me more eager for the approaching Thanksgiving holiday! Roasting a bird is easy enough, but to truly be a kitchen master you need to make the rest of the bird work for you.

What do I mean? Leftovers. Not only do I like to toss the bones into a stock pot over night, but I pick the bird clean and stash any remaining bird meat for use in other dishes. Now, a pile of roasted turkey or chicken is fine when you want a sandwich but I've found few recipes make the better use of those little nibbly tiny bits of meat, even the dreaded dark meat, better than Chicken or Turkey Gumbo! I've crafted my own recipe for turkey gumbo inspired by recipes from TV Chefs Alton Brown and Emeril Lagasse.

In case you haven't made gumbo before, it's not difficult and mine only requires 2 "specialty ingredients" and no okra:

  1. Filé Powder - Ground sassafras leaves. It works as an authentic thickener. You can buy it online, but I get mine in bulk at Rainbow Grocery.
  2. Andouille Sausage - I like Aidell's, primarily because it's "less authentic" and real andouille sausage contains nasty bits. It's got a nice smokey taste & fills in where you might only have a little turkey or chicken to make a full meal. I keep it on hand for quick Jambalaya too.
Here are a few strategies I've employed when making gumbo:
  1. I always start by building your roux in the oven. (Thanks Alton!) It's really easy to go past dark & nutty smelling to burnt with oil & flour on the stove top. Using the oven you just start 2 hours before you want to be wrapping up cooking - the first 1.5 hours is nothing but a little whisking while you prep other ingredients.

  2. Use the cajun trinity. A combination of chopped green peppers, onions, and celery.
  3. Brown the veggies in your roux. The smell at this stage is heavenly.
  4. I store my stock in quart jars in the fridge (freezing glass like this is a bad idea) as long as I plan to use it quickly. I use about 1 quart in my gumbo recipe.

  5. I like to store my chicken bits in these nice paper containers, you can get them at Smart & Final. I use them to send leftovers home with guests, or freeze things for later - they're stackable, go from freezer to microwave, store nicely next to my pints of B&J's ice cream in similar containers. The paper lids (sold separately) are easy to write on. When I'm done, I can throw them in the municipal compost. I use glass when I can, but when I can't I prefer these to plastic containers.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Making fresh mozzarella

It's not much to look at, but it sure is tasty...
Over the past few years, I've been delving into making my own fresh cheeses. One of my favorites is fresh mozzarella, I enjoy it with tomatoes as a caprese snack, or for my boyfriend to use on his homemade Neapolitan style pizza.

I find it takes about an hour requires some basic supplies, and it's very rewarding. Here are the hardest things to find:
  • Citric Acid (I get it from the beer brewing supply store, but it's also readily available from Indian grocers)
  • Rennet (Rennet or Junket can be found with the canning supplies at the grocery, or get liquid rennet from a cheese shop, mine's made from Stinging Nettel)
  • Good milk, I like to get Strauss milk from the local grocers in San Francisco
I like to use this recipe as a guide, but here's the gist:

  1. Boil water for stretching as you start heating the curd. 
  2. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of citric acid to 1/2c water, add this to 1 gallon of milk.
  3. Stir gently, lifting up & down until the milk comes to 90 degrees.
  4. After the rennet is added (3-5 drops of my 3x rennet or 1/8 tsp, in 1/8c water), don't touch it.
  5. To test if the curd has set (about 5 min), check with very clean fingers - it should feel similar to silken tofu.
  6. Cut the curd into cubes using your knife vertically, and your spoon horizontally through the curd.
  7. Strain the curd by scooping it carefully into the colander.
  8. Save some of the whey for storing the cheese.
  9. Take a small scoop of cheese curd (I use a small 1/4 or 1/8 measuring cup), and lower it into very hot salty water. The salt in the water is your only real chance to add any salty flavor the cheese.
  10. Once the cheese has heated up, gently stretch it a few times with your fingers. This will give you a very delicate cheese. 

    1. Knead it more if you want a thicker cheese for shredding. 
    2. You might want to wear rubber gloves if your hands are sensitive. This helps form it into a ball, like you see at the store.
  11. Salt the whey, and store the balls in the whey in the fridge.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dessert... on angels wings

When it comes to cake, my favorite is angel food. It's light and airy, simple and straightforward, and not too sweet or too rich so you can enjoy a nice big slice. Making such a delicate cake from scratch might seem daunting, but really the hardest part is simply beating the egg whites into submission.

Here are a few tricks I've found that make all the difference:

  1. I save the extra egg whites from all the dishes that call for yolks (cakes, cookies, choux pastry, egg nog). I separate the whites into a small bowl, then when I am confident no yolk (yellow) got into the egg white, I put it into a small glass jar that I keep in the freezer. If the yolk broke don't use it for angel food, it won't whip up right.
  2. Start with nearly room temperature degree egg whites, it really does make all the difference when whipping them. So give them time to warm up a bit.
  3. Make sure the bowl and whisk are squeaky clean! Grease prevents the whites from whipping up properly.
  4. Sifting the dry goods really does make a difference, you can use a screen-type strainer but don't skip this step.
  5. If you don't already have a stand mixer, call in some reinforcements to help you hold the hand mixer - your arm will thank you.
  6. Use a dash of amaretto! It adds a really nice warmth to the final cake, and doesn't taste like almonds at all.
  7. Don't grease the pan! It will end in flat, dense ruin.
Here's my favorite recipe for angel food cake, from scratch.

My favorite is to enjoy it with whipped cream and fresh blueberries, or as pictured topped with sweet, tangy rhubarb sauce - or a plain slice for breakfast! 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

In search of the perfect margarita

5 of us assembled - in search of the perfect margarita, that blend of sour and sweet, of agave and lime, of tequila and truth.

We gathered a range of tequila, both blancos and reposados ranging from the accessible Jose and Sauza Gold to the more high brow Legunas Blanco or el Espolón Reposado. We conducted an evening full of experimentation and mixology permutations to identify a few tenants of margarita mixing:
  1. Just because something tastes great as a sipping tequila doesn't mean that complexity makes a good margarita..
  2. Agave syrup (1:1 nectar to water) is the best sweetener for a tequila.
  3. Salt (in moderation) on the outside of the rim does add to the margarita's flavor and long term drink-ability, diminishing bitter notes and smoothing out the acid from the lime.
The Outcome
We preferred 3:2:1 as a good unsweetened margarita ratio, and the 6-4-3-1 ratio for sweetened. Where the ingredients include Tequila, Cointreau, Fresh squeezed (strained) lime juice, and possibly agave syrup.

The favorite unsweetened margarita
1.5oz el Espalón Reposado tequila
1oz Cointreau
.5oz fresh squeezed lime juice (strained to remove pulp)

Pour over 4 fresh whole ice cubes in a boston shaker
Shake vigorously
Strain immediately through a fine mesh strainer 
into a lightly salted martini glass

The favorite sweetened margarita
1.5oz el Espalón Reposado tequila
1oz Cointreau
.75oz fresh squeezed lime juice (strained to remove pulp)
.25oz agave syrup

Pour over 4 fresh whole ice cubes in a boston shaker
Shake vigorously
Strain immediately through a fine mesh strainer 
into a lightly salted martini glass

Our method
We carefully measured & mixed 15 margarita samples, sharing each 5 ways in small tasting glasses, half rimmed in salt. Each margarita was shaken with 4 large fresh ice cubes (melty broken ice is a drink killer!).

Testing Ratios - First researched all the various recommended ratios from different sources. We mixed 3 ratios of tequila: Cointreau: lime: unsweetened 3:2:1, 7:4:3, and 3:1:1; followed by tequila: Cointreau: lime:simple syrup 6:4:3:1, 4:2:2:1 using Tequila Legunas Blanco.  We found Legunas Blanco to be a very nice sipping tequila, all of these drinks had an unpleasant slightly metallic, peppery note.

Testing Tequilas - We then chose our 2 preferred unsweetened ratios, 3:2:1 and 7:4:3, and our favorite sweetened 6:4:3:1 to try with el Espalón Reposado and Jose Cuervo Silver Especial.

After comparing our notes on these 11 combinations we came to the difficult conclusion that while the Legunas Blanco was delightful for sipping, it didn't play nice with others, and brought a metallic, bitter flavor to the party. All of us, being scotch and whiskey lovers were drawn to the depth and aged flavors of a margarita made with the reposado.

But wait, there's more!

Testing Sweeteners - We then tackled the question of what sweetener to use. We compared the 6:4:3:1 mix with the el Espolón Reposado using simple syrup made with white sugar, simple syrup made with turbinado sugar, and agave syrup (1:1 agave nectar and water). For good measure, we also re-tried our preferred silver tequila (Jose Cuervo Silver Especial) with the same sweeteners. Hands down, agave sweetener was the best, lending a sweetness with subtle herbal notes and blending nicely with the tequila and lime to form a heavenly elixir.

Breaking out the blender!
For our margarita hunt, we kept it classy, limiting ourselves to hand shaken margaritas served neat. But sometimes you need to break out the blender and mix yourself a pitcher of frosty blended margaritas!

Here's my tried & true recipe for making a tasty blender margarita (complete with secret recipe!); it's great for parties!

Blended Margarita
6oz. not-fancy tequila (I use Sauza Gold)
6oz. frozen limeade
6oz. beer (Tecate or Corona work well)
3oz. triple sec

Throw it in the blender with some ice (do not fill the pitcher past 2/3 full)
Turn the blender on a low speed for 10 seconds, then kick it up to high speed for 30-45 seconds.

It comes out frosty and smooth, while the beer adds a nice zing and fizziness to it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

This toolbox might just save your life

OK, more likely this toolbox will help cure your headache or bandage your boo-boo. Space for medicine and first aid supplies is at a premium in my small Victorian home. I needed a way to keep all my copious first-aid supplies together and accessible in case of an emergency, yet out of the way for everyday.

I love the sturdy, vintage feel of my red metal toolbox. At 19 inches, it's big enough to hold everything I need from medications to band-aids, creams and ointments, a thermometer, bandages, and gauze.

Its low profile stores under my bed, and if someone catches a glance it doesn't look as unsightly as plastic bins. It's easy to spot in fire engine red, and comfortable to carry by the handle when the need arises.

I got this Excel tool box from, and I especially like that this model has the lift-out shelf for double-decker storage. I was originally enamored with iconic first aid tins like this one from Kikkerland, or this vintage style pre-filled kit from Best Made Co, but they're either too small, or come stuffed with things I already have, or both.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Housemade liqueurs

There's just something civilized about finishing a long meal with a light liqueur like limoncello. I was introduced to this after-dinner tradition many years ago in Florence, Italy and it wasn't until many years later that a friend taught me how to make these tasty citrus liqueurs at home. Limoncello (lemon) is the standard, but he also makes Arancello (orange).

There are many recipes out there, and I suggest you try a few and see what suits you. I like keeping both on hand, and pairing the drink to the dinner or my mood.

It all starts with the zest of your citrus of choice, in this case lemons. You can use something like 10 lemons for a full bottle, 6 for a half.

Add the zest to a bottle of Everclear, Vodka, or other neutral grain spirit. The higher the proof, the faster it will extract the citrus oils. Store the soaking mixture in a glass jar or bottle, and be careful using things like plastic funnels as very strong alcohol can mar plastics.

Let the zest soak for 4 days up to 4 weeks away from sunlight, shaking or swirling the jars occasionally.

Strain the zest using a fine mesh strainer and cheesecloth. Add simple syrup and water (if using a higher proof spirit) to taste. Store your concoction out of sunlight, possibly in your freezer. One serving option is to toss an ice cube in and have it melt to add water and chill.

Tastes from the past - making my own applesauce

Applesauce brings back memories - for many of my generation it triggers terrible flashbacks to overly sweet mush in tiny plastic tubs emerging from in brown paper (or Strawberry Shortcake or Transformers themed) lunch bags, to be eaten or traded in the lunchroom at school. Applesauce might remind others of family, being served as part of Thanksgiving dinner. For me, I remember the tangy, almost too tart flavor of the Rhubarb Applesauce my Nana served me when we visited on Sundays. I miss it, and her.

This weekend I found myself at the farmers market with my parents staring at Bramleys Seedling apples, which were noted as being the consumate English cooking apple perfect for making applesauce. My new roommate had brought with him his Grandmothers Foley foodmill, just like the one my Nana used. And with that, we started down the path to making applesauce.

My dad remembered that unlike many recipes, my nana cooked her apples with the skin on and let the foodmill do the work. So that's how we did it.

We used the Foley foodmill, and it was truly satisfying to turn the crank & watch the apples disappear, leaving their skins behind.

I divided the spoils into little Pyrex bowl (just like Nana used to have!) and tried a few different ways to flavor the applesauce. Plain, no sugar added was good - but just a teaspoon of Turbinado sugar in 1-2 cups of sauce was a favorite. Light brown sugar lent a nice round sweetness, but that was improved with a dash of fresh lemon juice.

We tried stirring in 2-3 tablespoons of rhubarb sauce and a dash of fresh lemon juice into one, and a teaspoon of Turbinado sugar + a dash of cinnamon into another bowl. While it didn't have the zing of my Nana's Rhubarb Applesauce, it was very tasty, and low in processed sugar. I think if next time I add unsweetened stewed rhubarb, I might have a flashback to when I was sitting in a booster seat in my Nana's dining room enjoying a batch of her Rhubarb Applesauce.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Indispensable road trip items

Summer is full of roadtrips and travel. As we embarked on a 33 day road trip, I thought long and hard about what to pack. I was struck with fear from my "be-prepared" instincts, "What if I leave something really important behind?! What if I don't have what I need?"

While unpacking from the trip, I stopped to evaluate what items I found really useful in my personal kit (purse or backpack) that I want to bring with me next time.

  • Stainless steel straw - Hydration is important while traveling. Some places don't do straws, or servers forget, but I need a straw help me drink my water at a reasonable pace.

  • Bamboo utensils - Avoiding using wasteful, flimsy plastic utensils for eating take out or leftovers. Bamboo is reusable, sturdy enough not to snap mid-meal, and can be there anytime, like at midnight in a hotel room when you really need some leftover Thai food, or when you discover they didn't put a fork in the bag for you at the take-out place. To-go ware comes with it's own handy carrying case.

  • Self-filtering water bottle - I'm all for local flavor, but not in my water. Get your water from any tap to save money & avoid creating plastic waste, and stay hydrated! Sense a theme?

  • Hydrocortisone cream for bites, rashes, and burns - Itches happen when you travel, whether it's from voracious insects, heat rash, or a minor burn from a pot handle, traveling is more comfortable with hydrocortisone cream.

  • Pocket knife - useful for tightening screws, opening wine bottles, prying open cans, and oh yes - cutting things! Mine came with a little case that goes through belt loops or backpack straps, just remember to take it off before you fly.

  • Chapstick with sunscreen - I'm addicted to this stuff.

  • Battery backup UBS charger - Life support for mobile phones. For when you really need your phone and are unable to charge it normally... like in a tent. The iGo PowerXtender takes AA batteries, which is convenient. Make one like Minty Boost, or buy one.

  • Instant stain remover - Dribbles happen. Obliterate stains as they happen and keep your stuff from getting stained or looking messy before your scheduled laundry stop.

  • Flip video camera - small, unobtrusive, and takes great videos.

  • LED headlamp - Hands free light lets you make dinner or rummage through a bag with ease. Mine takes AA batteries, so while it's heavier than a watch battery they are easy to replace & I always carry AA's for other devices.

  • Soap strips - Rest stops, campgrounds, even some restaurants can fail to have soap. Stay healthy and clean by bringing your own single-use soap strips, they're just like minty breath strips... for your hands.

  • Paper maps - Get both detailed city and state/province maps. GPS's fail and get confused in some places, our smart phones were even worse - don't rely on them! But you do need some way to figure out your route, we had great state routes and sorely missed a city map in Calgary. Use a highlighter to mark your intended route to easily find your place on the map.

And... we're back! Roadtrip 2011

We just returned from a month long road trip across the north western US and Canadian Rockies. The experience was incredible. Our route took us through the Bonneville Salt Flats to Salt Lake City, then we visited the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier National parks where the views, wildlife, and geological features are all incredible.

We ventured into Canada where we explored Alberta and British Columbia taking in the charm of Waterton Lake, stopping to see incredible display of dinosaurs and the world's largest dinosaur in Drumheller, dined at Farm in Calgary, indulged our adventurous side riding a helicopter into the wilderness of Mt. Assiniboine for a 3-day backpacking trip, walked on a glacier that's part of the Columbian Ice Fields, tasted wine in the Okanagan wine region, stopped in Vancouver, and relaxed in Tofino on Victoria Island before re-entering the US.

On the last leg of our journey, we stopped in Portland, OR to take in the city, enjoying a delicious meal at Pok Pok, visited the Spruce Goose and other amazing aircraft at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, and toured Distillery Row.

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The van: A camper built for two
After considering options such as renting a truck and an Airstream trailer (swooon), or renting a small teardrop trailer, we settled on renting a minivan and turning it into a mini-camper-van.

The advantages of not backing up or positioning a trailer, no sewer hookups, more easily traversing mountain roads, and inconspicuously entering and parking in cities all made sense for this trip.
Making a van a home
We folded down the back seats, laid down an IKEA futon mattress with real bedding, and used the remaining 2 feet for storing a cooler, camp stove, and plastic bins that made up our kitchen. When sleeping, we moved our duffels to the front seats, otherwise they sat on top of our bedding. To make a bit more comfortable, we screened in the windows on the sliding doors to get ventilation and keep out insects.

I hung suit hangers to serve as a towel bars from the dry cleaning hooks, and employed seat back organizers as nightstands to hold glasses, books, and toiletries. We used a small battery-powered lantern when reading or hanging out in the van during late night rainstorms to avoid draining the dome light. To our delight the van came with numerous outlets (even a 2 prong outlet!), numerous storage compartments, and a remote control that opened and closed the side doors and back hatch! That's right, the back hatch would lower and latch on its own with the push of a button.

I'm not about to trade in my Honda coupe for a minivan by any means! I found the brakes insensitive and accelerator sluggish, but for long trips with groups or a camping trip like ours I'd consider renting one again.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A kitchen table to do double duty

I've always had a thing for butcher block tables. The warmth of wood tones, the study surface that is superior for dough working, and can withstand knives and hot pots.

Imagine my delight when my boyfriend turns to me one day and says, "I think I want a butcher block table in the kitchen." His requirements? That it be capable of:
  • seating seating 2 easily, or a cozy set of 4 diners,
  • be a study additional work surface for 1-2 people since we like to make dinner together, and
  • take up less room than his current Ikea table. We decided upon a 24" x 48" table top, at counter height (36").
I set about finding such a table, and it turns out butcher block tables are often expensive, built to be butcher block kitchen work tables not well-suited to sitting at, or are larger than we had in mind.

Our solution? Butcher block top + Study, stylish raw steel legs

The Top
I've admired the Boos cutting boards, most recently I spotted Boos butcher block tops in the Dough Room at Flour + Water hiding under the table linens. After some sleuthing, I found my new favorite local restaurant supply aka toy store, Tri-Mark Economy Restaurant Supply Fixtures, carried butcher block counter tops or large 1-sided cutting boards! We were able to purchase a 48"x24" butcher block there for around $250.

The Base
We really liked the natural steel legs from Room and Board's Parsons Table, the legs are open on on all 4 sides and it's very study - no amount of chopping or kneading is going to wiggle this table. Room and Board sells tops separately from the legs - the tops sold with the table are all finished and their "butcher block" top isn't intended to be a working cutting board. We bought the 24"x48" counter-height base for $300.

An alternative could be found at Ikea, in their UTBY Bar Table base measuring just under 24"x48". We preferred the raw steel look, and open base of the R&B legs. This table base can be yours for under $200.

A more commercial look can be found with the John Boos Cucina Americana Classico table, selling a combined table + top, but it has the cross-bar by your feet and looks more sterile to us. It's $669 on Amazon + shipping...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Crazy ideas for the shoe collector

I've been slowly cleaning the house, and today I began to tackle my bedroom closet. The biggest struggle I have with my closet isn't storing clothes, it's shoes. As I tackled this problem, I have employed some creative solutions that might give me an advantage in the battle with closet entropy.

Thinking outside the closet
Inspired by the Re-Nest blog post highlighting this creative shoe rack on Etsy, I decided to take advantage of the architectural molding in my San Francisco Victorian home and hang my heels above my closet. My only wish now is that wedge heels could hang as well.
Note, this may pose an earthquake hazard in San Francisco, but I don't sleep too close to my closet.

Hung up on boots
I may have gone overboard the past year, embracing the trends on boots - and am now suffering the consequences of too many tall, floppy leather boots jumbling up the floor of my closet. The solution? Hanging them up!

I used skirt hangers with very strong springs, and smooth rubber grips - these are strong enough to hang on to heavy boots, and don't mar the leather with ridges sometimes found on hangar clips. One tip: hangers that let you re-position the clips are better for keeping the boots from being too close or too far apart.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

And so it begins...

Here I plan to share my adventures, observations, and projects. Think of it as part how-to, part show-and-tell, and part musing and introspection.