Thursday, January 31, 2013

homemade gift bags with easy hand painted flowers

Today I'm reconnecting with my preschool roots and getting crafty with celery painting. Yes, I said c-e-l-e-r-y p-a-i-n-t-i-n-g. It's not just for four year olds in smocks with paint in their hair.

Lately I've been searching for new ways to cheaply package gifts. 99¢ cards still exist and you can find plain gift bags at the dollar store, but you often sacrifice quality (and prettiness) for the cheap price tag. My frugalish solutions - buy gift boxes and wrapping paper when it's 75% off or more after the holidays, reuse household items such as mason jars for gifts, and buy cheap paper that can be decorated to suit any occasion. This Christmas I bought a ginormous roll of butcher paper for the price of one measly roll of Christmas wrapping paper. Tip: some newspapers offer the end of their newsprint rolls for free. I could have stalked the local newspaper, but I decided my time and gas weren't worth it. Thus putting the semi in semi-frugal life.

Even though I used the paper for all of our wrapped presents during Christmastime, I still haven't made a dent. As awesome as butcher paper is, it doesn't wrap stuffed animals or obscure objects all that I decided to try making my own gift bags. Visit this link to see the homemade gift bag tutorial I used by How About Orange. I measured an old gift bag as the template to make a bigger bag. The purple/green bag is made from a 17.5" x 32.5" rectangle with 10" front panels and 5.75" side panels.
Let's be honest though - an all white bag is borrrriiinnng. It needs some jazzing up. Clearly the next logical choice is to paint with celery! Yes, I have the mind of a preschooler. But in my defense celery painting is super cheap, uses things you probably have lying around (old paints, celery, paint brush), and simple stenciling for those among us who don't have the artist flair.
The bags turned out beautiful, but a few thoughts if you're considering taking the plunge:
  • measure carefully - otherwise, the bag might look cockeyed...ahem 
  • measure the bag dimensions, cut, then paint - you'll be able to control the overall design better
  • if your celery stalk doesn't produce the flower you want - take the stalk apart and work your way from the middle out with the smaller stalks for the middle of the "flower" and bigger stalks for the outer "petals"
  • taking the stalk apart also allows you to create different size flowers
  • don't dip the stalks in the paint (you'll have a glob of paint instead of distinctive petals) - use a paintbrush!
The perfect gift bag for an upcoming Valentine's Day gift, birthday, shower, or Mother's Day! Now get your craft on! I promise it's ok if you get paint in your hair...all the cool people do...

Friday, January 25, 2013

hodgepodge salad with balsamic vinaigrette

Milk, eggs, a few random veggies and fruit, condiments, homemade mozzarella, leftover bread...that's about all that's left in the fridge. Hodgepodge Salad is what happens when the fridge has been picked over after a week of cooking and I still need a veggie to go with dinner. Instead of heading to the store for more greens or pulling a veggie out of the freezer, I decided to improvise and use what we had on hand. What's in this salad? The bottom of a bag of spinach, two stalks of celery, some pomegranate seeds, a few sections of grapefruit, mozzarella, and croutons...everything but the kitchen sink! The result - a fruity, summery salad perfect for the dead of winter! 

And of course, if you think pomegranates are too seedy or grapefruits are too tart, replace them with dried cherries or cranberries. Or oranges and almonds. Try arugula instead of spinach. Green beans in place of celery. The possibilities are endless...use what you have, so it won't go bad! 

If you don't have any croutons, no problem! Croutons are one of the simplest things to make. Never made your own? Now is a great time to start! [Tip: I keep a bag of "old" bread in the freezer. Anytime I have a leftover heel or a slice that might go bad before we can eat it I slip it in the bag. This hodgepodge is perfect for making homemade bread crumbs and croutons.] Cut the bread into one inch cubes. Toss with some olive oil and whatever seasoning you prefer (I usually use the Italian herbs blend). Pop them in a 325 degree oven for 8-15 minutes (depending on the staleness of your bread). Pull the pan out once the bread has turned crunchy and golden. Viola! You have now made croutons! You've saved yourself at least a dollar. Congratulations! 
Let's make the vinaigrette.  These amounts are approximate - I tend to mix according to taste when making salad dressing instead of actually measuring...whoops. Too much bite? Add some sweetness. Trust your taste buds. They know what they like. 
  • 1/4 c. oil
  • 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar.
  • 1 tsp. dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 - 2 tsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice 
  • 1 1/2 tsp. chopped green onions
  • salt and pepper to taste
Whisk it right up and presto...salad dressing! You've now saved another dollar! Isn't this fun!?! (P.S. I apologize if you are reading this early in the morning and the peppiness is a bit much...blame it on the chai tea :)

Throw the salad items in a pretty little bowl with the fruit, cheese and croutons on top. Pour a little vinaigrette over and top with fresh black pepper. Then proceed to stuff your face!

Off to make the dinner that goes with this. I'm trying out a new idea (well, new to me)...using won ton wrappers as the pasta dough to make ravioli. Not as cheap as homemade pasta, but without a pasta maker it's hard to get the dough thin enough.  On the menu tonight - Butternut Squash (harvested from the farm this fall) Ravioli with a Sage Butter Sauce. Hubster's bringing home the Redbox movie and we're set for date night in abode...bring on the snow! 

Happy Weekend!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

a few favorite things

Fact: I have A LOT of favorite things. I've been known to state, "This is my favvvorrittee" about many (most!) of my mom's delicious dinners and baked goods. How can I serious choose between espresso brownies, coconut cream pie, and gingerbread cookies? I will not and cannot choose - they are all my favorites!

Here are a few of my other favorite things lately: (P.S. Anyone singing the song yet???)

1) Green tea, cherry, spinach smoothies. Not super green, but still filled with antioxidants, vitamins, and other good stuff. If you plan on making this in single digit temps, I suggest wrapping up in a hoodie and two blankets to combat the brain freeze.

2) Creamy and filling vegetable soups like this one from Two Peas in their Pod that trick the hubster into thinking he's eating meat. If you are interested in trying their Roasted Cauliflower and Cheddar Cheese soup, I added about a 1/2 cup more cheddar because our cheddar was missing some zing. If you have really sharp cheddar, you probably won't need to add more. I also added a few dashes of hot sauce and served with crusty bread for dipping. Perfect for a cold, snowy winter evening. In fact, tonight we're trying another one - spicy sweet potato soup!

3) A clean abode. I have conquered the strange mold growing in the crevices of our shower from the previous tenants. I'll leave the gory details out, but my question still remains why do they create "bath fitters" with strange seams and cracks that create a place for water to pool and turn moldy?? Ok, I'm promise I'm over the mold now.

4) Mom's German Chocolate Cake. It's Dad's birthday cake every year. It's always moist, chocolaty, and delicious. These days there are more candles than cake...

5) Downton Abbey party with some pretty ladies! Complete with coffee, tea, yummy biscotti, and friendship. I was too lazy (it was also dark and cold!) to get my camera out of my car for a picture...

6) Fresh cranberries. Even better fresh cranberries on sale with a coupon! They've been sitting in my freezer waiting to be used. I toyed with the idea of making some cranberry sauce - I'd eat it year round if I could, but decided instead to try an old Cooking Light muffin recipe. I added an additional 1/4 tsp. cinnamon and allspice, but the hubster and I both agree more spice wouldn't hurt. And maybe some orange glaze next time. Best served warm!
Alright friends, hope my favorites list inspires you to warm up your own home with some baked goodness or delicious eats on this chilly day! 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

obsession: homemade yogurt

Friends, I made homemade yogurt this week. One word: obsessed. I can hear it calling my name from the fridge long before lunchtime. The smooth, creamy texture combined with the summer's bounty freezer jam equals perfection. The price tag for such deliciousness is enough to make me giddy. We used to spend $5-$10 on Greek yogurt each week. Definitely not frugal...but I loved the convenient, protein-packed goodie for lunch and the hubster has a morning ritual of Greek yogurt and coffee. This homemade discovery will save us on average $12-24 a month. Ahh the thrill of beating the system and saving money! Yes, the process is a bit messy, and you do need to time the steps right, but the payoff is so worth it!
Half gallon milk (whichever type you prefer - whole milk makes the creamiest and thickest)
Starter yogurt with live and active cultures (I used Wegman's plain Greek yogurt).

1. Heat milk on stove to 180 degrees to sterilize it. Be sure to stir often so your milk doesn't burn.
2. Let milk cool to 110-105 degrees. This takes anywhere from a half an hour to almost an hour. Setting your yogurt in a cool place on a cooling rack can speed this step up.
3. Add starter yogurt about 4 tbsp. Note: every recipe I read had different amounts.
4. Cover yogurt with towel and put in a warm place that will keep the yogurt warm and at a consistent temperature. An oven with the light on, a well-insulated cooler with some hot water in containers, an oven turned to 150 and then turned off once it reached it temperature, etc.
5. Let yogurt incubate 7-12 hours or overnight. Yogurt that's left longer has a stronger tangy flavor.
6. If you wish, strain yogurt to get a more Greek-like texture. A piece of muslin or cheese cloth allows the whey to strain out quite well (a strainer will not work).
7. Reserve some yogurt for your next batch.
8. Flavor the remaining yogurt with honey and vanilla to taste.
9. Pour about 3/4 c. into mason jars and refrigerate. Makes about 7 servings.

This recipe is based upon the wise words of my dear SIL aka the yogurt master, the recipe in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter cookbook by Jennifer Reese, and these two recipes from Spicie Foodie and Kitchen Stewardship.

A few notes:
- Whole milk makes the creamiest yogurt, but I used 1% for ours and it still tasted great, just a little thinner
-Don't forget to reserve some yogurt (and hide it from hungry tummies in your fridge). Otherwise, you'll have to buy another starter yogurt...not the end of the world, but no use spending money when you don't have to.
- Freezer jam works great for "fruit on the bottom" style, but granola, fresh fruits, muesli, and cereal are all great mix ins. Experiment and try to recreate your favorite flavors at home.

Next week I'll be attempting to recreate pineapple Greek yogurt. I'm thinking pineapple and a little sweetener mashed together and maybe some shredded coconut and almonds on top. Hey, if it's going to be as cold as they say, I might as well make our fruit taste like we're living in the tropics!

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

frugal find: zinio magazine app

Favorite new frugal find: Zinio. Heard of it? It's a magazine app, but the best thing about it is I can make an account through my library's website and read magazines for FREE.  Only catch - you need a library card and pin number. Not to get on my soap box or anything, but if you don't have a library card-get moving! Free books. Free dvds. Free online tutoring. Free audiobooks and ebooks. Free storytimes. Free interactive children's books. Free games. And now magazines straight to your device from the comfort of your own abode. Country Living. Eating Well. Martha Stewart Living. Newsweek. National Geographic. Consumer Reports. Saveur. Good Housekeeping. ESPN (the hubster fav). Food Network Magazine. And the list continues! There are a few of my favorites missing, but I'm hoping the library will continue to add more magazines to their subscriptions as popularity for the app grows.

Here's the link and how it works:
1) Log in with library card and pin number. 
2) Set up an account.
3) Download app from app store (or you can choose to just read on your computer if you don't have an i-anything)
4) Choose which magazines you wish to read and they will be automatically added to your library.
5) Check back every so often for the newest issues.

Pull up a cozy reading chair, pour some hot tea, and get reading on this rainy Wednesday! (Shameless plug for reading and the library is now over :)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Frugal(ish) in 2013

A move, the holidays, family, food, friends, gift-making, more defense for the long silence on this blog. Life just got in the way. Happy news though - I have resolved to be more frugal in 2013!  

My list of frugal projects and resolutions in 2013:
1. Make my own bread each week. Potential savings of $3 a week multiplied by 52 weeks = $156! I made my first loaf of batter bread yesterday. It looked beautiful until I cut into it and found a large air pocket still tasted great. There aren't many smells that compare with homemade bread baking in the oven. It instantly turns our little condo into a cozy, happy abode. 
2. Reunite with my sewing skills. Little know fact: I took sewing lessons in elementary school. Our new place needs pillows and curtains plus there are thousands of pinterest sewing projects ready to be  conquered.
3. Eliminate food waste. No, it's not about being green. It's about the money that's thrown down the drain when food goes bad because it's forgotten in the fridge. Yesterday, I threw away an avocado and two sweet potatoes. Sad day. 
4. Make our own yogurt and mozzarella. Ambitious, but we spend SO much on cheese and Greek yogurt each month. If I can reduce our grocery bills with some old-fashioned elbow grease then I'll consider myself successful. 

I leave you with a delicious holiday treat, Chocolate Orange Truffles! Everyone loved these melt-in-your mouth decadent chocolates at our Christmas gatherings.
The hubster's response after eating one was, "You MADE this?!?" and my brothers quite literally swooned over them. You can find the basic recipe from here. I did change the recipe by substituting orange juice for orange liqueur and rolling the outsides in chopped almonds to help them keep their shape, minimize any fingerprints, and add a little crunch. Make these for Valentine's Day or any day - you won't be disappointed!