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Holiday Handmades

January 4, 2012

When I was little, I loved Christmas. Really, really, sing-Christmas-carols-in-July loved it. And I still do. Back then, though, I didn’t understand why adults were so stressed out about the holidays, or the vaguely bitter things I overheard about the “commercialization of Christmas.” Now, as an adult myself, I get it. Somehow we’ve turned a season of celebrating kindness and returning light into an absolute frenzy, but I think I’ve found my antidote.

Making.

This year, I had big handmade plans. Most of our decorations were homemade, which I found so cozy and welcoming to come home to. I’d planned a handmade gift for everyone on my list, and while that didn’t quite happen, I spent a total of about 30 minutes actively shopping for gifts this year. Literally.

Making stuff can be time-consuming, and maybe isn’t feasible for everyone. For me, thinking a little bit about what I wanted to spend my time on most, and trying to be okay with falling short sometimes really helped.  I was lucky to have a significant amount of vacation at both Thanksgiving and Christmas, but most of my knitting and decorating happened on the train to work, in the evenings, and on the weekends through November and December. For the most part, I tried to keep things reasonable (no knitted sweaters or lace shawls under the tree, no massive cookie-baking sessions), and for the folks whose gifts weren’t handmade this time — well, there’s always another holiday. Because you can bet that next year’s Christmas will be handmade too — I can’t think of a more peaceful way to spend the darkest days of the year than making simple things by the light of the Christmas tree.

So without further ado, a wee parade of the simple things I made this year:

Jitari's Hat 2
Jitari's Hat 1

This hat, modeled by the recipient’s baby brother, is by far the simplest thing I made. I hadn’t intended to make it, in fact, until I realized that my 6-year-old nephew would be the only one in his family with no handmades. (Don’t feel too terrible for him: he got this last June.) And then my sister told me that he really loves handmade things, and I was sold. I threw it together in an afternoon and evening with the leftovers from the next gift below, guessed at an approximate number of stitches based on this sizing chart, and knit until of was kind of too small for me and vaguely head-shaped. (Thank you to Marica of Wasabi Honeybee for the green contrast yarn – during craft night at her house, I realized I’d never have enough yarn, and she came to my rescue. A lifesaver!) It is, as you can see, too big for his baby brother, so here’s hoping it fits him!
Dashing 1

Here’s the origin of the yarn I used for the hat above: a pair of Dashing for my brother-in-law. He rides his bike to and from work, so I thought he could use a little something to keep the chill off. This photo really is a disservice to these mitts – they’re MUCH nicer-looking when worn, but I had about 45 seconds to take a picture before the recipient walked in. I’d never used this yarn before (Stonehenge Fiber Mill’s Shepherd’s Wool) , but really, really loved it. It’s very soft and squooshy, and the color is nicer than it appears here – it’s very lightly heathered.

Fetching 1Fetching 2

On the theme of fingerless mitts, this set of Fetching, modeled here by my badass coworker Mary, went to my older sister. She loves purple (the color in the left photo is pretty accurate), and this super soft wool/silk blend (Berroco Inca Gold in color 6420, which looks like it may be discontinued) is really delicious to work with. I hope they’ll keep her hands toasty during early morning (pre-crowd) trips to the local skate park with her 6-year-old.

Kanaan's Sweater 2Kanaan's Sweater 1

The newest member of my sister’s family will hopefully fit into his gift (the Ribbed Baby Jacket by Debbie Bliss)… eventually. I am notorious for making badly-sized baby items (perhaps because I don’t actually have a baby nearby for sizing comparison?) and my sister’s warnings of how huge this little guy was getting were ringing in my ears. At 4 months, he fit into 12-month clothes, so I knit the 12-24 month size. Many reviews said that this pattern knits up on the short side, so I added a couple of inches to the length. Whoops. I think he likes it anyway, though – would you look at that face?! On a more successful note, I love this yarn. It’s Quince and Co. Lark in Storm. This is my first experience with Quince and Co., but it absolutely won’t be the last. The yarn is wonderful, the prices reasonable, and the delivery very quick.

Thuja 2
Thuja 1

Last up in the knitting department, a pair of Thuja socks in Malabrigo Sock for my dad. My dad is an excellent person to have for a relative for many reasons, but most relevant at the moment is that he loves handknits. The man can’t get enough wool, put handknit socks on his list of Christmas wishes, and says (to my face, anyway) that handknit socks are the most comfortable. This is an excellent way to acquire more handmade woolly things, so for his sake, I hope he’s not exaggerating his enthusiasm. This pattern was entertaining but easy and well-written, both desirable qualities in an intended holiday gift.

I have one more handmade gift to show you, but since I finished it late on Christmas Eve I have no pictures. This was a landmark project of sorts, so I’d like to show it off properly photographed. Soon, I promise. Until then, I hope you had a wonderful holiday season. (Is anyone else counting the days until the MLK Day three-day weekend?)

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Good Tidings

January 2, 2012

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I usually have a tough time with New Year’s.  It marks the end of my favorite time of year, the return to the day-to-day, the end of eggnog.  Especially when the year just past was so full of goodness, I find it hard to bid it goodbye.  Leaving my tree up until January 6 takes the edge off a little bit, but New Year’s Eve usually finds me short on festive spirit.  This year, Chris and I spent New Year’s Eve at home, with just the two of us, a couple of funny dogs, a bottle of champagne, a handful of beers, a stack of games, and a fabulous Pandora station.  It was simple, happy, and just right.  In that spirit, I thought I’d share some things I’m looking forward to in this bright and shiny, brand new year.

:: Daylight is on its way back, but there are still lots of cozy dark evenings for burning candles before spring.

:: Tangerine season is only a few weeks away!

:: My little sister is moving much closer to where we live, to the town where Chris and I met and went to college.  I can’t wait to visit .

:: There’s a whole new year of seasonal changes and celebrations ahead.

:: I have a wonderful new toy (a Canon EOS Rebel T2i – a surprise Christmas gift from Chris!) with which to document the loveliness around me.

:: The end of this month brings a pie-themed potluck – and who doesn’t look forward to more pie?

:: Some of my favorite flowers are beginning to appear at the farmer’s market.  They’re so fragrant they make it easy to forget spring is still technically months away.

:: When the winter rains finally begin, the hills around us will magically turn the most beautiful shade of green.

:: In September, my cousin will marry his wonderful girlfriend (and they’re giving homemade jam as wedding favors!).

2012 is gong to be an excellent year.  I can feel it.

From our house to yours — Happy New Year.

Cheer

December 14, 2011

It’s that time of year, folks – the time when all my spare moments are full of making of all kinds, none of which I can show you.  Well, almost none.  I’ve got a wee gift I’ll show you soon, whose recipient is (being a baby) too young to read this blog, but as I have no pictures yet you’ll have to sit tight a while longer.

I can, however, show you what’s decking my halls this season.  I’ve mostly taken a simple approach to holiday decorations this year; I do love the grandiose displays my neighbors are sporting, but I wanted something quieter, more wintery than Christmassy. Something peaceful, but fragrant.


I’ve had a lot of fun spending evenings on the front porch, happily covered in tree sap, wrestling pine branches into wreaths for the front door and entryway. (Yes, I am a dork. Also maybe a bit cheap. Why pay $30 for a wreath when free greens, a bent coat hanger, and a $1 spool of floral wire do just as well?)

I’ve always loved traditional popcorn and cranberry garlands, but they look a little silly on the variety of Christmas tree I usually wind up with. This year, I saw some folks on Pinterest with a different take on the holiday garland, and followed suit. Three sliced oranges, a 200 degree oven and several hours later, I wound up with this:


Kind of pretty, I think. (There’s a similar garland wound around the upstairs banister, and one across the kitchen window, but I don’t have photos.)

Speaking of garlands, I was inspired by this tutorial to make a star garland, though I used salt dough instead of clay for mine.  (Anything to save me another trip to a craft store in December!)  I used a pretty common salt dough recipe (one part salt, two parts flour, one part lukewarm water) and a small star cookie cutter, and dried the cut stars in the oven alongside the orange slices.  (I also made salt dough gift tags, though I’m unwilling to dwell on that particular failure.)  With my brand spanking new $5 hot glue gun, which really I should have bought 5 years ago, I glued the stars to bakers’ twine, and then hot glued the ends of the 14 short garlands (seven stars on each) to the inside of the window casing.  Easy, satisfying, and I think it adds just the right amount of magic and whimsy.
And we musn’t forget the Christmas tree!


This is our first holiday with our new roommate, who brings with him new movies (how had I never seen Christmas Vacation?), new music (did you know Run-D.M.C. has a Christmas album? Me neither.), and a most welcone enthusiasm for eggnog, hot chocolate and candy canes.
This is shaping up to be a most excellent holiday indeed.

Knitting Law

November 30, 2011
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{With more than a week free from work at Thanksgiving, full of family and holiday traditions, you’d think I’d have managed to document at least some of it with my camera.  Apparently, not so much.  My camera went everywhere with me, but I don’t think I pulled it out of my bag once.  So, when I tell you that I spent most of that week cooking, crafting, and cutting down my own Christmas tree (with no help thankyouverymuch), you’ll just have to take my word for it.}

Forgive me, knitters, for I have sinned.  Not only am I months behind in telling you about this sweater, I broke one of the cardinal rules of knitting.

The following story may contain content inappropriate for new knitters.

It started with plane tickets.  It turns out that airlines (also non-knitting boyfriends) are not particularly keen on delaying a flight so that your new handknit sweater can finish blocking, no matter how many late nights you’ve pulled trying to finish the thing in time for your two-week vacation.  It also turns out that when you try on said slightly damp, mostly-blocked sweater, it will inevitably look like something custom-made for an orangutan.  At that point, I figured I had two options: let the thing sulk in the time-out corner until we came home, or pack it up and hope there was some way to fix it on the plane.

So I put it in the dryer.

Yes, friends, I put a handknit wool and silk sweater in the dryer.  I have no idea what made me do such a thing, unless it was sheer desperation.  But you know what?  IT WORKED.  Every few minutes, I pulled it from the jaws of potential death and tried it on, and before long, it was both dry and properly-fitting.  In plenty of time to catch our flight, too.  I sewed on the buttons and wove in the ends the next morning as we circled London airspace, and wore my (not felted!) sweater for the first time that evening, for a drink and a saunter through London with an old friend.  I wore that sweater along the canals in Amsterdam, in the German countryside, and on a tiny bar patio in Saltzburg, Austria.  Of course, since I’m usually the one behind the camera, I’m not sure there’s a single picture of me wearing it during our whole trip, but never mind.  Far away and at home, this is a very, very loved sweater.

Laws be damned.

(Knitterly details: The sweater is Talamh, it’s knit in Elsebeth Lavold Silky Wool, which I love; and the buttons are from Orit Dotan.  I accidentally put the buttonholes on the wrong side, but otherwise followed the pattern.)

Several Weeks in My Kitchen: November 18

November 18, 2011
Salad

Taken with my Android, at work - the only place I'm likely to get daylight during the week!

Truth, guys?  I fell off the budget wagon a bit.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, since I really am gung-ho about the whole thing, and because my challenge isn’t really that challenging at all (compared to the budgets lots of people have to stick to).  I thought about pretending everything was just ducky (forgive me?), and then realized that besides being totally dishonest, it’s actually completely beside the point.  The point is not to set goals and achieve them (or pretend to) perfectly every time.  The point is to learn, to develop a habit bit by bit.  And anyway, I should maybe just get over myself a bit – it’s not like I’m creating world peace over here!

So I’m rising from the ashes of Tuesday’s happy hour, Saturday’s trip to Whole Foods, and the whole weekend of my birthday to admit that I’m so far from perfect, and commit to trying again.

For the record, it sounds like I blew my budget out of the water.  I didn’t.  I planned my meals, didn’t go too overboard with groceries, and brought my lunch every day.  The few dinners out happened while I was travelling, or were bought for me on my birthday.  But I was consistently over-budget, didn’t plan for being out of town, and this week I honestly didn’t even keep track.

The real problem for me seems to be social events.  My friends and colleagues all live across the Bay Area, so most socializing happens with dinner or drinks in the City after work.  I didn’t realize just how often this happens until I was faced with the prospect of saying no to preserve my budget.  Which clearly I didn’t.  I’m really reluctant to cut this stuff out, since it would mean cutting out time with friends who aren’t in the habit of visiting my (comparatively out of the way) neighborhood.  But I can definitely choose to sometimes stick with water instead of a $10 glass of wine (which, by the way, is an absolutely atrocious amount to charge for the cheapest wine on the menu), meet for coffee instead of a whole meal, and be better about inviting folks to my house, inconveniently placed or not.  (And some measure of self-control is a virtue, right?  It’s certainly one of the hardest lessons of adulthood for me.)

I’ve also been thinking that a monthly budget makes more sense than a weekly one; I’ll allot the same amount of money ($160 per month instead of $40 per week), but this way there’s more flexibility: quiet, under-budget weeks can offset busy, social weeks.

So, with the uncomfortable ‘fessing up out of the way, here are some things I’ve really been enjoying over the past few weeks:

– Lots of salad, usually with feta cheese, pistachios, roasted beets, and pomegranate seeds.

Mujadara: and a good thing I LOVED this, since I accidentally bought enough lentils from the bulk bins to make it 12 times. (See unfortunate trip to Whole Foods, above.  I tend to lose my head in that place.  How much I wish there was somewhere else nearby to do bulk shopping!)

– Hummus and pita, both from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  A very satisfying and tasty project, cursing at the blender notwithstanding.  Leftovers of both in the freezer.

– The simplest broccoli soup ever, from Apples for Jam, which is on about a monthly rotation around here during the chillier months.  Wonderful cookbook, but there’s a slight adaptation of this recipe at SouleMama.

– Ina Garten’s Saffron Risotto with Butternut Squash.  I scrimped a bit on the saffron and butter, and it’s still delicious.

Best Cocoa Brownies, from Smitten Kitchen.  I made these specifically to bring to a friend with a new baby, but selfishly kept a few.  My new favorite I-need-chocolate-and-refuse-to-go-to-the-store cure-all.  I always have cocoa powder on hand. 🙂

(How I) Make a Meal Plan!

November 9, 2011

Apologies for the boring photos lately - we just got a new roommate, and I don't want to scare him off too soon my dragging my camera into the kitchen per the usual.

My goodness – is it Wednesday already?  Last weekend blew by in a whirl of driving, breathing freezing mountain air, photography, and wonderful conversation.  And not a lot of cooking.  I’m going to hold off on reporting last week’s grocery challenge results until this Friday; since I knew I would be in Yosemite last weekend, I did most of this week’s shopping two weekends ago, which resulted in a kind of combined budget.  I will admit, though, that I rather forgot that traveling means a lot of eating out, and so I unfortunately expect to be over budget this time.

But in the meantime, I’d like to share with you a bit about how I plan meals.  Meal planning has been a massive stress-reducer for me, as it means I no longer have to think about what to cook at the end of the day when my brain power is spent.  I know what’s on the menu each night, and I have the ingredients on hand.  (Insider tip: this means no more dreaded, starving, last-minute grocery store trips.)  I do feel free to switch things up if the planned meal isn’t floating my boat, but I generally don’t stray far from the plan.  I’ve come to really love sitting down on Saturday mornings with breakfast, a cup of tea, and my meal planning pad.  (And no – if you’re curious, they’re not paying me to promote that notepad.  I just genuinely love it.)  And as a bonus, I have far fewer fuzzy mystery items floating in the back of the fridge.

Disclaimer: this process works for me, but of course every person and household are different.  If you’re looking to start meal planning, I recommend the Frankenstein approach: take bits of whatever works for you from a number of different approaches.

Step One: Figure out what you like to eat.  Making a plan is so much harder if every week you have to come up with meal ideas from scratch.  I’m all for trying new stuff when it interests me, but having a list of things I already know I like to eat is a real time-saver.  I actually keep two lists: one for spring/summer meals and one for fall/winter (though there is some overlap).  Because eating seasonal produce is important to me, my meals generally look quite different between November and May.  It’s also quite unappealing to grill veggies on the barbeque when its 40 degrees outside in December, and soup just doesn’t hit the spot in the heat of summer.  So a seasonal list works for me, but a list divided into simple and fancy meals or maybe just one big master list might work for you.  My lists include the cookbook and page number or the electronic link where the recipe is located, which makes it much easier to make a grocery list.  I cook mostly for myself, but if you’ve got a passel of folks clamoring for your home cookin’, by all means ask for their help in putting together your list!

I keep my meal idea lists in an electronic planner/calendar app (I use Cozi, but have also used Remember the Milk, and I imagine many others would work as well.), which I like because I can access and add to my lists wherever I am, on my phone or computer.  I tend to forget things if I don’t jot them down while they’re fresh in my mind, so the electronic format is helpful for me. I also use Pinterest to keep track of new tasty things I run across that I might like to try.

Step Two: check the pantry.  Is there anything in there from 2009 that really should be used up?  Anything I bought on a whim but haven’t gotten around to trying yet?   Anything forgotten about in the back of the fridge or freezer? Regularly taking stock of what needs to be used really helps to keep the budget reasonable, and it means I’ll have fewer stinky things to clean out of the fridge three weeks from now.

Step Three: look at the calendar. What’s on the schedule each night for the upcoming week?  For nights that I know I’ll be working late or have plans after work, I assign leftovers or a quick and easy meal, like pasta with frozen cubes of pesto or some such.  Other weekday nights it’s safe to assume that I’ll be hungry and tired when I get home, so I rarely plan anything complex or time-consuming for weeknights.  On weekends, when I know I’ll be home and think I might be inclined to make a big mess in the kitchen, I schedule something a little more special – lasagna, anyone?  Bonus points if the weekend recipe freezes well – pasties are an excellent example.  If I know I’m going to be out of town the next weekend, and I’m feeling like an overachiever, I’ll do my best to plan and shop for two weeks’ meals.  Week two usually has lots of leftovers from week one (the freezer comes in handy here!), and some veggies that keep particularly well.

Step Four: make a list.  A word to the wise: don’t be like me.  Please check your pantry, spice cabinet, etc. to see what what ingredients you already have before you buy more at the grocery store.  Or, like me, you might end up with an entire pint of turmeric.  Thank goodness I’ve (mostly) learned my lesson since then.  This step sounds like a pain, but if you cook regularly, I’ll bet you’ve got a pretty good idea already of what you have and what you don’t.

Step Five: shop.  Our local farmer’s market is on Saturday mornings, so that’s become my meal planning/grocery shopping day.  Having a designated day for grocery shopping is a big relief, and a big budget-saver, since I’m not making last-minute purchases several times a week.  Armed with a list, the shopping is generally quick and painless, and I really love my weekly farmer’s market trip.

Most importantly, don’t get overwhelmed.  Once I spent the initial half hour to make my meal ideas list, the rest fell into place.  It took me a while to get into the habit of planning meals every week, and sometimes it still falls apart.  But even managing it most of the time has helped things run so much more smoothly around here that I can’t imagine going back.  I hope you have the same success!

What’s for Breakfast

November 2, 2011
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First up, apologies to anyone who visits here looking for knitting and sewing content.  It seems like all I want to do these days is make messes in my kitchen.  But don’t worry – I finished a sweater months ago that I haven’t shown you yet!  I’ve also been doing some laundry detergent science experiments that I’ll get to at some point.

Mmm.  Breakfast.  O virtuous meal.  Cereal, oatmeal, toast, granola – healthy and admirable choices all.  Right?

Well, as it sadly turns out, not for me.  I may have mentioned somewhere around here that I have problems with my blood sugar; I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic at age 19, and while things are much improved, I still have to pay more attention to what and when I eat than most people do.  I haven’t eaten cereal for breakfast for years and years, because it causes my blood sugar to spike and then crash.  And believe me, that’s unpleasant for anyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity.  Oatmeal was next to go, for the same reason; granola and yogurt, though so, so yummy, weren’t far behind.  And most recently, the ultimate standby of running-out-the-door breakfasts, toast, got the ax.

It happened quite accidentally, really; I was always careful to pair whole-grain toast with peanut butter or an egg to offset the effect of the bread, and thought that was enough.  I’d been having trouble keeping my blood sugar stable for several weeks (at least!) but didn’t for a minute think toast was the culprit.  Until we ran out of bread during a week when I was too busy to go to the grocery store, and I started pairing my morning egg with half a cup of black beans, a handful of cilantro, and a few shakes of hot sauce.  Because I am rather slow on the uptake, it took me more than a week to realize that – like magic! – my blood sugar crashes had disappeared.  I was still hungry for a midmorning snack, but not in a must-eat-everything-in-sight-immediately-for-otherwise-I-shall-surely-perish kind of way.

So while I do miss the lovely convenience (and tastiness!) of a piece of toast, I love not being turned in to a raving lunatic by my breakfast choices even more.  In celebration, I thought I’d share the (gluten-free, I guess?) weekday breakfasts I’ve been enjoying lately.  I should mention that while both are absolutely doable before work, they do require more dedication than a granola bar scarfed behind the wheel on the way to the train station.

– Black (or other!) beans topped with fried egg, tomato, hot sauce, and anything else in the fridge that vaguely suggests “huevos rancheros.”  Of course you could pop open a can of beans, but if you like to make yours from scratch, here’s a handy tip: freeze cooked beans in half-cup portions in a muffin tin, then pop out the frozen bean hockey pucks to store in a freezer bag.  I learned the hard way that it is a giant pain to have a five-cup block of frozen beans when all you want is half a cup.

– Grilled polenta with a fried egg and tomato or sauce.  The freezer to the rescue again!  I know Trader Joe’s sells tubes of cooked sliceable polenta, but I somehow always let those go bad, and anyway this is just as easy as going to the store: when I make a pot of creamy polenta for dinner (which, the cheater way I do it with the heat on medium, only takes about 10 minutes) I spread out the leftovers on a parchment-lined baking sheet to cool, and then cut it into squares 3-4 inches to a side.  I pop the whole tray into the freezer, and when the blocks are frozen solid store them in a bag.  At breakfast time, I put a little butter in my egg pan and let the polenta get good and toasty on one side while I do other stuff, like feed the dog.  I flip the polenta, crack an egg in the pan, and a few minutes later breakfast is served.  I particularly like this with tomato sauce when I have an open jar handy, but I bet it would also be tasty with pesto or maybe some sauteed mushrooms.

I’m pretty enamored of these two options, but imagine at some point they will get boring.  As insurance against that day, I’ve been brainstorming a few other choices:

– Sauteed kale with a fried egg (Note the omnipresence of the fried egg.  I love them so.)  Haven’t figured out quite how to make this one weekday-friendly.
– Tofu scramble.  See weekday-friendly caveat above.  I find scrambles to be rather labor-intensive, and therefore usually avoid them.
– These very yummy Mason jar baked eggs, though this one requires some presence of mind on the weekend.
– In a real breakfast emergency, a piece of fruit with a few slices of cheese, or (dreaded horror of horrors) a handful of nuts.

Does anyone have other tasty ideas?