Jewelry Box Makeover

I found this very dated jewelry box at a second hand store in the summer and bought it with the intention of giving it a makeover and gifting it to my three year old for Christmas.


Naturally, I didn’t hide if very well and she found it (more than once). Every time she played with it, she told me how much she liked it. It was destined to be a hit.

I thought about reconstructing it to really make it unique but reason won. She’s three and a half and her little sister’s current nickname is “The Destroyer”.

I’ll be happy if the jewelry box makes it through to the end of January.

They will eventually each get an heirloom box but that can wait until they can appreciate, and not tear apart, pretty things.

For those reasons, I kept this makeover simple.

Luckily the itty bitty handle pulls are quite lovely and complement the colour I chose, “sovereign”, quite well.

I used four different but equally pretty pretty crafting paper I had kicking around. I applied Modge Podge to both glue and seal the paper to the glass.



On Christmas morning, it was a hit.

She loved the box and the bracelets I hid inside.

We bonded on a busy Christmas morning when I explained that was a special gift just for me to her. She understood.

Every time someone comes over, she brings them to show them her “special” jewelry box.

Awwww.

This was such a fun project to work on that I can’t wait to work on more custom jewelry boxes.

 

Wreath making fun

We bought our Christmas Fraser fir from a local Kiwanis Club chapter. I had three feel good moments about the interaction: 1) all proceeds go to charity 2) the volunteers are a group of local older gentlemen that spent way too much time entertaining us and 3) I got two big bundles of boughs, for free.

And since I really wanted to put my own decorations together at minimal cost, free works for me.

Keeping with a natural theme, my plan was to make the wreath form with vine like branches, rather than plastic or metal.

I took my three year out for a stroll by the overgrown wooded area bordering our property. I found quite a few supple branches that would do just nicely for this project.

I ask my dear little sweetheart to put the branches in a large box for me. (She really loves to help.) I turned around to keep collecting branches and when I looked back, she was breaking each branch into tiny three inch sections, “so they could fit better in the box.”

Suddenly I had a lot more branches to find.

But it’s amazing what you can find when you’re looking.

Before long, we were warming ourselves inside and I had a wealth of branches to choose from.

I cut the boughs into manageable pieces and covered my twig wreath round with fir.

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I wrapped floral wire around the wreath after I’d finished laying the boughs.

After hot gluing a few pine cones we found on a nature walk and two sprigs of fake berries that a toddler can’t eat, I made a quick bow with Christmas ribbon I had.

IMG_1135IMG_1134I think it turned out quite nicely but the best part of all was turning my wreath making venture into a great couple of hours with my pre-schooler. With her own wreath to decorate, hot chocolate in hand and carols over the speaker, we made lovely holiday memories.

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To the garden

Stepping through the doorway towards an abundant garden screaming to be harvested is a moment filled with childlike anticipation.

What treasures await? What has grown ripe in the hours since I last wandered that way? Will there be enough to fill our bellies tonight? 

Greeted by carrots, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers ready to fill my colander, and our plates tonight, I smiled.

The seeds and seedlings have all come to their full potential. 

I’ve waited all spring and summer for these moments. And they’re finally here.

Pickling Magic

Pickling is pure magic.

Not only does it extend the life of fresh food way longer than nature intended, it brings back my childhood memories of standing in my Memère’s kitchen while she made cucumber pickles.

It reminds me of a simpler time, when people preserved their harvest in anticipation of colder days and when ingredients were more natural.

Sure we live in modern times and buying pre-made items is easy.

But it seems that just about everything in a conventional grocery store is laden with questionable ingredients and made by just a handful of corporations.

The pickles that line the shelves seem so innocent yet they’re made with Polysorbate 80 and Tartrazine.

Polysorbate is also present in influenza vaccines and used as an ingredient to make ice cream melt slower. Makes ice cream melt slower? Yup, there’s a chemical that does that and it’s in your pickles (and ice cream!).

Tartrazine, the artificial yellow food dye also known as Yellow  5, is commonly associated with asthma and hyperactivity in children.

Those are not things needed in pickles!

Since I like real ingredients that are pronounceable and in my pantry, I just make my own pickles now.

I’m mostly always short on time lately so I don’t have a day to dedicate to making pickles for the winter. I can however dedicate ten minutes every couple of months to make refrigerator pickles.

This recipe takes no skill, time or special ingredients. Two large jars can be filled in five minutes — if you’re quick with the cooking knife.

If you’re more patient that I am, you’ll wait four days until the pickles have sat long enough to reach their optimal flavour. I, however, eat half a jar as soon as the pickles are cool enough to pop into my mouth. Of course they’re better after waiting a few days but what’s the fun in that?

I find these pickles are especially satisfying when the garlic, cucumber and onion come from the garden.

Ingredients:

  • 6 cups sliced cucumbers
  • 2 cups thinly sliced onions
  • 4 cloves thinly sliced garlic
  • 1 1/2 cups white vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

Method:

  • Sterilize two large jars and lids
  • Mix cucumbers and onions in a large heat proof bowl
  • Combine vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard seeds, celery seeds, turmeric, ground red pepper, ground pepper    and garlic in a small saucepan
  • Stir well, bring to a boil and cook for one minute
  • Pour over cucumber and onion mixture
  • Allow to cool
  • Pour in sterilized jars
  • Let sit in the refrigerator for four days, or not.

Leave the Polysorbate 80 and Tartrazine at the grocery store.

Happy pickling!

Jill

Composting for Dummies

The compost bin has arrived!

I’ve been yearning for a backyard compost bin for years so this is a big thing in my life.

When I lived in an apartment, my friend suggested I put one on my 11th floor concrete balcony. I instead decided to wait until I had my own backyard.

The first house we bought was a cute townhouse with a backyard the size of a large swimming pool. It was in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood that managed to successfully ban clothes lines for a number of years. (That ban was finally overturned in 2008.)

A neighbourhood that fights against line drying isn’t going to be receptive to composting and I didn’t want to ruffle the feathers of the other homeowners.

Plus, we bought this home knowing that it was going to be a short term purchase.

Faced with three options, the choice was easy: move a big pile of rotting food, leave it for whomever buys our home or hold off on backyard composting.

So we waited.

Three years, and two babies, later we sold and moved to our forever home.

We upgraded our pool sized yard to a half acre. We ditched wall to wall neighbours for one neighbour and a farmer’s field. We moved to a place that never disallowed drying linens outside. We moved to a place where I could compost.

But we moved in November so I had to wait until spring.

Thanks in part to having months to scroll through Pinterest, I’d been secretly wanting a rustic DIY compost with two bins made of chicken wire and wood pallets. I could eventually put the chicken coop and bee hive nearby and tether the grass cutting goat on the side yard.

My husband does not share this vision. He’d be happier having nothing to with composting but he humours me.

So I was overjoyed when he went to the hardware store and picked up a compost bin.

It’s not the one from my Pinterest boards but it’s made from one hundred per cent recycled material so it’s okay by me. Compromise.

I assembled it and put it in the most compost friendly spot in the yard. It’s sunny and accessible and far away from our only adjacent neighbours.

I followed the instructions and layered twigs on the bottom to help with aeration. I then put a layer of “brown” or “dry” material, so mostly leaves. Then I layered the “green” or “wet” material, that’s where food stuff comes in.

Alternate green and brown waste. Et voilà. I’m a composting queen.

It’s pretty basic actually. We stick with the basics and only put fruit, vegetables, eggs and coffee grinds in the bin. I’m really good at the coffee grinds. Next year’s tomatoes are going to be coffee flavoured.

It’s surprisingly clean and totally odourless. It doesn’t even smell like coffee.

Despite our new found backyard composting ways, we are continuing with the city run composting program. We’ve been participating for a few years and it’s great. It takes items that are discouraged in our backyard compost: meat, oil, dairy, weeds and questionable leftovers.

We’ve been surprised by the amount of nighttime visitors our backyard receives. The local wildlife, probably raccoons, was getting the lid off the bin. I know that raccoon are clever but are they really able to lift the lid off that’s more than three feet off the ground? We must have really tall raccoons.

An impressive feat no doubt but not one that can be a regular occurrence. What raccoons don’t know is that we have an arsenal of bungee cord so I McGuyvered the lid and haven’t had an issues since.

With the pests at bay and the new routine of two separate compost bins figured out, all I have to do is wait until the old food turns to dirt. And dream about chicken coops and bee hives.

Crunchy Granola

Granola is one of those foods with a highly debatable health factor.

Commercial granola completely misses the point. Laden with ingredients such as shortening, vegetable oil and corn syrup solids, it seeks to try to pull a fast one on unsuspecting consumers who are trying to eat better. Thanks, giant corporations, but I’ll get my junk food elsewhere.

Such as at the pub. By ordering french fries at the pub, you willfully enter into an unhealthy exchange with the crispy little buggars.

Sure you’re eating potatoes but they can’t count as part of your daily serving of vegetables. The oil that’s been in the deep fryer for ten years isn’t included in the list of healthy oils you’re supposed to ingest daily.

The same unhealthy ingredients shouldn’t be hidden in your morning bowl of granola.

Granola and french fries are not the same.

Now, Artisanal granola can be tasty and often has healthy ingredients. But it’s expensive and seems to always come in teeny tiny little bags.

So what’s a granola loving girl to do?

Well….make it.

So that’s what I do.

I’ve been making this recipe for a couple of years. It’s simple, quick, cheap and enormously satisfying. And it’s so delicious that I even caught my toddler pretending to eat it the other day.

This is the standard version of the recipe. It’s incredibly versatile. I happily substitute or omit unessential ingredients if they’re not in my pantry. (Wheat germ is something that I always forget to buy so it’s not often found in my granola. Oops)

Ingredients:

  • 8 cups (organic) rolled oats
  • 1 1/2 cups wheat germ
  • 1 1/2 cups oat bran
  • 1 cup (unsalted) sunflower seeds
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1 cup walnuts
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 1 cup coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla

Optional:

  • 2 cups raisins or cranberries

Method:

  • Pre heat oven to 325°C (190°F), line two baking sheets with parchment paper
  • Chop nuts
  • Combine oats, nuts, wheat germ, bran in a large mixing bowl
  • Combine salt, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, oil, cinnamon and vanilla in small saucepan.
  • Bring to a boil over medium heat
  • Pour over dry ingredients and stir to coat.
  • Spread mixture evenly on baking sheets
  • Cook for 20 minutes, stirring half way through
  • Allow to cool but not harden
  • Stir in optional raisins or cranberries.

Variations to consider:

  • Adding uncooked quinoa
  • Substituting or omitting any of the nuts
  • Using different oils (peanut, avocado, etc.) and making different combinations to change the flavour
  • Reducing the amount of brown sugar, honey and maple syrup for a less sweet flavour.

*Savings tips: health food stores seem to sell organic rolled oats much cheaper than grocery stores

This granola is lovely with a cup of almond beverage, warmed applesauce or french fries. Just kidding; save those for an over-indulgent meal the pub.

Happy breakfast,

Jill

Oh, lovely Vanilla!

Vanilla-cropfbDid you know that vanilla isn’t a synthetic liquid that lives in a plastic bottle in the baking aisle at the grocery store?

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t pay much attention to vanilla until fairly recently. I’m ashamed because I love baking and I love making things from scratch. I don’t use mixes because of over processed and questionable ingredients, so why did I use commercial vanilla for so long? Hrmph.

There are two types of commercial vanilla: pure and synthetic. Neither of them contain just vanilla pods and alcohol – the only two ingredients needed to make vanilla extract. Corn syrup, vanillin, lignin and/or sugar are among the listed ingredients. I also came across a rumour that beaver anal glands are used in the production of imitation vanilla but it seems to be disproven. Phew.

Meanwhile, vanilla pods, or beans, come from the vanilla orchid plant. Once the orchid’s flower is hand pollinated, it produces a pod. After a few months, the pod is harvested and cured.

The onerous processes of hand pollinating and curing make it the second most expensive spice after saffron. It only grows in Madagascar, Reunion Island, Mexico and Tahiti; each location producing its particular flavour of vanilla.

The recipe for authentic vanilla extract is so simple it hurts:

  1. two vanilla pods, sliced horizontally
  2. one cup (eight ounces) of vodka, rum or bourbon

Combine pods and alcohol of your choice in a glass bottle and place in a cool, dark place for eight weeks. Shake weekly.

Seriously, that’s it.

The end result is so aromatic and flavourful that you’re going to want to get your bake on. It’s well worth the eight week waiting period.

I did a quick cost analysis and it was cheaper for me to make my own than to buy it. I bought two pods for $5 at Bulk Barn and I had the vodka on hand. I left the pods in the bottle after it was (finally!) ready and I topped it up with more vodka after I’d used a few tablespoons. Eventually the pods will lose their potency but until then I’m going to keep adding vodka.

It also get more complex with age, unlike its commercial counterpart which has a shelf life of about two years.

And the next time my husband comes home with a bottle of bourbon, I’ll snatch a cup and experiment with different flavours.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself, it’s March, but I will give out bottles of vanilla extract next Christmas in pretty little bottles. I’m all about removing chemicals and plastic bottles from the cupboards of my loved ones and helping to make their desserts better…one tablespoon of lovely vanilla at a time.

Happy health,

Jill

French Onion Soup au Gratin

I’ve loved French Onion soup my whole life. I even used to like powdered soup mix with garlic croutons and a thick piece of mozzarella.

The soup that I love today takes more preparation than boiling water and opening an envelop. It takes good stock (homemade or not), delicious Gruyère cheese and just enough cognac to make the caramelizing onions take on a life of their own.

You’ll need:

  • 2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon cognac, a little bit more for sipping
  • 2 quarts (8 cups) hot beef or veal stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 French baguette, thinly sliced
  • Gruyère cheese, thinly sliced

Over medium heat, slowly caramelize the onions in butter for about 30 minutes. Add flour to the onions and stir thoroughly. Add the wine and cognac, cooking long enough to evaporate the alcohol. Add the hot stock, thyme and bay leaf. Simmer uncovered for an hour.

Preheat oven to 350C. Before serving, lightly toast the baguette slices. Add Gruyère to the toasted slices and lightly broil. Remove bay leaf. Put soup bowls on a cookie sheet or roasting pan and ladle the soup in the bowls. Put broiled Gruyère toast cheese side down in the soup bowls. Top with a layer of cheese.

Bake for 15 minutes and broil on low for a couple minutes until cheese bubbles and browns.

Perfection!

It’s going to be hot so let it stand a few minutes. You don’t want to burn your tongue on the first spoonful – trust me, you won’t get to enjoy it!

I scored four of those gorgeous ceramic French Onion soup bowls at a Value Village a number of years ago for a buck each, lid included. They get very hot in the oven (duh) so take care and wrap the handles.