Food

August Challenge: Week 4

The final week of the challenge proved to be the hardest. Not only did we have friends over for dinner, we also celebrated our third wedding anniversary! I wanted to do something special for both evenings, without completely ignoring my budgeting goal. My first shopping trip of the week looked like this:

FoodCost
Strawberries (1lb)$1.66
Gold Bell Peppers (2)$3.34
Grape Tomatoes$1.25
Parsley$0.99
Yellow Squash (3)$1.79
Artichoke Quarters$2.99
Cream Cheese (2)$3.38
Milk (Half-Gallon)$2.29
Chicken Breast$6.76
Chicken Thighs$8.28
Sour Cream$2.69
Flour Tortilla$1.47
Paprika$3.49
Basil Leaves$1.49
Mushrooms$1.19
Baby Lemons$1.99
Mangoes (4)$2.76
Dried Basil$1.99
Avocados (4)$2.76
Fresh Mint$1.49
Eggs$2.99
Cayenne Pepper$3.59
Mozzarella$3.44
Shredded Gruyere$4.49
Garbanzo Beans (2 cans)$1.58


Total$70.14

We hosted our friends Grace and Jon for dinner on Sunday evening. I made Crusty Rosemary & Garlic Bread (again) with Spinach & Artichoke Dip as an appetizer. The bread always makes our apartment smell delicious and it is such an elevated experience for a tiny cost (about $1.85/loaf).

For dinner, we went a little healthier with Skillet Lemon Pepper Chicken. The fresh herbs and cayenne added so much good flavor to the yellow bell peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, and chicken breast. The entire meal came in at less than $20 and fed four people (plus leftovers!).

To be honest, part of me feels guilty and insecure for tallying up the cost of hosting. Having friends over for dinner is something we love to do and want to do on a regular basis. But this month-long challenge has made me realize that we can’t simply ignore the financial aspect. Historically, I’ve used hosting as an excuse to buy expensive foods and try to produce “impressive” meals. This is totally on me– no one is expecting Jimi to cook his famous steaks every time they walk in our home. I don’t have to serve elaborate charcuterie boards or buy expensive bottles of wine. We can spend less and have just as great a meal– and just as much fun.

We had a few slices of rosemary bread leftover, so I decided to surprise Jimi with some Gordon Ramsey eggs the next morning. These eggs are pretty life-changing (don’t believe me? The YouTube video tutorial has 42 MILLION views). Due to my budgetary constraints, I had to substitute in sour cream for the called-for crème fraîche, making the eggs slightly less rich, but still incredibly tasty. I popped the bread slices under the broiler to give them a quick toast, then loaded each plate with bread, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and avocado. Nom nom nom.

Anniversary Picnic

Our third wedding anniversary was on August 26th. Instead of going out to dinner, I suggested we have a picnic on the beach where we got married. Jimi agreed and I put together a special picnic meal. While it was a “splurge” in terms of our weekly budget, it was roughly a tenth of the cost of our previous anniversary dinners!

FoodCost
Raisin Rosemary Crisps$3.99
Italian Charcuterie$5.49
Truffle Marcona Almonds$5.99
Italian Truffle Cheese$5.85
Goat Cheese Log$2.99
Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans$0.99
Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds$0.99

Total$26.29

I already had fruit on hand, along with some leftover Spinach & Artichoke dip. I built the picnic around those items, making a homemade walnut cream cheese dip and buying cheese, nuts, and meat to offer some additional sustenance. I put the food into serving dishes for easy transport to the beach.

Jimi surprised me with two dozen gorgeous red roses before we headed out (aww). We drove up the coast to Leo Carrillo in Malibu and set up our picnic precisely where we said our vows. It was both romantic and meaningful. A photographer happened to be taking photos of the sunset close by and we asked him for a quick picture. He took some amazing shots and it really capped a wonderful time (and memorialized Jimi’s wild quarantine hair). Honestly, I wouldn’t have traded it for the most expensive dinner in the world.

We spent the rest of the week eating leftovers in a variety of forms (chicken tacos, salad with goat cheese tomatoes, etc.). But I did find one incredible cocktail recipe. I had picked up four mangoes at the grocery store, because they were on sale for $0.69/each! Jimi loves mangoes, but these were all very ripe and needed to be eaten immediately. I scrolled through Pinterest, looking for a mango dessert or drink that I had all the ingredients for. And I found it: The Mango Margarita. I made a few tweaks to the original recipe, so here’s “my” version:

Mango Margaritas

  • 2 Fresh Mangoes
  • 3oz Tequila
  • 1oz Triple Sec
  • 3tbsp Agave Syrup
  • 1 Lime
  • Handful of Ice
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • Lime wedges and Mint for garnishing

Blend together mangoes, tequila, triple sec, agave syrup, lime, and ice. Run a lime wedge around the rim of your glasses, then dip them in sea salt and chili powder. Pour in your blended drink and garnish with lime and mint!

Cheers to a fun challenge! I have learned so much this month… I’m still trying to process and synthesize it into a cohesive narrative. I’ll be posting all those thoughts in the next week or two. But for now, thanks for sharing in my journey and I hope you make something amazing today!

DIY

DIY 006: Starting a Podcast

Podcasting is not a traditional part of the “DIY” landscape, but it definitely fits with the rest of my recent creative/entrepreneurial pursuits. At the very beginning of quarantine, several of my co-workers and I decided that we wanted to start a film club. Our plan was to take turns picking movies to watch during the week and then get on a call to discuss them. Whoever selected the movie would serve as the host and steer the conversation (or, more like keep it from going completely off the rails). The plan continued to evolve once we realized we had access to audio equipment capable of recording the calls. A film club quarantine podcast? Let’s do it!

We jumped right in, watching “Day of the Locust” to kick off the series. I volunteered to edit the episodes… primarily as an alternative to the responsibility of hosting. While I certainly enjoy movies, my knowledge of and experience in film is lightyears behind those of my co-podcasters. Tommy is a working DP (with his most recent movie currently streaming on Amazon). Colin and Garrett both went to film school and have extensive filmmaking experience. Jon spent fourteen years writing for American Cinematographer magazine.

And I’m over here like… I was a robot on Westworld?

The great part is– we all bring extremely unique perspectives to each film. That’s why we ended up calling ourselves the “Viewfinder Film Club”. We watch each movie through our own lens and bring our respective takes to the discussion.

After skimming some tutorials and watching a few YouTube videos, I started editing the episodes. Garrett hooked us up with a Twitter and Instagram account. We built a website to record show notes and contact information. Jon recorded “intros” for each episode with updates and general housekeeping. Colin’s friend even made us super rad cover art:

We were ready for launch. The first three episodes went up on Podbean for distribution. You can officially hear us on Podbean, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts!

The podcast is certainly niche. The movies span a mix of genres and time periods– from Mizoguchi’s “A Story from Chikamatsu” (1954) to Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” (2018) to Scorcese’s “Bringing out the Dead” (1999). We’ve watched notoriously bad movies (Lynch’s “Dune”) to Academy Award winners (Stalag 17). I’ve jokingly referred to these weekly discussions as my own personal film school– even the worst movies still utilize interesting filmmaking techniques. We discuss the scores and the lighting, the directing and storytelling. We all take notes on the film and bring in outside research. It all adds up to a deeply satisfying, intelligent conversation about the creative language of film.

If you’re interested in listening, I’d recommend selecting an episode that discusses a movie you’ve already seen. We analyze (aka spoil) every plot point during our conversations. Personally, I loved our conversations on “First Reformed” and “Dune”– we really hit our stride in those episodes.

While quarantine has eliminated a lot of social interactions, it has really allowed this group activity to flourish. We can’t wait to record in person someday, but until then we’ll keep jumping on our weekly call and exploring the world of film.

Food

August Challenge: Week 3

This week was all about chicken. I found some killer deals on thighs and drumsticks at our local grocery store, but I didn’t want dinner to feel like a constant repeat. With poultry in hand (err… cart), I started flipping through Pinterest and AllRecipes.com on my phone, looking for particularly unique chicken recipes.

I’ll share my poultry preparations down below, but here’s what I ended up purchasing:

FoodCost
Broccoli $2.70
Grape Tomatoes$3.00
Lemons (4)$2.00
Bananas (1 Bunch)$1.46
Red Bell Peppers (2)$1.96
Red Seedless Grapes$1.89
White Peaches (2)$1.15
Yellow Onions (3)$1.98
Yellow Peaches (3)$1.18
Mozzarella Pearls$3.99
Chicken Thighs $6.60
Greek Yogurt $5.89
Butter (4lb)$7.99
Popsicles $3.50
Half & Half$1.79
Pears (2)$1.07
Romaine Hearts$3.99
Dill$1.49
Rosemary$1.49
Chicken Drumsticks$3.87


Total$58.99
Soooo close to my target. Excuses below…

The Costco Dilemma

Y’all… I love me some Costco. Even with COVID preventing me from eating my weight in samples, I still enjoy the experience of walking the aisles and stocking up. The prices are so good! The meat is such great quality! The cheese! The charcuterie!

I’ve always found ways to justify my Costco shopping… until my husband and I started to keep an itemized budget. The polo shirts I bought for Jimi (and the yoga pants I purchased for myself) were no longer conveniently hidden in the grocery bill. The four-pound carton of grapes that cost $10– and half of the which turned into wine before we could consume them. The five dozen eggs to satisfy my rapidly increasing baking needs. The reality checks were coming in hard and fast.

So I decided to come up with new “Costco rules” for myself:

  1. A Costco grocery run is for food only. If you need socks, a plant, batteries, or a new couch, that needs to be decided in advance. No purchasing non-food on a whim.
  2. Only purchase food that you can (and will) eat before it expires. For our home, this eliminates most of the fruit and vegetable options.
  3. Don’t take a cart. (What!!) Yeah, this one is a little dangerous. But I’ve been doing this all month and it’s working. Even with a detailed grocery list in hand, a cart is just begging to be filled. If I know I’ll have to carry everything throughout the whole store, I’ll overcome the urge to buy the handle of tequila on sale or get an extra block of cheese.

Costco items, while typically cheap for the quantity offered, still hit my $50 hard. This week, I needed butter and Greek yogurt– food I typically purchase in bulk because I cook and bake with them often. I knew buying them at Costco would bust my budget, but I made that concession because buying them in smaller portions would end up costing more and appearing on my budget more regularly. I need to plan my “Costco buys” more strategically, but I think it will be doable long-term.

One of the greatest benefits I’ve discovered over the last three weeks is the joy of variety. Instead of buying one giant bag of asparagus at Costco and cooking it all week long, I can buy a couple bell peppers, some broccoli, a few onions, and a pint of tomatoes at Sprouts. I never realized that Costco was actually limiting me until I stopped and took stock of my habits.

I will never get tired of going to Costco. I’m just going to be a more considerate customer in the future.

CHICKEN!

We did some serious feasting this week.

Night #1: Tandoori Chicken and Homemade Naan – My goodness. Indian food is way outside my comfort zone, but this recipe looked simple and absolutely delicious. After coating the chicken with the yogurt and spices, I set it aside to marinate. I knew my husband was a fan of naan, so I wanted to make some to complement the chicken. Unfortunately, traditional naan requires yogurt… and I had just used the last of it on the chicken. Not wanting to make a last-minute grocery run, I opened my fridge to look for alternative dairy options. I had some milk and I knew adding vinegar to it would make buttermilk– could that work? I decided to go ahead and give it a try. I popped the chicken in the oven and got my cast iron skillet sizzling. I mixed garlic and dill into the naan batter, then rolled a piece out on the counter. The bread fluffed up nicely over the heat and the inside was soft and flavorful. The chicken made the house smell amazing and Jimi soon came to hover by the kitchen. He stole a piece of naan and his eyes lit up. When I got the chicken and naan on the table, we tore in with our bare hands.

Jimi said, “This tastes better than it smells!”

I laughed at the odd compliment and added, “I want to try a different naan recipe– this one is a little too thick and doughy.”

Jimi shrugged, “I definitely won’t stop you from experimenting with naan. I could eat this for days.”

Lunch #2: Roasted Chickpea Gyros – While cooking the night before, I casually wondered what was the difference between naan and pita bread. Turns out? They’re fairly similar, but naan is made with yogurt, milk, eggs, or butter to make it the softer and fluffier cousin of traditional pita. I decided to do a little cuisine mashup and make gyros out of the leftover naan from dinner! I poured a can of chickpeas into a tray, spiced them up, and popped them in the oven. I heated up the naan and layered some Romaine, grape tomatoes, red onion, feta, and cilantro. When the chickpeas were ready, I tossed them on top!

Jimi: “There’s no MEAT?”

Me: “Well, the roasted chickpeas have a lot of flavor and add a lot of substance to this dish.”

Jimi: “…. but where’s the MEAT?”

I added some leftover carnitas his second wrap.

Jimi: “This just went from a 7 to a 9. This is phenomenal.”

Dinner #3: Creamy Cajun Chicken Lazone and Buttermilk Naan — This meal was straight. up. dreamy. We were on a naan kick, so I kept it rolling. This time, though, I found a recipe that specifically required buttermilk (avoiding another haphazard substitution situation). I needed to do another chicken dish, but I wanted to switch up the cuisine. Scrolling through Half Baked Harvest’s blog site, I spotted a Cajun dish that looked interesting. I pulled out some canned corn from the pantry and got to work! While the yeast was activating for the naan, I started heating up two skillets and then began dredging the chicken. I continued to dance between the bread batter and the floured chicken, eventually getting both to the skillets at around the same time. While the chicken hissed and popped, I rolled out thin ovals of naan batter. As soon as it hit the cast iron, huge air bubbles started to rise— it made me so happy. I simmered the chicken with the corn and the spices until the smells drew Jimi into the kitchen.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s a Cajun Chicken recipe… and naan.”

“Can I try it?” he asked, ripping off a freshly buttered piece.

“What do you think?” I asked as I started plating.

“It’s pretty perfect.”

Dinner #4: Skillet Lemon Pepper Chicken — I still had a lot of veggies in the fridge, so I looked for a summery recipe to incorporate them with the remaining chicken. This Skillet Lemon Pepper Chicken dish is a little hard to define. It’s hearty, it has some Mediterranean vibes, but there’s a bit of a spicy kick from the Cayenne. For being a “healthy” dish, though, it is absolutely packed with flavor. I loved the addition of feta to balance the earthy notes; Jimi preferred it without. Either way, it is definitely a new household staple.

Baking: I continued to work on my Macarons this week. I made three separate batches, experimenting with color, flavor, and bake time. The chocolate espresso macarons were particularly satisfying… but really ugly! They didn’t make the group photo:

Vanilla and Peppermint Macarons

Another week in the books! Final challenge week ahead. Looking forward to finishing strong. And cooking up a storm….

Food

August Challenge: Week 2

Goal: Spend only $50/week on groceries for my husband and I.

Week 2 started off quite strong. And by strong I mean, people kept giving us food!! Jimi had to go in to the office on Friday (August 7) and they catered a meal for all the employees. He came home with a giant tray of leftover Greek food for us (he truly understands my love language).

We feasted on spanakopita, beef skewers, and hummus over the weekend. On Sunday morning, I decided to go beyond a quick nuke in the microwave and instead made omelettes with leftover baked potatoes, lamb, and some freshly shredded cheddar cheese. Comfort food at it’s finest.

On Sunday evening, I drove out to Lancaster to do some work on our rental units and pay a visit to the in-laws. After several hours of painting, changing out door knobs, and fixing baseboards, my mother-in-law called me over for dinner. Marlene is one of the most outstanding cooks I have ever encountered. She can turn scraps into feasts and leftovers into Michelin-star meals. That night she had made chimichurri chicken, potato wedges, and a balsamic salad. Her husband, Steve, who has taken up cooking as a quarantine hobby and is a fastidious sous chef, put together a corn casserole dish. It was a hearty and heartening meal after working all evening.

And, of course, Marlene always sends us home with leftovers. Not only did I get the extra chicken and casserole, but she had prepared Milanesa Napolitana just for me to take back to Jimi. If you have never had this mouthwatering dish, think of it as pizza… but with meat instead of pizza dough.

While I can’t tell you Marlene’s precise recipe (she never writes any of her dishes down), this recipe is a fairly good approximation.

We got through the weekend without a grocery run! On Monday, I did stop by the store to pick up a few things: tomato sauce (I’ve got all those frozen meatballs still), peaches (get ready for more whiskey cocktails), and a few things to make carnitas.

I bought some pork shoulder a couple weeks ago and stuck it in my freezer, waiting for a day when I had the time to slow roast it in the oven. Monday afternoon seemed to be that day! I pulled out the pork shoulder to defrost while I did my grocery run. Carnitas are a new one for me– I had never even considered making them until quarantine expanded my horizons. After my first attempt, though, my husband made it clear that I should make them on a regular basis. The pork turns out so tender and juicy, it’s really cheap, and you can use it in a variety of ways: quesadillas, lettuce-wrapped tacos, and (with a little bbq sauce) pulled pork sandwiches!

I’ve experimented with a variety of carnitas recipes this summer. I’ve braised the meat in wine, chicken stock, and citrus juice. I’ve added lots of spices and I’ve just tried salt (with unique toppings added to every individual meal). This carnitas recipe is my personal favorite at the moment, but I am open to alternatives. If you happen to have a delicious recipe, please share– I’d love to give it a try!

Between the leftovers and the carnitas, I didn’t do a lot of cooking this week– but that didn’t mean I stayed out of the kitchen. I baked up a storm… causing my husband some serious consternation.

“I thought we were trying to eat healthy,” he said with a mouthful of meringue.

“I’m trying to perfect my French pastry skills!” I explained, piping another row of meringue onto a baking sheet. “What do you think of it?”

“It’s got a weird flavor. Like it’s good… but it doesn’t taste like what I grew up with.” We later determined that traditional Argentine meringue was exclusively egg whites, water, and sugar. The French recipe that I followed included vanilla. I was pretty impressed with my husband’s taste buds.

Aaaand speaking of vanilla, I ran out of Vanilla Extract this week. On my first shopping trip, I decided to cheap out and buy “Imitation Vanilla Extract” for $1.47. Guys. Don’t do it. It was absolutely awful. Thankfully, since I didn’t have to spend much money on groceries this week, I splurged on a bottle of the real stuff at Costco. My baking supplies are completely restocked for the foreseeable future!

Here’s my spending breakdown from August 8-14:

FoodCost
Butter Lettuce$1.25
Blueberries (2)$2.50
Limes (4)$1.00
Oranges (3)$1.44
Peaches (3)$1.92
Cilantro$0.79
Marinara$2.79
Chicken Broth$1.99
Ginger Root Powder$2.80
Imitation Vanilla Extract$1.47
White Vinegar$1.17
Sausage (1lb)$1.99
Pure Vanilla Extract$24.99
Eggs (2 dozen)$3.79
Total $49.89

And here are all the glorious baked goods I made this week:

Macarons with French Buttercream

Preppy Kitchen has an amazing recipe tutorial for Macarons. Mine turned out… ok? They didn’t really puff up, so there’s a few tweaks I want to try next time. French pastry is all about precision which is so not my style. I played a little fast and loose with this recipe and definitely regretted it. Also, the French Buttercream was basically straight butter. I’ll go with a more traditional frosting in the future.

Meringues

I fell straight down the Preppy Kitchen rabbit hole and tried Meringues next. These were super fun to make– and quite lovely to eat. I definitely want to practice my piping and try out other flavors in the future.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

This is such a fun alternative to chocolate chip cookies. The bars stay so gooey in the center, but the edges get crispy. There’s a little something for everyone in a crowd! You can add some M&M’s on top for a festive touch (this batch was from July– I forgot to take a picture of this week’s version).

I think Week 3 will be a true test of will. My fridge is completely empty and my pantry is starting to look a bit sparse. Let’s see how it goes!

DIY

DIY 005: Fixer Upper

Why yes, I have binged all five seasons of Fixer Upper during quarantine. Thanks for asking.

While it is my dream to someday do some full-on home renos, I have had to settle for some small-time projects on our rental properties. We have six small houses in the Lancaster area that were built in the 1960s and regularly require some love. We recently had a tenant move out so I went to go do a little fixin’.

Isn’t she sweet?

Side Note: The first time we fixed up one of the units, I got a little overambitious. I started working on forty different projects (including refinishing all the kitchen cabinets, painting the entire house, and repairing the patio trellis). Did I mention I thought I could do all this in a single weekend? Yeah. No way. My in-laws, aka our property managers, had to call in a handyman to finish all my projects. So I have a more realistic idea of my limitations now.

Project 1: Changing out the Locks

I’m pretty sure the locks on the doors hadn’t been changed for a decade or two. The metal was rusted, dented, and didn’t latch well. When the tenant turned in her keys, she mentioned that on windy days the door would bang open if she didn’t have it bolted! We would definitely have fixed that if we’d known, but better late than never.

I had never switched out a lock before, but after watching a couple YouTube videos I was fairly sure I could make it happen. I bought two sets of Kwikset Entry Locks— one for the front door and one for the exterior entrance to the garage. Thankfully, I remembered to find two matching sets (so the same key works on all the locks). Wouldn’t have known to look for that without a tutorial video!

How to match multiple locks to the same key. The things they don’t teach you in college…

I began unscrewing the old deadbolt and everything was looking pretty straightforward. Then, I hit a speedbump: one of the screws holding the bottom lock in place was completely stripped. I tried all of my various screwdriver heads, but the hole was completely circular. I googled various ways of getting out a stripped screw (use pliers! nope. jam a rubber band in and twist with screwdriver! nope).

Finally, my mother-in-law, Marlene, said, “We have a good drill you could use”.

Marlene is from Argentina and sometimes there’s a communication issue. I looked at her quizzically, “What do you mean?”

She answered excitedly, “If you push hard, it might come out.”

I tried to picture it happening and while I wasn’t totally convinced, I figured it was worth a shot. I picked up the drill and rammed it into the nail. It was super powerful and as soon as I put my weight into it, I felt the screw move! In my excitement, I only moved the screw out halfway and ended up having to use pliers to unscrew it the rest of the way. Yeah, yeah, I’ve got a bit of a learning curve y’all. But thank you, Marlene!!

The doorknob install went very smoothly, but the lower latch was still not catching very well. I jiggled the door and when I lifted it up, the latch slid right in. Hmm. I opened the door and took a look at the hinges. The top hinge turned out to be really loose. As soon as I tightened the screws, the whole door stood up straighter and locked properly. Calling it a win.

Project 2: Installing a Thermostat

After my success with the doorknobs, I felt invincible. The wall thermostat was ancient and cracked– quite the eyesore. I was confident that I could replace it with a sharper looking one… event though I had never taken on electrical wiring before. (Confidence or arrogance? It’s a fine line.) I picked up a basic Honeywell Home thermostat and went to work.

I knew the first step was turning off the power to the HVAC system. Well, I had no idea where the main service panel was located. After looking through all the rooms, then the garage, I finally found the box on the far side of the house just above some shrubs. Aaaand most of the controls weren’t labeled. For fear of getting shocked, I switched them ALL off.

It was a great start.

I went back into the dark, no-longer-air-conditioned house, and started prying off the old thermostat. With a little jiggling, the cover popped off the wall. I then unscrewed the panel and carefully unscrewed the two wires connected to the plate (an “R” and a “W”). I connected the wires to the new panel and screwed it into the wall… before realizing there was a “cover plate” that would hide the part of the wall where the old thermostat had rested. So, I took the panel off, put the cover on, then reattached the wires, and screwed it all into the wall. Whew. Second times a charm, eh? Then, I turned back on the electricity, crossed my fingers, and turned the heat on. It worked.

Moral of the Story: Electrical work is really not all that scary.

Project 3: Repairing a Baseboard

My last project of the day was to install a new piece of baseboard in the living room. There was a seven-inch gap right next to the door where a piece was clearly missing. After measuring the section, I went to Home Depot and found a similar piece of baseboard for sale. The baseboard was sold by the foot and I definitely didn’t need all 10-ft of the piece I was holding. With nary a worker in site, I took it to the self-service cart and took a handsaw to it.

Side Note: From now on, I will exclusively request tools as birthday and Christmas gifts. Using the drill and handsaw this weekend were crack. I want more of that in my life.

Armed with my perfectly cut piece of baseboard, I lined it up on the wall… only to find that there was a little bit of tile jutting out above the floor about 1/4″. This made my piece sit up higher than the rest of the baseboard, but I couldn’t worry about it at that point. I popped in a couple finishing nails and set about caulking. I tried to make the caulk help the height difference “disappear”, but it wasn’t all that effective. Regardless, the gap was filled. I was ready to hit the road, so I asked Marlene if she wouldn’t mind painting it the next day. She readily obliged.

Still needs painting, but hey! It’s an improvement.

Side Note: Marlene spent the entire afternoon and evening putting contact paper in all the kitchen cabinets. She’s a trooper.

So, unfortunately, none of these projects will likely land me my own HGTV show. But, I did want to share my adventures to hopefully encourage you to take on tasks around your house. There’s so much you can do with a little help from YouTube! It’s empowering to fix things. And we could all use that bit of morale boost these days…

Food

August Challenge: Week 1

Goal: Spend only $50/week on groceries for my husband and I.

Well, nothing went quite as expected this week. Last Friday (July 31), I found out that we were going to have company over for dinner on Saturday evening. I definitely didn’t budget for guests!! So, I went grocery shopping on Friday for that specific meal and didn’t count it towards my August budget— that’s not cheating, right?

Other than that slight exception, here’s my spending breakdown and some of the fun recipes I tried out this week:

FoodCost
Milk$3.99
Cheese$3.99
Coffee Creamer$1.79
Flour$3.99
Brown Sugar$2.49
White Sugar$5.39
Onions (4)$3.17
Rosemary$1.49
Lemons (5)$1.99
Asparagus (1lb)$3.49
Cucumbers (2)$1.00
Roma Tomatoes (1lb)$1.00
Russet Potatoes (3lb)$2.36
Shallots (3)$0.78
Garlic Powder$4.30
Orzo Pasta (1lb)$0.98
Dried Basil$0.62
Polenta (1lb)$1.34
Chicken Thighs (3lb)$6.04
Ground Beef (2lb)$6.98


Total$57.18

SO close to my budget of $50. Also, I’m being extremely honest and including all the baking goods I stocked up on, even though they were mostly supplies for the cheesecake I made for our guests. Here’s a few meals that I concocted this week:

Dinner Party, Saturday, August 1, 2020

Appetizer: 

Spinach and Artichoke Dip— I blended everything in advance, then popped it in the oven a few minutes before our guests arrived. Hot, cheesy dip was a perfect way to start the evening.

Rosemary, Garlic Bread — I timed this to come out of the oven just before I popped the dip in. Unfortunately, it didn’t get a good rise on it, but the intense flavors and yeasty texture were great with the cheesy artichoke dip!

Dinner:

Ground Beef and Cheese Stromboli — I made homemade pizza crust this time and it ended up being a little soft/loose. I would definitely do it with store-bought pizza dough next time. Quite tasty, though, and great for a group!

Dessert: 

New York Cheesecake with Strawberry Sauce — Wow. This giant cheesecake (slightly taller than my springform pan!) has the perfect texture, the perfect flavor… it’s just incredible. I did spice up the crust with some cinnamon and nutmeg, but other than that I let it be. I made a simple strawberry sauce and poured it over each individual slice. Our guests (and my husband) were absolutely smitten. 

Note: I spent just about $45 on this specific meal. It’s wild to think that I blew almost a full week’s “budget” on one meal, but I made three courses for four people— which breaks down to $11.25/each. Way cheaper than a fancy meal out!

Dinner, Monday, August 3, 2020

Polenta with Homemade Meatballs — I had some leftover Stromboli filling to use up, so I decided to use it as a sauce for a polenta dish. My mother-in-law got me hooked on ooey, gooey polenta and I used my mom’s meatball recipe— quite the family affair! Here’s our family meatball recipe:

  1. Soak 4 bread slices in ½ cup water 2-3 minutes
  2. Add 2 eggs and mix well
  3. Add 1lb. of ground beef, ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, 2 tbsp sniped parsley (fresh) or 1 tsp dried parsley, 1 tsp salt, ¼ tsp dried oregano and dash of pepper
  4. Mix with wet hands
  5. Form mixture into small balls (about 24 per # of meat)
  6. Brown slowly in t tbsp of hot oil (Canola) in skillet.
  7. Fun Fact: These freeze really well. I almost always make a double batch.

Dinner, Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Sheet Pan Lemon Rosemary Dijon Chicken and Potatoes with Feta Goddess Sauce Quite the name. But quite the dish. I loved how easy it was to throw everything onto a sheet pan and get a beautiful blend of flavors. The feta goddess sauce was quite tart (with the Greek yogurt, feta, and lemon all on the sour end of the spectrum) so I might play around with that in the future. All in, this dish costs about $10 and we had enough leftovers for three meals! 

Cocktails, Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Penicillin — Mid-week cocktail time! I watched an interesting documentary called “Neat: The Story of Bourbon” on Hulu and was inspired to do a little whiskey mixing. The recipe I settled on called for Scotch Whiskey, but I swapped it for the Four Roses Bourbon I had on hand. Does that mean I get to call this Debby’s Penicillin? Regardless of whether this will be my new claim to fame, the smoothness of the bourbon and honey paired with the tartness of the lemon and the spiciness of the ginger… it just sung. Jimi is not much of a drinker, but even he couldn’t resist this concoction!

Breakfast, Thursday, August 6, 2020

Turnip Omelettes— Yeah, I know it sounds super weird. Let me give you the backstory. After our honeymoon in Thailand, Jimi and I became obsessed with finding the best Thai food in LA. On our search for those spicy, nutty, warm flavors, we stumbled across a restaurant called Ruen Pair. The reviews were stellar and they all mentioned one truly superb dish: the turnip omelette. We went for dinner one night and waited 45 minutes for a table. The smells coming from the kitchen were unspeakably delightful. When we were finally seated, we ordered half a dozen dishes— including the omelette. We could have just ordered half a dozen of them. It was amazing: salty, sweet, greasy… just all of the late-night flavors you crave. We have brought many of our friends here and they are always blown away by what seems like such a weird dish. I recently found a recipe that attempts to mimic the omelette and while it’s not quite the right flavor or consistency, it’s on the right track. Since the ingredients are cheap, I’ve been experimenting with it on a regular basis. I’ll write a post once I perfect it!

DIY

DIY 004: Making a Tassel Chandelier

Anyone else obsessed with Anthropologie’s Fela Tasseled Chandelier? I’ve been seeing it everywhere lately (ok, Google algorithm, stop tempting me already). After watching a third Instagram home renovator hang the light, I was convinced: I could totally make one.

I found some homemade versions on Pinterest and Etsy, but wasn’t overly impressed. The thickness of the tassel thread made a huge difference on the overall appearance (thick yarn looked particularly tacky). I also thought three layers of shorter tassels looked more glamorous than two layers of longer. I was really inspired by some of the ombre looks, though!

Instead of ordering thread on Amazon, I decided to go to Michaels and actually look at the options available. I landed on a crochet thread called Woolike Yarn by Loops & Thread, based on the color availability, weight of the strands, and the price. While I was there, I also picked up three floral hoops, some gold wire, and a gold chain. Here’s the full supply and cost list:

Materials

  • Woolike Yarn– I ended up using about two spools of yarn per ring. If you’re doing it all one color you could probably get away with five spools.
  • Gold Chain– I ended up splitting this into three pieces and attaching them together with a small loop of wire as my “hanger”.
  • Gold Wire
  • Floral Hoops – I purchased a 19″, 14″, and a 10″ in gold
  • Gold Wire
  • Scissors
  • Small Book or Picture Frame- I used a small, hardcover book of poetry that was 4.5″ wide and 0.75″ deep (the length from top to bottom doesn’t matter, as you’ll just be using it to wrap the tassels).

Steps-

  1. Start making tassels! Use your thumb to hold the end of your thread to the book or small picture frame. Wrap 50 times (50 was the sweet spot for my tassels, but depending on the thread/yarn you use you might want to adjust this amount). Use scissors to cut the thread off of the book/frame.
  2. Cut a piece of thread ~7″ long. Lay your tassel strings across the thread. Tie the piece across the middle of your threads (feel free to make minor adjustments to get the ends even before tightening the knot.
  3. Cut another piece of thread ~10″ long. Tie around the top portion of your tassel. I recommend tying it higher than you want it, as it’s easy to scrunch it down the length of the tassel to your desired level. I wrapped the thread a few times to give the tassel a defined head, then knotted it and let the ends drape down to blend into the body of the tassel.
  4. Repeat approximately 200 times. I highly recommend finding a good Netflix show to binge!!
  5. Tips to speed things up: I streamlined my tassel process by doing six at a time. I would do 6 sets of fifty wraps on my little book, cut 6 x 7″ strings and 6 x 10″ strings, then put those tassels together. It seemed to go a little quicker than doing one at a time!
  6. When you have enough to begin building your chandelier, grab one of your floral hoops. I ended up using 80 tassels on my 19″ hoop, 60 on my 14″ hoop, and just under 40 on my 10″ hoop. I double-knotted each tassel and shuffled them around until I was happy with how “full” the layer looked.
  7. Building the chandelier was a little challenging. I divided the tassels into even sections so the sides would all be balanced. I used wire in between each section to connect the largest level to the mid level and the mid to lower (note: I used string initially, but it was tough to keep in place and didn’t offer the support that wire offered). There was a lot of scooching involved.
  8. Finally, connect your hanging chain to the top layer. Since I wanted mine to mount close to the ceiling, I cut my chain to 14″ and attached the ends at three intervals around the hoop. Then, I secured the three chains together with some wire. I looped it over a swag hook in my ceiling and went about fluffing and balancing the chandelier. It was slightly precarious, but after some negotiating it finally maintained its composure. I was thrilled!!

Here’s a quick tutorial video on how to make a tassel:

Oops– cut the top of my head off. #framingflaws

Final cost for the project was right around $30. Labor time was about 8 hours, but considering I was able to watch an entire season of Killing Eve… hard to complain! I’m super happy with it– definitely one of my favorite projects to date.

Food

August Challenge: $50/Week on Groceries

In the early days of the pandemic, I set a lot of “goals”. I was going to read twenty books. I was going to workout every day. I was going to practice Spanish. I was going to take online courses and do as much “upskilling” as possible. While I chipped away at some of these goals (see: Quarantine Reading List), I fell off the wagon on most. It was hard to stay motivated and focused when the world seemed to be falling apart at the seams. Some days, it felt like an accomplishment just to get out and walk my dogs.

I also challenged myself to cook more often and experiment with new foods. I’ve made mad Pad Thai, learned how to cook beets (and beet greens), and fallen in love with fresh ginger. I enjoyed my time in the kitchen, so daily meals turned into another form of “entertainment”. However, I recently took a look at my skyrocketing grocery bills. Steak and shrimp and salmon filets were obvious price-jacking culprits. But there were other, more subtle rascals inflating my bills. There were new spices and sauces that I used for one recipe and then buried in the back of my spice cabinet. There were giant containers of grapes from Costco that we never finished before they turned into raisins. Fancy cheese, real maple syrup, top shelf alcohol, everything that made life feel a little bit more comfortable.

But in an effort to curb my consumerism (and boost my wallet), I am setting myself a new goal: Make three delicious meals a day for my husband and I… and spend only $50/week on groceries.

Now, my pantry is pretty well-stocked at the moment. We’ve got pasta and coffee and spices galore. We also have several frozen dinners from the early-pandemic panic. I’m burning through all the leftovers and milk right now, but I still have quite a few tomatoes, tortillas, eggs, and cheese in the fridge. It feels a bit like cheating, but I know it will get harder each week as I run out of these excess ingredients. Here’s my shopping plan for August 1:

Breakfast FoodCost
Sausage Links$2.50
Coffee Creamer$1.79
Bananas$1.49
Milk (1 gallon)$3.29
Lunch FoodCost
Sandwich Bread (Whole Wheat)$1.49
Sandwich Meat (Ham) – 2 x 9oz packs$7.00
Lettuce (Romaine)$1.69
Dinner FoodCost
Ground Beef (3 lb)$11.97
Chicken (3 lbs)$9.42
Bell Peppers (2)$1.94
Broccoli (1 lb)$1.79
Onions (3)$2.91
Weekly Total$47.28

Meal Plan:

BreakfastEggs and Sausage, Breakfast burritos, Coffee
LunchSandwiches, Salads 
SnacksBananas, Protein Bars, Smoothies
DinnerQuesadillas, Chicken Stir Fry, Lettuce-Wrapped Burgers, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Tacos

WOW. That list feels so short. I am already embarrassed just thinking about the amount of food I typically buy on a normal Costco run. It’s also really evident that the bulk of the $50 will be going towards meat. Maybe an incentive to start adding more vegetarian meals to our diet?

I’ll be checking in every week to let you know how it’s going! I will also share any tips, tricks, and recipes I discover along the way.

Oh– and I’m going to try not to tell my husband what I’m doing. If he finds out, it’s fine. But I want to see if he notices the “limited” groceries every week. Social experiment: commence!

Food

Recipe Roundup

I don’t know about you, but I have spent a lot of time in the kitchen these past few months. Here are some of the best recipes, blogs, and secret ingredients I’ve discovered during this pandemic:

1. Half-Baked Harvest:

AKA The Queen of Quarantine Cooks everywhere. If you haven’t heard of Thiegan’s blog, I am grateful that I get to be the one to introduce you to her because she will change your life. Her photos make you want to dive into a bowl of pad thai and swim around in the deliciousness. Some of my favorite recipes include her super easy Tomato-Herb Pizza and her Lemon Butter Zucchini Orzo (the ultimate comfort food). Feeling exotic? Check out her Thai recipes and get spicy with it!

2. Crusty Roasted Garlic and Rosemary Bread:

Yes, I joined the bread bandwagon. But this bread is truly exceptional. The recipe also introduced me to the concept of roasting heads of fresh garlic. Not only is it delicious, but it makes your house smell divine (and keeps away the vampires). I highly recommend making this to take your cheese board to the next level.

3. Peach and Prosciutto Pizza:

I bought some ripe peaches that needed to be eaten immediately. I scoured Pinterest for some ideas and came across the inspiration for a Peach and Prosciutto Pizza. However, I was a little short on Prosciutto and Naan. So while I’m sure the original recipe is great, here’s the adjustments I made:

Ingredients

  • 2 naan crusts 1/2 lb of fresh pizza dough (enough to make a flatbread)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil divided
  • 4 oz burrata cheese divided An excessive amount of fresh mozzarella, shredded
  • 2 large peaches sliced
  • 4 thin slices of prosciutto torn 8 Slices of Soppressata
  • 1 tbsp chopped basil
  • 2 tbsp honey 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt to season throughout

The mozzarella melted against the pizza dough, creating this chewy, stringy cheese bread. Baking the peaches lowered their sweetness level, balancing them perfectly with the salty soppressata.

I paired the pizza with a peachy drink:

  • 1/2 peach, smashed
  • 1 tbsp rosemary syrup
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • Shaken with ice, poured into a glass over ice, and then topped with tonic water

4. Cowboy Breakfast Skillet:

I would like to thank my friend, Erin, for introducing me to the breakfast of my dreams. Sweet potatoes, avocado, and sausage? Who would have thought breakfast could be so satisfying. This recipe is great for a group and only uses one pan!

This recipe is also extremely versatile. While baking the eggs is definitely easiest, you can also try poaching them (my favorite version) or frying them (my husband’s favorite version). Adding some sriracha on top really takes this to the next level, too!

5. Mediterranean Chicken:

I’ve made a lot of Greek chicken in my day, but this recipe calls for sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and capers. The salty, briny flavors are delightful and much more intense than my normal lemon/oregano/olive oil marinades.

DIY

DIY 003: Tackling a Cushioned Counter Stool

We live in a rather large condominium complex. While the amenities are great and there are plenty of places for our dogs to run around, there is also a consistent stream of moving trucks in and out of the community. It seems, though, that not all furniture is worth moving. On a regular basis I discover chairs, tables, mirrors, lamps, and artwork dumped in a pile beside the dumpster. At first, I kept everything I could lay my hands on. Who would get rid of this stuff?

[To be fair, we moved into our unit right as COVID hit and in the interest of our finances we decided against buying any new furniture– even though we had a second bedroom now, a much larger living space, and very little lighting. It was a struggle for my inner decorator, but I was toeing the line.]

Just call me The Scavenger. I picked up a desk lamp, a nightstand, a wrought-iron bookshelf. I stockpiled everything in the guest room, turning it from a very empty space (ideal for working out) to a storage closet (guess how my workouts have been going lately). My intent was to turn these pieces into usable furniture with some wood filler, fresh paint, and updated knobs.

[For those of you gagging over the thought of picking up ‘trash’ especially during the pandemic, I rigorously sanitized everything with soap, water, and bleach! Then I left it by the front door to air out. Then I kept it locked up in our guest room away from our daily routines. Not taking any chances here.]

After skipping a week’s worth of cheap laminate tv consoles and broken picture frames, I finally came across a worthwhile piece: a cute, slightly stained, modern farmhouse-style counter stool. A few years ago, I reupholstered all of my dining table chairs so I thought there was a chance I could restore this little beauty. I dragged it upstairs and got to work.

First step: Pry off the upholstery tacks… using a hammer, pliers, and other assorted tools. No idea what the proper way to accomplish this task is, but I was able to save all of the tacks!

Then: Figure out how to *carefully* wrench out all the staples.

Next stop: JOANN Fabrics for something more fun and modern. I found this beautiful patterned upholstery fabric on sale for $18/yard. I purchased 1/2-yard to allow for some cutting mishaps!

Then: Figure out how to sew the corners. Thankfully, I had the template of the original seat cover available to analyze. I carefully cut two-inch slits at each corner and pinned the seams together. The first corner took me a couple tries to get right, as my initial attempts didn’t have enough of a curve to them and ended up sticking out at odd angles. When I finally got all four sewn, I fitted the new cover over the seat.

Next: Staple the edge to the chair. My staple gun worked exceptionally well for this task.

Then came the truly grueling part of this project: Cutting and sewing a 1/2″ fabric band to cover the stapled edge. I don’t have a sewing machine. It literally took me hours to stitch this by hand. So. Annoying. However, it turned out just fine and I began to nail the tacks in to keep it in place. Some of the tacks were bent, due to my aggressive pulling tactics. I had to get a little creative with how I angled them so they were still spaced out evenly.

The final result was better than I could have hoped for! The colors worked really well together and you could barely see the small scuff marks on the chair legs.

As much as I loved this little chair, I didn’t have a place for it in my apartment. I listed it on Craigslist and the Facebook Marketplace to see if anyone would pay me for my efforts. Unfortunately, a lot of people were in the process of moving and trying to offload excess furniture (remember– I did find this in a pile by our dumpster). I lowered my price and lowered my price, knowing I only needed one person to like it enough to buy it. After two weeks of silence, a woman asked if she could pick it up in thirty minutes. I said, “Absolutely!” and practically ran out the door with the stool.

Twenty dollars richer (and with a newfound confidence in my furniture flipping abilities) I returned to my guest room and looked at the array of orphaned pieces.

“I will find homes for all of you.”