Friday, December 31, 2010

Crafty Cousins

I love going to Saint Louis for the holidays, but nothing beats coming home.  My bed was so comfy last night that I slept until 10:30 this morning which is perfect since tonight is New Year's Eve, and I want to be able to stay up late!  Listen to that old-lady talk!  But seriously, it can be tough staying up that late.  I stayed up past midnight 7 consecutive nights in Saint Louis which explains why I was EXHAUSTED all day and everyday of my stay there!  All in all, I had a wonderful time and got to spend time with everyone I know and love.  Seriously, everyone.  It rocked. Christmas day was especially fun as my parents hosted a gathering of 20, and we had our annual gift exchange.

Every year the extended family on my mom's side does some sort of gift exchange.  Last year we played rob-your-neighbor with booze.  This year we were challenged with the task of either making or buying a locally-made gift not exceeding $20.00.   How green is this challenge?  I LOVE supporting local artisans and businesses, so I knew I would be buying a gift.  That, and the fact that I have yet to make anything anyone would remotely be interested in having in their home!   I pulled my cousin Lindsay's name and knew exactly what I'd get her: beer and lottery tickets.  She loved it, but didn't win any cash from the lotto tickets.

My cousin Matt had my name, and he made me this stylish and functional table for my patio.  It's made out of an old bed frame and an extra piece of tile.  Impressive, right?  Puts my beer and lotto ticket gift to shame.

There were many other creative gifts given that night:  grow-your-own shiitake mushroom logs (courtesy of my dad), Wisconsin cheese curds (from my cousin who lives in northern IL), and a hand-carved walking stick (from a shop in Kimswick, MO).  But perhaps the most thoughtful, beautiful gift of all was the one my sister received from my cousin Alison: a knitted vest.  How amazing is this garment?  I love the color!  The vest took Alison 10 days to make.  Isn't she talented?  We all told her she should put her stuff on Etsy.  To which she replied, "What's that?"  LOL.  I feel lucky to be related to such an artist!  I hope she gets my name next year! 
 Now check out this beauty. You are looking at a coat rack made out of deer hooves.  This was not part of the gift exchange but rather a thank-you present from my cousin's husband to my dad.  A regular DIY taxidermied coat rack.  Hilarious, right?  Still, it's nice to know someone who knows taxidermy.  It will be a nice way to preserve the dogs when the time comes.
I'm digging the handmade gifts and after seeing the performance my cousins gave this year, I need to step it up a notch.  Next year, I want to give a gift I actually made.  This has inspired a New Year's resolution: learn how to make something.  Will this manifest itself in taking a class at the Career Center or scouring  Young House Love for the perfect project? Either way, I'm ready for this adventure!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

People Towels

The hubs and I are huge fans of Stonyfield yogurt.  Each week at the grocery store we buy a quart of either blueberry or strawberry yogurt.   The yogurt is always creamy and delicious- not to mention buying it supports family farms and organic farming!  While I could support these by buying any organic yogurt, buying Stonyfield allows me benefit from the Stonyfield rewards program.  On each Stonyfield lid, there is a code to register at the rewards website.  Each code is worth a certain amount of points, but it basically amounts to one point for every dollar spent on the yogurt.  The goal is to save up points and order eco-friendly products from the list on the rewards website.  After accumulating a certain amount of points, I click on the reward I want and the company sends me a coupon for it in the mail.  We have MAJORLY benefited from this rewards program- some of the loot we've gotten (at no cost) includes AH!Laska organic chocolate syrup,  Green&Black chocolate, Stonyfield yogurt, and Rising Moon organic pasta.  Until recently, we had only received food items, but yesterday in the mail, I received a People Towel, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.
 image from
This towel came with an explanation that I think states its mission and reason perfectly, so rather than try to say it in my own words, I will quote from the tag on my People Towel: "Doesn't it seem like a waste to cut down a tree to make a paper towel that is used once and thrown away"  (YES, IT DOES!) "By our calculations, the average person uses about 3,000 paper towels in a year, causing deforestation, excess landfill waste, and water pollution."  I'm not sure I totally agree with their calculations- at work I use on average, 7 paper towels each day.  If I work 170 days out of the year, that comes out to 1,190 paper towels, plus about 10 each week at home.... that's 520 a year at home for a total of about 1,710.  We'll add 300 to be on the safe side.  So  I consume roughly 2,010 paper towels a year.  While that's less than the People Towel's calculations, it's still a whole lot of paper towels.  So many in fact, that I think about it each time I use a paper towel.  Darn environmental guilt!  Thus, this People Towel seemed like a good idea.

Here's how I plan to make a difference:  I plan to have my People Towel at work to cut down the average of 7 paper towels I use each day to about 2.  However, I have some issues with convenience and cleanliness.  Here are the questions floating through my mind on the way to making this People Towel work for me and the environment:  Will I carry it into the bathroom with me?  Where will it hang?  Will it travel to and from work in my purse?  Will items in my purse get wet?  How often should this be washed?  How is this different from carrying around any ol' towel? 

While I have quite a few questions about using the People Towel, I will give it a try.  Hopefully, through my trial and error, I'll come up with a full-proof water-proof way for people to make use of cloth towels at work because as I've said before, I believe that any action, no matter how small, makes a difference.

CHIPOTLE: Food With Integrity

As part of my cheap-o lifestyle, I bring my own lunch to work.   My lunches always have a lot of variety- sometimes leftovers, salads, almond butter sandwiches, soups.  Always: a piece of fruit.  Everything else is left up to chance. With so much variety in my lunch, I'm rarely even tempted to order food when the rest of my coworkers do.  McDonalds?  NO WAY.  Taco Bell?  No thanks.  Burger King?  Haven't eaten there since 8th grade.  Italian?  Hmmm... tempting, but I brought my lunch, and I want to save my $8.00.  Pizza?  Also tempting.... but I'll save my money.  Chipotle?  YES, double YES.

Yesterday I was offered this wonderful option, and I could not resist.  Chipotle is the one fast food I can eat and feel good about the origins of my food.  According to a statement on their "Food With Integrity" web page, Chipotle supports and sustains family farmers who respect both their land and animals.  Whenever possible, Chipotle uses animals raised without synthetic hormones.  SCORE!  The company also tries to use organic produce whenever possible.  Currently, 40 percent of the beans they use are organic (I wonder which kind- black or pinto?) I truly admire the lengths to which Chipotle goes to respect people, animals, and the environment.  I also respect the deliciousness that is BARBACOA.

The spicy shredded beef is my absolute favorite meat!  I have experimented with many different combinations, but for the best taste I go for a burrito with barbacoa, black beans, corn salsa, tomato salsa, cheese, sour cream, and lettuce.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it!  This is the exact burrito I ordered on Monday, and I could not stop thinking about it all morning. Of course, this made the morning last FOREVER.  When 12:10 finally hit, I sent my kids outside and raced to the lounge.  There, sitting in a bag amongst burrito bowls and tacos, sat a shiny silver foil-wrapped burrito with the name "Brenda" written on it in black marker.  Life was good.  I sat down with excitement in my eyes and took my first bite.  Something wasn't right.  Then it registered, and I exclaimed, "THIS IS CHICKEN!"  Chicken.  Flavorless chicken.  My lunch was ruined.  I ate the burrito the whole time thinking, "This next bite with have flavor."  Nope.  It never happened.  Needless to say, I was peeved about this mix up, and I will  think twice before ordering next time.  I can't think of a time I'll ever want to waste $7.00 and 1,200 calories, yet that's exactly what I did yesterday.

What's your favorite Chipotle combination?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Favorite Grocery Store

This weekend Kyle and I headed south to St. James, Missouri to spend the night at my parents' cabin in the woods and help them cut down a Christmas tree. We left right after work last night- I skipped out of work at exactly 4:15. I couldn't wait to get out to the country- gravel roads, no television, stars, snow, and my favorite part of it all: I-44 Surplus.
My mom and I discovered this store about 2 years ago and have been obsessed ever since. Imagine if everything in your grocery store was on sale- majorly on sale- like 40 to 80% off everything. Well, that's what this store is like! The first time my mom and I went to the store, we started in the bread aisle. We looked at the prices and thought, "NICE!" Then we walked a little further and saw even more incredible prices which is when I asked my mom, "Is this a food pantry?" The food was so cheap I thought it had to be some type of charity. Turns out, it's not a charity, but more of a 'scratch and dent' type of store. The prices are low because the box might be a little smashed in a corner, a can might be dented, or something might be expired. I try to stay away from the expired food, but I don't mind if the box to my granola bars is a little smashed. Of course, sometimes there is nothing wrong with the packaging at all- it's exactly as you would find it at Whole Foods!

The merchandise at 1-44 Surplus changes every day. There's a variety of everything from all food categories- cookies, cereal, soup, pasta sauce, tea, granola bars, cleaning supplies- everything. I never know what I'm going to find and since I buy mainly organic food- it's a complete treasure hunt. There's nothing better than finding a $7 bottle of Nature's Gate shampoo for $2.99!

With the store being so far away, I only hit it up once every few months and I buy a lot. Today I purchased 76 items for a grand total of $101.55. The most I have EVER spent at the surplus store, but also the most I have ever gotten. Here's a small selection of the items I purchased today.

Udi's natural artisan granola $1.99- I'm excited to eat this on top of yogurt for breakfast! Chocolate galore- all fair trade and organic: Theo vanilla milk chocolate 2oz. 75 cents, Dagoba dark 2 oz. 75 cents, Divine milk chocolate with spiced cookies 3.5oz. $1.25, Here's a few more REDONKULOUS prices: Late July cookies 39 cents, Pacific Organic soup $1.25, 1 oz. Justin's almond butter 20 cents, Traditional Medicines Breathe Easy Tea $2.75, BreathSavers 39 cents, Annie's Organic Macaroni and Cheese 99 cents. SCORE!
Cleaning supply action. Both my dish soap and glass and surface cleaner were $1.79 each- a savings of almost $2 on each of them from full price at the grocery store! It's pretty obvious why I love 1-44 surplus! Have you ever been to a 'discount grocer' like this?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Spreading Holiday Cheer and Calories

This time of the year is full of holiday parties. As part of my recent transformation from child to adult, I've had to bring food to these events. At first it was a daunting task- I'd sit for hours flipping through my Martha Stewart cookbooks trying to find a recipe that would impress everyone. The problem was- I could never decide. That's when I called in for back-up: mom.

I need only tell her the type of event and the size of the group; she in turn provides me with at least three different ideas about what to make. Notice the word, make as opposed to 'buy' which is not allowed in my family. This year, my mom gave me some ideas for my work holiday party, but I didn't want to make them- I specifically wasn't excited about her 'bacon-wrapped water chestnut' idea (even though they are delicious!). So I thought back to my favorite appetizer when I was growing up- you know the one you stood in front of all night and chowed down on, you know when you were socially awkward and probably had braces. Was that just me?

The food that kept me planted in front of the buffet table was my mom's crab rangoon dip with Parmesan wontons. It's my favorite! So I made it this weekend to share with my coworkers, and it was a HIT! Here's the recipe; it's adapted from the cookbook: Saint Louis Days Saint Louis Nights.

Crab Rangoon Dip with Wonton Chips

3-4 tbsp. melted butter (the real stuff!!! I used organic)
20-30 wonton squares
grated Parmesan cheese (can anyone find this organic? I haven't been able to)
8 oz. package of cream cheese (I used full fat and organic)
2 tbsp. milk (I used 1% and organic)
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
6 oz. crab meat (I used Geisha brand from the can- it's already cooked!)
1 tbsp. parsley flakes
sweet and sour duck sauce (this probably negates all the organic ingredients, but oh well!)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Put foil on a cookie sheet then brush butter over the sheet.
3. Cut wontons in half, place on the cookie sheet. (Interesting pattern optional)
4. Brush wontons with butter, then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
5. Bake in the oven for 6 minutes or until they begin to brown.

6. Let them cool on a paper towel. They should be crispy!

7. Soften cream cheese in the 'wave for 1 min, or until soft.
8. Add milk and garlic powder, stir until well-mixed.
9. Drain crab meat. Rinse with water, then pat dry with a paper towel.
10. Mix crab meat and parsley flakes with the cream cheese mixture.
11. Spread dip in a shallow (maybe 3/4 to 1 inch deep) serving dish.
12. Pour a thin layer of sweet and sour sauce on top.

Doesn't the finished appetizer look delicious? I could seriously eat this picture! This dish received so many compliments and tons of people wanted the recipe. I plan to make this recipe 3 more times before the holiday season is over- Christmas party, Christmas Eve, and Post-Christmas Party. Can't wait to share it with friends and family.

Gift Wrap Challenge

Did anyone else sell wrapping paper in grade school as a fundraiser? Remember the sample squares in the back of the catalog? They were so shiny and some were even textured! I couldn't get enough of those sparkling perfect squares covered in penguins, pine trees, and the occasional Menorah. Even these days I walk past the gift wrap in Target and think, "Glittery sparkles! So metallic!" The thought of giving gifts wrapped in such beautiful paper gets me all excited. Then I think about the environment. My guilt kicks in. According to one website, the average waste caused by holiday wrapping paper is 8000 tons. That's way too many elephant-sized wrapping paper balls going to the landfill. Too many for me anyway. So this year, I have challenged myself to use non-virgin material to wrap gifts for my family and friends. Here's what I've found to wrap with in the office closet: gift bags, boxes, tissue paper, ribbon, and bows. Throw in a little newspaper from the garage, and BAM! You get the presents above! All of the material they are wrapped in is reused! Well, except for the gift tags, I used those sticky tags charities always send because hey, they're already at my house and the only way to get rid of them is to use them or toss them. I'll use 'em. I've already decided to be 'that girl' on Christmas morning saving ribbons, bows, and bags. Dare I save wrapping paper like my grandma used to? Find out on December 26th! : )

Question.... Do you have 'wrapping paper' guilt the way I do?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Calling All Math Geeks

Standing by the copier one day at work, I heard a coworker say, "This looks awesome." As a person wanting to be awesome, I said, "What is?" It was *drum roll please* CALCULATOR MAGIC. I have no idea how this works, but it blows my mind. Give it a try:

1. Using a calculator, punch in the first three digits of your phone number (Not area code)
2. Multiply by 80
3. Add 1
4. Multiply by 250
5. Add the last 4 digits of your phone number
6. Add the last 4 digits of your phone number again
7. Subtract 250
8. Divide by 2

Crazy, right? Anyone know how it works?

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Is that? Could it be? SWEET POTATO PIE! Kyle whipped up this sweet potato pie almost from scratch (re: crust is store bought). He followed the Sweet Potato Pie recipe from his new cookbook and used his birthday sweet potato. First he cut up the beast of a potato and boiled it.
After the potatoes were soft enough- think mashed potato soft, he took a masher to the tatoes and voila- mashed sweet potatoes!!!
Then he FREAKED OUT because we were missing two of the ingredients, crystallized ginger and dried sweetened pineapple rings. After a panic attack, he drove to the store, got them, and came home. Then, panic attack take two: he put them in the food processor and instead of being diced into tiny pieces as the recipe suggested, they were mixed into a sticky mess. Enter: B to the rescue. I took the mixture off the crust, and we started over with the ginger and pineapple. This time actually cutting them into teeny tiny pieces. Here is a picture of 1/2 cup ginger and 1/2 dried sweetened pineapple spread along the bottom of the crust.
After the ginger and pineapple were in place, the sweet potato mixture was poured on top. The pie was put into the oven for 15 minutes without the crust covered, then 15 with it covered, and finally, it was time to put the marshmallows on. This is my favorite part because it's as close to decorating the pie as you can get! Then pie went into the oven for 20 more minutes. It came out with perfectly brown marshmallows (see beginning of the post). Impressive, huh?
The pie's been out of the oven for at least an hour, so, of course, I've already had a small piece. Before I give my review, I should say that I loathe ginger. From the moment I bit into a massive chunk of it at P.F. Changs when I was 14 and told my mom, "It tastes like I'm eating a candle," I have despised ginger. Now that you know my life story, I can say: the ginger ruined this pie. It was too strong and overpowered all of the other yummy tastes- pineapple, crust, sweet potato, lightly-browned marshmallow. I wish I could say I was able to appreciate those tastes, but no such luck. If Kyle would let be rip out this recipe from his book, I would. Maybe I could just go through the book and cross out the word "ginger" on every recipe?

Going to work out for the first time in a week- wish me luck!

Feathered Christmas Trees, Glittered Ornaments, Green Wreaths- Oh My!

Is it just me or are Christmas tree lots one of the most depressing sights of the holiday season? All of those innocent trees, drying out in the cold winter air. I can't help but think of how many won't fulfill their purpose of bringing holiday cheer and will instead be turned into mulch. I also think of all the gasoline that was used to haul them from where they were grown- way up North- to that lot in front of my local Wal-Mart. If I'm not a fan of tree lots, I must like artificial trees. Not a chance. With their perfectly formed branches and pre-strung lights, they have very little character. Not to mention artificial trees take a gajillion years to decompose in a landfill. YUK!

I'm actually a fan of Christmas tree farms. I love walking through rows of trees. Picking out that 'perfect' tree and cutting it down makes me appreciate it that much more. Plus, all of the trees that don't get chosen at the Christmas tree farm get to live through the winter to continue being part of an eco-system. Think of all the birds that will build nests in their branches? To be honest, we aren't even putting up a tree this year. It's a combination of a. it costs money, b. the dog's would tip it over multiple times a day and eat the ornaments, and c. no kids would be around to enjoy it. But if we were to get a tree, we would scout it out and cut it down ourselves.

While I haven't gotten a tree, I have put up all of our Christmas decor- two Santas, a candle holder, and five ornaments. As an avid garage saler, I have over the years literally seen a TON of Christmas crap for sale in people's garages, on their front lawns, and in the gyms of various churches. There is so much Christmas decor out there for sale on the cheap. The majority of it is tacky, but some of it is cute. Thus, I made an oath to myself and to the environment a that I wouldn't buy a single item of Christmas decor new- ever. I did this is a. to save money and b. to keep junk out of landfills (not to mention all of the pollution caused by manufacturing!). I'm happy to say- I've been true to my oath. Sure, all of the shiny, sparkly, trendy decorations at Marshalls and Target are tempting, but their true 'cost' is not worth it to me. And that's how I keep holiday decor cheap and eco-friendly!