August Foodie Penpals!!

It’s that time again!  Another foodie penpal box revealed!  This time Katie of 2 Peas In a Blog sent me a box of goodies. (If you’re not familiar with Foodie Penpals, head over to The Lean Green Bean for all the details…you won’t be sorry!)

This month’s box had a fun assortment of spices and baking stuff…here’s the rundown:

  • tomato paste in a tube!!!!!  I’ve seen this and never tried it, but I’m so excited to give it a go!
  • mexican drinking chocolate…I’m squirreling this away for cooler weather; it’ll be perfect this fall!
  • a grinder full of sugar, coffee beans, and chocolate!
  • some very yummy-smelling lemon seasoning
  • and silicone baking cups!!!  I’m super excited to use these!

Lots of new stuff to try!  I’m scheming a batch of cupcakes with coffee/sugar/chocolate sprinkles on their little frosted tops, and some killer turkey meatballs (with the tomato paste and lemon seasoning) for starters!

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Wheeee! Field Trip and Fall Sewing Plans!!

I’ve really enjoyed my summer sewing, but as I look at the roundup of projects, it occurs to me that none of them are particularly well-suited to colder temperatures (well, maybe the maxi dress, but I’m still not sure if that will remain “maxi” or if I’ll chop it up to knee length!).  Anyhow, between the cut (lots of sleevelessness going on here!) and the fabric (unlined quilt-weight cotton, which is not known for its cuddly warmth), I think most of what I’ve sewn in the last few months will be too light in just a few short weeks.

With that on my mind, I started to think about fall and winter sewing.  I decided that I’d like to try making some of the wardrobe essentials that  I never quite manage to buy (mostly because I’m really really picky when it comes to fit and style, but I have complete control over both those things if I make it myself!).  So I sat down with my pattern box and started scheming!  I knew I didn’t want to buy a ton of new patterns, so I limited myself to no more than two new patterns (both on the far left below).  I knew I wanted some top layers that could do double-duty as top layer and jackets.  I also have been wanting to try my hand at making pants.  And I wanted to tackle sewing a nice wool skirt.  Nothing too ambitious!  Well, a little ambitious, maybe!

After hemming and hawing (ha!  hemming!  ha!), I finally settled on six projects I’d like to tackle before next spring.  I feel simultaneously excited and over ambitious, but time will tell, I guess!

Clockwise from the top left:

  1. Colette’s Lady Grey coat, a nifty looking 3/4 sleeve (wha?) wrap coat with pretty pretty princess seams (I keep hearing how flattering princess seams are…we shall see!).
  2.  A lined blazer from Simplicity 4044.  I love the retro look of this blazer (though I will not be doing it up in anything resembling plaid!).  I have a hard time finding ready-made blazers that I love, so I’m hoping that fitting my own will produce something I’ll actually wear!
  3. Yes, another Crescent skirt (but in a fall/winter appropriate fabric).  I’m not 100% sure on this, but I think it would be fun in something like tweed.
  4. And another old favorite here, but this time I’m going to do the version with sleeves and the elastic waist (why can’t I ever make this pattern as drawn?  I don’t know!)
  5. I’m a tad undecided here…it could be either skirt, though I’m leaning toward the pencil skirt since I don’t have a single one in my wardrobe.  On the other hand, a nice A-line in wool could be all sorts of fun, too!
  6. Sewaholic Thurlow trousers.  I’ve been tempted to try making fitted pants for a while now, and these look super cute (and my experience with Sewaholic patterns has been nothing but good!).

Once I figured out generally what I wanted to tackle, I (of course!) had to buy some fabric!  One of my “complaints” with my summer sewing is that the fabric I’ve used is very, well, summery!  Which is/was great for the season, but makes it hard to wear when the temperatures cool and I’m craving warmer garments and darker hues!  (I do think my last Crescent skirt will do nicely in early fall, though…so not everything is “too summery”!).

There’s a magical mythical discount fabric warehouse on the far western edge of the outer ‘burbs called SR Harris, where they sell every fabric you ever imagined and then some (seriously, it’s an industrial warehouse jammed floor to ceiling with high-quality discount fabric).  The thing I really love is that they carry really nice apparel fabrics (think 100% wool that is soft and smooth, cashmere, coating fabrics, leather, gooooood denim, etc.).  Things that are more difficult and certainly more costly to source from my local fabric shop (which, to be honest, caters more to “craft” sewing than “apparel” sewing).

I had a list based on my pattern picks above, and I told John if he helped me stick to my list, he could buy as much windblock fleece and cordura as he liked (he makes bike-related stuff, so this is right up his alley!).  It worked really well!

Here’s what I ended up choosing for fabrics:

Clockwise from the top left:

  1. A really soft pink/purple woven 100% wool, and bright purple lining!  The wool is a loose weave, though, which I think might be a challenge to sew.
  2.  Blue & white striped rayon…it’s got a lot of stiffness to it, which I think will work well for a blazer (and I’m thinking of doing bias-cut pockets for some visual interest!).
  3. A super super soft 50% wool/50% bamboo that’s almost houndstooth, but not quite.  It’s sooooooo soooooooffffffttttttt.
  4. This portrait fabric is sooo halloween-ey, and I think with a nice plain black knit for the top of the dress, will be just the thing to wear to my halloween party!
  5. And both the pants and the pencil skirt will be denim.  I’m 100% certain on the pants, at least.  The skirt may end up being a light blue wool that I bought almost a year ago, or a fabulous yellow wool (also in the stash for nearly a year).

So, like I said, I’m excited, but I’m also a little afraid of being over ambitious.  But I’ve got my plan and most of my materials, so the only question left is: Where to start?!

Shallow Roasting 101

There is one major reason I look forward to cooler temps every fall: the return of roasting (and sweaters and boots and scarves and tolerable outdoor temperatures, oh my!).  But today we’re talking roasting!!  Honest to goodness oven roasted food is just awesome, but alas, my oven heats up the apartment so much that I cannot use it all summer (not even for emergency midnight brownies!…well, OK, maybe for that, but only once or twice all season!).

Ah, shallow roasting.  So simple (or elaborate…it’s up to you!), and so tasty.  And relatively hands-off (not slow-cooker-hands-off, but close!).  Shallow roasting is when you roughly chop a bunch of veggies and arrange them (and maybe some meaty bits) in one layer on a large shallow pan.  It’s not for making that 3 pound rump roast lurking in the freezer, but it is perfect for smaller cuts of meat, nothing more than an inch or so thick (so things like bone-in porkchops, chicken parts or butterflied chicken, and sausages). Of course you can skip the meat and just roast veggies, too!  Any way you slice it, it’s (relatively) quick, endlessly variable, and really really easy!  What’s not to love!?  (Plus, if you need a no-fuss fancy meal for company, this is your golden ticket!).

While there are lots of great recipes for making roasty-toasty goodness (three of my favorites are linked right there!), the great thing about it is that you don’t really need a recipe to get great results.  What you do need are a few simple guidelines, and some imagination.  So with roasting season coming hot on the heels of summer (pardon the pun!), I thought I’d throw together some easy guidelines for foolproof shallow roasting!

Rule #1: Pick the proper pan.

The right pan will be large enough to lay all your ingredients out in a single layer, and deep enough to corral any juices that might render out of what you’re roasting.  If the you have more than one layer, you’ll end up braising the lower layers with the juices that run off; if it’s all too crowded, you’ll end up steaming everything because there isn’t room for air to circulate.  Tempting as it may be to throw everything under the sun into one pan, you really need to exercise a bit of restraint to get the best result.  If your pan doesn’t quite hold as much as you’d hoped, split the ingredients into two pans!  On the flip side, if you have tons of extra space between everything, either find a smaller pan, or scoot it closer together into the center of the pan.

Rule #2: Concentrate your flavors.

It can be tempting to roast one of everything, and there’s nothing wrong with a cornucopia of flavors, to be sure!  But I find that being a bit picky keeps the results from becoming monotonous and dull.  It doesn’t take a lot of work, either!  When I do up a roasting pan, I try to have 1-2 different starches, 1-2 different savories, 1-2 sweet things, and some form of meat (though you can easily skip the meat if you like!).  So for example, you could do potatoes (starch), carrots & ‘snips (savories), red onions & dried cherries (sweet), and chicken.  Or sweet potatoes, butternut squash & rutabaga, and sweet italian sausage.  The combinations are endless, and the flavors in each pan are distinct because it’s not the same stuff all of the time!

Rule #3: Prep wisely.

There is a bit of preparation involved up front to make sure everything cooks at the same speed (so you don’t end up with burnt onions and undercooked spuds alongside your perfectly cooked chicken…not that I speak from experience or anything!).  The key here is to make sure everything is approximately the same proportion.

Roughly chopping all your veggies is a good start…You generally want fairly good-sized pieces (so they don’t burn), so I suggest using a “rule of thumb”: cut your veggies into chunks not longer than your thumb, and never more than twice the thickness.  Of course you can vary this as needed (i.e. I’d cut hard root veggies like spuds, swede, turnips, etc., into slightly smaller pieces than say, tomatoes and fresh fruit), but you can’t go wrong if you start with consistency!

If you’re using meat, for Pete’s sake, use bone-in (and skin-on, if poultry) or high-fat cuts to keep the meat from drying out and getting overdone.  Bone-in meats take longer to heat through and cook, which keeps them juicy, and high fat meats take a long time to render all their fat before they dry out.  Since most of the fat will render anyway, unless you drink the pan juices, you’ll never regret starting out a little on the fatty side.  This is not the place for your boneless skinless chicken breasts…they’ll taste like sawdust after an hour’s roasting.

Rule #4: Lubricate judiciously.

There’s really nothing more heart-wrenching than losing your lovely caramelized bottom bits to a sticky roasting pan (except maybe discovering your roasted veggies doing the backstroke in a pool of grease).  A little oil or grease goes a loooooooong way to making a successful roasting session!  Now, sometimes the stuff you’re roasting will render quite a bit of fat (things like pork, sausages, skin-on poultry, etc.), and that will suffice to keep the meat from sticking, but you generally always want to brush your roasting pan with a thin coat of fat (and by “fat” I mean anything from butter to bacon drippings to olive oil to whatever tickles your fancy…this isn’t complicated!) to keep the veggies from sticking.  A thin coat will do just fine.  (And don’t bother tossing your ingredients with oil…that just makes it take longer for the upturned edges to get crispy).

Rule #5: Season appropriately.

Seasoning is not really a tricky bit of roasting, but it’s often overlooked.  A little salt & pepper are par for the course, but try adding things like dried herbs (fresh herbs, with the exception of thyme and rosemary, generally just wilt and look ever so sad, so skip them in the oven and use them as a garnish) or citrus zest (or even sliced citrus fruit AND zest!!).  The trick to seasoning is to keep your seasonings from scorching.  Dried herbs, salt, pepper, etc. don’t scorch easily, but if you’re adding, say, nuts or dried fruit, try to make sure they’re tucked under or near other roasty bits so they don’t burn (or add them about halfway through so they don’t cook as long, though that is a bit fussier).

Rule #6: One hour, 400 degrees.

An hour at 400 degrees (that’s about 200 degrees Celcius) is the perfect amount of time for shallow roasting.  Everything will still be juicy and tender, but fully cooked.  The top edges will have started getting crispy and golden, and the bottoms will be lightly caramelized.  If the top isn’t quite golden enough, you can still give it another 15 minutes and not risk burning anything.  Try it.  You won’t be disappointed!

So there you have some very simple guidelines for shallow roasting!  It’s really flexible and very customizable, so try it out!  And if you need some help getting the creative juices going, try the pick-list approach…pick one or two flavors from each list below (maybe 6 things total per pan) and roast!

Starches: potatoes, sweet potatoes, pre-cooked rice, wild rice, or whole grains like barley, wheat, or rye berries (lay rice & grains down as a bed and nestle everything else on top of it).

Savories: cauliflower/broccoli (large florets), brussels sprouts, cabbage (large wedges), radishes, summer squash, eggplant, whole cherry tomatoes or halved larger tomatoes (de-seed if really juicy).

Sweets: swede/rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, carrots, leeks, onions, shallots, winter squashes, fresh or dried cherries, apricots, mango, or apples (chop up if large).  

Meats:  bone-in, skin-on chicken parts (dark meat is awesome; bone-in pork chops; sausages of any sort: hot, spicy, sweet, seasoned, etc…(cut into 2″ lengths for even cooking); butterflied whole chicken; turkey breast cutlets. 

Seasonings: fresh fruit (diced if large), dried fruit, pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, citrus zest, dried herbs and/or spices, or any spice blend. 

Summer Abundance

We’ve all been there, right?  Strolling through the farmer’s market grinning like a fool, arms aching from the gajillion pounds of peppers, tomatoes, and corn we’ve just scored for a pittance.  No?  That’s just me?  Well, OK.  That was definitely me a couple weekends ago, at any rate!  I scored a dozen ears of corn, 5 pounds of organic roma tomatoes, and 2 pounds of red bell peppers for a mere $10!

I had big plans for all this stuff, and I knew it all had to be used up before the next weekend because we were heading for Wisconsin Dells for the weekend (and anytime I am out of town for a few days, I like to have the fridge pretty well cleaned out so I don’t come home to an icebox full of ick!).  A daunting task, but I figured we could do it!

Well, the week got busy and we made only a small dent in our massive pile o’ veggies and then, suddenly, it was Friday night and we still had a mountain of tomatoes, peppers, and corn despite our best efforts.  A plan B was definitely called for!

I decided that the peppers and tomatoes would make a very nice marinara sauce if I threw them in the slow cooker with some garlic and Italian seasonings and let them stew for a few hours on high.  Then I could puree the mix and freeze it and have a bunch of pasta sauce ready to go!

One teeny weeny slight snag with this plan: my immersion blender has recently met its demise, and while I have a replacement on order, it hasn’t arrived yet.  The only logical solution was to scamper over to the best kitchen store in the metro and acquire a food mill.  Yes, yes, perfectly logical!  Perfectly!  John took a bit of convincing, but once I mentioned it could live in the canning kettle and would not just sit out when not in use, he was game!  (Someday, I will have a kitchen that fits more than just cups and plates.  Someday.)

So we filled the 6qt. slow cooker almost to the brim with the veggies, added spices and a few tablespoons olive oil, and let it cook for 4 hours on high, stirring a couple times so nothing stuck to the bottom.  Then we ran the sauce through our shiny new food mill (which worked slick as a whistle!!). When we were done, we had a lovely bright sauce cooling on the counter, and a pile of tomato and pepper skins to pick out of the mill.  Easiest. Sauce. Ever.  I sort of can’t believe I have survived without a food mill so long.

So that solved the tomato and pepper problem, but I still had a giant bag of corn staring up at me.  I decided to deal with it Saturday morning.  I thought about making corn chowder to freeze, but that would have required a trip to the grocery store, and I was feeling pretty lazy, so I decided to freeze the corn for future use.

I settled on frozen corn two ways: niblets and mini-cobs.  Niblets are awesome for thawing out as a quick side or adding to soup (either as a vegetable, or as thickener), while mini-cobs are great for griling or soup or any time you want tiny cobs of corn!

Now, before we proceed, let me tell you where I sit on the great “to blanch or not to blanch” fence.  I do not blanch corn before freezing.  You can, if you want.  But if you use the corn within 2-3 months, there’s no advantage to blanching.  If you plan to hold onto the corn for posterity, blanching it will help preserve the color and flavor so it will last for 3-6 months in the freezer.  So there you have it.  I plan to use this corn before thanksgiving, so no blanchy.

I have some sneaky tricks for freezing niblets.  The biggest trick is getting the corn off the cob!  For this, I use a mixing bowl with a non-skid bottom (or put a wet towel down on the table under your bowl…you don’t want any skidding as you’re sawing the corn off the cob with a giant knife!).  Then, flip a ramekin upside down and place it in the bottom of the bowl, like so:

This gives your knife room to maneuver.  Stick your ear of corn nose-down on the ramekin, and saw the corn off the cob. Be careful not to shave cob into the bowl (it’s edible, but a bit chewy!)  Use a large knife (I’m using an 8″ chef knife here…you want to have some substantial length to leverage, it’s just easier).  Soon you’ll have a bowl full of niblets!

Once you get all the corn off your cobs, you’ll want to fish the ramekin out of the bowl, then run your hands through the corn in the bowl to break up all the sheets (they look cool, but the tighter you can pack your bags, the less freezer burn you risk…plus it’s fun, and any silk you may have lazily missed picking off the cobs when you shucked them will stick to your hands!  double win!).

Then pack the niblets into ziptop bags!  I like to measure about 2 cups per bag because that’s about what John and I will eat in one go as a side dish or adding to soup or whatever, but if you know you’ll need at least 4 cups at a whack, measure 4 cups to a bag.  I find each ear of corn yields about 3/4 cup of niblets.  Suck as much air out of the bag as possible, and be sure to label it with the date!  Presto!  Frozen corn!  Use it the same as you would use store-bought frozen corn, but feel all awesome because you made it from scratch!

Mini-cobs are even easier to freeze than niblets!  Just cut each cob into 4 equal chunks (usually I trim the ends because the kernels can be a bit wonky), pack into bags, suck out the air, and label!  (And freeze, of course!)

And there you have it.  So next time you adopt way more corn, peppers, and/or tomatoes than you can quickly use, make marinara and frozen corn!

And, a bonus for making it to the end of this post?  You get to see the wonky siamese twin corn!!

Interface-Off.

Is it just me, or is the wild wooly world of interfacing completely baffling?

I get the difference between the main types of interfacing (fusible and sew-in) and I understand that it comes in both woven and knit (though I have yet to see the elusive knit interfacing beastie in the wild).  And I would think that would result in a fairly simple rubric of possible interfacing choices (a la Mendel’s peas…pardon me while I revisit 7th grade science class):

It should be easy-peasy (ha!  yes, I went there) right!?  But every time I go to the fabric store because I have once again run out of interfacing (by the way, where does it all go?  I can’t believe I use it up that quickly!!), there are a million billion kajillion interfacing options!  And everyone has their own preferred “favorite” interfacing that they swear up and down will be perfect for your project.  Admittedly, most of my projects requiring interfacing are waistbands and necklines, so my needs are pretty basic.  But.  It seem like my interfacing is always fighting me; either it’s too stiff and I end up with a bullet-proof waistband, or it’s too droopy.  Or it doesn’t stay fused to the fabric for more than 45 seconds.  Or it doesn’t stay where I pin it when I sew it on and makes my pattern piece a wonky shape that is nicely reinforced, but no longer fits the garment.  (OK, this last one is likely very likely user error, but still…)

And the worst bit?  I can never ever ever remember which interfacing did what because they all look alike!

Clearly I need to start documenting what kind of interfacing I’m using and what the project is and what the result was (and don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a bit of cataloging on occasion).  But surely it can’t be that complicated?!

Parlez-vous français?

(For the record, I do not speak French, but I’m not letting that stop me!)

I’ve tackled another Crescent Skirt…I loved the fit of the last one I made, and wanted something in a bit of a darker color scheme (fall is coming sometime, right?)  And I wanted to tackle zips again…glutton for punishment, I know.  Also, I needed a project to take along to the Sewtropolis Sew-cial (ha ha ha groan, I know…can’t blame me for that pun!) and the pattern was easy to hand!

I got about two hours of sewing in at the Sew-cial, which with my snail-speed sewing means I got my interfacing firmly affixed to all the waistband pieces, and got the pockets sewn on.  I decided to do French seams for the pocket  bottoms and totally fell in love.  In my quest to leave no seam raw-edged and unfinished, French seams are the perfect seam.  All the raw edges are neatly ensconced in the seam, and it lays super flat.  Love it!

The only thing about French seams is that the sewing just feels wrong, because for starters, you sew with the wrong sides of the fabric together.  Gah!  For someone who may or may not have sewn more than one seam in-side out, sewing with wrong-sides together is kind of nerve-wracking!

Gah!  Looks so wrong, but it’s all good!

All the raw edges are neatly hidden inside, never to be seen again once this new seam is sewn down!  (Also, yes, I have discovered the awesomeness that is masking tape for keeping seam allowances accurate!  It rocks!)

So neat!  So tidy!  How can you not love this?!

OK, so moving beyond the pockets…there’s a few differences between this version of the skirt and the last one.  One major difference is paying much much more attention to gathering evenly.  One thing I noticed about the last skirt I made was that the gathers sort of petered out toward the end of the gathering section because my basting stitches slipped a bit.  I figured out a handy way to fix this: wrap the tails of the basting threads on one end around a pin, like so:

This kept the gathers from slipping off toward the edge, and as I sewed along, I pulled the pin out just like any other pin (but straightened out the wad of thread so it didn’t create any strange bumps in the seams).  Took a few extra steps, but worked like a charm!  This skirt has very even gathering all around!

I also decided to top-stitch the waistband in the same mustardy gold color as the center of the flowers.  It turned out really nicely, I think!

It’s pretty subtle (which is what I was going for), AND I managed to sew in a straight line along the curved seams (yay!!)

I’m not quite done with the skirt just yet (decided to quit while I was ahead last night…I think zipper installation is best done when I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!).  I have the waistband facing left to do, the zipper, and the hemming.  I don’t think French seams and zippers are super-compatible (at least, I can’t envision how they play nicely together), so I need to figure out what I want to do for finishing the center back seam along the zipper (bias binding, maybe? or perhaps a foray into Hong Kong seams?!).  This skirt is really coming together nicely, though…I can’t wait to wear it.

And, can I just say, I love this fabric?  Purple and white and a hint of mustard are perfect together!  And from afar, it might even pass for snowflakes!  (Have I mentioned I’m ready for fall?!)

Singlespeed Schemes

A few months ago, my husband found a ridiculously low-priced (not stolen! we checked!) white Surly 1×1 frame/fork on craigslist for me (well, he found a crankset for his 1×1 that happened to be attached to a bike frame/fork, but I saw potential!  and I stole the crankset.  So there.)  But since then, I’ve gotten in a bit of a huff at my bikes (nothing like epic failure and a miles-long walk home to make one resent the two-wheeled steed), and I haven’t really ridden a bike around much since.  Which is sad.

I noticed the other day that my bikes have slowly migrated to the back of the bike room (you see, John’s bikes have been getting regular use, so they’re on top of the pile), and it made me kind of sad to see my bikes AND a bike frame languishing unused.  So I’ve decided that I need to build up the 1×1.  I may still be mad at the long haul trucker (remember the epic failure mentioned above?  yeah, me too…), but that’s no reason that the other bikes I have should go unloved/unused!  (And for those of you unfamiliar with our bike “stable”, we have 6-8 bicycles depending on what counts as a “bike”).

One of the hard/fun things about building up a bike (for me, anyhow) is deciding how I think the bike will be used when all’s said and done.  I think it’s important to at least have a game plan, since the components you need for the bike will vary a bit depending on the use (i.e. if you plan to bomb downhill on singletrack , you definitely want giant disc brakes; if you’re just going to toodle around the block to the grocery store or ride to the odd yoga class,you want a good solid rack for easy cargo carrying; and if you want to have the prettiest bike in the Twin Cities, you’re going to drop some major dough on BB (bike bling)…OK, that might be over-simplified, but hey, its my blog).

This bike, I think, shall be used for transportation.  I envision myself riding to/from places like the library, friends’ houses, the gym, maybe even the grocery store, etc.  It’ll be an all ’round getting around bike.  As such, it has a few simple needs:

  • not look too fancy (theft prevention)
  • good, basic components (see not too fancy, above)
  • ample cargo capabilities (i.e. a bag of groceries or a purse or a yoga mat should all be able to be be strapped down as a matter of course)
  • smooth-ish tires (a little tread for traction, but nothing too aggressive)
  • a space to carry my u-lock at all times (see not too fancy, above)

I do need a good bit of componentry to actually build up the bike:

  • stem
  • handlebars
  • grips
  • headset spacers & a star spangled nut
  • disc brakes
  • brake levers & cables
  • pedals
  • seat post
  • saddle (though I could just port my blue brooks around)
  • rack & maybe a collapsible basket (but they’re heavy, so maybe not)

Now that I finally have a plan, I just have to track down the parts and put them together.  That may take a bit (hey!  disc brakes aren’t cheap, and my fabric-buying habit seveeeeeeerely affects my bike-bits-buying resources!), but expect to see a post here and there as things come along.

And you know eventually I’ll get around to tackling another bike-sewing project (hopefully with less wailing and gnashing of teeth than the last one!)