Saturday 28 January 2012

Knit One, Purl One

Both of my grandfathers learned to knit in school.  Back then, knitting, sewing a basic seam, sewing on a button, and making a buttonhole were all considered essential life skills, and were taught to schoolchildren as soon as they had developed the manual dexterity to manage the tasks. 

Things have changed.  There are many skills that we pass on to our kids now that didn’t even exist when my grandfathers were in the primary grades.  The number of hours in a school day haven’t changed much so, in order to accommodate new curricula, some things have to be let go.  Needs are constantly reassessed and, as a result, knitting and hand sewing now have little place in the elementary school classroom.  This is as it should be.  We want our children to be well prepared for the world they’ll face when they leave school, not the world as it was two generations ago.

By the time I reached elementary school, children were no longer taught to knit at school.  My grandfathers no longer knit on a regular basis (although both were well able to unknit the worn heels from their work socks and to turn a new heel in their place).  For both of my grandmothers, though, knitting was an almost daily activity.

When I was seven, my Grandma Routley taught me to knit.  She showed me how to get started, and how to make a knit stitch, a purl stitch, and stockingette stitch.  Under her supervision, I cast some stitches on my needle and began to knit my first scarf.

My goodness!  How that first scarf frustrated me!  As I worked, my scarf grew more and more narrow.  I dropped stitches, my tension changed, I put my knitting down in mid-row a couple of times and then resumed knitting in the wrong direction.  In exasperation, I threw it aside and didn’t attempt to knit again for years.  My grandma was disappointed but she told me that, one day when I was ready, I'd pick it up again.

My grandmother was right:  I did eventually return to knitting.  It took until I was in my thirties, but I did go back to it.

When I was in my thirties, I went to work at an answering service.  It was one of those jobs where you have brief periods of intense activity interspersed with long periods of boredom.  Fortunately, although we were expected to stay at our desks so that we could respond quickly to any calls that came in, we were allowed to occupy ourselves with other things during quiet times.  I became a letter writer, I read a great deal, and I re-discovered knitting.  

I taught myself knitting largely from books, but I also had the good fortune to have two coworkers who were lifelong knitters.  With their help, and hours and hours of practice, I became a proficient knitter.

When I quit smoking, I was especially grateful for my knitting skills. I quit during the bad old days when smoking was socially acceptable.  Workers had ashtrays on their desks and people smoked in almost every public space.  Smoking and nonsmoking sections in pubs and restaurants were coming into favour but were far from universal.  My husband is a smoker and so were many of my coworkers.  I had smoke all around me, all the time.  

I needed a substitution activity to keep my hands busy so that I wouldn’t light a cigarette, and knitting became that activity.  I knit at home, I knit at work, I knit in pubs and restaurants, and while I was visiting with friends.  My family was well outfitted with sweaters, scarves, mittens, and blankets by the time I finally kicked the habit.

Sadly, not long after I kicked tobacco, my knitting habit kicked me.  I developed tendonitis in both of my wrists.  Then I injured my right elbow and shoulder.  Knitting—such a pleasurable pastime in my life to that point—became a source of physical pain.  I stopped knitting, but I missed it.

Over time, I’ve resumed knitting.  I limit my knitting to short periods of time, interspersed with other activities, but it’s been a joy to pick up the needles again.  Knitting is now one of many “busy hands” activities I look to when I’m watching TV, waiting for appointments, or visiting with friends.  

Knitting allows me to feel I’m doing something productive even on low energy days.  It's a calming activity too:  What could be more soothing than the sound of knitting needles clicking together to a quiet count of knit one, purl one, knit one, purl one?

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Rabbie Burns Day

Today is my sister’s birthday and the birthday of one of my grandsons.  That’s cause enough for celebration at our house.  Worldwide, though, people of Scottish descent have another occasion to celebrate:  Today is Robbie (Rabbie) Burns day.

Robert Burns is considered by many to be Scotland’s greatest bard.  His first book, "Poems- Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect - Kilmarnock Edition" was published when he was 27, and within weeks he was propelled to national fame, becoming known as the Ploughman Poet. 

Although his poems are well known and oft-recited, the folk songs Burns collected (and sometimes  revised, expanded, and adapted) for the Scottish Musical Museum are considered to be his greatest achievement.  In total, it’s believed that he contributed more than 200 songs to the collection (1/3 of the entire collection) and edited many more. Many of the songs he collected had been part of the culture for centuries but only as a verbal tradition.  Until he recorded them, they'd never been written down and had he not compiled them for the museum's collection those songs might well be lost to us now.

Burns’ personal life was colourful.  He was the son of a tenant farmer and grew up in poverty.  He laboured hard on the farm and the harsh conditions left him with chronic health problems.  Besides writing, Burns attempted and failed to continue running the farm after his father's death, planned to emigrate to Jamaica but then changed his mind, and worked as an excise man.   He was a heavy drinker (some say alchoholic) who fathered 12 children—6 illegitimate—in his 37 years.  His last child was born the day of his funeral. 

There’s some speculation about the manner of Burns’ death.  Some documents say he died of rheumatic fever, others that he died from an infection arising from a tooth extraction.  However he died, he left behind him a body of writing that uniquely portrays the Scottish culture.  

A few years after his death, a group of Burns’ close friends held a memorial dinner on January 25th (Burns’ birthdate).  Over the 19th and 20th centuries, a cult of personality grew around Burns and the tradition of the Burns supper was widely adopted.  Scots carried the tradition with them when they emigrated.  Robbie Burns day is now celebrated the world over. 

Despite its growth and travels, the basic format and menu for the Burns supper remains unchanged: 

The chairman makes the opening address.  A few welcoming words are said and then the Selkirk Grace is recited.
The company are asked to stand to receive the haggis. A piper then leads the chef, carrying the haggis to the top table, while the guests accompany them with a slow handclap. The chairman or invited guest then recites Burns' famous poem “To a Haggis” with great enthusiasm. When he reaches the line 'an cut you up wi' ready slight', he cuts open the haggis with a sharp knife.
 It's customary for the company to applaud the speaker then stand and toast the haggis with a glass of whisky.[1]

The Burns Dinner menu traditionally includes:

At our house, we’re more likely to celebrate January 25th with birthday cake than haggis but we do pause a moment to think about our Scottish friends and family, to extend a wish for a happy Burns’ Day, and to raise a glass in honour of our Scots heritage.

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught
For auld lang syne.

Image source:

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Cloth Napkins

Ours is not a household that stands on formality but we do eat our meals at the dinner table, and we do use cloth napkins. 

We eat at the table because we believe that mealtime is not only about eating but also courtesy and good company.  A meal takes time and effort to prepare.  Both the food and the person who cooked it deserve to be shown the respect of focusing our attention on the meal as it’s presented.  While we’re enjoying the meal we can also take the opportunity for some conversation.  It’s a great time to reconnect with one another and to discuss the events of the day.

We use cloth napkins because they’re more practical than paper, and more pleasant to use.  We started the habit years ago out of concern about the amount of paper waste in our household.  We gave it up for a while when I discovered that the cloth napkins that went out of our house in lunch kits were not coming back, but that's no longer an issue so we've returned to using them. 

We’re trying hard to cut expenses wherever we can and paper napkins are certainly something we can do without.  I know that the cost associated with laundering cloth napkins must be taken into consideration, but it’s not like we’re doing extra loads of laundry to accommodate them.  We’re just adding napkins to the laundry we already do.  We’re saving money by not purchasing paper napkins at the store and we’re reducing the amount of waste that leaves our house, eliminating not only discarded napkins but also their packaging from our trash.

There are some factory-made napkins in my linen drawer.  Most of them came to us as gifts or were included with tablecloths I’ve purchased over the years, but the majority of our napkins are homemade. 

Because we’re not a formal household, I have little need of white linen or damask.  I make our napkins out of all sorts of fabrics.  Well, all sort of fabric prints anyway:  I try to stick to pure cotton or a cotton/polyester blend for the fabric itself because, once they’re preshrunk, they’re easy to launder. 

I source the fabric for my napkins from thrift stores (cool vintage prints can often be found there), remnant bins at fabric stores, and from old sheets here at home.  I make them in two sizes:  Dinner napkins that are sixteen inches square and cocktail napkins that are twelve inches square. 

To save time measuring, I’ve made templates for both sizes of napkins.  I just trace around the templates and cut along the lines with a rotary cutter.

My napkins are hemmed by hand but machine hemming would work perfectly well too.  It’s just that, like knitting, hemming napkins is an activity I do while watching TV, sitting in waiting rooms, or visiting with friends. 

To make my napkins, I cut out a square that is 1 inch bigger on each side than I want the finished napkin to be.  I fold the edges over 1/4 inch, pin them in place, and then iron along the folds.  I fold the edges over the same amount a second time, pin them in place, and iron along the folds again.  Once the second fold has been pressed into place, I make a simple running stitch near the inside edge of the hem and secure the corners of the napkins in place with whip stitch. 

These simple napkins are surprisingly durable.  We’re still using some that I made more than twenty years ago.  They add colour and variety to my table settings and fabric feels far more pleasant to the touch than paper would.  

Perhaps I’ll give some napkins or tablecloths as gifts this year, or use them as wrapping for other kitchen items.  They’d make wonderful hostess or bridal gifts. 

I’ll have to give that some thought.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Feeling the Rain

"Some people feel the rain, others just get wet."
-Bob Marley

I live on Vancouver Island, on BC's west coast.  The town I live in receives less rain than any other on the island but still, if you live here, you learn to live with wet weather.

Even though we may complain about it, island folk learn to love the rain.  The rain provides us with a topic of conversation and blesses us with green.  Green defines our part of the world.  From moss clad tree trunks to lichen beards on big leaf maple trees it is the colour of the west coast.  Skies may be grey here but, even in the depths of winter, the grass is always green--and rarely covered with snow.

We have enough rain here that every man-made structure not regularly scoured bare turns green.  Pavement grows moss.  Roofs grow moss.  Walls and even windows grow moss, mildew, and lichen.  We joke that if we stand still for long enough, we'll grow moss and roots too!

Anyone who spends any amount of time outdoors here owns a good set of rain gear and an umbrella, which is not to say that we don't get caught without them often enough to know what it feels like to get soaked through to the skin.  We rarely stop what we're doing or change our plans because of wet weather.  We know that rain is a blessing.

Our mild, wet weather brings us a longer growing season than that of many other areas at our latitude.  It sustains a rainforest that provides a home to an astoundingly diverse range of living things.  It provides us with a wild food banquet right at our doors, year round.  It raises river levels so we can be blessed with abundant salmon and with fresh water fish.  It provides us with a wealth of potable water and excellent growing conditions for our crops.

I love the rain.  I love all the things it brings us.  I look out my window in wet weather and give thanks for our soft landscape of greens and greys, and for the opportunity to enjoy the quiet beauty that surrounds us every day.

Please be respectful of my work.  All the photographs in this post are protected by copyright and may not be used without my written permission.  

This post is linked to {Simple Things Sunday}, hosted by {The Simple Things).

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Remembering a Homesick Friend

Chinese New Year is next week, on January 23.  It's got me thinking about a Chinese friend of ours who came to Canada as a student more than a decade ago, and boarded at our house for a year after he arrived.  

When he first came to stay with us, our friend spoke very little English.  Everything around him was new and strange to him.  He must have been scared to death.  

Despite homesickness and the formidable language barrier, our friend completed the two-year ESL program in just eighteen months and went on to get a Bachelor of Commerce degree by the time he was twenty-two.  He then returned to China, to work for the company that employed his father as a factory manager.

Our Chinese friend opened a door for us, helping us toward an understanding of his culture that we would never have attained without him.  This seems a good time to revisit a piece I wrote about him all those years ago. 


We have an international student boarding with us this year.  It's our first experience as hosts and we're learning as much or more than our student is, I'm sure. 

Our student is an 18-year-old boy from the city of Huan Yan in the province of Zheziang, China.  He's a nice boy: polite, studious, gifted with a wonderful sense of humour, and very brave.  I say he is brave because, just weeks out of high school, he has traveled thousands of kilometres from home to a place where everything--language, customs and even food--is unfamiliar, with no prospect of going home for at least a year.  I'm not sure I could do it. 

We have been very concerned that our young charge might be homesick but, whenever we question him about it, he tells us "I am not lonely. I have you!"  He is incredibly curious about all aspects of our life and he spends a lot of time in the kitchen asking me about ingredients and getting me to teach him how we prepare our meals.  Like most 18-year-old boys, he is always hungry.  He tells me that, when he goes home, he wants to be able to tell his mother that he can cook Canadian food.  My friends are pretty amused by that because, so far, he has learned to make perogies, borscht, colcannon, cock-a-leekie soup, German sweet-and-sour cabbage, and a variety of Italian dishes.  I point out to them that all these things are Canadian because the single common factor uniting most Canadians is that we (or some recent generation of our family) are from somewhere else.

Because of our boarder's interest in cooking, I am ashamed to tell you that I didn't realize how very much he missed the tastes of home.  He admitted on his first day here that he had never before tasted western food or eaten with a fork and yet it still didn't click with me how much he must be longing for the kinds of meals he was accustomed to.  We have hot soy milk and steamed buns or rice porridge for breakfast at least once or twice a week and I try to take him shopping with me so that he can point out to me the fruits and vegetables that he likes to eat, but it's not enough.  I know this now because we went to the library together this week and, out of curiosity, I took out every book on Chinese cooking that they had on the shelf.  Our friend got very excited and, as he leafed through them, kept exclaiming "Oh!, I am so hungry!"  He pointed out each dish he was familiar with and explained when and why they eat it.  We have decided that, from now on, one day each week will be "Home Day" and I will learn to prepare a different Chinese dinner for each of these days.

Of the books we took from the library, our student's top choice was "The Complete Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking," by Kenneth Lo, Deh-ta Hsiung, Nancy Chi Ma, Mary Ma Stavonhagen, Julia Chi Cheng, and Kitty Sham (Octopus Books Limited, 1979).  It contains a lot of information about Chinese history and customs along with detailed instructions and wonderful pictures.  The pictures are especially important to someone new to English language and cooking terms.  We begin our culinary journey together this week, using this book as a guide.  I may never get to China but I am bound to understand their culture a little better as the journey continues, and our young friend may feel just a little less homesick. 

Friday 13 January 2012

Folded Heart Bookmarks

Did you know that although origami is an ancient art, much of its development has occurred within the past 100 years or so?  Me either.

Because paper is so fragile, it’s not possible to know exactly when origami originated but the earliest unambiguous reference to a paper model is in a short poem written by Ihara Saikaku in 1680 CE.  The poem describes paper butterflies in a dream.  

Origami butterflies were used to celebrate the bride and groom at Shinto weddings.  Poems and pieces of origami representing grave goods were thrown onto cremation pyres.  Both of these Shinto ceremonies date back to the Hiean period of Japanese history (794 to 1185), so it’s possible that origami originated as early as the 8th century. 

That’s a very long time ago!

Over time origami evolved and became formalized, with the development of specific designs used specifically for different ceremonies and occasions.  It continued on in that tradition until the 20th century.

In the early 1900’s Akira Yoshizawa and other artists began creating original origami works and diagramming their folds.   Those diagrams and other innovations led to an origami renaissance.   By the mid-1900’s origami was popularized outside of Japan and it has been developing as a modern art form ever since.

Traditional origami often included cuts, but modern innovations in technique changed that.  By the 1960’s and 70’s cuts were unnecessary and a distinction was made between origami (paper folding with no cuts) and kirigami (paper folding with cuts).  Modern origami artists do not cut the paper in order to make their designs.

The 1980’s saw the rise of technical origami.  Paper folders began systematically studying the mathematical properties of folded forms, leading to increasingly complex designs.  This trend continues into the present day but the past decade has seen many origami artists return to simpler forms.

There’s a lot of origami on Pinterest right now.  (Don’t you love Pinterest?  So much inspiration there!)   I’m a complete origami novice but I think many of the pieces pinned are quite beautiful.  They inspired me to learn more about what origami is, and eventually to try a project myself:  A folded heart bookmark by Sweetstuffcalledlove.

The bookmark tutorial is presented in a series of photos, with diagramming added.  I’m a very visual person so that works well for me.   The instructions are clear enough that I made the first heart in minutes.  The ones I made subsequently went even more quickly.  They were such fun that I made a whole stack of them to enclose in my valentine cards.

I used  4-inch squares of paper to make my bookmarks so a single sheet of 12-inch scrapbook paper yielded 9 folded hearts.  They’re not only simple, but inexpensive too! 

Go ahead!  Have fun with this project.  If I can make it, you can too.  :^)

Wednesday 11 January 2012

A Valentine For Grandma

Gracious!  It's been several days since I posted here.  Sorry about that!  I've been busy over at Aunt B on a Budget.  I'm back now though, and I thought I'd spend some time talking about paper crafts.

Time spent working with paper is happy time for me.  I have a huge stock of it and I'm always happy to go play.

Valentines Day is made for people like me.  It's all about the cards and about bold reds and pinks and rich, voluptuous chocolate browns.  Who would not be cheered by those colours?  I mean, really.

The original design for this card was taught to me by a local Stampin' Up demonstrator, Sharon Annis.  She teaches monthly "stamp camp" classes, where a group of women get together and make cards.  I love stamp camp.  I get to learn new crafting techniques and to spend time with a fabulous group of interesting and intelligent women.

Sharon has kindly consented to let me show some of my adaptations of designs she's taught in class.  This is one of them. Sharon made this design for Thanksgiving.  I've adapted it for Valentine's Day by changing the paper and by using a photo instead of a stamped image.  (I didn't use traditional Valentine's colours, I know, but I'm kind of a rebel that way.  ;)

The captions for the card are easily made in "Word."  You can size them as you wish and use whatever font you prefer.  I used 24 point "Dear Teacher" font.

This would make a wonderful card to send to Grandma.  If you subbed in a photo of yourself playing peekaboo, you could give it to your sweetheart.

To make the card, you'll need:

  • 1 piece of 11 x 4-1/4 inch card stock
  • If the card stock has a different pattern on each side, you'll need a second piece of card stock that measures 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 inches
  • 2 pieces of contrasting card stock, each measuring 3-3/4 x 4 inches
  • A portrait photo measuring not larger than 3-1/2 x 3-3/4 inches
  • A caption piece that says "Peekaboo!" printed on white card stock
  • A second piece of white cardstock, 3-1/2 x 3-3/4 inches, printed with "I Love You!"
  • A small piece of craft foam
  • A glue stick or some double sided tape
  • A bone folder or a sharp tipped device you can use for scoring paper (I use a metal knitting needle)
  • Scissors
  • A pencil
  • An eraser

Place the paper so that it is oriented with the 11 inch edges at the top and bottom and the 4-1/4 inch edges at either side.  Score the paper vertically 2-1/4 inches from the left edge and again at 5-1/2 inches from the left edge.  Fold it as shown below.

If your card stock has a different pattern on the back, turn it over and set the smaller piece of card stock in place as shown below.  The pattern facing up on the smaller piece of card stock should match the pattern on the front of the card.  Check to make sure the larger piece of card stock can still be folded with the smaller piece in place.  You may need to trim the smaller piece.  I ended up taking off about 1/16 of an inch.  Once you're sure it fits, glue the smaller piece of card stock in place.

Turn the card back over and fold it closed to check that you've placed the second piece of card stock correctly.  It should look something like this.

Set the card aside.

Place the two rectangles of contrasting card stock on your board. Glue the photo to one rectangle and the inside caption to the second.  My photo was square and I chose to set it off center.  You can center it if you think it looks better that way.

Turn the piece with the photo over so that the photo is face down.  Mark a line 2 inches from the left edge of the card.  Apply glue or tape to the area on the right side of the line.

Attach the photo piece to the card, lining up the pencil line with the first fold line.  No glue or tape should be showing.  When the card is folded closed, it should look like this:

When the card is opened at the center but has the first fold folded back, it should look like this:

You, of course, will not have writing on the back of the photo piece.  :)

Fold the card tightly shut and hold it in place.  Use a sharp pencil to mark the placement of the top right and bottom right corners of the photo piece.  The pencil marks don't show up well in the picture, I outlined them in black and added arrow pointers so you'll know where to mark.

Open the card.  Check to ensure that the pencil marks are dark enough for you to work with.  Glue the inside caption piece in place, aligning it inside the pencil marks

Close the card again, to ensure that the outside photo covers the inside caption when the card is closed.

Set the card aside again.

Trim around the "Peekaboo" caption to make a small rectangle.  Lay the caption piece face down on a piece of craft foam and trace around it with your pencil.

I used a scrap piece of foam.  Sheets of craft foam are usually available very inexpensively at dollar or discount stores. I use it often when making cards so I always have it on hand.

Cut the traced piece out, cutting inside the lines so that the foam rectangle is slightly smaller than the caption piece.

Glue the foam piece onto the caption piece.

Apply glue to the back of the foam, turn the caption piece over and place it on the front of the card.  I placed mine in the top corner so that the child in the photo would appear to be looking up at it.  Use your judgement about where it looks best on your card.

Erase any visible pencil marks.

You're done.  Pretty cute, isn't it?  The opened card will look something like this:

Have fun with this project.  I'm sure that whoever receives it will be delighted to get such a personal memento.

Thanks again, Sharon, for the inspiration.  :)
card stock:  K&Company, Kimberly Hodges collection

This project appears on the Think Pink Sundays link party at Flamingo Toes, Craft-O-Maniac Monday Link Party,  Made by You Monday on Skip to My Lou, and Things We Love for Valentines Day by Family Fresh Cooking.

Friday 6 January 2012

Some People Are So Clever!

Not unlike quilters who sport buttons or wall hanging saying "She who dies with the most fabric wins," enthusiastic crafters tend to accumulate a lot of craft materials.  Trends change rapidly so we learn from experience that when we see something we can use at a reasonable price, we should buy it and put it away for future use.  It's not likely that we'll see it again.

All of those craft materials can take up a lot of space and, because of their unusual sizes and shapes, it can be a challenge to store them in a tidy way that also allows them to be easily accessed when we're ready to use them. Shifting my craft space into another room has re-emphasized this for me, and also reinforced the need to put all my materials in order.

I was very pleased to see this post on organizing scrapbook supplies from the Creating Keepsakes Blog.  Some of the ideas are really good.  I will, for sure, be using pants hangers to organize my ribbon spools from now on!
Photo source:

Thursday 5 January 2012

Holy Moly! What a Mess!

I'm reorganizing my craft room.  Sounds innocuous enough, right?  Well, let me tell you:

I decided a couple of months back that I wanted to switch our second bedroom into the room which is currently my craft room and my craft room into the room that is currently our second bedroom.


Well, it has to do with watching TV.  The bed in the second bedroom sits parallel to the dresser where the TV rests, rather than being perpendicular to it.  Since I don't share my husband's taste in TV programming, I do most of my TV watching (and reading and noodling on my computer) while curled up on that bed.  It gives me a crick in my neck if I watch TV for too long, even when I prop my pillows up in the corner where the bed meets the wall.

I debated long and hard about this change because I'm a sprawler.  I tend to spread my work over every available surface.

The second bedroom is smaller than my craft room.  If I leave things as they are, there's no way I can arrange the bedroom furniture in such a way as to allow for more comfortable TV viewing.

If I switch the rooms around,  I'll have the space to watch TV more comfortably but I'll also have less square footage for crafting.  I generally need every square inch of work space I can find, plus a little more.

I think I've worked out a solution to my dilemma:  There's enough space in the larger room to accommodate the bedroom furniture, including the TV, and to hold my paper storage cabinets.  If I leave the paper storage where it is (well, at least in the same room), the smaller room will accommodate my computer desk, my work table and some of my craft supplies.

Additional shelving is definitely included in my future plans for both rooms.  In the meantime, though, there's the physical reality of moving stuff from one room to another and both rooms contain a lot of stuff.

When I decided upon this plan, I failed to consider three things:

First, the floor space in these two rooms comprises about 25% of the total space in our apartment.  Displacing the contents of the two rooms while I switch them around means we effectively lose the use of half of our living space.

Second, the contents of both rooms needs to be sorted through and purged.  Logically, this is the best opportunity I'll have to undertake such a project, but it's time consuming and the resulting disarray is causing us a fair bit of stress.

Third, it's incredibly hard to get any creative work (or even creative thinking) done in the midst of such a mess.  As sprawling a worker as I am, I need a background of order and routine in order to do what I do.

I still think switching rooms is a worthwhile project.  I still think that when I'm done I'll be using both spaces much more effectively.  I still think that lightening our load and thus freeing up some space is a good idea.  It's just that the work itself has left me tired, dusty, a little discouraged.

Today I took some time away from my big switch in order to go foraging for inspiration.  I visited several thrift shops and to my two of my favourite building salvage yards.  I looked through racks of bedding and table linens, stacks of dishes, piles of trays, and about a ton of furniture, doors, windows, cupboard fronts, cabinet hardware, and old light fixtures.

I know.  More stuff.

But, surprisingly, none of it came home with me.  Just the process of looking, of handling different materials, of shifting through piles was enough to re-start my creative process. You don't need to physically own something in order to carry it home.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Vegetable Bean Soup with Parsley and Chive Dumplings

This soup, in one form or another, makes a regular appearance on our dinner table. It's more a technique than a recipe; a means to make something comforting and nutritious while using up what we have on hand.

The dumplings are an optional extra but they're like the icing on the cake.  They transform a simple soup into a comfort food classic.

There's a bonus at the end of this recipe too:  I baked the left over dumpling dough into biscuits that I put into the freezer for another day.  There's a yummy breakfast in our immediate future!

To make the soup, you'll need:

  • 1 to 2 litres of stock (I used homemade vegetable stock but any chicken, ham, or beef stock—either homemade or from a box—will work great too.)
  • 2-1/2 cups total of a variety of vegetables, either cooked or raw (I used raw onions and celery and cooked potatoes, carrot, and spinach this time)
  • 1-1/2 cups reconstituted dry beans (I used chick peas this time)
  • Spike seasoning or herbs and garlic

Sauté the onions, celery, and garlic (if you're using it).  Add the stock and any other raw vegetables.

Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the vegetables are about half-done.

While the soup is cooking, mix the dumpling dough.  To make the dumplings, you'll need:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons each chopped fresh parsley and chives
  • 4 Tablespoons cold butter, cut into slices
  • 1 cup milk

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.  Add the herbs and toss to distribute them through the flour mixture.  Use your hands to work the butter into the dry ingredients, breaking it down into cornflake sized pieces, as you would for biscuits.

Mix in the butter to make a stiff dough.

When the vegetables in the soup are starting to get tender but still have some bite, taste the stock and add a generous amount of seasoning.  Remember that you're going to add more vegetables and the beans.  Once you've adjusted the seasoning, stir in the cooked vegetables and the beans.  If the soup looks like it needs more liquid, add it at this point and re-adjust the seasonings.  Heat the soup until it returns to a simmer.

Using two spoons, drop pieces of the dumpling dough onto the surface of the simmering soup.

Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and let the soup simmer for 20 minutes.  Don't open the pot while the dumplings are cooking.  When the dumplings are cooked, they will look something like this:

Remove the dumplings to a plate, ladle the soup into serving dishes and then top each dish with one or two dumplings.  Serve immediately.

This dumpling recipe makes at least twice as many dumplings as shown here.  Since the dumplings in the post were more than enough for the two of us, I baked the rest of the dough as biscuits.

To make the biscuits, drop the dough onto a buttered baking sheet.  Bake the biscuits at 400˚F for about 15 minutes, until they're cooked through and lightly browned.

Serve the biscuits hot or let them cool on a rack.  If you're saving them for later, store them in an airtight container or ziplock bag and reheat them before you serve them.
This post is linked to the Gallery of Favorites hosted by 21st Century Housewife and Premeditated Leftovers and to Delicious Dish Tuesday, hosted by Coping with Frugality.

Gallery of Favorites

What We Spent

With prices on just about everything increasing at the same time many peoples’ wages are decreasing, lots of folks are struggling to make ends meet.  They’re cutting their variable expenses in whatever ways they can.  For many, reducing variable expenses means cutting back on grocery spending.

Part of my reason for starting “Aunt B on a Budget” was to stimulate discussion about how families manage their food budgets.  I know that I’m finding managing our grocery budget to be a real challenge and I know that many of you are too.  How do you eat nutritious meals when you have less money to spend?

I’ve been posting a “What We Ate” blog every week or two showing our breakfast and supper menus.  I thought it might give you an idea about how we’re managing our food budget.  I also promised a list of our expenditures.

I plan my meals and chart my expenditures from Monday to Sunday, so my budget rarely runs from the first to the last day of any given month.  This budget period covered five weeks, from November 28 to January 1.  It does not include dining out (which comes from our entertainment budget), household supplies like paper goods and cleaning supplies, or personal care items.

I’m not off to a very auspicious start with my planning, having exceeded the month’s budget by almost $25.00.  I knew I was over budget for our groceries this month because the grocery money envelope was almost empty by the middle of the week before Christmas.

As discussed in my last "What We Ate" post there were several reasons for my budget over-run.  I'd used a lot of fresh tomatoes despite the fact that they're not in season, dairy prices have gone up yet again, we'd treated ourselves to both a steak dinner and a rotisserie chicken, and we'd had company.

Whatever the reasons for the near-empty grocery envelope, with five weeks in this month's grocery budget and both Christmas and New Year's Even falling within those weeks, I had to figure out what we were going to do to bridge the gap until the end of the month.  In the end, I amended our menu plan to use more food from our pantry and freezer.  We also chose to pull money from our entertainment budget and apply it to our grocery budget instead.  I'm glad we did.  It allowed us a few holiday season treats.

Our grocery expenditures for this five-week period totaled $174.23 and they break down like this:

  • 3 x Good Food Box - $30.00
  • 2 x 900 gram/1.98 pound packages aged cheddar cheese - $15.90
  • 1 kilogram/2.2 pound package shredded mozzarella and edam cheese - $13.95
  • 3 x 750 gram/1.65 pound packages cottage cheese - $16.38
  • 3 x 675 gram/1.49 pound packages vanilla yogurt - $7.41
  • 200 grams/.44 pound brie on sale @50% off - $2.49
  • 2 x 4 litres/1.06 gallons 2% milk - $8.70
  • 1 kg/2.2 pounds brie - $15.99
  • 250 millilitre/.53 pints heavy (whipping) cream - $1.69
  • 1 bunch of chives - $1.97
  • 1 bunch of parsley - $0.79
  • 1.47 kilograms/3.24 pounds fresh tomatoes - $6.45
  • 1 English (seedless) cucumber - $0.97
  • .626 kilograms/1.38 pounds red cabbage - $1.37
  • .35 kilograms/.77 pounds red onion - $0.68
  • 1 bunch fresh spinach - $1.27
  • 2.44 kilograms/5.75 pounds rutabaga - $1.24
  • 2 x 3 kilogram/6.61 pound boxes Japanese mandarin oranges - $11.98
  • 2 heads of cauliflower - $2.97
  • 1 lemon - $0.47
  • .335 kilograms/.74 pounds carrots - $0.95
  • .96 kilograms/2.14 pounds green cabbage - $1.67 
  • 1 rotisserie chicken - $7.95
  • .64 kilograms/1.41 pound rib steak (on sale 30% off) - $5.92
  • 4 sausage rolls - $5.64
  • 4 x 398 milliliter/14 ounce tins chili style baked beans - $4.72
  • 1 kilogram/2.2 pounds dried chick peas - $1.76
  • 1 dozen croissants - $5.99
  • 2 x 750 gram/1.65 pound boxes of Cornflakes (with a $1.00 coupon for each) - $3.94
  • 700 gram/1.54 pound box Rice Krispies (with a $1.00 coupon) - $2.97
  • 1 liter/2.11 pints organic beef stock - $0.99
  • 3 x 2 liter/2.11 quart bottles soda - $2.64
  • Sales tax - $1.28
  • Bottle deposit - $0.60
  • Recycle fee - $0.18
  • Subtotal: $189.87
  • Less gasoline rebate coupons redeemed - $15.64
  • Total after gasoline rebate coupons - $174.23

Although we did go over budget, I still think we did pretty well this month.

I’m interested to know how other people are managing in these challenging times.  Any tips you’d care to share will be welcomed.

Spaghettini alla Ceci

I don't love Rachel Ray's afternoon talk show but I used to be a huge fan of "30 Minute Meals."  I learned this recipe from that show, jotting it down on the back of an envelope which is still tucked into the covers of one of my cookbooks.  Because I use the recipe so often, the envelope is tattered now, and splattered with bits tomato and olive oil.  We still enjoy this dish every time I make it.

Rachel called for canned chick peas in her recipe and I'm sure they're fine, but reconstituting dried beans is always less expensive than using beans from a can. 

Since it takes as much time and effort to cook a large quantity of dried beans as it does a small quantity, I cook a whole bunch at once and freeze the extras until I'm ready to use them.

To reconstitute dry beans, begin by sorting through them to remove any pepples of discoloured beans.  Rinse the remaining beans under cold water, then put them in a large measuring cup or bow.  Cover them with at least double their volume of cold water.

Let the beans soak overnight.  They'll increase in volume by a surprising amount.

Drain them and put them in the slow cooker.  Cover them with more cold water or vegetable stock and, if you wish to, add some carrot, tomato, onion, garlic, or thyme to the pot.  (You can use any or all of these but, since I was not sure what recipes I'd be using the beans for, I chose to leave them plain; just covering the beans by an inch or so with cold water.)  Don't salt the beans.  Salt makes them tough and they'll take forever to cook.

Cook the beans until they tender.  Times will vary according to the type and size of the beans you're using and how long they've been stored. 

Once the beans are cooked, drain them and let them cool.  Store them in airtight containers in either the fridge or freezer until you're ready to use them.

To make Spaghettini alla Ceci, you'll need:

  • 375 grams/13.25 ounces whole wheat spaghettini
  • 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Red pepper flakes to taste (These are optional.  Rachel used them, but my husband doesn't care for them so I don't use them.)
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 cups reconstituted chick peas
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dry thyme (I was out of thyme so I used poultry seasoning this time.  It worked fine.)
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock (I used homemade, but stock from a box is fine too.)
  • 1- 398 milliliter/14 ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 handful of chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Grated Parmesan to pass at the table
Boil the water for the pasta and cook the spaghettini to al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, place the chick peas in the food processor and pulse grind them to a fine chop.

Heat a large pot over medium heat.  Add the olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes if you're using them, and the garlic. Sauté the garlic for a few seconds, then add the chick peas, and the thyme.  Continue sautéeing for 3 to 4 minutes. 

Add the chicken stock and cook it down for 30 seconds or so, then stir in the tomatoes. 

Once the tomatoes are heated through, taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning.  Drain the pasta and toss it with the sauce.  Let it cook for another minute or two.  

Transfer the pasta to a serving dish and top it with the parsley.  Serve it immediately.  Pass the Parmesan around with the dish.

This recipe makes far more pasta than the two of us can eat at a single sitting.  Fortunately it freezes fairly well.  I let the leftovers cool and then package them in freezer safe, microwavable bowls. 

I defrost each portion in the microwave until the pasta is heated through, stirring in a little extra tomato or stock during the last minute of reheating.