Monthly Archives: September 2011

Dinner is served

Have you ever struggled to decide what to make for dinner? Well, today’s post has two Design Vocabulary terms that should change the way you ever look at dinner again. We’re talking about two very different styles of serving dinner in the last two centuries and what prompted the change. But first, I have a guest hostess helping me with this post…

A most important introduction

Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Isabella Beeton:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Her husband was a successful publisher and in 1861, Mrs.Beeton published her own book with his firm. The Book of Household Management, more commonly referred to a “Mrs. Beeton’s”, was a best seller from its first publishing well into the 1920’s.

While there is now detailed evidence to suggest that many of her 100+ pages of recipes and much of her detailed household advice came from others, including her own servants, there is no question that her book was ground breaking as “a guide of reliable information for the aspirant middle classes”. In short, she was THE original Martha Stewart.

Mrs. Beeton is helping me today by supplying most of the images in this post from the many editions of her book. Like Martha Stewart, Mrs. Beeton included beautiful displays of finished recipes in her book to inspire her readers. While some of her dishes may seem a little frilly or even impossibly over dressed to our eyes today, the images provide valuable insight to what was stylish and desirable to hostesses of earlier eras.

And oh, sooooo many dishes were needed! Let’s grab a seat at the table to see what’s going on…

À La Française

Pronounced “ah-la-frawn-SAYS”, this was the style of serving dinner for many centuries across Europe. What was once the style of dining for nobility and the aristocracy had trickled down from the Middle Ages to be common in all middle class homes up until the mid 19th century.

The goal for this serving style was to show a bountiful display of food which, in turn, attributed wealth and hospitality to the host and hostess. This is the most important thing to remember about the “à la française” dinner service. The show of the food for the guests was essential.

To this end, multiple dishes of food were prepared, well beyond the quantity that would seem appropriate to us today. A dinner for six to eight would require a minimum of four courses and include the following quantities of food.

First course: (on the table when the guests enter the dining room)

  • Hare soup
  • Pigeon bisque (soup)
  • Oysters
  • Oyster sauce
  • Cod’s head and shoulders
Second course:
  • Boiled turkey
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Asparagus tips
  • Saddles of mutton
Third course:
  • Cheese fondue
  • A joint of beef, garnished with pasta
  • Spit-roasted ham
  • Two salads
Fourth course:
  • Covered cream pie
  • Punch jelly (from a jelly mold)
  • Brace of partridges
  • Warm paté
While you may not recognize the names of some of the above dishes, you can certainly see how much food this is for only eight people. And this isn’t a menu for a big Saturday night dinner party, either. This would just be a husband’s business or networking dinner party on an average Wednesday.

All of the dishes in each course would have been carefully and symmetrically put on the table simultaneously by servants, so as to show off the quantity the food. There is a whole separate list of rules about where on the table which food could and could not be placed in relation to other foods. It’s enough for a whole other post on this topic, but just take it from me, it is quite fussy.

Then the food would be carved, plated and served to each guest by the host and hostess at the heads of the table and passed to each guest’s place by other guests. This often meant that your portion of food did not arrive on your plate warm, but this was the norm. Did I mention the garnishing? Well, you can’t just place pork chops on a large platter! You have to dress them to look extraordinary:

It was not expected that everyone eat or even sample every dish placed on the table, but that the guests could pick and choose to suit their own tastes. You can probably imagine the havoc this could wreck on a household budget. We take it for granted that our food costs today will be significantly lower than our housing costs. In 19th century Europe, those household budget percentages were much closer together.

To make ends meet, a good mistress used what we all use today to make her food budget stretch further. Today, we call them “leftovers”. In fact the most common household family/non-dinner-party meal of Victorian England appears to have been nothing but creative courses of leftovers. The average middle class family was said to enjoy only three “fresh”/new dinners a week. There were even popular recipes in ladies magazines with detailed instructions on disguising the leftover dishes in ways that a hungry husband won’t complain about them.

Now imagine being a household cook, “below stairs”.  You must have your recipes memorized because “Mrs. Beeton’s” is really for the mistress of the house to read and use to direct the servants. At every meal, you must time all the dishes of each course to be served together.

Then, while preparing the next courses you must wait to see if the family and any guests at least try all of the dishes, thus proving them to be appetizing and therefore good work to your boss, the mistress of the house. A good cook was the pride of any Victorian household staff and a very highly coveted commodity among ladies of society.

Soooo much work for everyone from the servants to the guests, and so much money spent! When a change from this very expensive dinner service arrived, it caught on fast.

À La Russe

Pronounced “ah-la-ROOSE”, this “new” style of dinner service first made its appearance around the 1830’s when a Russian prince began entertaining guests in his Paris apartment in the style of his homeland. (“Russe” is the French word for “Russian”.)

Paris and its social elite quickly adapted this dining style as their own. And since Paris was the fashion and diplomatic center of the world in the 19th century, reports of the style soon spread to other world capitals. The actual arrival of this dining style in Washington D.C. (at The White House, no less!) was the talk of the town. By the late 1880’s, the “à la Russe” service was considered standard everywhere.

You, dear reader, are already familiar with dining à la Russe. See if this sounds familiar:

  • You enter the dining room and are seated at the table
  • The table features a decorative centerpiece
  • After all the guest are seated, the first course is served
  • The first course consists of the same dish, on identical plates, served to all of the guest at the same time by servants
  • All subsequent courses are served to and cleared from guests directly at their seats, by servants
  • There is no quest for symmetry in the placing of dishes on the table
  • Large dishes requiring carving or complex serving are kept on a sideboard (or buffet, as we call them today)
  • Large dishes on the sideboard are carved by servants so that each guest could choose their own size of serving
  • No serving of food arrives at your place setting cold
  • Desserts are placed on the table to tantalize you as you make your own dessert selection

Of course, this is the way we all dine in nice restaurants today, although the dessert course is now often represented in pictures in some restaurants. I’ll bet most of you serve your family dinners and your large holiday meals this very same way, too. So what was the attraction to such a huge change so quickly? A most basic reason: it was much cheaper.

The “à la Russe” service is estimated to have cost the host and hostess one-third of what the same dinner would have cost them in the “à la française” style. There was no more need to fill the table with so many dishes that may or may not be eaten. The dishes served need not be filled to the very rim with a large quantity of food either. And no one was suffering over the leftovers for the rest of the week.

Hello, new customers!

It wasn’t just the middle class household budget that appreciated this dining change. The manufacturers of tableware were delighted at all the new possibilities and took great advantage of them. Whole new lines of silver cutlery and tableware were created to serve the “à la Russe” dinner service.

The “à la Russe” table now has a much more visible service, since we removed all of those overflowing dishes of food. You can’t just get by with a simple colored tablecloth anymore. You need a beautiful embroidered one or a luxurious damask one or something in a delicately printed silk…

What are you going to put in the center of the table now? You could easily place lovely dishes and compotes of the dessert course fruit out to bring some delicious color to the center of attention. (See the photo above for examples.) Indeed, when “Mrs. Beeton’s” finally resolved itself to this new normal, the later editions even offered some inspiration for mixing in fruit and flowers. (Now you know where your great-great-grandmother’s silver centerpiece bowl comes from…)

Have you ever eaten with a salad fork? They never existed before the “à la Russe” dinner service. The same can be said for the soup spoon, the fish knife, the oyster fork, the cake fork, the egg spoon, the iced tea glass, the iced tea spoon, the mayonnaise ladle, the lemon fork, the olive fork, the sugar spoon, the asparagus serving fork, the ice cream cutting knife, the ice cream fork, the jelly scoop, the salt spoon, the tomato server, the bon bon tongs, the “one tine butter pick” and dozens of other rather expensive yet very specific utensils that are now (mercifully) no longer quite so in demand. And now you know why we dine like we do.

It’s feeling a lot less difficult to figure out what you’re serving for dinner tonight, isn’t it? Do you think you could prepare a meal worthy of Mrs. Beeton’s? This British couple didn’t think so…

…but then one day they decided to clean out their basement. You have to see it to believe what they found! You can read the full article with fantastic pictures right here.

So, what’s for dinner at your house tonight? No, seriously! Leave your dinner plans in a comment and let’s compare how we all eat in our homes today…minus all those servants!

Savor: Cinnamon Chocolate Chip Cake

This recipe is tried and true in our home. I stumbled upon it a few years ago in a catalog from a spice company I adore, Penzey’s Spices. I’m not lucky enough to live near one of their locations, so when their catalog comes in the mail it is kinda like the Dinner Inspiration Fairy landing in my kitchen. Do any of you live a Penzey’s Spices store location? Those stores must smell heavenly!

There is something about Fall weather that makes me want to bake. (Did I mention how much I love Fall?) Cooler weather outside and savory and sweet smells coming from our kitchen just seems to warm my soul. And nothing smells quite as delicious as the smell of cinnamon being baked into a cake wafting all over the house. Cinnamon is one of the smells realtors often recommend using for enticing buyers during home tours. Homemade desserts = Happy home.

Image courtesy of vegetarian-nutrition.info

So here is a favorite cake recipe of ours from Penzey’s. It has cinnamon AND chocolate baked into it. (You’re welcome!) It makes a great dessert and it can also work as a great coffee cake, in case you really need an excuse to eat cake for breakfast. I won’t argue with you.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) or 120 mL of butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups  or 295 mL of sugar, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup or 235 mL of sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon or 5 mL of pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups or 470 mL of flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons or 7.5 mL of baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon or 5 mL of baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon or 2.5 mL of cinnamon
  • 1 (12 oz. or 342 grams) bag of chocolate chips

Preparation

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F/ 180 degrees C/ Gas mark 4 in the UK ( I can’t let a little math stand in the way of sharing cake!)

Grease and flour a 13 inch x 9 inch baking pan, then set it aside.

In a stand mixer or using a hand mixer in a bowl, combine butter, 1 cup (235 mL) of sugar and the eggs. Beat until light and fluffy.

Add the sour cream and vanilla, blend throughly on low.

In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda. If you don’t have a sifter, you can fold air into the mixture using a whisk.  Just make sure to “fold”, not “stir”.

Add this dry mix slowly to the beaten mixture.

Pour 1/2 of the batter in to the grease and floured baking pan.

In a separate bowl, combine the remaining sugar and cinnamon.

Pour half of the sugar-cinnamon mix over the batter in the pan.

Top with 1/2 of the chocolate chips.

Pour remaining batter over chocolate chips in pan. Layer the batter with the remaining sugar-cinnamon mix and top it with the remaining chocolate chips.

Bake for 30 minutes. Only 30 minutes!

Let the cake cool in the pan on a cooling rack.

This cake serves great with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Whipped cream looks more responsible when you eat this cake for breakfast. Plus, you can also use the cream in your coffee. Just sayin’.

This whole recipe takes only 15 minutes to prep and 30 minutes to bake. Delicious cake in under an hour?! You cannot go wrong with this recipe. It serves 12, unless you make a “terrible cutting mistake” and “accidentally” cut larger pieces. I understand this tragedy happens in many homes…including my own.

Do you have a favorite cinnamon recipe? Does anyone ever sprinkle a little cinnamon their coffee? I’ve heard this is a great tip, but I’ve never tried it. What spices mean “Fall is here!” in your home? All tips and recipes are welcome, please leave a comment!

Accidents happen…

…especially if you have pets.

I am a big fan of pets. Huge! My local ASPCA uses the lovely phrase,  “Discover the warmth of a cold nose.” and I couldn’t agree more. I talked about great online pet supply sources clients have recommended in a post last week. Today, I’m back with a tip I give my clients for handling a common household issue that comes with our furry family members.

Image courtesy of p49gar.com

Awwwww! Happy animals make me smile! If only they could talk in a language I could understand. Okay. Back to my point…

If you have four-legged pets, you may be familiar with the household issue I was referring to. It looks a little bit like this:

Yep.

As an interior designer, these types of pet stains cause the same kind of unhappy surprise and general need to yell that they do when you find them in your home. (Which is hopefully not while you are in your bare feet. Been there.)

I have a solution for you. This solution works for…well…let’s call them “upset tummy” accidents, “liquid” accidents and “solid” accidents. You know what I mean. And don’t worry. I’m not showing any pictures of the two most icky types of accidents in this post. Use your own imagination or experience.

There are two issues that we need to solve in the clean up of this situation. It only takes two steps, but the second one is almost always forgotten:

The Stain

This is the most obvious problem to solve. I hardly need to tell you to clean up the “solids” first. If you need to soak some of the solids out off a carpeted surface, use water to loosen them. Do Not rub a carpet to get a stain out. Just keep flushing the surface until all the solids have been removed.

If you are dealing with a liquid stain, first blot the surface with a paper towel. To do this:

  • Place a large wad of paper towels over the stain then press down on the paper towels with the palm of your hand.

  • Keep pressing in different places on the paper towel to make sure you cover the whole stain’s area. Your paper towel will soak through, just keep replacing it until there is no more liquid to soak up.

The Smell

This is often the skipped step in dealing with ALL pet stains and it makes a big difference. Whether you are dealing with a solid or a liquid stain, you should never skip this step.

It is important to remember that our pets’ sense of smell is multiple times more powerful than our human sense of smell. Ridding our homes of the smell for us is not the same as ridding the stain’s smell for our pets. More importantly, if our pets can still smell where a stain was, they often take it as a sign of the right place to…leave a stain…again.

To battle this risk, this is our secret weapon:

White vinegar, which has no color, is a green cleaning solution that many  people already keep in the house. It can be used on solid and carpeted surfaces. (Although, if you are worried about rug/carpet discoloration, you can always try this solution in a discreet corner of the rug.) Vinegar is cheap and a wonder at getting out smells.

Here’s how to use it against pet stain smells:

  • Pour one half cup of white vinegar into a 1 cup measuring cup.

  • Fill the rest of the measuring cup with room temperature water from the faucet.

  • Pour the water/vinegar mixture over the stain and let it sit for 30 seconds. Then blot all of the liquid up with paper towels, just like you did with the original stain.

  • Allow the stain to air dry.

Easy, right? You can even teach children to use this technique. I learned how to do this when I got my puppy as a little girl. It’s a great way to teach pet owner responsibility and you can relax in the knowledge that the cleaning agent is non-toxic to your kids, your pet or your floors.

If you like this tip, you’ll love the “pet vs. furniture” tip I’m writing for a post next week! Be sure to check back! If you have a question about solving other furnishing stains/accidents, leave a comment below. How can I help you solve a troubled “spot” in your home? (Had to use that pun somewhere, sorry!)

Coffee not included

Whenever I work with clients, using either my local design services or my online design services, I always make sure we look at how the room we’re working on is really used. It will probably come as no surprise to you that the most lived in room of most houses is the family room, or whatever room is near to kitchen and houses the largest tv in the home.

In my experience, that hardest working piece of furniture in that hardest working room is not the sofa. The sofa is generally used just one way, for sitting or lounging. The hardest working piece of furniture in a family room is the coffee table. Does that surprise you?

Image courtesy of Room and Board

Coffee tables often substitute for all sorts of flat surfaces homes. It can serve as:

  • A place to keep magazines and the tv remotes
  • A causal dining table in front of the tv
  • A counter to serve snacks from
  • A desk to do homework
  • A substitute ottoman to put your feet up on
  • A surface to fold laundry on
  • A desk to write bills
  • A play surface for games and toys
  • A shelf to display personal mementos
  • A table which helps keep things from your pet
  • Storage for household items: games, books, blankets, pillows, etc.

Oddly enough, using a coffee table for serving coffee rarely makes the list of duties for the average coffee table these days. So, what if you could find a coffee table that could serve more of those varied needs, beyond being just a flat surface?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “The Pop-Up Coffee Table”:

Does that blow your mind? I find many of my clients have never heard of this lovely concept and cannot live without it once they do. The “lift top” of this type of coffee table creates a perfect desk, dinner surface, homework spot and gaming table, while also allowing you to really get at your storage space in the table…without having to stand on your head.

There are lots of models available in many stores to match any decor or room style. You just have to ask for look for “pop-up coffee tables” or “lift-top coffee tables”. Here are a just few examples:

All of the coffee table images in this post, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of coffeetablesgalore.com. As with all furniture purchases, I urge you to look for good construction and sturdy hardware for a smart choice that will live well in your home for many years.

What do you think of this type of coffee table? Could you use one in your home? Did you have something to add to my list of ways people use their coffee tables? Do you use your coffee table for coffee? Leave a comment!

Re-booking your travel

We talked last week about great uses for old maps as an art idea for  your home. (You can read that original post right here.) Today, I’m going to show you a step-by-step guide for using your old maps to dress up the book shelves in your home.

I have used and taught this D-I-Y technique with several clients. I love it because it helps cut down on household clutter and the supplies are probably already in your home…making this project (potentially) FREE.

Intrigued?

Let’s start with this problem:

Guide books. Very useful, but what do you do with them when you are back home? Do you put them up on your bookshelf as a great memory? Do you put them on your book shelves with plans to re-use them on your next trip to that destination? Or do you save them to recommend favorite places to friends? Most people do one, if not all of these things. Those are some of my guide books in the picture, so I’m in the “most people” demographic, too.

Most people also have a lot of paper maps left over from their travels. Some of them have matching area guide books, some of them don’t. We’re going to use the old maps to carefully cover our guide books and make them look more interesting and sophisticated on our books shelves. Here are the supplies you’ll need and which you probably already have:

  • Guide books (any size)
  • Paper maps (which don’t have to match the guide book locales)
  • Pencil
  • Ruler and/or yard stick
  • Paper folder (totally optional, but handy)

For the purposes of this little tutorial, I’m going to use a guide book and a map that cover the same area of the world:

You can use any paper map on any book, though, including maps that don’t match the guide book or even non-guide books. But I use this technique mostly for guide books, since you can use the maps to identify the book’s subject matter easily after it’s flashy, colorful spine is covered. Let’s get started…

First, open up your map and decide what area of the map you want to be the front cover of your book. I always avoid the map legend and start with a corner edge because that means two sides of our book cover are already cut evenly.

I want the map of England to cover the front of my Great Britain guide book, which takes up most of the bottom right corner of the map. But I will have to measure and mark the map before cutting it out to the right size of paper. So, I’ll flip the bottom right corner over…

…and will now do my measuring and marking on the “back” side of my desired cover image.

Next, I need to measure my book and adjust those measurements onto the map for cutting.

The height of my book is 8 3/4 inches long. However, I will need extra length on the map cover so I can fold over the paper at the top and the bottom, making a sturdy edge. So, I add 2 1/2 inches to both sides of my 8 3/4 inch book height and…

…mark the edge of the map at 13 3/4 inches.

Now I need the total width of the book, so I open the book up and measure the two sides and spine as a total measurement. Can’t forget the width of the spine!

This measurement comes out to be 11 1/4 inches, but again, we want a sturdy edge on this part of the book cover so I add 6 inches to the total measurement, knowing that 3 inches of map will fold over the book cover on each side.

I also add an extra 1/2 inch to the total measurement, because a book spine is designed to flex and my map cover need to move with it. The extra 1/2 inch will give it the flexibility it needs. If my “guess-stimate” of 1/2 inch of give is incorrect, I still have plenty of extra map on the edge of the width to adjust it later.

This brings the total width measurement to 17 3/4 inches, which I use my yard stick to measure and mark onto the bottom of the map.

The next step is very easy. Just don’t push to hard on your pencil or you can tear old, well-worn maps! I draw a straight line up from the bottom map marking….

…and a straight line out from my marking at the side of the map…

…until they connect and make a box.

These are the only measurements and markings you have to make when you start your book cover using two sides of an already-perfectly-square map. It makes it easier and it can make it faster if you are making a lot of book covers.

I double check my measurement box by making sure make sure my book centers nicely in the markings…

…which it does, so I cut out the box I’ve marked out of the larger map.

Always “measure twice cut and once” in any D-I-Y project to save yourself a headache. Here is what I’m left with…

…a perfectly sized paper cover to fit my guidebook.

Now we can channel out inner middle-school self and fold the paper to cover the book. I’m going to show you how to do this, in case you have forgotten or are reading this from a place where children don’t have to cover their school books to protect them -lucky you!-.

First, we place our guide book face up and centered on the paper, since we want the reverse side of the left side of the map to be our cover. Then we fold up the bottom of the map 2 1/2 inches and make a crease where it meets the book.

Extend the crease to make a full fold, from edge to edge along the bottm edge of the map.

Then press the crease to make it very sharp and defined. Geek alert: I’m using the edge of a Martha Stewart paper folder tool in the picture below, but the edge of your ruler works just as well, just don’t tell Martha…

Now repeat the exact same steps that you completed for the bottom fold at the top of the map: 

  • Line up the book flush with the newly-folded bottom edge of the map
  • Fold the paper down from the map top to meet the book
  • Make a crease
  • Extend the crease to a fold along the total width of the paper
  • Sharpen the fold using your ruler

When you are done the total height of the folded map should exactly match the total height of the book’s spine.

Next, we fold in the two covers. Starting with the back cover of the book, for a good reason, we fold the right side of the paper over about  3 inches and slide the back cover of the book  into the “sleeve” created but the map folding we’ve already done:

DO NOT use the ruler to sharpen the crease of this fold yet! We may need to adjust the paper after we fold the front cover.

Now we fold on the front cover, just like the back cover:

Here is where we test the 1/2 inch of extra paper we allowed for the spine flexing. Does the book close easily with the new cover on it?

No. The map paper cover is too taut.

So we go back to the back cover of the book and fold the back paper cover to be shorter, meaning a little less than our original 3 inch measurement.

We take the extra “give” from the back cover measurement because the back cover of the book is opened less and gets less wear. The front cover of any book is always opened, so we want a secure paper cover on that side of the book.

Now we try folding the front cover of the book closed again to see if it closes easily…

Success! Now look at the very  front cover of the book. Do you like how the map lines up as a paper cover? If yes, now you can go back a sharply crease the front and back cover paper fold with your ruler.

You’re done!

This is a great project to include kids on, especially if they are already pros at wrapping their own school books! Plus, getting them into the mindset of cleaning out and repurposing items as you de-clutter helps get them into healthy habits for cleaning their own rooms. (Hmmmm…this post has turned out to be a Greener Living post, too.)

Another tip: Many people have laminated or plastic covered maps, like mine below:

However, if you have one of these cards in your wallet…

…your membership dues mean you get paper maps like these for FREE:

See? This is such an affordable project!

Here’s all of the guide books as we first saw them at the top of the post:

And here they are stylishly covered in your old maps:

Don’t they look so much more interesting, yet pulled together? Here they are looking much more chic in their covers on a book shelf:

Think you can do it? Time to clean out all those old maps that have been lounging in your car’s glove compartment! You can find another great idea for them in this post.

How many maps do you have lying around in your home? Can you offer to take unused maps from your family and friends to help them clean out and keep your project free? How many books will you cover using this project? Leave a comment!

Fall-ing

Today is the first day of my very favorite season. It is pouring rain outside (sideways) as I write this to you, but I don’t mind. I spent a good part of my childhood in rainy places, so I learned at a young age to not let less-than-sunny weather slow you down. This is also one of the reasons that I love, love, LOVE Fall! Some people love Spring or Summer, but Fall makes me feel more alive than any other season.

Image courtesy of educatall.com

Fall is also my busiest time for design work with clients and I love sharing my love of the season with my clients as they prepare for holidays and their own family events. I love designing rooms but I am most grateful for the trust that my clients honor me with as I help them get the most out of their homes. And Fall is the perfect time for wonderful things in your lifestyle and your home! Here are my favorite things about Fall:

Cooking & Baking

We have lots of Fall recipes that use seasonal ingredients, Autumn-type flavors (like cranberry, roasted meats and apples) and just cosy, good food with lots of savory spices. I love the feel of a warm kitchen and rich scents filling the house in the dusk of evening. Don’t you? I have several really good recipes planned to share on the blog with you this season, too. (You can see all of the recipes I’ve shared to date right here.)

"Skillet Apple Crisp" from America's Test Kitchen. Just click the picture to jump to the recipe!

Turning Leaves

I love the variety of colors that appear in the Fall. The deep reds, rich oranges, smokey greens, buttery yellows and dappled browns of Fall foliage can be like an all-day fireworks display. Mother Nature is such a show-off this time of year and we are lucky to live in a region where we really see a lot of changes with the arrival of the cooler weather. Speaking of which…

Last year's Fall view from my desk, where I write every blog post.

Cooler Weather Walks

Cooler weather beckons us back outside in the Fall to enjoy lots of walks and local festivals. We are visiting the Baltimore Book Festival this weekend, even though there is rain in the forecast. The cooler weather is also great time to get outside on your weekends an explore all the changes to your area. Long walks in fresh air wearing a warmer coat are all you need to feel like you’ve had a break from your work week. Why not see what’s happening the FREE National Parks near you? (You can read more about this idea in this post.)

Part of a path in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC Image courtesy of the National Parks Service and your tax dollars

Special Days

The arrival of Fall marks the coming of several important anniversaries in our home. Mr. CARO and I met for the first time in Fall, we got married in the Fall and my birthday…er…”falls”… in the Fall. Taking some time out to plan little gifts, celebrations and surprises for each other is part of our happy Autumnal routine here. This has absolutely nothing to do with interior design, but I like to keep it real on this blog and that includes sharing how we really live in our own home. Real life is what we do here.

My birthday breakfast last year. All birthday meals come with candles in our home.

Cosy Bed Linens

I change out the bed linens in our home shortly after the arrival of Fall. I’m not just talking about adding blankets or changing to warmer sheets. I carefully designed our bedroom color palette to work with several shades of certain colors so we could move with the seasons. When we make this change, it really feels decadent, like we’ve had a whole room make-over to match the weather. I can do this for you, too, and you can learn how right here and right here.

Big, fluffy duvet? I'm in! Image courtesy of Pottery Barn

Sweaters

The softness of a really good sweater against your skin is one of the things I like to rediscover every year. We switch out our closet in early Fall and all the shorts and lighter tops/shirts get replaced with good sweaters. Even though I hate to stand around a fold clothes and pack them into their boxes for the other closet, getting out the good sweaters can feel a bit like Christmas morning. Especially if, like I sometimes do, you manage to forget what clothes you own from season to season. (Borderline pathetic, but very true.) “Oh, I LOVE this sweater!” is a common shriek of happiness for this ritual in our home.

Elegant, colorful, cosy. Image courtesy of Coldwater Creek

Tea & Hot Chocolate

This may seem like an obvious favorite thing. I don’t meet many people who don’t like chocolate. Have you ever experienced a rainy day where the light and the sound of the rain just makes you want to snuggle up with a cup of good tea or hot chocolate to watch a great movie or read something delicious? Fall offers a whole season of opportunities for this luxury. And speaking of reading something delicious…

This is my favorite kind of hot chocolate. You can adjust the chocolate quantity to be as strong or weak as you like it. Yum. Image courtesy of Amazon

Great Books

Just as summer welcomes the action-movie blockbusters, Fall brings all of the new books from my favorite authors. I am a huge mystery fan, especially if it is set somewhere less-known to me because I love to see how people live in different places. The quiet of Fall seems made for great escapes to the pages of a great book and I am already making a list of all that I want to read!

More sharing: My hands-down favorite author is Louise Penny, who writes a series of detective novels set in contemporary Quebec. Her beautiful settings are almost make me want to change my nationality!  Seriously, I cannot recommend her books highly enough…start with her first book, called “Still Life”, and you’ll be hooked, too.

Just out, this is #7 in my all-time favorite series of books, the Armand Gamache mysteries. Image courtesy of Louise Penny's lovely website

Holiday Planning

Lest we forget all of the fun holidays in this great season, I love the excuse to plan and make lots of lists. I’m a big list maker (try to act surprised), which has served me very well in two rather different careers. List making with a fun celebration at the end of it is a huge bonus! Costume supplies, candy treats, holiday baking, seasonal decor, gift-giving, meal planning, day trips with house guests, travel arrangements… So much list making is REQUIRED for these activities. Sign me up and I’ll be there smiling!

The more holidays, the merrier. Image courtesy of Williams Sonoma

It goes without saying that if I ever combine all of the things/activities listed above into one day, or even one weekend, which sometimes happens, I am on cloud nine. As in, my-face-hurts-from-smiling happy.

Are any of my favorite Fall things the same as yours? What do you love about Autumn that I don’t have on my list? Is anyone else craving hot chocolate right now?  What are you looking forward to this Fall? Leave a comment, please, and share!

Fur, feathers and fins

When I work with clients to design rooms for their homes, I must always think of ALL of the household residents. I interview everyone to make sure I choose furniture to the right scale, layouts to the rooms needs and fabrics to the right degree of sturdiness. I want all of the rooms I design to be really livable within their respective homes and feel like a natural extension of the client’s lifestyle.

While I want the humans to enjoy their home, I also must make sure I respect the needs of their pets for each room, too. Does your dog sleep on the sofa? Then I need to choose an easily washable fabric. Does your cat stretch out on the window sill? Then I shouldn’t block the window sill with a blind or shade type of window treatment.

Image courtesy of guzer.com

My job includes learning about the family pet preferences and making the design fit in around them as needed. For example, I had never considered all of the idiosyncrasies of kitty sunbathing until I started working in interior designs and had to understand how the sunlight tracked across a family room. As one of my mentors used to laughingly say, “Don’t be afraid of picking a rug that matches the dog hair.”

Along the way I have picked up sources for many great pet supply websites, so I thought I would share them with you today. Some of them may be known to you and others may be new. As an animal lover myself, I share out of appreciation for all the different pets I get to visit in my work. Cold nose = warm heart in my experience!

ALL PETS

These sites are great for a large variety of products for lots of different types of pets. Two of these sites also have great storefront locations in many communities.

  • Petsmart.com: A popular site great for all sorts of pets, they have great sales throughout the year that allow for significant savings for many types of pet supplies. Some store front locations also offer grooming, training and some boarding options for dogs.
  • Petco.comThis site also carries a large variety of items for all types of pets, with lots of storefront locations. They have a great online “Repeat Delivery” system of pet food and supply ordering. You list your pet’s food and supply needs and choose how often you would like to have it delivered (every month, every two weeks, your preference) and it ships automatically to you. You can adjust your products and  delivery schedule any time. Great for busy schedules!

    "Casbah Parakeet/Cockatiel Cage", available in two color options, ships FREE from petstreetmall.com

  • Petstreetmall.comThis is an online only business that caters to dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, fish and “small animals”, which translates to anything furry that scurries or hops. (Note: their reptile section is still “under development”.) They have a great policy that order over $50 ships FREE to your front door. If you have ever lugged a very heavy bag of dry dog food or kitty litter to your car, you probably already see the value in this deal!
  • Petcarriers.comThis site carries over 300 types of carriers in many sizes, including airline-approved travel bags, travel crates, pet barriers, seat covers, travel seats, pet strollers, pet bike trailers and pet bike baskets. I like that you can shop by price on this site, which can help you stay on budget without sacrificing safety features. Their products also ship within 24 hours and any order over $50 gets FREE shipping.

    "Pet Saver Dog Life Jacket", available in several sizes for only $20 at petcarriers.com

DOGS

  • Fetchdog.comThis site, created and managed by actress Glenn Close and her husband, offers a wide variety of great dog supplies for solving household problems. This is a great source for dog specific products like ramps/stairs, collars/harnesses, special feed bowls and toys for agility. This site also features a great blog and links to many reputable dog charities that welcome donations.

    This is a great metaphor for life: Some days you're the dog, some days you're the chicken. Image courtesy of dogster.com

  • Dogster.com: This site offers great health info for specific dog breeds, finding a vet, behavior/training and tips-of-the-day. I love that they also feature recalls for dog foods and products, which makes it a handy place to stay on top of health care for your canine babies.

CATS

  • Catnipstore.com: A friend of mine who used to show cats recommended this site and the site name almost says it all. In addition to their catnip and custom catnip toys, this site carries bedding and very affordable stick toys for feline friends, too. They also offer seeds so you can grow your own catnip at home.

    The kitty is thinking, "I love this shiny dish set....but why is it empty?!" Image courtesy of cattoys.com

  • Cattoys.com: This is another great resource for fun toys and health care supplies. You can also browse gifts for cat lovers, products made-in-the-USA and eco-friendly products easily. They even sell bird feeders for cats who prefer “live” entertainment…so to speak.

Birds

Have you ever decorated a room under the supervision (and comments) of a large, colorful bird? I highly recommend it. The critiques are much more fun than any tv design show competition! I have only had the privilege of working with/around (for) one parrot, but wanted I to be sure to include the great website his owners love:

  • Superparrots.com: This website has all kinds of products I never knew existed for these clever birds. I especially like the “flight suits”, which allow your parrot freedom to fly around your house with leaving any droppings (on your brand new furnishings). This site also has a great selection of specialized food, toys and health care products, complete with a “Ask the Avian Vet” email link.

    "Who's a pretty bird?!" Image courtesy of superparrots.com

So, that is my recommended list! Now I need to ask all of you: What kind of pets are members of your family? Where do they live in your homes? Do you have a favorite pet website? Share your stories in a comment below!

Read all about it

Do you read the newspaper? According to the EPA, the United States publishes 24 billion newspapers a year. That is a lot of paper printed every year!

I know we all now know enough about our ecological crisis to recycle those newspapers. There really is no excuse not to anymore. But, what if you could get more from your paper after you’ve read it, but before you recycle it?

You’ve paid for your newspapers and the trees used to make the paper have already been processed. Why not make these newspapers do more during their “lifetime” which could help cut down on other wasteful products later?

I love finding new or new-to-us ways for us all to be more green in our homes. (You can read all about my Greener Living series right here.) So without further ado, I give you…

Image courtesy of earth911.com

7 Tips to Give Your Newspaper a Workout

  • Ripen your tomatoes. Gently wrap not-quite-ripened tomatoes in a sheet or two of newspaper and let them sit in a cool, dark place, like your pantry, for a day or two. Your tomatoes will come out of the paper more ripe and easy to slice.

    Image courtesy of realsimple.com

  • Freshen-up your boots. Newspaper is a great odor absorbent paper. Stuff a roll of newspaper into your boots or sneakers and they’ll smell fresher the next time you need them. This trick also works for coolers!
  • Pack a box. Shred your old newspapers and use them as safe packing material when you need to mail a box. The box recipient can re-use your box-filler or recycle it themselves. You’ll save money on bubble paper and help keep it out of the landfills.
  • Wrap a gift. Cartoons for kid’s parties, sport pages for sports fans (father’s day, birthdays, etc.), business pages for graduation gifts, the combinations are endless. Planet-friendly wrapping that celebrate the gift recipient’s interests is thoughtful on many levels.

    Image courtesy of wanderingmist.com

  • Make a homemade craft table. Cover your kitchen table with several layers of newspaper and secure it with a good painter’s tape. Your will table be protected from scratches and spills, perfect for crafts projects for all ages. Clean up means rolling your “tablecloth” right in to your recycle bin. Use this for messy picnic table meals outside, too!
  • Clean your grill. Soak layers of newspaper in clean water and then lay the papers out flat over a still-warm grill. Close the grill lid and leave it for up to two hours. The steam of the warm, wet papers will loosen the grime off your grill.

Best of all…MOST important of all…all of these tips allow you to dispose of your now-more-well-used right into your recycling bin. No more lazy Sunday newspapers just lying around on the floor by the sofa at your house! They need to get to work!

Can you use these pre-recycling ideas in your home? Do you have other great tips for using old newspapers around the house? Does anyone ever see any “paper drives” as fundraisers anymore? Leave a comment and share!

In the bag: giveaway winner!

It’s time to announce this week’s giveaway winner!

This week’s giveaway is a set of great re-useable shopping bags. Seven of the bags are large grocery-style bags and 5 of the bags are designed for carrying produce home safely from the store or market. All of the bags are designed to eliminate the use of “disposable” plastic grocery bags as a part of my ongoing Greener Living challenge and post series.

And the winner is…Tara L.!

Tara estimates she makes 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week and feels like she is always running out for more milk. These bags will definitely have your back for hauling milk!  Congratulations, Tara! I’ll be contacting you soon via email to get your mailing address.

If you didn’t win this week, take heart! There is another giveaway coming in just two weeks. Have a great idea for a giveaway? Leave a comment below with your idea. I’m always on the lookout for great gift ideas for my readers and I’d love to know what you like!

Savoring Home: Mexican meal prep

I am a sucker for great Mexican food, which can be tricky, because I’m deathly allergic to avocado. Guacamole fans normally gasp in horror when I tell them this, but I never grew up with guacamole and I’ve never found the look of it appealing, so I really don’t feel any loss.

But, this makes ordering in Mexican restaurants tricky because I always have to worry about cross-contamination. And my allergy explanation tends to make hardworking waiters a little jumpy…like I’m a ticking time bomb they may have to try CPR on…

Mmmmmm...yes, please! Image courtesy of lunch.com

So, we make a lot of Mexican fare at home, for peace of mind. However, good Mexican food takes a lots of layering of spices and time to put it all together. I used to (in my new-to-cooking ’20’s) use the pre-mixed seasoning envelopes you can buy at the grocery store. And we all know that these are filled with not-good-for-you chemicals we can’t pronounce.

As I grew older/wiser, I searched everywhere to find a good spice combo that would work well and that I could assemble myself, allowing me to know exactly what was in it (Hint: No MSG!). After much tinkering with measuring spoons, I finally adapted a recipe of my own that really works.

I’d thought I’d share it today because it can make Mexican meals at your house faster and easier, too. We cook batches of meat (ground beef, chicken tenderloins, sliced steak, etc.) with the spices in advance and freeze the meat.

All of the spices we use are standard spices you probably already have in your pantry. Nothing new or exotic to buy. Image courtesy of ifood.tv

When we want Mexican food, we have only half a recipe to prepare. This means if we want tacos, dinner is on the table in as much time as it takes to wash and dice the produce. The same goes for fajitas, quesadillas, nachos and several baked dishes we love. Easy, satisfying and less work after a long weekday.

Sound good? I just made a batch of Mexican beef this weekend, so I can show you exactly what I mean…

Ingredients

  • 1/2 teaspoon of chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of paprika (regular type, NOT Hungarian/sweet)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
  • 4 Tablespoons of water
  • 1/2-3/4 cup of chopped onions (fresh or frozen, quantity is your choice)
  • 1 pound of ground beef, chicken, steak – any type or cut of meat you want, in a 1 lb. quantity (This recipe can double, triple, etc. easily!)

Preparation

  1. In a small bowl, mix first 6 ingredients well and set aside.
  2. In a skillet over med-high heat, brown the meat.
  3. Add onions and saute with meat until meat is cooked through and onions are golden color.
  4. Add water to beef mixture then pour spices over meat. Mix thoroughly.
  5. Lower heat and allow skillet to simmer uncovered for 7-10 minutes, while water cooks off.
  6. Serve meat immediately or freeze for later use.

We love the spice combination of this recipe, but you can always make it hotter by increasing the cayenne and chili powder or smokier by increasing the cumin a little. It’s very easy to adapt to any taste preferences. I have also used this recipe many times to make pot luck dishes very easy to assemble.

I hope this recipe is helpful for your weeknight dinners like it is in our home. Mexican food with easy prep is always a great dinner here. Do you have any great tips for easy dinner prep? Leave a comment and share your knowledge!

Looking for the giveaway winner post? It’s coming up this afternoon, so keep and eye out for it! Did you know you can follow this blog by “liking” it on Facebook or “following” us on Twitter? just use the oh-so-familiar icons tucked into the header of this website. One simple click and you’ll never miss a post!

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