Best shepherd’s pie

Shepherd’s pie doesn’t get any better than this. I craved it one day after my brother-in-law posted a picture of his on Instagram. I instantly went to Allrecipes.com, where I found this recipe.  It’s a good starting point, but let me tell you how to make it easier, and faster.

First, don’t bother peeling, cutting, and boiling potatoes to make the mashed potatoes. Simply Potatoes are absolutely delicious, made with all real ingredients, and cover the top of this pie perfectly. That’s about 50 percent of the work gone right there.

Next, the meat. Saute one pound of ground beef, or whatever meat you like. I’m sure it would taste just as good with ground lamb (which I believe was in the original, I mean really original, shepherd’s pie), turkey, chicken, etc. Dump the grease (leave about a tablespoon if you used beef to saute the vegetables) and remove meat from pan.

Now let’s talk about the vegetables. Do not boil carrots until mush. And take a look in your fridge to see what you have. I sauteed carrots (added a little water after browning them a little, covered and let them steam for about five minutes). Then I added some more olive oil, and added one chopped onion. Peas are not welcome in my house, per my son, but spinach – surprisingly – is. So I threw the rest of the opened bag of baby spinach in there too and waited till it wilted. Add the meat to the vegetable mixture.

Finally, the piece de resistance for me is Pioneer brown gravy mix. Follow the directions to make the gravy, but use the one can of beef broth called for in the Allrecipes recipe. Pour that goodness all over the meat mixture.

Spray your casserole dish with olive oil, add the meat and vegetable mixture, and top it with a layer of cheese. Warm up your mashed potatoes so they are more creamy and easier to use, and spread over the top, dropping in dollops all over the place, and mushing together with a spatula to cover your meat and cheese mixture.

Pop it in the oven at 350 degrees and cook for about 20 minutes until you get this oozing, delicious, wonderful meal. It truly is the best shepherd’s pie. Ever.

Simple gravlax recipe

I was at Monuts in Durham recently, where I had a delicious sandwich featuring house cured gravlax, creamy cucumbers, and pickled radishes (I think). I really wasn’t sure what gravlax was, but I knew it was something akin to smoked salmon — we always called it lox in my house.

Something in the back of my mind said, maybe I could do this. So I gave it a try. After analyzing dozens of gravlax and smoked salmon recipes on the internet, I ended up using this 1998 version from The New York Times. The title of the article said it all, “Gravlax Without Fear: A Stunning Dish Just Looks Hard.”

What I’ve come to find out about gravlax is there are a lot of ways to approach this piece of fish that is not cooked, but instead, is cured with sugar and salt. I went out of my way to purchase a good piece of salmon (about 1 pound) at Publix, and started the process. After I got my piece ready, I read some recipes that suggested freezing the fish first to kill any parasites that might be lurking inside. Yuk. And too late. Well, I eat a lot of sushi so I figured I’d be okay. (So far I am.)

I read you have to press the fish while it cures with a board topped by cans or something similar to weigh the fish down and help it release its moisture. I read that you cut the fish in half and press the two halves together so the skin side is up on both sides with the sugar/salt mixture in between. I read that you have to turn it several times during the curing process, which could last from two to five days. You can add vodka, herbs, etc, or you could keep it simple.

I chose to forego the pressing, the turning, and the varied ingredients (and the freezing, which I just might do for safety’s sake next time). I coated the flesh side of the fish (which I did not cut in half, by the way) with A LOT of sugar and salt and chopped, fresh dill. Then I wrapped it in plastic, and left it alone for about 48 hours. I didn’t turn it (although I probably would next time). A lot of rather thick liquid, almost like a gel, came out of the fish and into the casserole dish I was using to house it while in the fridge.

Once I rinsed off the sugar and salt, I sliced it thinly. I slathered vegetable cream cheese on a ritz cracker and laid some salmon on top. It was delicious. I ate it every morning for breakfast on a whole wheat english muffin with some capers.

If you like Nova, lox, smoked salmon, or whatever you want to call it, you have to try it.  I will definitely be making this again. However, next time I won’t be so thorough about the rinsing because it would have been a little more salty and dill-like. I’ll also layer on the dill first, then add the sugar and salt. I might even experiment with brown sugar instead of white, or sprinkling a little vodka on the fish first like they do in Norway. So many new things to try!

Drafting my own skirts

After making my own skirt sloper following the directions from SoSewEasy,.com, I decided to delve further into pattern making and signed up for the skirt sloper class on Craftsy. It’s a really good class and Suzy Furrer is a careful, thoughtful instructor.  I wanted to experiment with the different varieties of skirts featured in the Craftsy class.

After making my skirt sloper, my first attempt was a wrap skirt. Don’t ask me why. I think it was because I was afraid of zippers and waistbands. That’s a significant concern because beyond the pattern drafting, there are no sewing instructions with this class. You make the pattern and then you are on your own when it comes to constructing the actual skirt. If you’re like me, an eager beginner, you can either wing it or sign up for another class.

wrap skirtI “wung” it and made the wrap skirt. I left off the waistband, but I also didn’t give a lot of thought as to how to close the skirt. I ended up using two snaps on one side and two hook and eyes on the other. But I have nightmares that the skirt will fall off me so I have yet to wear it to work.

Zippers and waistbands

On to skirt two. It was time to face my fear of zippers and waistbands. So I decided to start with the first skirt variation that Suzy teaches and go with the A-line. Back at Craftsy, they had a new class on, lo and behold, zippers and waistbands, offered by Suzy’s colleague, Sara Alm.

It’s good, but again, not all the instruction you need if you don’t have the experience. I started with my muslin, got the invisible zipper in, but then it came time to the waistband. As you can see, I had a problem. I sewed my waistband on upside down. I didn’t know what was wrong till I posted this photo on a sewing enthusiast facebook page and they gave me the bad news. No worries. I ripped it off, flipped it around, sewed it on again and it came out okay.

bad muslin

So it was on to the actual skirt. I bought a quilting cotton at Joann’s because it was on sale, I wanted a pattern, but I didn’t want a pattern that would jam me up – something that had to be matched or anything crazy like that. Here’s where I’m at. The pink is elastic on my dress form to mark the waist. This is a drop waist skirt so I’ll be adding the waistband soon. Wish me luck!   a line

I finished the skirt. I added the waistband, made a button hole, and even sewed on the button using my machine. I’ve never done that before! But it’s no good. Because I didn’t line the skirt, it is see through. I need a slip. And it has a funny poof going on in the back. I asked the Craftsy instructor, and she told me to fix the center seam where it  met the zipper. We’ll see how that goes.

It’s not bad. I definitely need to learn more about adding waist bands and zippers. But it’s not good enough to wear to work.

Back to the sewing machine to try again

Pattern review: Simplicity 1355 Romper

I follow waaaayyy too many sewing bloggers, who really know what they are doing. They make sewing look so darn easy. Trouble is, when you’re a beginner, things that are intuitive to others, are downright confusing. Still, I like a challenge.

When I first saw MimiGstyle modeling this gorgeous jumpsuit, I put it on my to do list. Then SewCaroline showed up wearing the shorts romper that I really had my eye on. That did it. The pattern, Simplicity 1355, says it’s easy to sew, so therefore it must be!

simplicity 1355

I figured I’d start with the shorts. While I can imagine how good it would look in a rayon challis, something in me said, buy chambray! I imagined a romper in a really soft, lightweight denim that would be fun to, well, romp around in all summer. I did not realize, until I read ImagineGnats post on chambray, that it comes in different weight. I could barely read the fabric requirements on the back of the package, so thought I’d be safe buying 2.5 yards of this chambray from Hawthorne Threads. It’s the color I had in mind, but it’s heavier than I wanted. Hopefully it’ll work. And hopefully I have enough.

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Chambray in blue by Andover House

First, I had to make a muslin. I have cut into, sewed, and ruined good (expensive) fabric enough times to know that a new pattern demands a muslin. I had some white cheap muslin, so I traced my patterns, and went to work.

I am terrible about sizing. All the reviews I read on pattern review for this romper showed people wearing mediums. They didn’t look much smaller than me, but whenever I make a medium, I end up sorry. So I figured I’d trace the pieces as larges, do my muslin, and go down a size if that was necessary. I wouldn’t waste my swedish sewing paper, and I’d be erring on the safe side.

Here’s my muslin. It was absolutely huge. Note how I just used some wrapping ribbon for the ties!

muslin jumper - first attempt
muslin jumper – first attempt

All right, down a size to medium. Now to use my soft chambray. I had some challis left over from another failed attempt, so I figured I’d make the ties out of it. I wanted the sleeves to be in that trim too, but you can’t really see it. It was better, but my family thought it was still way too big. And the material just didn’t have the drape I was looking for. I look frumpy.

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I had to try again. Down another size to small. This time I went to Joann’s and got some cheap rayon. I wanted something relatively cheap that had good drape. I figured, how bad could this fabric be. When my husband first saw it, he thought it was that bad. However, the end result is actually okay! I had some trouble with the neckline because it has this funky key hole look that you can’t see at all. And, the ties were too long. You really have to keep it tied tight or else everything is let loose and the whole thing falls down. I also screwed up the elastic waist on this version but you can’t really tell.

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I wore this more than once. I might just make it again. Third time is the charm!

Fabric box DIY

This fabric box was so much fun to make. I used scraps and this excellent free tutorial I found at Seaside Stitches. I use it to keep my notions in next to my sewing room.

The fabric box was a quick, easy to make project, and allowed me to brush up on my straight line quilting skills that I learned from this Craftsy class. It’s titled Creative Quilting with Your Walking Foot. Jacquie Gering is a great teacher. I would definitely take more of her classes.
IMG_3013-0.JPGThat’s my ironing board underneath. Another free tutorial. I used a Batik Jelly Roll called Over the Rainbow. Here’s the tutorial from Moda Bake Shop.

Happy sewing!

 

Baby quilts and personalized wall hangings

Well, I finally finished my friends’ baby quilts, just in time to go see them next week.

IMG_2518My plan had been to buy one V and Co Color Me Happy Jelly Roll. I saw on her blog that she made two baby quilts in this free rail pattern and thought that would be perfect for them.

However, I quickly realized that they were really small. I guess I should have known from the finished measurements of the quilt, but what you read on paper, and what you see in reality, are two different things, as I’m sure you know.

Once I started creating the blocks, I realized I would have a lot of those pieced jelly rolls leftover, so I decided to make personalized pillows. I should have used smaller letters, because these were going to be waaayy too big for pillows. I created the letters in Word Art, and used double faced interfacing to place them. I also used a blue tailors chalk on this pale gray, and at first was very upset when I couldn’t get the blue line off You can’t see it anymore.

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I used really thick pellon interfacing to back them. I just hope my friends can hang them because I did not include any way to do so. I’ve been hanging my wall quilts with simple staples right in the seam. You can’t see the staples and they come out of the wall with minimal damage. This stuff is much thicker than regular batting however.IMG_2521

In any event, I think the quilts came out great. I used my walking foot to do straight line quilting on the blue and green one. I used my free motion quilting foot do do squiggles (It has a different name, but you know what I mean) on the pink one. I love the way it looks.

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N
ow they are wrapped and ready to be given to their new owners. I hope they like them!

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Draft your own skirt

When I started sewing, I got on a kick to draft my own skirt. It looked easy. The key is to create a skirt sloper. It’s created by taking key measurements, carefully drawing some squares and rectangles on a piece of paper, make a pattern from that, and ta da! You have a custom skirt!

custom skirt from sloper

So, no, it’s not quite that easy, even if you are led to believe it is. I used Soseweasy.com’s tutorial to draft my skirt. While it appears my waist is too large for my body (yes, that’s something I’m going to have to work on by doing less sewing and move moving), I did eventually make myself a skirt I was very proud of. Deby, who writes the Soseweasy blog, has very good, clear instructions on the whole project.

I bought a cotton weave with spandex and black broadcloth at Joanns. I don’t usually like what they have there, but this fabric caught my eye and I think it is actually pretty nice.

skirt preparation

The instructions teach you to add a lining, an invisible zipper, and a hem. I think I did a pretty darn good job!

custom skirt from sloper2I am so impressed with my sewing machine. It’s a Brother. Every time I need something, a new foot, or new accessory, I look in the little bag of goodies that came with the machine and I find it. It amazes me because when I purchased the machine, I never expected to use all these bells and whistles. Thank goodness I bought up. Otherwise, I’d be in a position where I’d have to buy a new one.

Now, to torture myself, I bought this book which is supposed to help me draft 28 varieties of skirts. The first I’ll do is the wrap skirt. Have a few projects to finish first, but once I do, I’ll let you know how it turns out!

skirt a day

Perfect grilled BBQ chicken

bbq chicken
Delicious and moist, grilled chicken thighs and legs with BBQ sauce

I was on a mission to make barbeque chicken that was moist, juicy, and not burnt. I find those three attributes do not occur in unison when we use our grill to cook chicken. The time needed to cook bone-in chicken on the grill quickly dries it out, and the barbeque sauce always ends up burnt because of its high sugar content. Enter Tyler Florence.

Using this Food Network recipe, I brined my chicken thighs and legs for two hours. I’m a dark meat girl, and bone-in chicken is my favorite over white, boring, skinless, boneless breasts. For this chicken, I left the skin on and soaked it in a brine made from water, brown sugar, salt and garlic for about two hours. That was the key to its deliciousness.

Another important factor is drying the chicken. Soggy, wet chicken will not give you a crispy skin. So about an hour before cooking, I took it out of the brine, dried it thoroughly with paper towel, then put it back in the fridge to dry some more.

Next step is grilling. And only for 10 minutes. The total cooking time is one hour. I was skeptical about leaving the chicken on the grill for just 10 minutes, but that evaporated when my chicken skin caught fire and burned. I should have watched it more closely. After 10 minutes, however, it was off, and I had my grilled, smoky flavor. The rest of the cooking takes place in the oven.

Off the grill and ready for the oven.
Off the grill and ready for the oven.

While the chicken is cooking, I created Tyler’s homemade BBQ sauce, and it was a winner. Leave out the thyme and feel free to replace the molasses with honey. I eyeballed all the ingredients, and it came out delicious. Just watch how much vinegar you add. How much tang you want is a personal preference. I like it sweet and hot so I kicked it up a notch with some cayenne pepper.

bbq sauce

Serve with creamy potato salad and fruit salad.
Serve with creamy potato salad and fruit salad.

The chicken came out fabulous. Juicy, crispy, fall off the bone good, sweet, tangy, everything you could want from grilled barbeque chicken. I urge you to try this. We ate it with homemade potato salad, and we’re having the leftovers tonight.

Quilted laptop sleeve tutorial

IMG_2396Is it a clutch? No, it’s a quilted sleeve for my cute little mac air laptop. I love carrying it to meetings, and slipping out my laptop. Here’s how I made it.

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First, get yourself a jelly roll. I used Moda Dreamcatcher batiks, which I purchased from my local quilt store. Any jelly roll will do.

Using a tape measure, measure the length of the front of your laptop, around, and up to the back, then halfway down the front again. Add two inches. This will be the full length of your project. Next, measure the width and depth of your laptop. Again, add two inches to be safe and allow for your seam allowances.

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I wanted to be fancy, so I cut some of my jelly roll strips in half. I also alternated their lengths. You can see what I mean here. I thought it would make the piece a little more interesting. You can choose to cut all your jelly roll strips the length of your project, or make them different widths and lengths as I did. The choice is yours.

Sew them together, and quilt as desired onto batting. I did a simple straight line along the vertical and horizontal lines of my jelly rolls. Test it around your laptop. Does it fit? Trim the top to make the curve, as I’ve done with the flap that will fold over the laptop.

IMG_2401Choose the fabric you will line the piece with and cut to fit your finished piece with curved top. With right sides facing each other, sew together, leaving about two inches open along the bottom or a side. Pull the fabric through so that right sides now face out.

Pin the opening closed using a 1/4-inch seam allowance. You will sew this together when you add the top stitching.

With your laptop inside to make sure it fits, bring the bottom up so that it just about covers your laptop. Remove the laptop, pin to hold in place, then top stitch around the entire sides, top and bottom to give it a nice finished look.

I purchased velcro fasteners and used fabric glue to hold them in place. What do you think?

IMG_2398Please share photos in the comments below if you decide to make one yourself!

 

 

Patio curtains – DIY from drop cloths

My back porch is one of my favorite rooms in my house. It’s fully screened, has comfortable furniture, and it’s where I want to be to read a book, have a cocktail before dinner with my husband Peter, or just take a Saturday afternoon snooze. Trouble is, that’s exactly when the sun is at full blast. We’ve been struggling to come up with a way to block the sun for those few short hours. Curtains are an obvious choice, but the amount of fabric I would need makes them ridiculously expensive. We tried bamboo shades from Home Depot for a while, but it just ruined the whole look and feel.

When porch weather rolled around again this year, I took up the charge once again. And this time, I found a great option. Drop cloth curtains. Who knew they could work so well?

drop cloth curtains

I followed the instructions I found here for buying, spraypainting, and installing the hardway. We purchased our drop cloths at Home Depot over Memorial Day weekend. What a steal! Packages of 2 drop cloths were $10 each! And, get this, it was buy one get one free! We walked away with 8 9-feet curtains for $20!!! The most expensive item was the hooks to hang them. We need a lot of them. But I am okay with that expense because it will work with whatever curtains we use now and in the future.

I’m still experimenting with tie backs, and haven’t yet hung them all. But I was so excited that I had to share. Now, there is a chance that these curtains will get moldy. But at $2.50/curtain, can I really complain? I’ll just get new ones next year!