Homemade Tomato Soup

So, it’s finally chilly enough to warrant some wholesome, homemade soup! Tonight I whipped up one of my easiest recipes. It’s a favourite for the ease of preparation and the very basic (and affordable) ingredient list. Seriously, if you keep an even half-way stocked pantry, you’ll always have this simple list on-hand. Check it out:

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I also love that it’s a one-pot deal. Toss your olive oil in a large soup pot and saute four cloves of freshly minced garlic and two chopped yellow onions in the bottom.

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Once they are translucent, add any seasonings you like! Tonight I added some Italian seasoning, but sometimes I get wild and crazy. Lemon pepper or rosemary also work.

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That’s when you add some flour (to absorb the oil and create some thickness), and add in the your pantry staple trio – a package of veggie stock, a can of stewed tomatoes (I like seasoned ones) and a can of tomato paste.

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Bring that bad boy to a boil and add a bit of sugar (or sugar substitute) to cut the acidity. You can also add your choice of dairy or dairy substitute (I prefer half & half cream) to really thicken it up and add some creaminess.

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Heat it through, then haul out your handy immersion blender to make the whole, beautiful pot smooth. Oh, and think about a side dish that works with soup!

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One of my hubby’s favourites is the Cheesy Garlic Melt from M&M Meat Shops (yes, that is a shameless plug, lol!). It’s basically garlic fingers with cheese that heats up in 15 minutes – even easier than making grilled cheese sandwiches!

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And in less than 30 minutes (and for about $7 total), you’ve got a hearty dinner for two plus lunches for tomorrow!

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So go ahead and get wild & crazy with ingredients and sides – we’re in for a long, cold soup season after all🙂.

Adventures in Beeting

I’ve always been a fan of beets. There’s something earthy and humble about them – all purple and concentric once you peel back a few layers. Pickled beets have been a particular favourite of mine, although until this year, I had to rely on the canning skills and kindness of friends to get my fill. My kitchen usually celebrated their arrival with a nice chocolate beet cake. But no more! This year I tackled the beet beast and managed to can 18 jars, all sliced to (almost) perfection. Here’s what I learned along the way…

1. The ingredient list is short. Just vinegar, salt, sugar and water – plus, of course, the purple beauties themselves.

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Courtney of The Canning Kitchen

2. Beets aren’t nearly as attractive raw and untrimmed as they are cooked and with their tails cut off.

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Beet-tastic beginnings

3. Beets are tricky to peel with gloves on – so much so that I’d risk purple-stained fingertips to do it without them.

4. Beets are even trickier to slice into near-perfect 1/2 inch thick rounds. Gloves are also over-rated in this exercise.

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Peelin' and a slicin'.

5. There’s nothing more satisfying than filling a lot of jars with beety goodness.

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Time for a beet bath, you beauties!

6. Even if you end up with dozens of jars, once you’re found out as a keeper of beets, they’ll be gone before you know it!

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Taking a rest (for 24 hours)!

7. And then you’re left with only fond memories and beet stains until next season😦.

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Until we meet again...

Happy beeting, friends!

The Canning Season

I dabbled a bit in canning last year after reading a delicious-sounding recipe for peach salsa. It was quite an adventure, given that I ‘made do” with whatever equipment I had in my kitchen  (i.e. nothing!) at the time. The salsa, nonetheless, turned out well and I was pretty enamoured with canning. Enter Christmas, and a wonderfully thoughtful beginners’ canning kit gift from my in-laws, and I was simply counting down the days to the late summer harvest.

In August, I began reading foodie blogs in earnest to prep for the season. It was on several of them that I was invited to enter a contest to win a copy of a new (and highly-touted) book by Canadian blogger, Amy Bronee, aptly named The Canning Kitchen. And whaddaya know? I won!

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So began my season of canning! Over the next few posts, I’ll be sharing my experiences with canning five different recipes this year. And today, I’ll start with the one that was the easiest – crunchy dill pickles.

As with all my canning adventures, I began at St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, where I picked up my straight-from-the-farm ingredients – a huge bunch of dill, 1/2 bushel of pickling cucumbers, and seriously fresh, locally-grown garlic. I had the rest of my ingredients on-hand at home, including pickling vinegar (it’s just white vinegar with 7% acetic acid) and pickling salt (available wherever canning supplies are sold).

Can I just say that this recipe couldn’t be simpler? I scrubbed my cukes in water, cut them into spears, tossed them into my jars with dill and garlic, and covered them in the boiled brine (vinegar, water and salt). For you sticklers, here’s some visual inspiration…

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The recipe

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Supplies - there's nothing better than the smell of fresh dill!

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The glorious cucumbers... yum!

Of course, I followed the processing recommendations in the recipe – which was a snap with my new-fangled canning supplies. I could fit 10-500 ml jars at a time in my pot and rack combo, and removing them from their 20-minute hot water bath was so much easier with a jar lifter.

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Ready for a warm water bath!

In terms of difficulty, this recipe and process was easily beginner-proof. I’d recommend it to newbie canners just starting out for sure! And the results? 15-500 ml jars of crunchy dills that are ridiculously sought-after by family and friends (really!). Just the confidence booster I needed to set the stage for the rest of my canning adventures!

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Some of my dill-icious (sorry!) work.

So don’t let fear of the unfamiliar hold you back –  if I can do it, anyone can (get it?)! Happy canning🙂.

The Gallery Wall

A little over a year ago when I was decorating our main floor, I really became enamoured with the idea of a gallery wall. It’s meant to be a collection of cherished pieces that may or may not include pictures… and that’s what I loved about it. I’m not a fan of hanging family photos everywhere, but I do enjoy thoughtful vignettes as art within my home.

With the space over the couch earmarked as my gallery, I set out collecting some visually interesting pieces that would add texture to the room.

I started with existing pieces, including my ‘rustic clock’ – a steal I discovered at Homesense about 10 years ago that has followed me to countless homes over the years.

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I love the weathered wood and metal accents, which play well next to the decorative iron piece I found at a thrift shop for $2 a few years later.

My main floor has a fairly neutral colour scheme of grey, beige and blue, so I wanted to introduce a pop of colour. Orange has always been a favourite of mine, and it fit well with my existing colours. While perusing the gift section at Chapters one day, I stumbled upon some darling greeting cards that really spoke to me. One even had a picture of a dachshund (ahem!) wearing an orange sweater… it was love at first sight! Using some basic frames I had around the house, I cut the cards to size and created some fun artwork.

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You’ll notice the cute sconce in the picture above. It was a delightful $10 find at the annual Christie Antique Sale in Dundas (if you haven’t been, you must check it out!). It was originally white, but I found the orange I wanted on a paint chip at Home Depot and had a ‘sample’ pot mixed for a mere $4.50.

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With the leftover paint, I tackled an existing metal piece from my guest room – the heart in the middle was red, but a quick paint job and it fit with the gallery perfectly!

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The ‘A’ print was the only real, ‘new’ piece I added. It was a fun & frugal ($9.99) acquisition from Target (oh how I miss their decor department!) and a fitting nod to our last name (Armstrong).

The final gallery wall result looks pretty spiffy and never fails to illicit comments from guests.

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And I have to say, it makes me happy whenever I look at it – with nary a family photo in sight!

Chocolate Zucchini Bread – because veggies are good for you!

A few weeks ago, my colleague Alex shared some of her garden’s zucchini harvest with me. She had a few different varieties and found that they all grew quite well in her garden – all the better for me, I say! Just take a look at these beauties:

Alex's garden has been good to her this year!

Alex’s garden has been good to her this year!

After a little research, I discovered that this versatile veggie actually freezes quite well and is an excellent addition to baked goods. You can’t really taste it, but it adds moisture and texture much like bananas or applesauce might. So I set off to use my handy food processor and shredded the entire line-up! I ended up with 12 cups of it, which I separated into 2-cup Ziplocks to freeze for future use.

Whaaattt? Yes, you can freeze zucchini!

Whaaattt? Yes, you can freeze zucchini!

With my freezer loaded up, I’m all set to bake some veggie goodness throughout the colder months. And today I started with a fantastic Chocolate Zucchini Bread. It’s tasty, moist, and not too sweet. And for those of you who liked my Banana Nut Muffins, you’ll notice some similarities. It also makes use of olive oil and applesauce! This time around, I tried using some disposable tin bread pans in preparation for the holiday gift-giving season. I wanted to try them out to see if they bake nicely (spoiler alert: they do!) so I can make some as hostess or thank you gifts around Christmas. And bonus – they are petite enough to yield two loaves from a single loaf recipe! Here’s the one I used:

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 C white sugar
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 C applesauce
  • 2 C flour
  • 2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 C shredded zucchini (go ahead and let you frozen bag thaw, then drain in a colander before use)
  • 1/2 C chocolate chips (I used semi-sweet Chipets)
  • Cooking spray to oil your pans (I really like Pam’s Baking version)

Method:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Mix first 3 ingredients in a bowl until smooth. Stir in applesauce, then add dry ingredients and mix well.
  • Stir in zucchini and chocolate chips and mix until incorporated.
Batter up!

Batter up!

  • Pour into oiled pan (or two pans, if you’re using tin ones) and bake for 1 hour.
  • Cool for 10 minutes in pans, then remove to cooling rack (or your belly, whichever you prefer).

I have to be honest and say this was surprisingly good! I wasn’t fond of the smell of the batter (or of zucchini in general!) but once baked, these loaves turned out to be swoon-worthy.

Yep, that's right... I totally tried a piece before it took this pic . #TooGoodToWait

Yep, that’s right… I totally tried a piece before it took this pic . #TooGoodToWait

I hope this post inspires you to pick up some late-season zucchini at your local market and get shredding! Happy baking🙂.

Banana Nut Birthday Muffins

My hubby celebrated a birthday last weekend, and I started his day off right with his annual birthday breakfast request – Banana Nut Muffins. He’s a stickler for this particular recipe, both because it doesn’t have chocolate chips in it (but hey, add ’em in if you want!) and because it’s not too sweet or dry. I chalk up those last points to using apple sauce – a great alternative to keep sugar down and moisture in.

Mixing the muffins - yum!

Mixing the muffins – yum!

I’m also a bit of a stickler when it comes to making muffins. I insist on using my Pampered Chef muffin stone for the best results. Nothing is better than a muffin that’s slightly crisp on the outside and delightfully moist on the inside! And, honestly, there’s no better stoneware on the market, in my opinion, than tried-and-true Pampered Chef.

So, without further adieu, here’s the recipe. It generally yields 12 big muffins or 24 little ones:

Ingredients:

4-5 ripe bananas

4 tbsps. olive oil

1 C white sugar

1 1/2 C flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 egg

1/2 C apple sauce

3/4 C walnut pieces

Method:

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit

Mix bananas, sugar, oil and apple sauce. Mash well.

Add flour, baking soda, egg and nuts. Mix well.

Bake @ 425 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and continue baking for 35 minutes.

Let cool for 10 minutes before removing to cooling rack (or taste-testing – you know, as a quality assurance thing).

Happy baking!

The finished product - delicious success!

The finished product – a delicious success!

The breadbox project

I grew up in the ’80s, and when I was a kid we always had a breadbox on our countertop. It provided a nice, dark space to store baked goods (and kept them fresher for longer) plus helped to keep the counter clutter-free. As an adult, I could never find a box that suited my tastes (thanks to the ’80s orange and green theme from my childhood), but I loathed the fact that I stored all of my baked goodies in an upper cabinet by the stove. Enter my penchant for yard sales and DIY projects🙂.

Last weekend I scored a sweet (albeit, uninspired) oak breadbox at a neighbourhood yard sale for a measly $2. I had visions of making it fit with my grey, black and white backsplash and black appliances, and thought a quick update would fit the bill. I picked up some glossy black craft paint at my local dollar-esque store for $2.50 (not everything is a dollar in dollar-esque ville) and found brushed nickel cabinet pulls that matched my existing ones for only $4.99 at the hardware store. So for less than $10, I give you the great breadbox project!

The original oak breadbox.

The original oak breadbox.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

After one coat of glossy paint, it still needed some work.

After one coat of glossy paint, it still needed some work.

The finished product!

The finished product!

Creamy Ham & Potato Soup

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Out of all my easy-to-make recipes, this one has to be my favourite. It’s a hearty and delicious soup that tastes like you spent all day slaving over a hot stove to make it, but it really only takes about an hour, tops (maybe less if you’re better at chopping veggies than I am!). Special thanks to my mom, who gave me this recipe years ago. It makes me look like a culinary genius and I’m grateful🙂.

Suffice to say, it’s easier to make this if you have some leftover ham from a previous meal. I’ve used both toupie style and non-toupie style hams and really have no preference. If you’re short on time or leftovers, you can absolutely buy a pre-cooked toupie style (or even canned ham) to use here (no judgement!). Trust me, you’re still going to look like a cooking superstar no matter if you cook your own ham or not.

Ingredients:

  • 1+1/2 lbs Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1 rib of celery, diced
  • 1-2 cups of ham, diced
  • 3 tbsps butter or margarine
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 4 cups broth (veggie or chicken)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup cream or milk (the thicker, the better – but you decide based on what you prefer)
  • Salt & pepper to taste ( I like about 1/2 tsp of pepper and minimal salt)

Method:

  • Melt butter / margarine in a stock pot over medium heat.
  • Stir in carrot, celery, onion, garlic, salt & pepper. Cook about 5 minutes, until onions are translucent.
  • Add ham and mix.
  • Stir in flour to coat all ingredients.
  • Stir in broth and water.
  • Heat on high until boiling, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot for any yummy goodness that stuck there.
  • Once boiling, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Stir in potatoes and continue to simmer for another 20 minutes.
  • Mash lightly with a masher to break down the potatoes, leaving some chunks. Don’t over mash – just enough to make it creamy.
  • Add in cream or milk and stir well.
  • Let simmer for another 5 minutes, just to heat the milk and thicken the soup.
  • Serve with biscuits (I use bisquick mix and it takes 10 minutes. And people think I’m chef).
  • Revel in the adoration of your family and guests.

I hope you enjoy this one as much as my guests do!

Cheers!

The cheap & cheerful paper project

I have a confession to make. I love paper. Wrapping paper, stationary paper, sticky note paper, even plain brown Kraft paper. I see infinite possibilities with paper, and I don’t even make origami. So it stands to reason that I love the Dollarama and all the paper it has to offer. I also love a few boutique places in Toronto – including The Paper Place on Queen West. It’s like paper-heaven on earth. And since they have small samples and left-overs at discounted prices, I never break the bank feeding my paper addiction.

Now, what to do with all that gorgeous, colourful paper is sometimes a challenge. But I’ve found a cheap and cheerful project for mine. I frame it, like the artwork it is. It’s a fantastic way to create inexpensive (and beautiful) décor pieces for any room, plus it makes the most of some fabulous paper designs.

As for the framing itself, I don’t blow the budget. The examples I’ve used below are all from my local Dollarama, where I paid $2 each. Some of the paper I used is from there, too. So let your creative juices flow, my fellow DIYers…the sky’s the limit!

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A weekend wallpaper caper

I have to admit, I haven’t been much of a wallpaper lover in recent years. I got caught up in the ease and convenience of painting (who doesn’t love to change the entire look of a room in a couple hours?), and looked down my paint-splattered nose at the work wallpapering takes! But I recently became enthralled with wallpaper I found online from a UK retailer and knew that a weekend of paste, sweat and tears was coming my way.

I have to preface this post with huge thank you to my brother-in-law, Richard, who was really the hero behind this little powder room makeover. He’s an experienced wallpaper guru, and definitely proved his prowess last weekend, particularly with a birch tree motif that was not a beginner-level matching job! And so, Sir Richard…I am eternally grateful🙂.

Without further ado, I give you my ethereal birch tree powder room – a thing of wood nymphs, forest fairies and nature at its best.

I like using rustic elements like wire baskets to keep things organized in the space.

I like using rustic elements like wire baskets to keep things organized in the space.

I continued the rustic theme with a hook and shelf combo that holds extra towels and some decorative plants in galvanized planters.

I continued the rustic theme with a hook and shelf combo that holds extra towels and some decorative plants in galvanized planters.

A lucky find! Birch bark candle by Homesense.

A lucky find! Birch bark candle by Homesense.

I opted for basic black and white prints for artwork, mounted in white, matted frames. Nature prints fit the space.

I opted for basic black and white prints for artwork, mounted in white, matted frames. Nature prints fit the space.

Another small DIY project - Dollarstore frame and printed-at-home b&w flower prints.

Another small DIY project – Dollarstore frame and printed-at-home black & white flower prints.

Affordable, durable & stylish – my weekend DIY project

This past weekend, my hubby and I tackled a rather unexpected DIY project. We recently (ok, a month ago!) moved into our new house and have been discussing affordable solutions to our ho-hum, builders’ beige finishes. We really weren’t planning on installing a new countertop to replace the current laminate one for a while (that would just be wasteful), but I was disturbed that my Julia Childs impersonations in the kitchen were leaving stains on the painted wall behind the stove. Knowing we will eventually rip out the countertop made us reluctant to install a sparkling new tile backsplash.

Enter the delightful blog advice from Rhiannon’s Interiors last Friday, where contact paper and peel-and-stick tiles were discussed as affordable alternatives. DING! Made total sense to me. So off to the home improvement store I went, and came home with SmartTiles in Keystone Mosaic. They are gel-based (and very convincing-looking) peel-and-stick tiles that can be removed without damage by heating them up with a hair dryer. Genius, I say.

Here are a few pictures of the project.

Tools of the trade. The Exacto-knife was handy to cut the larger 10 x 10 sheets into smaller strips when needed.

Tools of the trade. The Exacto-knife was handy to cut the larger 10 x 10 sheets into smaller strips when needed.

The tile sheets were remarkably easy to stick onto the clean wall.

The tile sheets were remarkably easy to stick onto the clean wall.

My grease-splattered nemesis...the wall behind the stovetop! But no more - the tiles are easy to clean with a damp cloth.

My grease-splattered nemesis…the wall behind the stovetop! But no more – the tiles are easy to clean with a damp cloth.

The finished product! Convincing and very stylish...all for about $250 and 6 hours of our time.

The finished product! Convincing and very stylish…all for about $250 and 6 hours of our time.

Mirror, mirror…

I would say ‘on the wall’ but these days mirrors are everywhere BUT on the wall. And for good reason. Reflective surfaces, whether on furniture or accessories, can be sleek and modern or charming and feminine, depending on how they are displayed. I’ve been adding them into my own decor sparingly, and I’m pleased with how they play off my existing dark wood pieces. They seem to add light and sparkle wherever they live. Here are some inspiration pieces (plus a few of my own new additions!) to give you some food for design thought.

This mirrored chest would look equally chic as a sideboard in a dining room or a dresser in a bedroom.

This mirrored chest would look equally chic as a sideboard in a dining room or a dresser in a bedroom.

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I just love this feminine side table! Imagine it in a pretty bedroom or bath, or as the stylish piece next to the sofa to tone down a masculine room.

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A mirrored jewellery box, patterned in a lovely lavender damask, makes a great addition to my bedroom! It holds loads of baubles, plus radiates light when the morning sun hits it. Homesense has a delightful selection of them at reasonable prices.

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This was a surprising find for me! Meant to be a bathroom canister, this delicate glass piece with aluminum lid is a perfect hiding spot for my favourite bracelets. And for $7.99 at Homesense, it didn’t break the bank!

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I couldn’t resist this adorable companion to the lavender damask piece – its perfect proportions and velvet lining are useful for storing everything from jewellery to pocket change. And at only $4.99, why not?