Saturday, June 25, 2011

Gift Idea: Mad Tea Party

It may only be June, but Christmas will be sneaking up on you at any moment (complete with the credit crunch). And in the intervening months, housewarmings, birthdays and other celebrations will require gifts.

Big cup, small cup; yellow cup, green cup. (Ikea, for cheap)

It can be hard to give when you're broke. Perhaps that's why I have so many previous posts on gifts - I know it's not easy to do! But with a little ingenuity and imagination (and failing that, taking ideas from other folks off the internet!), you can come up with some pretty memorable and inventive gifts on a student budget.

Growing up a huge fan of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I've always thought having a mad tea party would be good fun. And it is, actually - I had one for my birthday in 2007. True, alcohol did manage to sneak its way into the beverages, but it was good fun all around nonetheless.

So here's the gift idea: a hamper or picnic basket of teacups, saucers, teapots, creamers, sugar bowls and tea towels (new, vintage, or a healthy mix of both). The beauty of the "madness" comes in when you realise that you can slowly but surely build this gift around a central unifying theme or colour(s), or just indulge in complete whimsy and have a colourful basket of mismatches.

However you choose to do it, a mix of vintage finds and new deals will keep you in good stead!

A motley crew of various porcelain object d'art.
Take my personal collection of teatime-related odds and bobs, for instance. I had a cat-shaped teapot since I was very small (a component of my former cat figurine collection from a very young age), a whelk-shaped teapot from Paboom (a great store I loved in Victoria which has a very convenient sister location on W. 4th near Vine), two little robin's-egg-blue hen-shaped egg cups (from Mingo Wo), and an elephant sugar bowl (also from Paboom, which caries an elephant-shaped teapot as well).

I also have a huge latte bowl in yellow and a teeny espresso cup in green from Ikea from years back, that I bought almost solely for the size disparity (and the colours - love the colours!). Ikea is another great place to find good teatime bargains (tea towels, cups and saucers, trays, etc.).

Speaking of Ikea, you could always just buy bits and pieces from the Odmjuk series (cute teapot and accessories, but probably more expensive than the hunt & gather approach I'm recommending). Still, really sweet!

Paboom, Mingo Wo and Motiv on West 4th Avenue are great places to start building a gift-able collection. Don't forget to take advantage of the sale items - 'last one' is a phrase that need not trouble you!

But arguably the most fun places to shop for whimsical tea party ware are thrift stores (Salvation Army, Value Village, SPCA thrift stores, the MCC thrift store on Fraser, etc.). I can guarantee you you'll find something bizarre there, and it may even become the central 'theme' to your build-over-time gift. For example, if you find a hideous but hilarious pineapple-shaped sugar bowl, you may wish to build a collection of teacups yellows and greens. If you buy a green-and-yellow basket, you'd better include the "a-tisket, a-tasket" nursery rhyme on the card.

A few thematic or colour schemes I could suggest:
- blue & white
- cat or rabbit themed (love this one)
- red and apple themed
- fruit
- pink & yellow
- zoo (animals of all kinds)
- seaside (shells, boats, nautica)
- Asian-inspired or "Indochine" (which would be easy, given Daiso/Yokoyaya123 and the amazing number of Asian-inspired teacups and teapots that appear with regularity on thrift store shelves!)

Thank you Allyson!
Steph hates this apron.
 Aprons, trivets (hot pads), tea-cozies can all be bought, but you could also sew these to match your theme. If you have a real hodge-podge colour scheme or theme, then patchwork-style may suit it. An extra bonus is that you could use up existing fabric scraps rather than purchasing new.

Don't forget the cheapest place in town to buy fabrics! Dressew! Check in the bins to find small off-cuts or fat quarters (for quilting) for $0.25 a piece.

One of the more tempting places to browse pretty new fabric is at Sew, Mama, Sew. Definitely worth subscribing to their updates - they have great sales and perks. They also have a fantastic blog which has a myriad of sewn gift ideas.

(The best part of the Sew, Mama, Sew blog are the handmade holidays gift-guides.... Yeah, isn't that awesome?!).

Things your Mad Tea Party gift needs (adjust according to budget and availability):
  • a teapot
  • teacups and saucers (4 of each, various sizes, shapes and/or styles)
  • serving plate for biscuits, etc.
  • creamer
  • sugar bowl
  • teaspoons and teabag rests
  • tea towels
  • teapot cozy, trivets, apron
  • a mouse, Mad Hatter, white rabbit and a (broken!) pocketwatch*
*if you include these, better add an Alice in Wonderland DVD, or the original book by Lewis Carroll for explanation!

Tea-for-Two (a smaller version of the above):
  • a teapot
  • teacups and saucers (2)
  • 2 teaspoons
  • sugar bowl and creamer
  • small tray or serving plate

Don't forget - no tea party is complete without teas and cookies! Buy some teas and bake a batch of cookies to go with your unforgettable and completely unique gift. Places to buy tea in/near Kits: David's Teas, Granville Island Tea Company, and of course any grocery store's shelves (which is often the cheapest option).

Some time-dependent links of cool things I found on Etsy that you may wish to buy... (remember, it's always more expensive for vintage things online! Check your local thrift store or garage sale ('tis the season) first!):

"Fruit-on-Top" vintage sugar bowl - $4
A very retro orange and yellow daisies teapot - $5 (ALWAYS search by "lowest price" for vintage - found an identical one a few pages on for $18!)
Coral coloured cream & sugar set - $1
Retro white and yellow creamer - $3
Lovely cornflower-blue teacup and saucer - $2
Milk glass teacups (I love milk glass!) - $2
Blue and white donut-shaped 'Asian' teapot - $7
Cottage-shaped teapot - $7 (and another, if you're starting a collection - $17) - one on eBay too for $8 (here)
Beehive honey pot - $12
Royal Doulton poppies creamer - $12
Seriously retro brown and white scandinavian teapot - $12
An orange-shaped teapot (I want this!) - $12
A tea-table-shaped teapot - $15
A very modern-styled Zebra-print teapot - $15
A cauliflower teapot (go figure! It's kind of nice, too) - $20
Creepy frog teapot, sugar bowl and creamer set - $20
...and I could go on, but I figured $20 and up would be for the collector, not the casual gift buyer. Check back often, but definitely hit up those thrift stores first! Use the internet to flesh out a themed collection, but start it cheaply somewhere else. I can't handle navigating eBay anymore, but it's another option.

If you have a strawberries theme, there's lots out there! So cute!

Strawberries mug - $2.50
Avon Strawberry plate, cup and saucer - $16
Vintage strawberry tray - $8
Strawberry tea kettle - $10
A strawberry tea cozy on eBay for $8 (then you can buy a $2 white teapot and it might be cheaper overall!)
Strawberry tea fabric (one fat quarter - the centre of a trivet you'll sew?) - $2.50
Vintage strawberry teabag rest - $4
Strawberries table runner (so cute! Lace trimmed!) - $7
.....and the best of all (whether I would actually wear these is debatable!) - strawberry teacup earrings - $9
Oh, there's a strawberry teapot necklace, too! - $10

Oh wow - there's just about every kind of teapot (new) here.... link to "teapot decor" on Pronto

And finally, here's a few DIY links, if you're handy with a needle and thread, or with knitting needles/crochet hooks:

Tea Cozy sewing pattern from Homemade Holiday Gifts
Another tea cosy (British spelling) pattern from the Guardian
A photo of a simple felt Squirrel teapot cozy that could be easily replicated! Cut two and sew together!
A rather involved but seriously impressive knitted elephant tea cozy (you have to see this one!)
A granny-square based tea cozy on Ravelry

Finishing on a song (can you guess where it's from?):

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tissue Paper Flowers

I love making tissue paper flowers. It was probably my all-time favourite Brownie craft. They are also a very cheap (if not free) way of decorating for a girl's birthday party, a cinco de mayo party or even a midsummer's garden party outdoors (a great way to add some visual interest to party tents or gazebos).

And it's a great way to stash-bust, to borrow a saying from Ravelry! When your stockpile of used tissue paper reaches critical mass (i.e. after a bridal shower!), here's a great way to get rid of a bunch of it!

I won't re-write the instructions here, since there's a fantastic video you can watch that summarizes the process very nicely (on Disney Family Video):

One thing I did differently is just use florist's wire (or you can use long pipe cleaners), if you don't need a visible stem. I stuck mine on the wall with thumbtacks.

Also, aprons are for ninnies. (Unless you're in the kitchen, in which case they're outright practical and recommended). But seriously lady, a peach gingham apron? Frightening.

Incidentally, since mine have served their purpose as party decor, they are up for adoption! Let me know if you'd like them - I'd be happy to pass them on to a tea party or fiesta! Otherwise, they are completely recyclable....!

Want 'em? They're yours! Let me know! :)

The Bean-Screen: How to Naturally Block Lines of Sight on your Balcony

I may have mentioned it earlier (in fact, I did here), but I have a neighbour who, and I admit this isn't very nice of me, hollers at me from his own balcony and this royally ticks me off. It's not nice of me because I think he may have some brain damage and may simply be trying to reach out and be friendly. But it's really something that drives me beserk, because he sits and waits for me to appear in what functions as my 'backyard', and then shouts curses at me if I either pretend not to hear or politely ignore him (at least, I think it's polite of me - he seems to disagree).

When I want to have a relatively peaceful moment on my patio, I take headphones with me (usually attached to nothing) for a good visual cue that I really, truly do not want to shout back across the alley for half an hour or more. And this seems to work. But the real trouble is that I like my drapes open so I can admire my plants from inside, and this neighbour of mine just sits and stares in . . . for hours. It's quite creepy.

So I grew a screen of beans. I had looked up online to see what other people had done for privacy screens (found a great couple of articles here on "Life on the Balcony"). They had an article on a living, growing screen as well (link here), but obviously this is from a warmer climate (a gardenia would certainly not over-winter here!).

I had heard that pole beans in particular were great for small gardens since they use vertical space so efficiently. But would they grow on my hot little deck? And would I be able to keep enough soil for their roots that they'd grow high enough to screen out the annoying neighbour?

So far, so good! Here's what I started with a couple of months ago:

(transplanted out in April when it warmed up a bit)

And here's where I am today:

Already the top-most tendril had started to climb its way to the upstairs neighbour's balcony, so I had to unwind it and send it laterally across the top instead.

I'm hoping that this incredible rate of grow continues. It stalled for awhile, when temperatures were still quite cool, but as soon as the sunshine came it was just like something out of "Jack and the Beanstalk"!

There are now several secondary shoots/tendrils coming out from each plant, completely burying my poor fairytale eggplants under a solid canopy of bean leaves, and as the beans wind their way up the mesh, I'm rather confident that the leaves will fill out and create a solid wall of green. It will also, I hope, help to keep some of the sun out of our apartment (it really heats up in here on hot summer days!).

11 July UPDATE: Unbelieveable! Can't recommend these plants enough! 3 weeks later, and...

And they keep growing, and growing, and growing...!

I hope this gives you inspiration to try your own screening with pole beans. These guys are relentless, resilient and nothing short of remarkable. They're also incredibly easy to grow! Give them sun and some water and presto - an instant fence of green! Buy seeds here at, or elsewhere look for 'pole beans' (not bush beans or broad beans - very different growth habit!).

Pea flower, a flower becoming a pea pod, and pea pods. I love the curly tendrils!

And just for the purposes of showing off some of my garden goodies to date, here's some more inspiration to try your hand at backyard gardening.

An ornamental variety of sage, good for bees and pollinators

I am fast running out of real estate. Notice the tall flower stands (wedding!) boosting up a tomato plant and another planter - definitely helps achieve the 'closed in' feeling, and frees up space below!

A pepper-to-be!

Chive flowers

Cylindra beets growing out of a milk carton

Beets and Swiss Chard

The tomatoes are coming! The tomatoes are coming!

I love growing tomatoes. They thrive on sunny, south-facing balconies!

If you have NEVER managed to keep any plant at all alive, grow MINT. Peppermint, spearmint, whatever - these plants will grow like weeds (in fact, they make become weed-like and take over your yard, so unless you drink mojitos on a daily basis, consider confining them to pots on the balcony!). You can just pinch the leaves you need from them (off the top works fine!) and let 'em grow!

A mojito in the making, and a pea pod in the background
If you grow it, they will come (a mint field of dreams, ha ha). Ladybugs are wicked aphid predators!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Raw Food for Thought

I'm stuffed! That was SO good!

I have to admit that I was skeptical about the whole "Raw Food" movement when it started gaining popularity. I understand that of course fresh fruit and veggies have more nutrients than their cooked counterparts*.

*interestingly, frozen veggies and fruit, which are often cheaper, routinely have higher vitamin and nutrient content than shipped fresh fruit. My husband swears by the "Europe's Best" brand and warns against using the generic brands since they don't taste nearly as good. Stock up if there's a sale on! Better yet, buy fresh, local produce that you've frozen yourself - best taste, best nutrition!

There are several groups of thought on why a "raw" diet is a preferrable one, many of which I (I'm sorry!) feel have limited if not incorrect 'scientific' support.

But what is important is that raw fruit and veggies do contain more vitamins and nutrients (including antioxidants), and raw food requires no cooking, so it's good for lowering energy consumption as well! Vitamins B and C in particular breakdown or leach out of fresh produce as it sits, and boiling or heating coagulates proteins (case in point - an egg before versus after you cook it! Big difference!). Some raw-foodists believe that some enzymes (which are complex proteins) found in raw food aid in digestion. This is completely debatable, but regardless it is true that cooking changes the very nature of your food.

Some people believe that the bacteria present on the surface of the raw foods either also aid in digestion, or help to populate the gut for a normal bio-flora. There is an important point I'd like to make, though - BAD bacteria are also living on the surface. Now normally it's not an issue, but organic produce (and non-organic alike) may be sprayed with manure slurry to fertilize, which contains E. coli and other fecal bacteria which can be extremely dangerous. (Keep in mind the recent E. coli troubles in Germany and other parts of Europe). Even my home-grown lettuce won't be fecal coliform-free, thanks to little sparrows doing their business on my plants!

Raw Cucumber Curry Salad - link to recipe here

So for the spinach salad I made, I soaked the spinach and cilantro in a <10% bleach solution (i.e. 1 part bleach in about 10 parts of water) in the salad spinner, before rinsing and spinning dry. (Thanks Chansonette for reminding me of this safety procedure!). I didn't do this before I accidentally gave myself a case of food poisoning (also from a raw spinach salad), but I do it all the time now. A small amount of bleach isn't dangerous environmentally, and if you leave a 10% solution sitting, the bleach will evaporate and be perfectly safe to dump.

One of the saddest raw food tragedies, which happens time and time again, is when people consume unpasteurized milk products like raw cheeses, etc. I studied Microbiology in university, and I'm always amazed by the sort of people who believe that the government or 'society' is keeping the 'good stuff' from them by requiring pasteurization. If you are one of these people, you should learn why these legislations have been put in place. The death of a pregnant lady (and of course her unborn baby) on Vancouver Island a few years back from Listeriosis is probably a similar situation to one that precipitated these wide-sweeping 'rules' in the first place; a desire to keep people alive and safe. The heart is in the right place, and so is the brain. If you don't have a degree in Micro., think twice about what you eat (or look it up online first!).

But don't be discouraged! With a little smarts and good judgment, raw can be a great meal choice! I should know - I just had a fantastic raw food dinner!

This was AMAZING! "Watermelon Lemonade" - can't recommend it enough!

If I scared you off, I apologise! Visit Gorilla Food, a raw food restaurant downtown where professionals do the meal-prep, and you won't have to worry! Otherwise, forge on ahead!

The first experience I had with raw food for the sake of raw was at a friend's place. Ranji served up raw fruit bruschetta, masala cauliflower florets, and some very appetizing crudites (which I, alas, had to pass on thanks to raw garlic or raw red onion). It was surprisingly tasty and refreshing.

Anyway, I encourage you to have a go at a raw-food meal sometime soon. On a hot summer day, no one wants to slave over the oven. Here's what we had for dinner tonight (we did cheat a bit - the beetroot hummous and rice chips weren't 'raw', but they sure were healthful and yummy!):

Watermelon Lemonade (from Bethany Tait's blog - only 3 ingredients! Watermelon, lemon juice and agave nectar. This was incredibly tasty - we loved it!)

Mango Avocado Salad (from "We Like It Raw" - easy, but not terribly impressive)

Raw Cucumber Curry Salad (from "The Raw Way" - very, very good! Delicious!)

Curried Cauliflower 'Couscous' (also from Bethany Tait's blog - another great dish)*
*I modified this by adding Kalonji seeds, which you will have on hand if you have the Vij's At Home cookbook. It added visual interest and an onion-like flavour

So the two dishes that weren't raw were:

I stand by my cheating. It was worth it.
Riceworks gourmet brown rice crisps and Beetroot Hummous
I've been wanting to make that beetroot hummous for the 7 or so years I've owned that cookbook, and boy was it delicious! I had to use up a half dozen shrivelled beets with mouldy tops in my vegetable crisper from who-remembers-when. I put them to good use alright. I think I must've eaten the beet greens and forgotten about the roots altogether... They were in surprisingly good shape, though!

The beetroot hummous is fantastic, better than the usual stuff!
There are recipes for dehydrated raw 'crisps', but I cheated a little.
I meant to make dessert as well (though admittedly the watermelon-lemonade was sweet enough), but I couldn't find Medjool dates at Central Gourmet or Kits Market (didn't make it to Apple Farm Market, unfortunately). I wanted to make a very intriguing raw chocolate mousse which I saw on the Dr. Oz show when I was home sick one day. Here's the link to "Chocolate Avocado Mousse". Another version can be found here:

So where to start? Remember that although there are trendy, 'new' recipes worth trying, there are some old stand-bys that are uncooked, too!

For example:
Waldorf salad (lower fat and add health by replacing some mayonnaise with yogurt)
shredded beet and carrot salad (from a raw-food recipe website, but it's an old favourite!)
virtually ANY smoothie
most salads
salsa and guacamole

Here's a raw food tomato curry recipe I'd like to try soon, too (on Loving It Raw)

If no-cook is what you're interested in (and not 'raw' food), here's a great link to the Cheap Healthy Good blog on Blogspot. I don't suppose there's a major difference between "raw food" and "uncooked food", except that the raw foodism movement is supposedly one of simple, unprocessed and natural ingredients, whereas your typical no-bake cheesecake contains Cool-Whip.

It's summer now, and a great time to cool off with raw food! Give it a go, and please share any winning recipes with us all!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Recycled Jean Denim Quilt - Part I

Alas, my lovely EarnestSewn jeans that are no more!
Full disclosure: I have never, ever made a quilt before. I can sew (sails, to be precise, on great big sewing machines with clutches and the ability to sew through the bones of your finger; and I can also do repair work and hemming. But actual full-sized quilts...?!)

I believe all craft projects, like cooking, should be pursued with reckless abandon. It's either going to work, or it's going to fail (often dramatically)!

An old pair of pants & the first pair of jeans to bite the dust. 8" x 8" template.

I go through jeans like nobody's business. I always wear them out in the exact same place, leading me to believe that I have oddly shaped thighs that rub in a very specific location only. There's always this one worn spot on each leg, and try as I might, patching never seems to work.

I also have the habit of buying cheap jeans. I bought very expensive jeans once (and I loved them!), but their fine denim wore out as fast (if not faster) than the $30-40 ones I've been buying recently. So maybe there's little correlation to the cost of the jeans and the actual wear-time (unless we're talking utility-grade jeans from a warehouse store or something). Regardless, I have managed to amass a great pile of sad, holey jeans, and I really wanted to put them to use, especially the expensive ones that I once loved so much!

Anyway, I did a quick search online and found a few absolutely hideous and terrible uses for scrap denim. Then I came across a quilt idea, which was somewhat inspiring. It wasn't the most beautiful thing, but then I remembered this gorgeous handmade quilt a friend of mine had whose Mom had stitched it together from old, softened collared shirts collected from thrift stores. I knew I couldn't beat that, but maybe I could make something even half as cool. I guess we'll find out together!

I started this project on an off-day (i.e. I was feeling sick, and lying on the couch watching "The Price is Right" wasn't helping). Chopping up old jeans turned out to be pretty therapeutic and didn't require much energy (which is perfect when you're feeling under the weather but are quite bored). I was surprised at how many 8" x 8" squares I could get out of my jeans! (Are my thighs THAT big?!). Turns out there's quite a lot of material making up those slim-fitting skinny jeans! See below...

I easily got ten 8" x 8" squares out of size 28 'skinny' jeans

With three pairs of jeans at my disposal (plus two 'legs' left over from making cut-offs), I figured I may not have enough for a Queen-sized bedspread, but I would have enough for a beach or picnic blanket. And it turns out that cutting squares of denim from old jeans is an activity I rather enjoy.

I haven't gotten very far at all yet (I've only just cut the squares and played around with arrangements), but I have been trying to learn some basics of quilting online. It seems to me that the way to do it is to sewn the squares together into long strips the length or breadth of the quilt, and then to sew the long strips together along their edges. Makes sense I suppose - probably at lot less likely to get all warped and bumpy, like it might if you sewed on each square individually.

Not being a perfectionist, I won't mind much if the corners don't meet up exactly. This quilt will very likely live in the back of the car, or will be dragged to and from Kits beach all summer long. I haven't exactly worked out how I'll back the thing, either - at first I thought I'd sew together similar sized squares (like in that check print from those old pants I also cut up), but it might be easier (and more fun) to buy a vintage bedsheet or old curtain from the Salvation Army Thrift Store and stitch that on the back instead. I suppose I could even sandwich in an ugly old blanket for some bulk between the layers.

One thing that strikes me is the variation in the colours - I only had dark-wash jeans, and though the colour varied slightly between each pair, the insides varied even more, giving me a palette of 6 different shades to work with. Kind of a happy surprise, that!

I also kept the pockets. I'm sure the annoying little metal spurs will only irritate me as I try to doze on this at the beach, but then I also thought of hiding things in the pockets down the road (mostly stuff that would appeal to small children - candies, coins and that sort of thing). And I have to admit that the novelty of it got the better of me. I plan on arranging the pockets so that they all open in the same direction as well. I suppose I could wedge in a bottle of sunscreen or a tube of lip gloss at the beach (or more likely, my bookmark, because I can never find where I put those down!).

So that's it for now! I think this makes a great rainy-day project. I can't wait to triumphantly reveal the completed project, which in all likelihood will never actually happen. But hope springs eternal, what?

EarnestSewn jeans are really awesome, but not cheap. Au revoir mon ami! A bientot!
(Another great rainy-day time killer is PG Wodehouse. I love Wodehouse. I also love The Drones Club random Wodehouse quote generator. If you're strange like me, you'll love it!).