31 January 2011

one big mess

Do you ever have one of those times in life when everything feels on the verge of total chaos, and you don't want to talk about it? Not to be too overly dramatic -- since no one has died or anything and we still have our health and a roof over our heads -- but short of that truly tragic level of chaos, I do feel like things have been spinning out of control a little lately. Since I don't think of this blog as a diary (I'll leave that to other people with far more interesting lives), I've just been sitting on my hands and wallowing.

(And wouldn't you know... this period of silence just happened to coincide with a surprise mention of PoMoHo in Hooked on Houses that brought, oh, a few thousand hits. Fellow bloggers can appreciate what a cool thing that mention was, but what a bummer it was that the link came during a period of radio silence. Alas...)

I know that much of this feeling comes from the Never. Ending. Kitchen. Remodel. Mark and I have been through several renovations before, but none as disruptive as the kitchen project, and it is really wearing on us. We're all cranky and snippy, and it's all because of the renovation. Today we had this dumb argument about whether we should finish painting before we put the floor in, or wait to paint until after we had framed out the doorway, since the framing can't go in until after the floor. It got surprisingly heated. And for no good reason. Those of you who have lived through a remodel know what I'm talking about, I'm sure.

Work is a whole other issue, and it has been a sudden deluge. With travel. Fun. (Did you see my post a few months back about the new TSA security procedures? Well I have now been felt up several times. And it wasn't so bad. I bet Katy Perry would say she liked it. Okay, lame pop music joke -- I'm trying!)

Anyway, big thank yous to several of you who've written, including to Lynn, one of my most dedicated readers, who wrote to say she missed my blog posts. I'm touched, truly. And I promise I have some fun posts that I'm cooking up... if I can just stay afloat for a few minutes to type them out.

And the kitchen? It's coming along, and it's gonna be such a huge improvement when it's done. But it's not done yet.

Also, that whole couponing thing? Um, yeah. I didn't quit exactly. More on this to come...

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19 January 2011

houston, we have a microwave

Oh my, this kitchen renovation is trying our nerves. Mark told me that when his parents renovated their kitchen when he was growing up, they had to "cook" with the microwave and toaster oven in the basement for months. And I've read similar tales all over the blogosphere. Honestly, I don't know if I could go on living in such a predicament! Only a few weeks into our renovation, and I'm already going totally batty that it's not done yet.

But at last we can finally start to see progress! Great progress, in fact. If we really buckled down, we could be done in a week. That's not gonna happen, but we're getting close.

Today's big development: the microwave is installed.

This is a bigger deal than it sounds like.

You see, before we started, the space for the microwave looked like this:

Yes, that exhaust duct is pink. Evidently, a past owner HAND-PAINTED the ducting, even though it was hidden behind cabinet doors. As Dave Barry would say, I swear I am not making this up.

Needless to say, the pink had to go. But more importantly, the microwave needed more support to hold it up, since the existing cabinet frame had no bottom. (There used to be a one-piece double oven in that space, before we got new appliances.)

After removing the old duct and painting, it looked like this:

Using the template that came with the microwave, Mark cut this out of plywood:

But the installation is what totally impresses me. It was awfully tough to get the plywood base for the upper cabinet attached solidly enough to support the microwave. But with some clever use of L-brackets and glue, Mark made it happen. (I like to take some credit, since the L-brackets were my idea.)


Next problem: the lack of electrical outlet in the necessary location in the upper cabinet. If you scroll back up to the first two images in the post, you'll see that there IS an outlet just above the range, which is in line with where it needs to be, just a few feet too low. Enter the drywall saw, and our amateurish attempts at electrical work.

The hole we cut for the new outlet (those drill holes are to try to figure out where that diagonal strip of wood ends)

Our attempt at cutting out the original box, only to hit wood and electrical conduit in every direction. Not helpful.

It wouldn't be one of our renovations without a visit from the electrician, so in came Paco from Brentwood Electrical, and within the allotted hour, we had this, even with a GFCI so that it's all up to code:

It'll need a little patchwork, but no biggie. It will be behind a door in a totally out of the way location, so it doesn't have to be the world's most perfect patch ever. And the lower hole from the old box is going to get tiled over, so no harm done there either.

With the supports in place and the electricity flowing, we were ready to install our new BFF. From there it was just a matter of attaching the rear mount bracket to the wall, sliding the microwave on, and then attaching the three bolts through the top of the microwave through the plywood. Easy as can be.

Of course, none of this would have been possible if Mark hadn't so patiently cut out that frame and attached it. Hooray for Mark!

The only big pieces left are the countertops, backsplash tile and floor. We have the countertops here and just need to cut and install them. Ditto for the tiles. And ditto for the floor, which is a floating cork floor and won't even require us to rip up the existing tile floor. Can you say "miracle"? We certainly can. Can you imagine having to jackhammer up all that tile? In a condo?? On the second floor???

More updates to come soon!

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18 January 2011

silhouettes: hot or not?

If I had to pick the biggest wall art trend of 2010 and early 2011, it would the silhouette. They are everywhere, with lots of bloggers offering giveaways for custom silhouettes by undoubtedly talented folks on Etsy.

Some are definitely charming, but I'm still not sure if I like them or not. What do you think?

In a moment when I wanted to escape from kitchen renovation work, I decided to make one for us, and here's how it turned out.

Using my favorite picture from our wedding as the starting point...

I worked a little simple Photoshop magic and tried this...

And finally settled on this

Cute, no? Of course, I have no idea how I'd ever use it. But it was a fun way to spend an hour. (Note: hair is tough to make look natural after you've cut it out. That was the hardest part!)

First image by Nella Designs by way of Young House Love, second from Apartment Therapy and third from Art and Ghosts shop on Etsy

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17 January 2011

my week as a crazy coupon lady

I admit it. I loved the moderately outrageous Extreme Couponing on TLC (word: it is going to be made into a series, so there will be more extreme couponing madness for us all to enjoy vicariously). Yes, yes, I know that some of those folks are on the verge of being full-on hoarders. But I found it inspiring to see people save that much, and it seems like a fun challenge to seek out the best deals. And since Mark and I are trying to save money in a big way to buy our next place, it was only natural that I try my best to become a crazy coupon lady for a week. Even more proof that the universe wanted me to do this: the day I decided to try my hand at couponing, Living Social sent an offer for an entire year of Sunday LA Times -- complete with coupons -- for only $10. Done.

Of course, since we have only 1000 square feet of living space with no additional storage (except for a little space in the garage already filled with our tools and paint), I wouldn't be building a stockpile like a real extreme couponer. So let's not call what I did extreme couponing. Let's call it adventurous couponing.

Here's what I learned:

1. It is bizarrely fun

There is something strangely satisfying about saving huge percentages on food and drug store items. And on matching up store sales and store coupons with manufacturers' coupons to save a bundle. That's really the key to saving the huge amounts the folks on the show save: you read the stores' weekly circulars and note what's on sale, see if the store is also offering additional coupons for any of the items in the circular or on their website, and then you try to find manufacturers' coupons for the same item either in the Sunday newspaper, or on a print-it-yourself coupon site like coupons.com or smartsource.com. Example: Progresso soup, which is normally $2.99 a can at my local Von's (SoCal's version of Safeway), was on a club card sale for $1.50 (they try to trick you by calling it "2 for $3," but you don't have to buy two to get the deal), but there was also a store coupon in the circular for $1.11 per can. I found a $1 off of 2 coupon from the manufacturer online, and so got two cans for $.61 each. That's 80 percent off. Sooooo satisfying. Even more satisfying is when you get things entirely for free, but more on that later.

Check out those savings: 61%! Not extreme, but nothing to sneeze at.

My very favorite couponing moment: I paid $.53 for $20.53 worth of merchandise at Staples, thanks to a $20 off of $20 coupon they sent me (!!)

So I got some new pens for Mark, some Post-It flags, a stand-up stapler for my desk and a brand new binder to hold DIY ideas, which will supplement my design ideas binder... all for $.53 and possibly even a few dollars in Staples rewards for a future purchase

2. To get the very best deals, expect a learning curve

Not just a learning curve, but a coupon-collecting curve. You first have to learn all that stuff in #1 about combining store coupons with manufacturers coupons, known as "stacking" (and I haven't even gotten into Catalinas, which are those coupons that print out at checkout... you can add those on top of store and manufacturers' coupons). You also have to learn which stores will double your coupons (not every store in a chain has the same policy), and which stores offer e-coupons in addition to manufacturers' coupons (most don't let you use both on the same item). But after you learn all of that, you still have to get several weeks (or months) of coupons banked before you can truly get the best deals. Not every coupon runs every week, but if you have coupons from six weeks ago for your favorite item and that item goes on sale this week, then you're in business. I only really did this for a week, so I undoubtedly missed out on some deals. But once you get the hang of it all, it's actually super easy, so long as you stay organized. (See below.)

3. It is very time-consuming and messy

If you want to be a dedicated couponer, expect to spend a lot of time reading stores' websites, re-checking the coupon sites for newly added coupons and reading the many blogs written by couponers who share their great finds. (My favorite, written by my favorite of the four people profiled on Extreme Couponing, is Krazy Coupon Lady.) And expect to get yourself on every food manufacturer's mailing list, all in order to snag some coupons. Also, plan to get very friendly with your scissors, because you will be clipping... a LOT.

Our guest room floor on a Sunday morning, after the newspaper arrived

To save a lot, you have to read -- and compare -- the circulars for all the stores, which for me at least meant having space to spread out. It's also helpful to have all of your other coupons in front of you when you do this, so you know what kind of deals are possible. This means devoting quite a bit of space to the whole endeavor (extra hard when our kitchen renovation has virtually every inch of space already covered with displaced kitchen items), not to mention the time.

But the most important thing of all, and perhaps the toughest, is staying organized. To truly keep a handle on things, you have to sort coupons by type of food or drug store item, expiration date and preferably by brand. To give you some perspective, I estimate that I collected between 200 and 300 coupons in a little over a week, so it's rather a large task just to stay on top of it all, and truly impossible to just keep a mental tally of everything you have coupons for. Though I thought my system was a good one, I saw after making purchases for at least two items that I had missed out on using coupons I had with me, just because my system wasn't quite good enough. I could have saved another $1.55! :-)

4. You will definitely buy things you wouldn't ordinarily purchase

As any person who likes shopping knows, there is just something about a good deal that is hard to pass up. For instance, I ended up buying at least 11 boxes of cereal this week, just because I got such a ridiculous deal on them (most under $1, all under $1.50, and cereal in SoCal usually runs upwards of $4 a box). You'll also notice that a few of the cereals I bought are, um, not so healthy. But who can pass up a deal?! Suffice to say we have been eating cereal morning, noon and night.

I'm sure that if I stuck with this a little longer, I'd develop a bit more patience and not feel like I have to jump at every deal in the world. But as the extreme couponers say, to save the most money you have to buy in huge volume when the best deals happen, and that means building up that stockpile.


5. You will definitely end up with stuff you don't need, because it's hard to say no to free

My first free item, a Reach floss: $.97 at Target, with a $1 off coupon, for an end cost of $0 (I don't think I got $.03 as profit...)

Sometimes you get lucky when coupons are high and items are priced low, compared to each other. But that's a rarity. There is a singular source for most of the free stuff in a couponer's world.

There is this magical thing known as the BOGO ("buy one, get one," usually meaning "buy one, get one free"). By itself, a BOGO may or may not be that great a deal, because it means you still pay full price for one item, and you have to get two even if you only wanted one. But the magic happens if the store is offering a BOGO sale on an item at the same time that the manufacturer has a BOGO coupon out. The store sale will count for one item while the manufacturers' coupon will count for the other.. meaning that you get them both for free. And free will make you do crazy things.

After seeing a tip on one of the blogs, I learned that CVS was offering a BOGO on Orbit gum at the same time that a BOGO coupon was available online. I practically became a rabid beast trying to get to a CVS... and I don't even chew gum! In fact, I kind of hate it. But Mark likes it, and who even really cares if anyone likes it because it's free for crying out loud! This is how you start thinking almost immediately, even after leading a normal life with normal people thoughts and normal people values.

The worst case of it: I found myself at a store, so focused on finding a Stayfree product, because that store had a BOGO sale at the same time that I had a BOGO coupon. Thank goodness I snapped out of it just in time. As I was standing in front of the display, I thought to myself: "This is ridiculous. I will never use this, I don't know anyone who would, and it will just take up space. I don't need it." (Of course, in hindsight, I probably should have still gotten them and donated them to a women's shelter or something.) But still, it's crazy easy to get swept up in the idea of free and just start acquiring things. And then stockpiling them. And then hoarding them.

It's a slippery slope...


So, after my little week of adventurous couponing, will I keep going? I don't think so. It takes a lot of time and mental space to be good at couponing, and the fact that it's kind of fun to boot means that it can be quite consuming.

But, shopping this way for a week has definitely taught me a few things. For example, I now know that Albertson's is the most expensive grocery chain in my area, while Von's (Safeway) has the best deals. I never would have know this before, and would have assumed they were all the same. With drugstores, Walgreen's has the best deals, CVS has the best everyday prices, and Rite Aid has both the worst deals and the highest prices. All good to know, since I don't plan to go to every grocery store and every drugstore on a weekly basis from now on. This week has also shown me how overpriced so many items are. And it's made me a little embarrassed how many things I used to pay full price for. So I'm going to do my best to find a balance and look for deals without going overboard.

How about you? Have you ever tried serious couponing? Have you gotten caught up in the chase for something free?

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14 January 2011

a tale of two lasagnas (with recipe)

Have you seen those lasagna noodles that you don't have to boil before cooking, like these from Barilla?
Though I make lasagna perhaps once a year (so much work, so much mess, so many calories), I happen to love these noodles. Generally, I think that dry pasta can go into lots of dishes unboiled, so long as there is lots of liquid for it to absorb and adequate cooking time. Baked ziti, for example (or penne or rigatoni, etc.). Just use dry pasta to fill half the volume you eventually want it to fill, add enough sauce for the recipe plus some extra water if the sauce is really thick, top it with cheese, bake and enjoy. So easy. (Another easy proportion if you're going with storebought everything: half a pound of pasta, one can of pasta sauce, half a small bag of mozzarella on top. Comfort food doesn't get easier.)

But, Mark happens to completely disagree with me on this, and thinks its virtual sacrilege to make a lasagna with no boil noodles. So I decided to do a test.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out exactly as I'd planned.

I thought I'd make two lasagnas, one with boiled noodles and one with no boil noodles, and then do a blind taste test and see if he could really tell the difference. But, um, as you can see, they kinda came out looking really different. That's because, of course, the no boil noodles need to cook longer, resulting in more oven time and thus more browning. A bit of a dead giveaway, eh? (Next time perhaps I will cover it with foil to make it less obvious.)

The good news: both were still delicious.

I took the messy first slices...

So that Mark could have the prettier ones.

(That green background tinge is the plastic sheeting covering nearly everything in the kitchen. No major kitchen renovation is going to stop me from making my lovely husband a lasagna or two!)

In the end, though my blind taste test didn't quite work out, it actually worked out great. I love crispier cheese while Mark likes it less browned, so he got a whole lasagna with boiled noodles and soft cheese...

...and I got my no boil noodles and a crispy cheese top. Yum.

If you've come looking for an exact recipe, this ain't the right place. Lasagna is more of an improvisational art form (I say, having cooked like ten of them in my whole life). But here's what I did. (And note, this is a somewhat healthier version than the usual, though still not exactly an everyday food. Don't tell Mark!)

Note: If you want to see a more step-by-step approach to making the sauce (albeit through a more labor intensive process than this one) check out this post from way back.

Ever-So-Slightly-Healthier Lasagna

Make a sauce:
Do all of this in a big dutch oven, either aluminum or enameled cast iron, so you don't get any bad effects from the tomatoes. Saute an onion in a little olive oil until it's gone translucent and then started to caramelize a little. If you want to add meat, add three chicken or turkey sweet Italian sausages, derobed of their casings and broken up a bit, to the pan, chopping them up more as they cook, and continuing until they are just cooked through. Add four or five chopped or pressed cloves of garlic and saute for one minute longer, stirring often. Then add the rest of the ingredients to the same pot. Along with the onions and garlic (and optional sausage), simmer two big cans of diced or whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano are said to be the best, but I used Trader Joe's brand because they cost a lot less) along with 8 ounces of the hearty red wine of your choice, and a handful of Italian herbs like basil, oregano and parsley. Fresh is great, dried is fine. It's a big sauce, so you can go big on the seasonings. Also add at least a teaspoon of salt at this stage, but save the real salting until the end. Cover with the lid, and cook for 30-45 minutes, until the tomatoes are nice and soft. Turn off the heat. After it has cooled a little, carefully use a potato masher to break down any larger chunks of tomato or sausage. At this point, salt it to taste, knowing that you'll probably use what seems like a lot since it's a BIG sauce which will make a lot of lasagna. Let the sauce hang out while you do the rest.

Make a filling:
Mix together one tub (16 oz) of regular ricotta cheese and one tub of fat-free ricotta cheese (they sell the fat-free version at TJ's) until smooth. Mix in two whole eggs and stir until it's all well-incorporated. Add a few pinches of kosher salt and a few shavings of fresh nutmeg. (You can leave out the nutmeg, but it adds a special little something.)

Start building:
You can start with either the ricotta mixture or the sauce mixture, but I'm partial to starting with sauce. Spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of your chosen pan. Then add a layer of noodles (if you use parboiled noodles, overlap them slightly and bring them all the way to the edge of the pan; but if you use no boil noodles, lay them so they adjoin but don't overlap and leave a 1/4 inch gap all the way around between the noodles and the edge of the pan). Follow with a layer of the ricotta mixture (use your hands -- it's easier). Add enough sauce on top to lightly cover. Repeat the process with noodles, ricotta and sauce until you've almost reached the rim of the pan. Finish layering with noodles, then sauce, and then a good covering of grated mozzarella. (I like to buy a big block of part-skim mozz and grate it myself in the food processor... saves several dollars over buying shredded cheese.)

If you don't leave room for your noodles to expand, it will come out looking like this

Cook it:
If you were using pre-boiled noodles, you only need 20-25 minutes of bake time, but for no boil, it's closer to 40. Baking between 350 and 360 degrees, bake uncovered for the appropriate time and keep an eye on it. The size and shape of the pan will make a difference, as will the number of layers you built up. If you like your cheese on top to stay soft and not crispy, cover with foil for the first 15-20 minutes and then remove it before finishing the baking.

After pulling 'er out of the oven, let the lasagna rest for at least 20 minutes, preferably more like 45. It's so dense that it will stay warm, and the rest time will ensure that it holds together better and that nobody burns their mouth on the tomato sauce.

After that, pour yourself and your dining companions a nice glass of Chianti or Barolo, and enjoy!

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11 January 2011

the new world order

What's a nice way to say impatient? How about eager? Or excited? No, in my case "impatient" is probably exactly the right word.

As soon as we decided that we are going to buy a house in Truckee -- just north of the amazing Lake Tahoe, in the world's (I think) prettiest mountains, the Sierra Nevada range -- I pretty much lost the ability to focus on anything else.

So daily conversations with Mark have gone something like this:
Me: We can buy this year, right? We've worked so hard to save up!
Mark: If we wait until next year, we can put 20% down, and not pay PMI.
Me: But if we buy this year, we could still get to over 20% equity first thing next year, and we'd only pay a few months of PMI, which is no big thing, right? Only a couple of dollars a month for, like, three months tops.
Mark: But we might not get as good an interest rate if we don't have 20%.
Me: But we could also look at lower priced fixer-upper houses, which would let us buy this year and have a whole house full of fun DIY projects!
Mark: But don't we want a house that doesn't need any immediate projects to be completed in order to be liveable? Better to wait until next year, so that we will have more options at a broader price range.
Me: But if we wait until January 2012, then there will be snow on the ground, and we won't be able to see the full property that we'd be buying, and I don't like that idea. Better to house hunt in the summer and fall when we can really see what we'd be getting.
Mark: Then we should look in summer and fall 2012.
Me: Waaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!

I am REALLY FLIPPING EXCITED (and more than a little impatient) to make our house in the mountains dream come true, especially now that it actually feels within reach. But there's that whole sticky wicket of money. Humbug.

Inspired in no small part by the crazy Extreme Couponing special on TLC, I have decided that if having 20% to put down no matter what is Mark's bottom line, then with God as my witness, I will get us to 20% in the bank just as soon as humanly possible!

Step 1: No more living large. (At least for now.) As a dual income, childless couple, we have certainly had some splurges here and there, especially in the restaurant department. (See our recent trip to NYC for proof.)

And other than getting too much takeout instead of cooking at home and going out to eat in this pricey city of ours, our other biggest expenditure is skiing and travel for skiing. We're not willing to give up skiing entirely, but we've scrapped our MLK Day trip to Mammoth, both to save money, and to spend some concerted time on the kitchen renovation. When we go to Utah in February and Colorado in March, we'll be staying in condos with lots of other people, which keeps the per-head cost pretty low. And we'll avoid the 'spensive resorts in favor of lower-cost (and our preferred) mountains like Alta.

Step 2: Smarter grocery purchasing. I will confess that I have been a lazy shopper. I buy what looks good, I don't compare prices, and we often let produce go bad before we use it (this always makes me feel like a big eco-grinch). But Extreme Couponing taught me that we should comparison shop, and buy most things when BOTH they are on-sale at a given store AND I have a coupon for them on top of the sale price. Generally, I think that buying solely on coupons makes for eating a lot of overly processed food, so we're not going to do this exclusively. But, for example, Mark doesn't care if I buy him Dannon or Yoplait yogurt, so why not buy the one that's cheaper? Ditto for cereal. He likes a whole bunch, so I'll buy the best value. And if my lunchtime Lean Cuisines go on some crazy sale, I'll buy as many as our freezer can hold, rather than just a few and end up paying more the next time.

My grocery lists and coupons for three stores that are all close by one another. (I wouldn't be willing to drive all over town to pull this off. Time is money, after all.) A little online research will tell you what each store has on special, which makes coupon matching way easy.

Step 3: Cook more. Eat out less. This one is a no-brainer. We just have to be less lazy and do it. And I need to shop smarter and use a little meal planning to make it possible.

Step 4: Maximize what we can get out of our current home. The biggest x-factor in getting us to our target savings goal is what we can get out of our current condo. Though West LA has not seen the massive declines that so many other areas have, there are still plenty of foreclosures keeping prices depressed. So we need to make sure that our place stands out. Though our many improvements should mean that our place shows well, we need to finish the kitchen and finish up those little odds and ends that make the place incomplete. Another strategy to get more out of selling it: going the for sale by owner route. So I've been reading up, and feel like we can totally handle it ourselves. Such a big part of selling is marketing, and I'm about 100% overpaid by my ad agency employer if I can't even market my own home.

So that's the new world order. And now to see if we can actually stick to this plan!

Truckee images found here and here.

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10 January 2011

when you think of sparkly new kitchens

...you don't think as much about this:

Though we're making good progress, we're in the empty-the-entire-kitchen-of-all-contents stage of the renovation, meaning that our dining room, which used to look like this...

Now looks like this...

And our living room, which used to look like this...

Now looks like this...

And it's not like we have lots of extra space around these parts. Approximately 850 of our 1000 square feet are now totally dominated by tools, new kitchen fixtures awaiting installation, and the various former-and-future contents of the kitchen.

But seriously, now that we're seeing progress, it's all worth it. With the cabinets almost completely painted (biiiiiiiiig job!)....

And the yucky old tile floor with pink grout counting down its last hours...

Memories of the kitchen we first inherited from the last owner are starting to be but a distant memory.

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