Search This Blog

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Addressing Holiday Cards Made Easy

Every year, I look forward to the holidays.  I enjoy the baking, food, decorations, music and getting together with friends and family.  However, I hate addressing Christmas cards.  It take hours upon hours.  And if you mess up, you have to either use white-out (which looks horrible) or throw out the envelope, which means you're short one.  Honestly, I have better things to do with my time than spend an entire weekend dealing with filling out envelopes.

About 8 years ago, I decided I was going to get smart about my Christmas cards, and let technology save me hours of my precious time.  I was already saving my addresses in my address book on my computer, so the most time consuming part of this process was already done.  If you're not saving your addresses on your computer, do it!  You only have to do this once, and then update as people move, get married, etc.

Here are my steps for addressing hundreds of cards in less than a half hour.  I promise!  All you need is your computer, a printer and adhesive mailing labels of your choice (You can find them at Wal-Mart, Staples, etc. in a nice holiday pattern - you can get them in packs of about 150 or more) in a size of 2 5/8" x 1" (or 66 mm x 25 mm).

**Disclosure, I did all of this on a Mac using Office 2008.  If you have a PC or a different version of Office, your steps and how things look might be a little different than mine.  But, this should give you general guidelines of how to get this done.
  • If you haven't already done so, enter your addresses into the mail program on your computer (Entourage for Mac, Outlook for PC).  This is the most time consuming step of this entire process (and not included in my half hour time estimate).
  • Go through all of your addresses, and make sure that anyone you want to send a card to has "Holiday" selected in the far right hand column under "Categories":
    • If an address not in your "Holiday" category, click where it says "None" for their listing under the "Categories" column and choose "Holiday" - this step is extremely important to make this process work.
  • The hard part is done!  Now, open Word on your computer.
  • Go to Tools > Labels > Options
  • Scroll through the list of label options to find the size of the labels you'll be using.  In my case, I have an 8.5 x 11 sheet of labels with 2 5/8" (aka 2.63") x 1" labels on it.
  • Highlight the appropriate label size and click OK.
  • You're back to the Labels screen.  Click Mail Merge in the bottom right hand corner.
  • Word will create a new document that looks like this, but don't panic:
  • You'll also see a little Mail Merge Manager box pop up in the right hand corner of your screen:
  • Expand option 2 (Select Recipients List) and click "Get List"
  • Choose "Office Address Book"
  • Once the Edit Labels box pops up, click Insert Merge Field.  Choose Full Name.  You will see it populate in the Sample label box.  Hit Return/Enter after <<Full_Name>> and then click Insert Merge Field again.  Chose Home Address this time.  Then click OK.
  • Back to the Mail Merge Manager box - expand 4 to Filter Recipients and click Options:
  • From the Query Options box that pops up, choose "Holiday" (this is why it was important when you were entering addresses earlier to designate addresses in the Holiday category) and then click OK.
  • Back to the Mail Merge Manager box, expand option 6 to Complete Merge
  • Select the middle icon (with two pieces of stacked paper), which is "Merge to New Document"
  • Like magic, a new document will open in Word, with all of your addresses for your holiday cards laid out in the format of your labels!
  • Now, I like to do a test run to make sure I know which side is right up on my labels in my printer.  Make a copy or two of your label sheet and do a test run (or two) of the first page to make sure everything is laid out the way you want.  I normally format my labels so that all the addresses are centered in the label (by default, they'll be left justified).  To do this, just select all the labels (Ctrl A on a PC or Command A on Mac and then choose the center justification from your formatting menu). Once you're happy with how they look, stick your label sheets in your paper tray and print!
  • Once your labels are all printed, it will take mere minutes to put all the labels on your cards.  Not only does it look neat and professional, but the colorful holiday labels add a little extra something to your cards.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Power of Vinegar

You may have noticed by now that I'm a big fan of the cleaning power of vinegar.  It's cheap and safe, and it can be used in countless ways to replace commercial cleaners.  In past posts, I've talked about using vinegar for cleaning floors, keeping drains clear and disinfecting counters.

Lately, I've been using apple cider vinegar to deal with an ongoing fruit fly problem in our house.  All I do is set a small cup out with a few tablespoons of vinegar and a squirt of dish soap, and it's an instant fruit fly trap!

I came across this article with 20 more ways to use vinegar (  I had heard of or currently use vinegar for about half of these, but there were a lot of new tips as well.  All I can say is go to Costco or Sam's Club and buy yourself a huge bottle of white vinegar!

1. Condition hair
Silky, shiny, buildup-free hair using a single cheap, natural product? Sign me up! It may sound odd, but using apple cider vinegar as a rinse after shampooing really does work like a dream. It removes residue from the hair shaft and closes the cuticles. Just add half a tablespoon of vinegar to a cup of water, plus a few drops of essential oil if you like. Pour it on in the shower and then rinse it out. Sure, your hair will smell like salad dressing for a while, but once it’s dry, the smell dissipates.

2. Kill weeds
A few rogue weeds can wreak havoc in an otherwise flawless lawn, vegetable garden, or flowerbed and are especially annoying when popping up in the cracks of a sidewalk or driveway. Forget pricey weed killers full of toxic ingredients -- household vinegar really does kill unwanted plants; stronger vinegar made for horticultural use, which is 25% acetic acid, works even better.

3. Remove underarm stains
Unsightly sweat stains can really ruin an otherwise beautiful blouse. Ironically, if you use aluminum-based antiperspirants, they’re even more likely to appear, thanks to a reaction between aluminum compounds in these products and salts in your sweat. Spray full-strength white vinegar on the stain before washing, and it will disappear.

4. Soften fabrics
Add 1/2 cup of white vinegar to the wash cycle, and not only will it prevent lint from clinging to your clothes and keep colors bright, it’ll also remove soap scum from both the clothes you’re washing and the washing machine itself. Vinegar is also recommended in place of dryer sheets -- simply add 3/4 cup to your washer during the final rinse cycle.

5. Remedy sore throats
Many people recommend sipping or gargling with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a cup of warm water to soothe a sore throat. Add a few tablespoons of honey to this mixture in order to make it even more effective and far more palatable.

6. Deter ants
Got trails of tiny ants weaving their way around your home? These annoying insects aren’t big fans of vinegar, so spraying a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and water anywhere you have seen them can help encourage them to move out. The vinegar also erases the scent trails that they use to indicate sources of food to their brethren.

7. Soak sore muscles
Apple cider vinegar helps draw out lactic acid, which accumulates in muscles after exercise, causing that sore feeling. Mix a few tablespoons of vinegar into a cup of water, dip a cloth in the mixture, and apply it to sore areas for 20 minutes.

8. Freshen air
Whether it’s smoke, mildew, pet odor, or lingering whiffs of burnt casserole, bad smells can make a home less than welcoming. Store-bought air fresheners just cover up the smell with strong, clearly artificial scents, creating disturbing hybrid smells that only serve to worsen the situation. Acetic acid in vinegar absorbs odors, so spritzing it around the room will neutralize the smells. You can also use it to wipe down surfaces in the room that needs freshening.

9. Remove stickers
If you’re just getting around to removing that Kerry/Edwards decal from your bumper, or trying to peel a price tag off a new purchase, you’ll never guess what magic ingredient is about to make your life a lot easier. Warm a little bit of white vinegar on the stovetop or in the microwave and then dip a rag into it. Hold the rag over the sticker until it’s thoroughly saturated, and it will peel right off without leaving sticky residue behind. This trick also loosens wallpaper adhesive.

10. Cure hiccups
Most doctors claim that hiccup cures don’t actually work, but tell that to the thousands of people who swear by vinegar as a way to ease these involuntary spasms. It’s not clear how a shot of vinegar would actually help -- other than to distract you with its acidic flavor -- but next time you’ve got a bout of the hiccups, give it a try.

11. Clean crusty paintbrushes
So you forgot to clean your paintbrushes last time you used them, and now they’re so stiff and crusty, it seems that you’ll have to throw them away. Not so fast! Fill a saucepan with undiluted white vinegar and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Dip the paintbrushes into the boiling vinegar, one at a time, dragging the bristles along the bottom of the pan. Continue this process until the paint is dissolved.

12. Dissolve rust
The acetic acid in vinegar reacts with iron oxide to remove rust from small metal items like hinges, nuts and bolts. Simmer them in a saucepan full of vinegar, then rinse well with water to prevent the vinegar from further affecting the metal.

13. Eliminate stale odors
You know how lunchboxes and other food containers can take on a funny smell after a while? Vinegar can take care of that, too. Either wipe down the surface well with white vinegar or, in severe cases, leave a cloth soaked in vinegar in the container for a few hours to absorb the odors.

14. Remove mineral deposits
Calcium and lime deposits from hard water don’t just stain coffeemakers and bath tubs, they can actually clog showerheads and reduce dishwasher function. Run a mixture of half water, half white vinegar through your coffee machine to remove them. Use straight vinegar as a rinsing agent in your dishwasher to prevent buildup, and wrap a vinegar-soaked cloth around stained faucets until the deposits can be easily scrubbed away. To clean a clogged showerhead, remove it from the pipe and place it in a saucepan full of white vinegar. Simmer for just a few minutes, being careful not to allow it to boil, and then wash off the stains.

15. Neutralize spice in foods
You’ve got a dinner disaster on your hands: One too many shakes of cayenne powder has turned your award-winning chili into an inedible five-alarm blaze, and your guests are waiting at the table. Vinegar to the rescue! Add white or apple cider vinegar to your food, one teaspoon at a time, to neutralize the spice.

16. Prolong the life of cut flowers
Bouquets of cut flowers brighten a room all too briefly, often wilting after just a few days. Squeeze a little extra enjoyment out of your arrangements by adding two tablespoons of white vinegar per quart of water in the vase, which will keep them perky just a little bit longer.

17. Clean glass, plastic, chrome, and floors
A half-and-half solution of water and white vinegar will cut the grime on the shelves and walls of the refrigerator and eliminate spoiled-food smells too. Full-strength vinegar will remove tough smudges on glass and make porcelain sinks shine. Make it into a paste with a little baking soda to scrub chrome, or mix 1/3 white vinegar with 1/3 rubbing alcohol, 1/3 water, and 3 drops of dishwashing liquid for an economical floor cleaner. Just be sure not to get vinegar on marble, granite, or slate surfaces.

18. Treat fungal infections
Fungal infections like athlete’s foot, toe nail fungus, and dandruff are definitely no fun. White vinegar and apple cider vinegar can both be applied topically to affected areas of the body to kill fungus. For foot-related ailments, soak in a solution of one part vinegar to five parts water for about 30 minutes a day.

19. Tenderize and kill bacteria in meat
Marinate meat overnight in apple cider vinegar, and it will be delectably tender. This can reportedly also kill the bacteria that causes food-borne illnesses, including e. coli.

20. Open drains and freshen garbage disposals
Clear a clogged drain without the nasty, headache-inducing chemicals. Dump about 3/4 cup of baking soda down the drain and chase it with 1/2 cup white vinegar, then plug the drain. Leave it for about 30 minutes before rinsing with a kettle full of boiling water. You can use the same trick to clean and deodorize garbage disposals, or freeze vinegar in an ice cube tray and grind them up in the disposal to clean and sharpen the blades at the same time.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dairy-Free Pumpkin Pie

I've been trying to stay away from dairy over the last year.  Some of my family has a dairy sensitivity, and sometimes I wonder if I do as well.

I had enough Pecan Coconut Pie Crust mix leftover from when I made it two weeks ago to make another pie, so I decided to experiment by making a non-dairy pumpkin pie.  I've seen a lot of pumpkin pie recipes that use tofu in place of eggs and milk.  There's no way I'm adding anything with soy to a recipe, so I decided to try using coconut milk in place of condensed or evaporated milk, as you would normally see in a pumpkin pie.

2 large eggs
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 can pumpkin
1 cup coconut milk (you could also use almond milk)

Beat together eggs, pumpkin and milk until frothy.  Add in brown sugar, spices and salt and beat until well combined.  Pour mixture into prepared pie crust, but make sure not to overfill.  I also had enough of the pie mixture left over to fill two greased ramekins.

Bake at 450 for 10 minutes, and then reduce heat to 350 and bake for 30 to 35 more minutes.  The ramekins only need to bake for about 30 minutes total, so you can take those out of the oven before the pie.

Let cool and either serve or refrigerate.

Grain-Free Pumpkin Bread

After having success with the grain-free muffins, I decided to try making some grain-free bread.  I was making some vegetable stew today out of many of the items from our CSA share, and I really wanted some bread to go with it.

Not only is this a grain-free, gluten-free bread.  It's also dairy-free and high in protein.  It's easy to slice and tastes great when it's hot out of the oven.  I didn't add in any chocolate chips, nuts or dried fruits, but I would imagine it would be good with 1/2 cup of your favorite add-ins.

3/4 cup almond butter (another nut butter can be substituted, if desired)
4 tablespoons coconut flour
3 large eggs
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
4 tablespoons coconut oil
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Using a stand mixer or with a handheld electric mixer, combine all ingredients except for lemon juice.  Add lemon juice last and don’t overmix at that point.

*Optional – at this point, fold in any dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, or other add-ins you would like.

Grease a medium loaf pan with coconut oil and pour the batter in.  Bake about 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Let it cool for a few minutes, then slice and eat.

Fall Harvest Decorating

As sad as I am about the end of summer, I look forward to the bounty of the autumn harvest.  What I particularly like about fall vegetables is how functional they are.  Not only can you store them for months without them rotting, they also make beautiful, colorful decorations for your home.

I somehow ended up growing a large amount of Jack-be-Little gourds in my garden this year.  This was completely by accident, as I've never purchased seeds for them before!  I'm not sure how it happened, but they took over a large portion of my garden!

By the end of the season, I must have had 30 gourds to harvest.  I gave some to my mom, and I used the rest for decorations around my house.  These free decorations will be in use until I put up all of my Christmas stuff!

In addition to my gourds, I also have a lot of nice winter squash.  I grew some, my mom grew some, and I get some each week from our CSA share.  These squash also make nice center pieces, along with other functional harvest items, such as garlic, apples and the like.

If you're lucky enough to have some squash or other fall harvest items in your house, show them off!  Don't hide them from view.  Enjoy the interesting shapes and colors all season by placing them in bowls or baskets and have them handy and nearby as you cook.

Cider Apple Chicken Stew

As our fall party approached a few weeks ago, I wanted a new fall-themed recipe for the main dish.  Something that used seasonal foods such as apples, squash and fall spices.  I found a recipe online, and modified it with my own ingredients.  I also changed it into a crock pot recipe, so I could throw everything together and let it cook throughout the afternoon.  My husband was a bit suspicious about the ingredients ("Are people going to like this?!"), but it was well liked by everyone who tried it.  It is definitely something I'd make again.

2 tablespoons cooking oil
3 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut into cubes
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup chopped onion (or use 1 cup of pearl onions)
1 cup chopped turnips
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, sliced
4 potatoes, cut into cubes
4 carrots, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 cup of cooked, mashed winter squash or pumpkin
3 apples - peeled, cored and chopped
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or more if needed
2 cups apple cider
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons dried parsley

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat; cook the chicken in the hot oil until it has begun to brown.  Transfer to a large crock pot.

Add the bay leaves, salt, thyme, cinnamon, black pepper, onion, turnip, garlic, celery, potatoes, carrots, squash, apples, chicken stock, apple cider, cider vinegar and parsley to the pot. There should be enough liquid to just cover the vegetables. If not, add more stock to cover the vegetables.

Stir everything together, cover and cook on high heat for about 4 hours, or low heat for up to 8 hours. Remove the bay leaves and serve.

*Note: I've also done this as a vegan version, by adding in a can of chickpeas instead of the chicken and using vegetable stock, and it was just as good.

Grain-Free Waffles

My poor waffle maker.  It had been sitting in my pantry, collecting dust for the last year and a half.  Between not being able to eat gluten, to trying to stay away from a grain-heavy diet, it had no use in my life.  I missed waffles.  They used to be one of my favorite things to make on weekends for special breakfasts.

Recently, I came across a great recipe for waffles.  It's grain-free, gluten-free, and high in protein.  It's very tasty and you would have no idea it's mainly made out of eggs and coconut flour.  It's delicious with maple syrup on top, and I would imagine it would be good with any sort of fruit topping as well.  I made a quadruple batch of the recipe below, so it made 4 large Belgian waffles.

2 tablespoons melted coconut oil
3 eggs, room temperature if possible
3 tablespoons milk (I used almond milk)
splash vanilla extract
Optional – 1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons coconut flour

Mix everything together, and let the ingredients sit for about 5 minutes while your waffle iron gets warm.

You won't need any oil sprayed on the waffle iron with these.  Pour batter into your waffle iron and barely cover the “hole” lumps of the waffle iron, as this batter expands a lot.

Close the iron and wait several minutes, until the steam stops coming out quite as much. When the steam starts to subside and the waffles are starting to brown, remove them to a plate.

Repeat until all of your batter is used up.

Pecan Coconut Pie Crust

Pumpkin pie is one of my favorite things to make in the fall.  I love the smell of it while it's baking, and I love the taste of it when it's done!  I always look forward to the arrival of autumn, so I can start baking pumpkin pies again.

A few years ago, I started to modify my pumpkin pie recipe to make it with a graham cracker crust.  If you've never tried it, I think it's much better than a traditional pastry crust.  Now that I'm gluten free, I either need to buy GF graham crackers to make a crust (which can sometimes be difficult to find) or come up with another solution.

I've had good luck with a lot of nut-based baked recipes, so I decided to go in that direction for the pumpkin pie crust:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

1/2 cup flaked unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup pecans
1/4 cup all purpose gluten-free flour (I used Bob's Red Mill)
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter

Put all the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse sand. Add in butter and pulse several times in short bursts until the crumbs are moist and begin to fall away from the sides of the bowl.

Pour the crumbs into a 9-inch pie dish and spread them evenly. Using your fingers, gently press the crumbs across the bottom and up the sides, about 2/3 of the way up.
Bake in the center of the oven for about 7 minutes to set.

Add pie filling and bake as directed.

Mexican Layer Dip

While preparing food for a party a few weeks ago, my husband suggested I make something other than the normal cheese and crackers or chips and salsa as snacks for when guests arrive.  I looked around in the refrigerator, and realized I had a lot of the fixings to make some sort of mexican layer dip.  I didn't really follow any recipe in particular, but it came out well and everyone really liked it!

2 cans black beans
1/4 chopped cilantro
4 tablespoons lime juice
1 cup salsa verde
1 cup plain yogurt (to use in place of sour cream)
1 cup guacamole (I used one container of Wholly Guacamole)
1 cup salsa
1 bag of shredded cheese of your choice (I used a mix of cheddar and mozzarella)
1 small can of sliced black olives
More chopped cilantro for garnish

Drain beans and combined with chopped cilantro and lime juice in a 9x13 pan.  Layer on salsa verde, yogurt, guac, salsa, cheese, olives and chopped cilantro.  The measurements of each ingredient can be changed based on your preference or what you have available.  This can be eaten immediately, or chilled and served later.
This is great to dip with corn chips, or you can make yourself a nice mexican wrap with some of this on a soft corn tortilla.