Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cook One, Freeze One: Italian Pasta Bake

It's the beginning of the summer in Atlanta and already warming up.  Leave it to my kids to request pasta for dinner this evening rather than something from the grill.  I chose to make my Italian Pasta Bake, which is similar to my lasagna, and just as much a 'fan favorite' -- How can you go wrong with pasta, sauce and cheese?  However, since we are already full-swing into a busy summer, I chose to cook one and freeze one.
Cook One/Freeze One:
I am making a double batch of of my Italian Pasta Bake.  One batch is tonight's dinner, and one batch goes into the freezer for use in a week or two (when I could really use a quick dinner solution).  Some call this investment cooking.  Others call it freezer cooking or make-ahead meals.  Whatever term you use, if you have the freezer space, it just makes sense to cook one and freeze one.  I often prepare double recipes of taco meat or sloppy joes to have on hand.  I do the same whenever I prepare chili and soups. 

A Word on Italian Ingredients:
I grew up with Sicilian grandparents who served hand-crafted dishes that were prepared from scratch.  As a kid, I learned to make my own noodles and bread, dry my own herbs, and can my own vegetables.  Suffice it to say, if my grandparents did not grow it or see it before it was butchered, they were not going to serve it at their table.  Exceptions to the rule were rare, and only included items that were sourced from well-researched vendors.  For example, they ordered table grapes and olive oil from a specific farm in CA; Parmigiano-Reggiano and Romano from specific local vendors, and cannoli and Casata cakes, if they did not make it homemade, from one, specific bakery.

The world is much 'smaller' now and grocery stores stock really great ingredients.  I do occasionally make homemade sauce, dough, etc.  And, I grow my own herbs.  However, most of the time, I am perfectly fine with serving my family boxed pasta, jarred sauce, and frozen tortellini.  Below is my recipe for the Italian Pasta Bake.  Keep reading to see how I made it:
Italian Pasta Bake


  • 2 pounds of pasta
  • 2 14-oz jars Pasta sauce
  • 2 pounds ground meat.
  • 2 cups Shredded mozzarella (or any Italian cheese combination)
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese - or Parmesan/Romano blend
  • 2 small cans of Mushrooms
  • Italian-flavored Croutons (optional)
  • Italian Seasoning Mix (basil, oregano, garlic, parsley) to taste
  • Sea Salt or Kosher Salt 
  • Ground Black Pepper
Note:  Of course you should substitute fresh ingredients when possible.

General How To:

  • Boil pasta in large pot of boiling, salted water according to package directions.  Drain, and return to the pot.

Drain and rinse pasta to remove excess starch.
  • Season and brown the ground meat.
    Note:  I used ground venison (a friend of ours shared his hunting bounty).  I had it on hand and it works great in this dish-it's so lean.  Traditionally, I would use a combination of lean ground pork and ground beef.
    Note:  I use Sun of Italy Italian Spice Mix in just about everything I cook - it seems to be the closest to my grandparent's spice blend.  A good mix of sweet basil, oregano, parsley, garlic works well too.
Season the meat as it cooks to infuse flavor.
  • Drain excess fat from ground meat and add the meat to the pasta pot.
    Note:  Excess Cooking grease is horrible for pipes, drains and septic systems.  Keep an old glass jar or coffee tin under the sink in which to store the grease.  When the container is full, toss it in the household garbage. 
Keep a jar under the sink for excess cooking grease/fat. 
Add the meat to the pasta.
  • Add the mushrooms, 1 cup of mozzarella, 1/2 cup Parmesan, and 1 1/2 jar sauce to the pot.  Mix to combine.
    Note:  Once mixed, add more sauce to taste.  Some like it saucier than others.
  • Prepare two 9" x 13" baking dishes:  Line one with aluminum foil, leave one as is.   Divide the mixture evenly between the two dishes.
Line one pan with foil - you will freeze this half of the mixture.
One for later, one for now.
Cook One - For tonight's dinner:
  • Place about 1/2 - 1 cup Italian croutons in a plastic bag and crush.
    Note:  I used one of the pasta jars to crush up the croutons.
Croutons - not just for salads
  • Sprinkle the pasta that you will serve today with more shredded cheese and the crushed croutons to make a crunchy topping.
Topped with cheese, croutons, and a bit more parsley.
  • Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes or until the cheese looks melted.

  • Serve with a healthy salad or green vegetable and enjoy!
Freeze One - For Later On:

We said we'd freeze one.  Here's how I processed the second pan of pasta bake for later:
  • Cover the pasta completely with foil and store in the refrigerator overnight.
    Note:  This cools/sets the pasta so you can work with it the next day.
Cooling the second pan of pasta in our basement refrigerator.
  • The next day, remove the pasta (in the foil liner) and wrap it in plastic wrap. 
The foil liner keeps the baking dish clean.
  • Wrap the pasta 'package' well in another layer of foil.
  • Note:  You can also use a zipper freezer bag.  I will be using the pasta in a week or two, so foil and plastic wrap is sufficient. 
Ready for the freezer
  • Place the pasta in the freezer for later use.
I will freeze this for no more than two weeks.
When you are ready to use the frozen pasta, simply remove it from the freezer and thaw it in the refrigerator for about 24 hours.  Then, unwrap the top wrapping and place back in the baking dish (in the original foil liner).  Add toppings, bake and serve!
As I mentioned, this dinner is a 'fan favorite.'  The kids did, indeed, ask for seconds.  And, they want to have left-overs tonight...that's a winner in my book!  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How to Make a Padded Fabric Headboard

We upgraded my son's bed from a twin-sized to a queen-sized mattress set (re-purposed from the guest room) when we moved to Savannah six years ago.  I never bothered to replace the headboard or buy a bed frame at the time.  We were busy renovating an entire house, so our dollars were better spent elsewhere and, frankly, he was still too young to care one way or the other.
Padded Headboard for my son's room.
Once we moved back to Atlanta and completed painting his new room, I had a fresh slate with which to work.  It was time to address my son's bed situation.  I shopped brick-and-mortar stores, online, outlets, as well as garage- and estate sales looking for ideas.  I saw nothing that seemed the right direction.  The only input from my son was he wanted it to be LEGO or baseball.  Go figure.

My inspiration finally came from a metal magazine rack that a neighbor was selling at a garage sale - her son was moving on to college and she was clearing out his room.  I recognized the rack from a favorite retail store, loved the look and felt the it would go well in my son's room.  It even resembled LEGOS in a way.  I bought the rack, hung it up on his wall and decided to make a padded headboard and pillows that mimicked the look of the metal bins.  The headboard I opted to create was based on several padded headboards I admired online and consists of two rows of 12" x 12" padded squares - in colors matching the magazine rack.
Metal magazine rack inspired my son's new headboard.
Researching online, I read several different tutorials for making padded headboards.  Most required heavy backer boards made of plywood.  My carpenter (husband) was busy with other projects at the time so any hauling, cutting, or attaching plywood would have to wait a few weeks.  I wanted the headboard sooner than later so I decided to try alternative materials.

I used heavy-duty, single-wall corrugated cardboard and adhesive strips that claim to be damage-free.  The project required no power tools, cost very little money, could be completed within a few days and (best of all) would be easy enough to change/modify if my son's tastes changed.   Or, if I screwed things up.

I visited my local warehouse club to pick up corrugated cardboard  boxes for the project - for free!  If you look by the check-out, you'll see large bins of these boxes available for the taking.  Next, I stopped by a discount store and picked up a twin-sized foam mattress topper for under $10.00 (I happened to catch a sale) and the adhesive strips.  At the fabric store, I purchased fabric yardage in colors matching the magazine rack bins.  This project took about five total hours to complete and cost very little money.  It was absolutely worth it for a young boy's room.  

If you want to create a padded headboard like the one I made, keep reading:

How to Make a Padded Fabric Headboard:

Materials used to create the padded headboard
  • Single-walled corrugated cardboard 
  • Foam Mattress Topper (Twin-sized topper was perfect for this project)
  • Fabric to cover each square
  • Cotton Batting
  • Measuring tape, Ruler, Marking Pen, Scissors
  • Duct tape
  • Stapler or Staple gun
  • Adhesive mounting strips
General How-To:
  • Measure the wall surface to determine headboard dimensions.
    Note:  Queen-sized mattresses are 60" x 80".  I wanted two rows of squares, so the total dimensions are 24" x 60".  Each completed square is 12" x 12". 
  • Measure 12" x 12" squares and cut corrugated cardboard to create backers.
    Note:  The cardboard cut like a breeze - I scored one side along my lines with scissors and then scored the other side to separate.
  • Measure and cut foam mattress pad to create squares the exact size of the backer.
    Note:  I cut twelve 12" x12" squares and had a bit left over.
  • Measure and cut cotton batting to create squares that are 2" larger on each side
    Note:  I cut each square of batting to be 14" x 14"
Cut cotton batting 14" x 14"
  • Measure and cut fabric to create squares that are same size as the batting.
Cut fabric squares 14" x 14".
  • Iron all the fabric squares to remove wrinkles.

  • On a clear surface, place a square of fabric, followed by a square of batting.  Center a foam square on the fabric and top off with a cardboard backer.
    Note:  You could use adhesive spray to adhere the foam to the cardboard if desired.  I did not bother as the squares only measured 12" x 12".
  • Fold fabric over side and pull taut.  Use staples to attach fabric to each side of the cardboard backer.  Reinforce and strengthen edges using duct tape.
    Note:  I used a regular office stapler because I knew I'd be reinforcing with duct tape.  Like I said earlier, this was very low-cost and low-tech.
Regular staples worked fine, though you can also use a staple gun.
The back of the fabric square is secured using staples and duct tape. 
  • Repeat these steps for each of the squares.
    Result:  You have 12 upholstered squares.
  • Install headboard:  Follow manufacturer's directions for using the adhesive mounting strips and adhere squares to the wall in desired pattern.
    Note:  I used four adhesive strips per square and lined them up using a level.
    Result:  The headboard is installed.
  • Step back and enjoy!

Completed headboard

It's been three months since I've installed the headboard.  It's held up beautifully - nothing has fallen down, come apart, or ripped.  My son loves it - he actually spends more time in his room reading and playing now. The additional pillows along the mural wall make his bed feel like a day bed.  He now considers his room to be his hang-out, lounging space.  

The Pillows:
I bought enough fabric to make four 18" x18" pillow covers in the same colors as the headboard.  I used all the scraps and extra yardage to make an assortment of throw pillows.  These pillows, along with the silver duvet cover, really tie the room to my original inspiration piece - the magazine rack.  I'll explain how I made all the pillows and pillow covers in a different post.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Carpenter Bee Traps

For as long as I've been a homeowner, I have considered carpenter bees a nemesis.  They always seem to be hovering around, boring holes in my houses.  Carpenter bees are known to target the same nesting location year after year.  So, even though we would treat and repair carpenter bee nests in the trim work of our old house, they kept coming back.  And, while they have never bitten or stung me, they are no really welcoming.
Carpenter Bee
Earlier this spring, I noticed a few carpenter bees hanging out around my porch.  I inspected all around until I found the telltale, circular hole bored into a wooden shutter decorating a window directly above the front door.  Carpenter bees are known to overwinter in the same nest in which they were born.  And, the male bees protect the general nest area.  That explains why they were out in early spring.
Carpenter bees nesting in a shutter above our front porch.
I noticed additional bees hovering around my back deck.  Sure enough, I found a hole in the deck support.  One day, I actually saw a bee fly into a hole under a stair tread.
Carpenter bee nest in deck support

The bees bored a hole into the untreated wood of a stair tread.
Historically, we've batted at carpenter bees using fly swatters.  This spring, I decided to take more serious action.  I researched online and found a video discussing carpenter bee traps.  Wow!  

I had never heard of a carpenter bee trap before.  And, I could not believe how well it seemed to work.  I discussed the trap with my husband.  Making our own trap looked so easy (we are pretty handy after all). As inexpensive and easy as it seemed, our schedules just would not allow it to happen anytime soon.   I researched a bit more and found a trap online for a decent price.  A few clicks later, I had ordered two traps - one for the front of the house and one for the deck.  
Note:  The bee trap company offers kits for damming up the holes as well.  I may consider it in the future - we usually just use wood putty, caulk and paint.  

My order arrived within just a few days.  I hung a single-hole trap near the front door, hidden from view by a shrub.
The second trap was hung under a stair leading to the deck.  
Trap hung from stair tread.
This trap caught two bees in under a week.
Within four days, I had trapped two bees in the front of the house!   I made sure the bees had 'expired' and then dumped them out.  During that time, my husband and son killed two additional bees using the fly-swatter technique.  I like to think my method was slightly more humane ;)

This fall, we plan to patch the damage left behind and pack the traps away for next spring.  All in all, the carpenter bee trap was well worth the investment!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Decorating with Sea Shells

I live in the South, just a few hours from the coast, and have spent many an hour walking beaches to collect shells.  I have come to learn that every beach has its own, unique personality.  The shells, coral, etc. that I see at each one are just as unique. During one of my first trips to St. George Island, FL, just after a red tide came through, we found thousand upon thousand Olive shells and Whelk shells, Calico crabs and Sand Dollars scattered all over the place.  I keep the shells from that trip displayed around my house, and I smile every time I look at them.  Not only because they are beautiful, but because they remind me of how it seemed someone had scattered the most perfect shells on the white beaches just for us.

I've read that one's house should always include elements of nature.  This post discusses a few inexpensive, creative ways I've displayed nature, in the form of sea shells, to enhance my spaces.

First, A Note about Cleaning Shells
Most of the shells I pick up on the beach are empty, fragmented and free of algae, critters, etc.  Sometimes, inhabitants are still living inside - I leave those on the beach.  If staying somewhere with a heat source and large pot,  I usually just boil my shells for a few minutes and lay them out to dry on plates or towels.  This gets rid of the sand too.  This web site offers great tips for cleaning sea shells, including freezing the shells, microwaving shells, and creating a 50-50 solution of beach and water.  Any method works well, and keeps you from travelling home with stinky shells.

Three days of shells drying after being boiled
Display Shell Collections in Vases or on Platters and Dishes
Mason jars, clear vases, and interesting glassware are all great vessels in which to display shells.  I usually keep shells separated by trip.  A platter of assorted shells sits in my entryway and shows off the more unique, favorite shells we've collected.  I added colored and opalescent beads to the platter to add a bit of sparkle.
An antique Mason jar holds shells on my mantel.
A shallow glass bowl contains shells collected from a specific trip

Glass beads add a bit of sparkle to this collection, which sits in the entry hall.

Sand Dollar Art
Who does not love Sand Dollars?   Finding full Sand Dollars is, to me, a real treasure.  When we lived in Savannah, Sand Dollars were all over Wassaw Island, our nearest beach.  However, they were usually alive (it's against the law to take live sea life) and, therefore, not available for the taking.

Sand Dollars are glued to a frame covered in brown micro suede.
I had been keeping the Sand Dollars from my first trip to St. George Island wrapped in tissue paper in a box after a recent move.  While hunting around for something to display on an empty bookshelf, I rediscovered them, and a broken frame (the glass broke months prior).  A little more digging brought me to the remnant fabric.  Read below to learn how I took these items and created my Sand Dollar Art:

  • Four Sand Dollars
  • Frame whose glass broke
  • Piece of cardboard cut to fit in the frame.  (Mine is an 8" x 10" frame).
  • Fabric of your choice
  • Hot glue gun

General How To:
  • Clean the Sand Dollars or shells.
  • Cut a piece of fabric a 1/2" larger than your cardboard on each side (the piece I used was approximately 9" x 11").
  • Lay the fabric wrong-side down and place the cardboard on top.  
  • Wrap the fabric around the cardboard and adhere using the hot glue gun.
  •  Flip the cardboard over, arrange the sand dollars and adhere using a hot glue gun.
  • Carefully place the frame around your completed art and enjoy.

Sea Shell Shadow Box Art:
Another beach treasure trove is when I find both halves of a clam, mussel, etc. washed up and still attached at the joint.  A trip to Hilton Head Island, SC beaches yielded several small, full clam shells.  I created a simple piece of art using these shells.   
Sea Shell Shadow Boxes

Read below to learn how I made my Seashell shadow Box art:

Find the shadow box at most any craft store
  • Sea shells 
  • Unfinished, wooden shadow box
  • White spray paint or craft paint
  • Bamboo place mat
  • Scissors
  • Hot glue gun
General How To:
  • Remove the back of the shadow box and apply two coats of white spray paint or white craft paint.
    Note:  I used spray paint because it was quicker.
  • Cut a bamboo place mat to fit the back panel of the shadow box.
  • Use hot glue gun to adhere the place mat to the back panel of the shadow box.
  • Position shells on the place mat and use hot glue gun to adhere.
    Note:  One of my clams came unhinged during this process.  I simply dotted glue on the joint and held it until it dried.
  • Carefully replace the back panel and close the shadow box.
  • Hang on wall or place on shelf and enjoy.

Sea Shell Pins:

Many of my smaller shells, like Tellina,  have a tendency to fall to the bottom of jars, or get lost underneath bigger shells.  However, I love these little guys - the colors and detail on these is just great.  I made push pins out of a bunch of mini shells recently and just love them!

I used a hot glue gun to adhere ordinary push pins and stick pins to the back side of the shells.

Use hot glue gun to attach a pin to the backside or inside of a mini shell
Shell push pins on bulletin board
These are really easy, inexpensive ways to use sea shells.  I believe keeping the shells as natural as possible helps me to appreciate the amazing job Nature did.  They are simply beautiful!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Create Lined Storage Bins Using a K-Cup Box

I love my single-serve coffee machine.  Yes, it is more expensive than traditional drip coffee makers; however, I justify the cost of the required K-Cups by purchasing in bulk at a warehouse club.  I also love organization, and use lots of baskets in my pursuit of a clutter-free, stylish home.  Like my K-Cups, storage baskets and bins can be expensive, so I often re-purpose baskets found around the house or spruce up containers that I find in thrift shops, garage sales, etc.

I began making basket liners when I took up sewing last summer.  I learned to make my very first basket liner via a video tutorial explaining how to make basket liners without a pattern.  Running low on orphaned baskets,  I attempted making an all-fabric storage bin, based on a tutorial for creating oil cloth storage bins.  I also tried a project that created collapsible storage baskets.  Then I came across a blog that explained how to make storage bins using diaper boxes.  I no longer buy diapers.  But I do buy K-Cups!  I decided to apply the blogger's diaper box methodology to my K-Cup boxes.

It worked beautifully.  I love my K-Cup box storage bins, and have created several of them over the past six months.  Once I got the hang of it, I began to also re-purpose shoe boxes and snack boxes.  I make my fabric liners using yardage from the fabric store, remnants, recycled bedding, clothing, etc.  Heck, I may never pay retail for fabric storage containers again.
Lined storage bins I've created
If you want to create your own storage bin, keep reading to learn how:

How to Create a Storage Bin using a K-Cup box

  • One K-Cup box
  • Fabric to cover the box
  • Fabric to make the liner
  • Spray Adhesive and Tacky Glue
  • Tape measure, quilting ruler, scissors, pencil or pen
  • Sewing machine
  • Thread, pins, seam ripper, etc.
  • Ironing board and iron
General How-to:
Part One: Cover the box with fabric:
  • Cut the top flaps off the box:
  • Measure the box:  Use a tape measure to measure down one side, across the narrow bottom, and up the other side.  Write this down.  Now, rotate the box and measure down a side, across the wide bottom and up the other side.
  • Cut your fabric to the dimensions you just measured.
    Note:  My K-Cup box measured 24.5" by 26.5".
Cut fabric to dimensions of the box.
  • Iron the fabric to remove any wrinkles. 
Ironing ensures a smooth finish.
  • Place the box in the center of your fabric.  Using a tape measure and pencil, mark a diagonal line that runs 2-inches out from each box corner.  
  • Use a ruler to mark a perpendicular line from the bottom of each diagonal line to the edge of your fabric.
    Note:  This creates a box in each corner of the fabric.
Mark and cut the fabric and remove bulk.
  • Cut along each line (straight and angled).  Remove the fabric from each corner.  
  • Use spray adhesive to adhere the fabric to the bottom and long sides of the box.
    Note:  Smooth any bubbles as you go.  Once done, flaps will hang off each long side of the fabric.
  • Position the box so that a short side is facing up.  Apply a line of tacky glue to a short side of the box and fold a fabric flap over to adhere, smoothing as you go.  Repeat with each flap on each short side.
  • Working with the short side of the fabric, apply a line of glue to the fabric and fold the short-side flap over to crate a flap that is exactly the same size as the short side of the box.
  • Glue the short side of fabric to the box and smooth any bubbles.
    Result:  The box is now covered in fabric and ready for a liner.
Fold and glue the flaps, smoothing as you go, to create crisp edges on box.
K-Cup box covered in fabric and ready for liner.

Part 2:  Create a Liner for the Box

The first time I completed this project, I used a tutorial recommended by the blogger. It worked well enough, but I now create my basket liners based on a combination of a few different tutorials.  Here is how I do it:
  • Use a tape measure to measure the bottom, one long side and one short side of the box.  Write down these measurements, denoting the length and width, on a sheet of paper.
    Note:  The measurement for the width of each side should match up with the measurements of the box bottom.  The length of each side should be the same.
    Example: My K-Cup measurements are: Short-10" x 7.5" ; Long- 12" x 7.5" ; Bottom-10" x 12"
  • Determine how far down you want the liner to hang over the sdie of the finished bin and add this amount to length.Note:  I usually add 2".
  • Add an additional 1" to each of your measurements to account for a 1/2 inch seam allowance on each side.
    Example:  My final measurements are:  Short-11" x 10.5" ; Long-13" x 10.5" ; Bottom-11" x 13"
  • Use ruler and scissors (or rotary cutter) to cut your fabric.  You will need enough fabric for two short-sides, two long sides and one bottom.
Cut fabric for liner sides and bottom.
  • Match the edges of one short-side piece and one long-side piece.  Measure 1/2 inch from the bottom and pin. 
The 1/2" will be used to attach the bottom piece of fabric.
  • Sew the sides together with a 1/2 inch seam.  Stop 1/2" from the bottom, at the pin.  Repeat this with all sides.
    Result:  You have a tube of fabric, with the bottom 1/2" left unsewn.
  • At the ironing board, leave the tube wrong-side out and iron the seam allowances smooth.
Sew the seam allowances flat before creating hems.
  • With the tube still wrong-side out, fold the edge of the completely sewn side over 1/4" or so and iron.  Fold over an additional 1/2" and pin.
    Note:  This will become the hem, so keep the edge as consistent as possible.
Use a six-inch sewing gauge to measure consistent hems.
  • Sew the hem along the edge, removing pins as you go. 
  • Match one side of the bottom piece to one side of the fabric tube, aligning the corners. Pin in place.  Repeat with each of the four sides.
    Note:  You may need to fold the unsewn flap of the adjoining piece over as you near each corner.
  • Sew the bottom to the tube with a 1/2" seam allowance.
    Note:  Be sure to keep your edges are matched up as you go around corners.
Straighten the fabric as you turn corners
  • Snip the corners to remove some of the bulk and turn the liner right-side out.
    Note:  This project does not necessarily demand snipped corners - I'm in the habit of always do so.  
  • Your basket liner is complete!  Trim any stray threads and place it in your storage box.  Fill it up with stuff and enjoy!
Fabric-covered box and fabric liner
Completed Storage Bin
This is an easy project and can be completed in just a couple of hours, and for very little cost.  If you choose to embellish the basket more, with ribbons or other decoration, your options are endless.  And, if you get tired of the fabric liner, it is very easily switched. 

Here are storage bins I've made over the past several months:

I'm using black/white storage bins to contain craft room clutter.
Old shoe box and remnant fabric
K-Cup box, re-purposed window panel  and quilt remnants.
Re-purposed a snack box and scrap fabric from a pillow project. 
Remnant fabric and old shoe boxes
A fat quarter, scraps of fabric and a snack box