26 November 2013

Foodie Tuesday | Baked Potato Soup

In my opinion, the stuffed baked potato is the single best invention ever created.

Ever. In the history of the world.

This is not an understatement.

Potatoes are plentiful, easy to cook and keep forever. And what other food is such a perfect, nutritious vehicle for so many other delicious foods? Bacon, sour cream, green onions, cheddar cheese, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, chili, eggs, black beans and corn.... I could literally go on and on.

So combining my love of baked potatoes with my love of soup is a natural pairing (my obsession with one-pot recipes and meals-in-a-bowl being well documented by now, I think.) This soup is simple, flavourful and decently healthy for you. It's also the perfect antidote to a cold winter night.


BAKED POTATO SOUP
Preparation: 10 minutes | Cooking Time: 1.5 hours + 40 minutes | Serves: 8-10
   
Ingredients:
  • 12 large baking potatoes (I use Russet, as big as I can find 'em)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 1/2 large Spanish onions, finely diced
  • 2 heaping tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 low sodium chicken bouillon cubes
  • 2 cups 18% table cream
  • 6-8 cups skim milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 6 slices bacon
  • green onions
  • cheddar cheese
    
Cooking Directions:
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
       
  2. Give the potatoes a little scrub to shake off the dirt, then it's time to get stabby. With a sharp kitchen knife, make three (3) small slits in each side of each potato. Place potatoes directly on oven racks, leaving a little space between neighbours to allow air/heat to circulate.
    I usually put two rows of 3 on each rack.
       
  3. Bake for 1.5 hours or until potatoes are tender to a fork inserted into the middle. Remove from oven and allow to cool on counter for 30-60 minutes.
       
  4. Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, garlic and bay leaves; sauté until onions are tender and translucent.
      
  5. Meanwhile, cut potatoes in half (wear oven mitts for this; they'll still be piping hot.) Using a large soup spoon, scoop the potato "meat" from the skins into a large bowl. Discard the husks.
      
  6. To the onion pot, add chicken bouillon cubes and 1 cup skim milk. Stir until bouillon is fully dissolved. Add salt and pepper.
       
  7. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add potato to the pot -- all of it. Stir to mix potato and onion together, then begin adding milk. Start with the cream, then the remaining milk.
    I prefer a thick soup, but you can adjust the consistency to your preference. The "ideal" is loose and creamy, but not thin or runny.
      
  8. Allow the soup to simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. While soup is cooking, fry up the bacon until crispy. Remove from heat, and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Crumble.
      
  9. Garnish each heat and steamy bowl of soup with fresh bacon bits, chopped green onion and grated cheddar cheese (or substitute your favourite toppings -- go ahead and personalize it!) 

Side note: this soup doesn't freeze well at all. Don't bother to try. Also, some of the liquid will evaporate when refrigerated, so you'll want to add a little milk when reheating to loosen it up.

I hope you enjoy this soup as much as our family does; it's one of our favourites.

NOTES | KID-FRIENDLY, GLUTEN FREE, EASY, ONE-POT-WONDER


Other Foodie Tuesday soups you might like:
    

19 November 2013

Foodie Tuesday | Homemade Taco Seasoning

I have kids, so it's only natural that tacos are a regular feature in our monthly menus. Tacos are fast, easy, fairly nutritious and most importantly customizable, a critical feature in our household of frequently finicky eaters.

What's always concerned me about using packaged taco seasoning, though, is the ridiculous level of sodium in those tasty little packets. My mum - chief taco aficionado - has high blood pressure, and her sodium intake is a critical factor in our decision-making when it comes to meals. Not to mention, my sporty kids require a proper balance of sodium in their systems in order to maintain their athletic performances, so salt is a real issue for us.

The other day it occurred to me that there must be a recipe out there for homemade taco seasoning, right? Surely 112 million Mexicans aren't falling back on Old El Paso like we are, right?

Of course they're not.

So I googled it, and found that a fantastic homemade taco seasoning recipe was literally just a click away. Not that I think 112 million Mexicans are googling 'taco seasoning' at allrecipes.com, either, but whatever.

This seasoning makes a deep, rich-tasting, spicy meat mixture that is a thousand times more flavourful and healthful than the store-bought variety. Even the Girl - she of the prickly palate - has overcome her aversion to "something new" and embraced the new flavours. If you have a spare a three minutes and want to enjoy the best homemade taco that'll ever walk out of your kitchen, I suggest whipping up a batch.

Right now. Go do it. Seriously.



HOMEMADE TACO SEASONING
Preparation: 3 minutes | Cooking Time: N/A | Serves: 1 lb. taco meat

Ingredients:
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
   
Cooking Directions:
  1. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Store in an airtight container in fridge or freezer.

A single serving of seasoning works for one package (approximately one pound) of ground beef.

One tip: we have to moderate the spice level in our family for someone (not naming names.... the Girl) who prefers mild over spicy. So when I double or triple the recipe, as I frequently do so we have enough beef mixture for leftovers, I generally increase the red pepper flakes and ground pepper by just half again as much. Two or three teaspoons of black pepper would be overpowering, but 1.5 teaspoons still adds kick without drowning out the other flavours. Ditto the red pepper.

It's up to you, of course. I'm just saying.

Finally, the seasoning itself can be refrigerated or frozen and will keep well for up to two months. OR, you can make a big ole batch of meat and freeze that instead. It's great for a quick and healthy weeknight meal.

OH! And one more cooking tip: I add a cup of water to the beef and seasoning mixture, so that the flavours boil down and blend a bit easier. Once the beef is done cooking, I add a few tablespoons of corn starch and water mixed, to thicken up the juices in a tasty sauce. The kids - and chief taco aficionado, Mum - claim it's what sets my tacos apart from everyone else's so... sauce it up! Go for it.
   
NOTES | GLUTEN FREE, FREEZER-FRIENDLY, KID-FRIENDLY

  

18 November 2013

Q&A With A Depressed Blogger


Do you feel like this? You might be depressed.
| via the awesome Hyperbole and a Half |






     
I've fallen down the rabbit hole again.

These past few weeks have been challenging ones. My status quo has been disrupted, and bumped me off emotional course. What began as a much-needed (and thoroughly enjoyable) vacation following the end of my Business of Design contract has slowly become too much time and too little structure. There have been some family tragedies - not within our little nucleus but within the wider cell, and still impactful - and a return to our blazingly hectic schedule, which is good and familiar but also completely exhausting.

Unlike most folks, my brain doesn't "coast" very well. It makes a conscious effort to maintain equilibrium at the best of times, in the most optimum conditions. When conditions are tested - by fatigue, by stress, by external forces (all negative or positive) - my brain is not as resilient. I don't bounce back as easily as I once did. Shifting momentum, changing perspective, regulating and processing emotions, recovering from setbacks and revving the engine of internal motivation.... all make my poor wee brain go, Woah. Hold on. You want to what? No, I'm sorry. That department is closed until further notice. Time for a nap.

True story.

I said a long time ago that I would acknowledge/talk about clinical depression only once on this blog, and you guys were super-supportive and awesome (like you always are, about everything.) Believe me, I felt the love. Now, I'm totally making a liar of myself by talking about it again, but since the Money Pit is a little slice of online diary for me, I'm writing this as much for me (to read again and again and again) as for you. You're really just along for the ride, if that's cool?

With that in mind, I decided to dispel a few myths about depression. I also decided this would best be accomplished in an interview/Q&A format because.... why? I don't know. Maybe because I haven't been interviewed in a while ever and I'm dying to be. So I'm interviewing myself, and maybe some of you out there who are struggling with similar issues can find a little nugget to take away that makes your journey just a little bit easier, too.

Q - Doesn't being depressed mean that you're unhappy with some aspects of your life, or all of it?

A - No, not at all.

I can't stress this enough: NO. NOT AT ALL.

Clinical depression is not a mood or a feeling; is not as simple as simply being unhappy. The circumstances of life impact my mood, without question, as they do for everyone. But depression is more than a feeling. It's a chemical imbalance in my brain that frequently manifests itself on an emotional level, but doesn't originate from it.

I am more than blessed in my life; I have personal riches beyond what I ever hoped for. My husband is my very best friend and partner in crime - we have a strong, happy marriage that gets better with age. It didn't come easily; we've worked our asses off for it, and continue to make our relationship health a primary focus in our lives.

The attention we pay it pays off: not only are we strong together, but we are raising two happy, confident, well-adjusted children. There are hiccups - with kids, when aren't there? - but they are socially skilled, achieve excellent marks in school, are well-liked by adults and their peers alike, are engaged in activities that they love and are successful in those activities, have great senses of humor and are poised to be wonderful adults. They're plain old nice kids and I expect at the end of the day they'll be plain old nice grown-ups, due in large part to how we're raising them and the example we're setting for them.

I live in lovely home. I make a lot of effort - like, a lot - to take good care of my family and friends, and to build connections with people. I dedicate time to things that are important to me; this blog, for instance, and blogging communities, and to pursuing personal interests like design and décor. Maybe not all the time that I'd like or would ideally wish for, but enough that it's satisfying.

So yeah.... I'm happy. Beyond happy, actually, with nearly every aspect of my life (my career trajectory could use some work but that, too, will clarify with time and effort.) Which makes it especially frustrating when my brain shuts down, takes a little vacay in the middle of a life I love living. A chemical imbalance can and does exist outside of your actual life, though one definitely impacts the other. I'm perfectly happy otherwise.

Q - Does everyone experience depression in the same way?

A - Again, not at all. And each time I fall down the rabbit hole, I fall down it differently. Really, describing clinical depression is like trying to shoot a moving target, or nail Jell-O to the wall (or insert your own equally difficult/impossible analogy here.)

When I was first diagnosed, my symptoms included mood swings as wide as the Grand Freaking Canyon. I lived on a spectrum that ran from hysterical crying at one end, to uncontrollable rages at the other. Most of my life was spent screaming - at Daryn, at the kids, at the dog - coupled with violent urges to throw things. I was never inclined to hurt people physically (thank gawd) but emotionally, I did more than my fair share of damage.

[UPDATE: See? Even here I shy away from the complete truth, because I judge myself so harshly for it. I absolutely WAS inclined to hurt people; my rages were overwhelming and out-of-control. It took a supreme amount of self-control and a fucking ton of love for those same people I wanted to smash in the face, for me to walk away. I wanted to physically hurt people all the time, so I could get whatever was swallowing me up whole inside, out of me. I'm ashamed to admit that, but it's the truth. Even now it makes me feel dirty; so much so that I didn't want to write it to the first time. It's taking every ounce of control I have not to delete this, actually. And what I'm thankful for is not that I never had those urges, but that I never acted on them. For that, I'll be eternally grateful to the Universe.]

Coupled with chronic fatigue but plagued with insomnia, I was a disastrous mess and next to impossible to live with. Becoming medicated (which was the best decision Daryn ever helped me make) made me feel like a rubber chicken most of the time, but alleviated the wild mood swings and let my brain re-adjust to better emotional regulation.

This time, my moods are generally fine (though I do cry more often, and more spontaneously, than usual) but I'm fuzzy. My brain is slow, like I've got a head full of soup. You know when you've set your dial to a certain radio station, and then you accidentally bump the tuner, like, one notch? From 99.9 to 99.8? And how you can hear the station still, but through a ton of static and interference? Right. So that's what living in my brain is like right now. I had been managing pretty well until recently, and my hope is that new medication (which I wasn't on, and now am) will help clear up that static and get me back to my snappy self. And cut out the chronic fatigue and ridiculous crying already.

Q - What does this mean for the Money Pit?

A - Well, it means that despite my best intentions (and sometimes, best efforts) I'm more sporadic that I want to be. You might have noticed that my posts have dropped off, and that I'm not engaging as much on social media. Some of you might have wondered why.

It's not for lack of interest, you guys. There's nothing I'd like more than to jump on Twitter or Facebook and chat it up. But my brain has created an almost insurmountable hurdle that takes incredible effort, energy and discipline to overcome (perfect example? This post has taken me about six hours to write. SIX HOURS. No kidding.) I'm not always able to overcome it, especially when I'm mired in trying to get through each day meeting my most important obligations: my family. So I'll take a forced break, wherein I probably won't post as much.

PS - This is reverse psychology, sort of. I'm giving myself permission to not be around as much, which means I'll feel more free (and less pressured) to post. Which means I'll probably post more. It's a crazy circle.

Q - Do you want to talk about it?

A - Only all the time, but not really. I chase my mental tail a lot, so Daryn endures some very circular conversations about depression in general and my coping strategies specifically. Let it be known here and now that my husband is pretty much a saint when it comes to this kind of thing. He puts with a lot of crap - like, A LOT - and loves me all the same. I'm one lucky chickadee.

So yes, I want to talk about it. But I don't want to be defined by it. Does that make sense? At the risk of sounding like a braggy-braggerson, I'm really smart. Not Mensa or anything; I'm no Sheldon Cooper. But I can hold my own, generally (I'm not just saying this. My mother had me tested.) So it makes me mad-mad-mad that I can't think as well as I know I know how to. Get that? I don't write as well, either, and it pisses me off. All of which I'd LOVE to talk about ad nauseum, and also NEVER want to talk about.

Q - How long will this episode last? When will is recur again?

A - I honestly don't know. My hope is that my current prescription is exactly the right medication at exactly the right dose on the very first try, but I can't tell you how rarely that happens. Usually it takes some fiddling and farting around - especially with dosage - to find the right balance and get the train back on track. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will be soon; our lives are extremely busy and the sooner I'm back into fighting shape, the better.

As for recurrence, again, I honestly can't say. I had hoped I had it licked after the first round but it would seem not. A diagnosis can last a month, a year or a lifetime; each person is affected differently and recovers differently. I'm taking the necessary steps to manage my diagnosis: it's not a weakness to medicate against depression, it's the way I've chosen to manage it. Meds are not for everyone, but they are right for me, right now. Each episode dictates its own response, but how soon that will happen again after recovery is anyone's guess.

Q - Why are you posting about depression again? You said you wouldn't.

A - I know. I'm now a known liar. I can't be trusted.

I just wanted to explain a bit more, especially for all the new friends I've made through BlogPodium and similar, who may feel a little abandoned now that I've dropped off the grid. It's not you; it's definitely me. But it's not all of me - not the only thing about me - and it's important for me to say that I'll be back. I just need a break to reset my recovery path.

Also, and this is an important point so take note: I'm trying to let go of the shame of my diagnosis.

I spend a lot of time denying that I have a diagnosis; to myself, and to others. I feel.... weak. I feel like if I were stronger, or more resilient, or more intelligent or... whatever... that I would be able to manage my life without support. Sometimes I convince myself that I am just sad, and that's all my fault and that I'm choosing to disengage from my life. This is totally a lie, but I hate feeling out of control and sometimes it's better to blame myself than to admit my brain drives the bus and I'm just a passenger in my own head. If my body was a movie it would be Speed, and I'm Sandra Bullock. See that? NO CONTROL. It sucks.

So I'm ashamed, and I'm embarrassed, and opening about it - really owning it - is my next step in letting go of that shame and embarrassment. I don't blame others who are depressed, so why do I blame myself? I accept that it's a medical condition like asthma or diabetes; I'm taking the necessary medical steps to control it. I wouldn't be embarrassed to say I'm asthmatic, so it's time to let go of the stigma of depression.

I AM CLINICALLY DEPRESSED.

Sometimes, my brain is an asshole. I'm dealing with it.

Q - So.... what's next?

A - Well, nothing much, really. Like I said, my presence around these here parts (and everywhere else on social media) might continue to be sporadic. If I need a break, I'll take one. You'll see some posts come up that have a decidedly cheerful feeling to them. That's for two reasons:

1) Some of those were written a few weeks back, and have been waiting in queue, and
2) When I wrote them, I was cheerful.

It's not all doom-and-gloom. I'm OK, just working hard. Sometimes that hard work wears me out and leaves me very little time for fun stuff like the blog. But I'll be back, and I'm looking forward to re-connecting with all y'all when I am.

xo April

12 November 2013

Foodie Tuesday | Pork Loin in White Wine Sauce

Pork is my all-time favourite meat, after beef, chicken and fish. And maybe bison, too (which I tried two years ago during a fondue dinner at the Walliser Stube, Chateau Lake Louise, and LUUURVED).

So, it's fair to say pork is not my favourite. If it's not being delivered in bacon format, I'm not rushing the gate to get any.

That being said, pork is a big hit with the rest of the family and as I've stated already, not so long ago, I spend a great deal of time (read: nearly all of it) dreaming up and researching recipes that I think the fam will like. Given that pork's generally a winner -- even with Princess Fussy Face -- when I strike upon a recipe that works, I take full advantage.

Full disclosure: Princess Fussy Face did NOT like this one. But the rest of us, who apparently have some secret desire to be winos (or else, are hiding some fairly significant dependency issues from one another), lapped it up like it was our JOB. It might be overstating to say we drank the sauce but honestly, not by much.

The lesson here is this: your average 10-year-old has very little desire for his or her dinner to get them hammered. Everyone else does. Serve accordingly.

PORK LOIN in WHITE WINE SAUCE
Preparation: 25 minutes | Cooking Time: 20 minutes + 1.5 hours | Serves: 5
    
Ingredients:
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 lbs pork tenderloin (approximately 3 medium loins)
  • 8 slices bacon
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 cups shallots, finely diced
  • 3 cups cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tsp dried thyme, or 1 1/2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 tbsp Italian flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups white wine (or red)
  • 2 tbsp quinoa flour
  • 4 tbsp water
  • 1-2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • sea salt and cracked black pepper
       
Cooking Directions:
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
       
  2. Roughly chop bacon slices, and cut pork into 1-inch cubes.
      
  3. In a dutch oven, heat oil until bubbling. Add bacon and cook, stirring, until crisp. Remove from pot with slotted spoon and set aside.
    If, like me, you don't have a dutch oven or any casserole dish that can go from stove-top to oven, begin the cooking process in the largest soup pot you own. Place your casserole dish in the oven while it's preheating, and when you've completed steps 4 and 5, just transfer the mixture from pot to dish. Preheating the casserole dish means you won't disrupt the cooking process by going hot to cold.
      
  4. To the pot, add garlic, shallots and thyme. Sauté until shallots are translucent. Add mushrooms and parsley. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until mushrooms begin to wilt.
      
  5. Add pork; season generously with sea salt and cracked black pepper, to taste. Scrape any brown bits from the bottom of the pan while cooking; if scalding occurs, add a drop of wine to the pot to loosen up the mixture. Cook until pork is browned on most, if not all, sides.
      
  6. If you are working with a dutch ovenreturn bacon bits to the pan and add wine. Stir to combine, then transfer to the oven. If you are working with a soup pot + casserole dish, transfer mixture to preheated casserole dish, then add wine and bacon bits. Stir to combine.
      
  7. Cook uncovered. After one hour, mix flour and water together in a small bowl. Add to pork mixture and stir to combine.
       
  8. Continue cooking an additional 30 minutes (1.5 hours total). Remove from oven; taste. Add additional salt and/or pepper as preferred. Add 1 tbsp Dijon mustard and stir to combine. Taste, and add additional Dijon as required. Serve over smashed potatoes. 

NOTES | EASY

Gently adapted from original Recipe from 500 Casseroles
 

05 November 2013

Foodie Tuesday | Chicken & Pea Risotto

If you want an amazing recipe that

  • is low in fat...
  • is low in sodium...
  • will help you fit into your skinny jeans...

this is not the droid recipe you're looking for.

If, on the other hand, you want an amazing recipe that is a rich-and-creamy, once-in-a-blue-moon treat and freaking delicious, this IS the recipe you're looking for!

I'm sure there are ways to make this risotto a smidge -- or a ton -- healthier, but I sort of feel like making it healthy would suck all the fun out of it. It would defeat the purpose (which is, of course, complete and total indulgence.) And unless your ultimate goal is to be air-lifted by a crane through a blown-out wall in your house or you've got spare arteries hanging around just collecting dust, this isn't an everyday meal. Keep it for special occasions like a rare quiet evening at home, when it's just perfect.

Finally, I should mention that this risotto does NOT freeze well so I don't recommend trying it. Better to eat it all within 2 to 3 days of preparation. And realistically speaking, it's not meant to be a meal unto itself. You should probably eat it as a side with something else; that "something else" should probably be mostly vegetables. I never do but you know.... I feel like I should say it anyway. Consider it a PSA.

At the end of the day, though, do whatever you want... and if what you want is a whole bowlful of this deliciousness, you'll find no judgement here!


CHICKEN & PEA RISOTTO
Preparation: 20 minutes | Cooking Time: 1 hour | Serves: 12 cups

Ingredients:
  • 1/3 cup salted butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • 4 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 3 chicken bouillon cubes (we use Knorr)
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 cups white wine* (we use a Riesling but for a milder taste, try Chardonnay)
  • 8 cups boiled water
  • 3-4 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
  • 2 1/2 cups frozen peas
  • 3 cups + 1 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Cooking Directions:
  1. Shred chicken, finely dice onion and strip thyme leaves from their stems.
    Stripping thyme leaves is the worst task ~ I hate it. Takes forever and is so nit-picky, but the flavour is out of this world. If you don't have fresh thyme (or don't want to spend the time plucking teeny-tiny leaves off of teeny-tiny stems) you can substitute 1 1/2 to 2 tbsp of dried thyme instead.
       
  2. Boil water in the kettle.
      
  3. Melt butter and olive oil in a heavy-potted soup pot on medium high heat.
      
  4. When butter is sizzling but not browned, add onion, garlic and thyme. Sauté until onion is soft and translucent (about 8-10 minutes).
      
  5. Add the Arborio rice to the pot, and stir well to coat with butter. Cook for two minutes until the rice kernels start to "snap" in the heat.
      
  6. Dissolve chicken bouillon cubes into rice mixture, then add pepper and wine. Stir regularly until liquid is absorbed.
    If there isn't enough butter in the pan to dissolve the bouillon, add half a cup of boiled water to the mixture to loosen it up.
       
  7. Begin adding boiled water 2 cups at a time, stirring until liquid is absorbed. Stir constantly to ensure even absorption and to avoid scalding. Cook until rice is tender and risotto is creamy.
       
  8. Stir in chicken and peas; cook 2 minutes or until peas are heated through. 
      
  9. Remove from heat. Stir in Parmesan cheese. Serve hot topped with more shredded Parmesan and cracked black pepper. 

*The wine flavour in this dish is quite pronounced, and not for everyone. You can manage the strength by substituting some (or all) of the wine for additional water/stock. If you decide to replace the wine altogether, I would suggest adding a fourth bouillon cube. Otherwise, that extra two cups of water will dilute the other flavours too much and then you'll just end up with white rice-paste, and nobody wants that.

If you can make yourself wait (I never can) it's even better the next day. Leftovers don't last long in our house, and I'll bet they won't in yours either!

Notes: one-pot-wonder
 

04 November 2013

"The Making of Juanathan" | 10 Steps to Better Blog Photos

Every single time I sit in a room with a bunch of bloggers to brainstorm super-genius ways to collectively improve our blogs (and, let's be real: bump up our traffic) one idea always gets a lot of traction:

Photos. GOOD ONES. Take 'em and post 'em. Because all the awesome blogs have 'em.

Sure, it's about content. If you're boring, you're boring. All the great photos in the world won't make you interesting if you don't have a compelling story to sell in the first place. It doesn't matter how great an editing job you do on a picture of a rock, it's still just a picture of rock. Obviously, subject matter counts.

But assuming you are super sparkling and adorable and amazing and folks hang on your every (written) word, it's time to back that shit up with some phantasmagoric photos. Because the words are what draw them in, but it's the pictures that are going to get pinned and shared and tweeted like crazy, and that's the good stuff that drives up your traffic.

With that in mind, a fair while back I made an investment in the blog (and in myself) and bought a new camera. The old one, a little Fuji point-and-shoot, had done me well over the years and taken some of my favourite photographs ever. But it was feeling its age and if I wanted to get serious about this 'ole blog of mine (which I do) I needed a camera with a bit more range, so I took advantage of the post-holiday discounts and purchased myself a Canon T3i Rebel, which seems to be the "go to" camera for bloggers like moi. I call him Jimmy.

These past few months that Jimmy and I have been in a committed relationship have been some of the happiest of my photographic life. He's so versatile, so sophisticated and yet so easy to handle... quite the catch for a gal like me. But even Jimmy can't fully overcome the challenges of bad lighting, and a few days of cloudy, overcast weather a few weeks back brought the idea screeching home: in order to take better, consistent photos, I needed to be able to control the sun.

...... { crickets } ......

Upon further investigation it would seem this is impossible. Fartskittles.

So I did the next best thing: I built myself a light box!

Boo-yah! I did so. I seriously never make, craft or DIY anything, you guys, and I totally did this all by myself. And YOU CAN TOO!

In just 10 easy steps, you can control the sun in your very own home and take the awsmazing photos you've been dreaming about. Here's how:

STEP ONE | Collect your "ingredients"


You'll need:
  1. White tissue paper
  2. Ruler
  3. Box cutter or heavy duty Xacto knife
  4. Double-sided tape (or regular Scotch tape would do just fine, too)
  5. Clamp-on work light x 2 or 3 (though if you have a few desk lamps hanging around, these will work just fine too)
  6. Duck tape
  7. Sharpie marker
  8. Self-adhesive Velcro
  9. Light bulbs (I suggest using 100w "daylight" bulbs, which offer a clear white light)
     



Oh, and you'll also need a box, one that's at least 12" x 12" x 12" but larger is better (and easier to work with.) Depending on the condition of your box (better is better), you might want to reinforce the back seam with duck tape before proceeding to Step #2.

STEP TWO | Measure

On each of the solid sides of the box (all four, if you're me, or two sides and the top if you prefer) and along all four flaps, measure two (2) inches from all four edges and mark with a pencil (which I forgot to include in the fab photo of things you'll need... my bad. The Sharpie would work too.)


When you've marked each edge the requisite two inches, it's time to....

STEP THREE | Connect the dots


You should end up with an inner box on each side that gives you a solid (and equal) framework all around the outside.

STEP FOUR | Pull an Uncle Joey and...


All of your inner boxes, and the flaps too. Cut it all out. You won't need these cardboard inserts for anything down the road (to do with the light box) so go ahead and discard/recycle them. Unless you're crafty or whatever, then by all means keep them for.... whatever it is you might do with them. I'm not crafty so I don't know. But I assume it's something awesome.

Moving on.

It should look like this (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) when you're done:


STEP FIVE | Time to Tape

First, you'll want to fold your two-inch flaps down over one another and tape them together to create a "lip" similar to your other 3 or 4 sides, like so...


Then, if you've got some spare time and really wanted to, you could reinforce all the edges with your duck tape. This takes a bit of time and you can totally skip this part. I totally did (except the flaps, that is; that shit's mandatory.)

STEP SIX | Grab a Tissue

I used white tissue paper from the dollar store, which is huge... 20" x 30" maybe? I'm not sure exactly, but I bought it because it's cheap and plentiful. I suggest you do the same but it's your call.

Take up between three and five sheets of tissue paper for one side (the more paper you use, the less opaque the sides will be, which strangely makes the inside of the box much "whiter" than with fewer sheets, which is weird and I can't explain it, since I'm neither a scientist nor an electrician, but you can trust me that it's true.)

Trim your tissue paper to roughly the size of your cut-out, ensuring that the paper overlaps the edge by at least an inch. Fasten the paper to the box at each corner with your double-sided/Scotch tape to hold it in place, then tape each side corner-to-corner with duck tape.

Full disclosure: I fully forgot to take photos of this step because I got really excited when it was happening and totally engrossed, and I'm an asshat. So just refer back to Step #5 and check out the pic of the flaps being taped down, because it's essentially the same thing except there's tissue paper involved.

Here, I know you're lazy. I am too, so I'll do you a solid.


See what I did there? Supported your laziness AND recycled!

You're welcome.

And here's a shot from when I DID actually remember to take one, in which the light box is totally done but I've captioned it like I meant it to reflect the process of fastening the diffuser (by which I mean the the tissue paper, in case my talkin' fancy got you confused,)



So you see what I mean.

STEP SEVEN | Congratulate Yourself

You've just made a light box!!

That's pretty badass, dude. Seriously. Pat yourself on the back and give yourself a big high-five, because that's just awesome.

And yes, high-fiving yourself winds up looking more like clapping so yeah.... you could be applauding yourself also. Or at the same time. Two birds and all that.

Whatever. It's all good. Manhandle yourself however you like to congratulate yourself because dude? You've done good!

STEP EIGHT | Set Up Your Studio

The beauty of a little light box like this is that you can set it up virtually anywhere in your house that you have a flat surface and access to electrical sockets. For purposes of demonstration I hijacked my dining room table, and have refused to move ever since. The family is less than thrilled but that gigantor floor lamp that I hoisted up on top to serve as my overhead light is freaking heavy, so I have no intention of hauling it up and down every time I want to take a snapshot of something.

No. Waaaaay.

Once I get my office into semi-decent condition (and get a desk, which is critical to the operation), I'll move it upstairs and out of everyones' way. Until then, it stays put.

Sidebar: Does anyone have a desk for sale? I'm in the market.

But I digress.


Basically, you need to set up your box on a flat surface that gives you flexible camera angles and allows you to position your lights as required. This is also why my dining room table is perfect, since the clamp lights are the exact perfect height when fastened to the back of my dining room chairs.

See how bright it is on the inside? That's the good stuff right there. Clear, even lighting on all sides is what you're looking for, to minimize shadows and highlight details. You can't see from the photo above but all four sides of my box are fixed with a diffuser in the event I want to do any top-down (overhead) photo shoots in future. This isn't necessary, but it does give me added flexibility.

And there's nothing I like better than bending things to my will.

N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

Except maybe dill pickle chips. But again, I digress.

The beauty of having diffusers on all four sides also allows me use my light box horizontally or vertically.


Just more options. I'm all about options.

STEP NINE | Backgrounds Are The Bomb

You can use whatever you want as a background: Bristol board, fabric, plastic sheeting.... whatever strikes your fancy. I like a charcoal grey Bristol board in matte finish, but that's just me. You can use whatever you want and in fact, you can set up your box to allow you to have multiple backgrounds that you can swap out according to your moods and what you're photographing.

This is where the self-adhesive Velcro comes in.

Cut your backgrounds down to size: the edges should sit flush against the side edge-to-edge, but have some excess at the bottom (as pictured above.) Once you're happy with the fit, fasten a strip of Velcro to the top of your background, about one inch below the edge. Then, fasten the husband Velcro to the strip on your background, and peel off the adhesive. Press the background into your box to allow the husband to adhere to your box. When you're ready to change out, simply separate the Velcro and Bob's your uncle!

For additional backgrounds, reverse engineer this process. Fasten a new strip of wife Velcro to the husband already in the box, remove the backing, then press your new background onto the strip. Separate as described above.

Again, I'm an asshat who forgot to take photos but take my word for it: it works. And it's super simple. If I can figure it out, you totally can. I'm not just saying that.

STEP TEN | Take Badass Photos of Awesome Shit

Seriously. Start shutterbugging!

Remember these photos?



Courtesy of Juanathan, La Light Box. And there's more to come..... oooooooooh, there's more.


And there you have it! You've just created with your own two hands a way to make your photos ten times better, all in about an hour and a half and a hundred bucks worth of materials. I'm sure you can make one for cheaper, or faster. More power to you if you can. And I know I'm not breaking any sort of revolutionary ground here with these instructions -- I did Google it, after all, so you know.... it's "out there." But if you didn't know how and really wanted to, I hope you found this helpful!

PS |  The story of Juanathan is this: During a recent episode of the Property Brothers (which is a guilty pleasure that I watch occasionally even though I find the premise completely implausible) Jonathan attempted to convince a couple to name their soon-to-be-born offspring after himself. Jonny, John, Jonita (if it was a girl)... all excellent proposals.

And then he came out with Juanathan (Hwahhhh-nathan) and I seriously laughed for five straight minutes. Juanathan tickled my funny bone something awful. Juanathan is fucking hilarious.

So when I decided to make a light box of my very own, I had an epic OMG moment when I realized I could use the much-coveted mustachioed duck tape I've been trying to weasel into the house for years (but since I'm not handy and never DIY, there never was a good time. You can understand why.) HERE was the perfect opportunity, and what better to name a mustachioed light box than...

JUANATHAN!

And thus my mustachioed friend was born.


How do you feel about DIY'd photo props and accoutrements? Would you use them, and have you built them? I'm looking for a new challenge so hit me up with your amazing projects!

 

01 November 2013

House Stalking | Jonathan Adler & Simon Doonan

Jonathan Adler is arguably one of the most well known and approachable of the celebrity designers today. I'm always in complete awe of his exuberance; his designs, to me, are the embodiment of infectious energy.

They're just plain happy, and don't we all need and want a healthy dose of happy in our houses?

As a client I expect you'd hire Adler specifically for his signature look. How could you not? If you were afraid of colour or pattern, I wouldn't think he'd be the designer for you. But even the most daring of clients may have limits. No matter how much you love a designer's work, personal preferences always come into play at some point or another during the process. So where else could you expect to see the most pure reflection of Adler's design sense than his very own home, shared with long-time partner Simon Doonan?

Nowhere, that's where. Which is why Adler and Doonan's Greenwich Village apartment, featured in the September 2013 issue of Lonny magazine, is so fan-freaking-tastic.

In a 2,500 square foot space, keeping the walls and ceilings white might imbue a sterile look, but Adler and Doonan's combined aesthetic (and love of theatrical colour and whimsical statements) create a feeling that's quite the opposite: bold, joyous, welcoming and F.U.N.

Which is precisely what gives Adler the approachability that's made him famous.





Just putting it out to the universe: If Jonny and Simon wanted to invite me over some time soon for tea and cookies, I would probably almost definitely say yes.

YES! I would say yes. Please invite me.

For the full article and house tour, click over to Lonny to check it out.