Free Design Software – Part One

Mark and I are moving towards a renovation of our “Florida room.”  A Florida room, for those who are not familiar, is somewhere between a screened-in porch and a sun room.  Our version includes jalousie windows (which we thought we had left behind in Hawaii) and the remnants of what was once an outdoor kitchen complete with electric stove.  Other “highlights” include carpet not actually nailed to the ground and an under 8′ ceiling with some old ceiling fans.  I’ll have “before” pictures shortly, but this post is about utilizing some free online design software I found to help me get an idea of what we could do with the space.

We want to turn our Florida room into a full-fledged sun room, complete with windows and its own heating and cooling system.  We’ve made some preliminary decisions about the flooring, layout, etc. and I wanted to see how our choices might look together in the space.  I stumbled upon IKEA’s kitchen planner and realized that I could use it to map out the sun room as well since it is going to have some kitchen/dining elements such as cabinets, counter tops, shelving and a table and chairs.  Here’s what I came up with:


Since the room was an add-on to the original house sometime during the 70’s we think, it runs the length of the house but isn’t all that wide, about 12′ x 30′.  The shot above only shows about half of the room.  The other side will feature a sitting area with chairs and/or chaise and as much as I wish you could add any of IKEA’s products to my room, it is limited to only kitchen and dining related items.

What I liked about using this software (apart from the fact that it was free and easy to use) was that I could play around with wall color as well as different materials for the floors, counters, etc.  We don’t plan on having green, modern-looking chairs in our sun room, but I was thinking about a green rug under white/light club chairs on the other side so it was nice to be able to introduce the color and see if it “played nicely” with the other things I had going on in the room.

I wished I could have added a rug under the table, but I think a caramel colored indoor/outdoor sisal will work well and tie in with the warm oak butcher block counter top I selected.

After I did the sun room, I decided to play around with my kitchen as well.  Who knows when we’ll ever have the money to fully renovate this small, 10’x10′ kitchen, but it was nice to see how I liked the wall color and floor choices I’m considering for the sun room in the kitchen since I would ideally like for them to be the same. Here’s what I came up with:


Pretty cool huh?  Of course, I would like to add a blacksplash (something like this) but I think this gives me a good idea of what it would look like with the same floor and wall colors that I chose for the sun room.

I really liked playing around with this program.  I thought it was a great way to see how the colors and other choices I was mulling over in my head looked on paper screen. Now my question is how the dark blue/grey color that I selected for the kitchen and sun room walls will go with the other blue colors I have on the walls in the family/dining room?  So next I am going to play around with FloorPlanner, another free design software that will allow me to make 2D floor plans.  This will allow me to not only see the colors all in one view, but also play around with furniture configuration.  Stay tuned!

Irma’s Fruit Salad “Ensalada” Juice

Andy’s favorite drink of all time is his mother’s fruit salad, or “Ensalada”, juice.  His mother makes this juice for every family gathering. I made it for the first time this weekend for a dinner party.

We originally thought this drink was singular to Andy’s family, but recently we discovered another El Salvadoran-American family who makes a similar drink.  When I did a little online research we realized that “Ensalada” is a very popular homemade drink in El Salvador and is also served in El Salvadoran restaurants.  Every home cook makes it a little differently, and in El Salvador they use whatever fruits are available. Here is the recipe for the version Irma brought with her when she immigrated to the U.S.:


Ingredients: four oranges, two apples, one mango, one pineapple, one can of frozen orange concentrate, one bottle of mango concentrate, and one bottle of jugo de marañón (cashew juice).  Not pictured: water and sugar, to taste


I started by pouring the cashew juice, mango concentrate and orange concentrate into a large stock pot.


Then I sliced one of the oranges and used a vegetable peeler to remove the skin from the mango.  I chopped it into manageable pieces and…


This next step is where I became a cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater.  When Andy’s mom makes this juice she hacks at each fruit with a machete-like knife.  For hours.  Hack! Hack! Hack! One by one the tiny and juicy pieces of fruit fall into the bowl and swim about in the fruit concentrate. It’s beautiful and authentic.

I used a food processor.  Please don’t tell her.

The chopped mango went into the processor first for a few seconds on “pulse” and then I scooped it directly into the concentrate.


Next, I cut up the apples, leaving the skin on per Irma’s instructions.  Then I unceremoniously dumped the apple pieces into the food processor and hit the pulse button.


For the pineapple I used a chef’s knife to cut off the top and bottom to create a stable surface for cutting, then I sliced off the rind and cut the fruit off the core.  The pineapple took three trips to the food processor.


Did I mention my husband was supposed to be making this juice?


Next I added three quarts of water, but you could add more or less depending on how thick you prefer your juice.  There’s a ton of fruit pieces in this, so it’s gonna be somewhat thick no matter how much water is added.


The recipe Andy got from his mother said to sweeten to taste. After a thorough search of my cupboards I was only able to find one and a half cups of regular sugar, and I added the entire kit and kaboodle to the juice.  My version tasted much less sweet than Irma’s, so I’m guessing she typically uses at least another cup of sugar, depending on the ripeness of the fruit.


I sliced the remaining oranges (which I hadn’t sliced earlier only because I forgot after I got caught up in my rebellious use of the food processor) and put them into the juice.


It made about a gallon and a half, easily quenching the thirst of all eight adults at the dinner party with some leftover for the next day.  I think I’ll go have another glass.


Gardening – January Edition – Lessons Learned

It’s January.  After the holidays, resolutions still (marginally) intact, and nothing but Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and President’s Day to keep you going until the weather turns warmer.  And even though we’ve had some milder weather this winter, it still means that the garden is pretty barren.  And if you are like me, i.e., always looking forward to spring, this can be kind of disheartening.  January is just far enough off from spring to really make it feel like it will never come.  But January is the perfect time to start planning your spring and summer garden.  You can sit inside nice and cozy reflect on how unsuccessful last year’s garden was and dream about how successful this year’s garden will be.  So, how am I preparing?  First, lessons learned from last year!


1)   Tomato Thicket – Last year I got super duper excited and started my tomato plants from seed inside.  This was great – I had a ton of tomato plants and they were super cute.  So, of course, I couldn’t even consider not planting all of them.  Alllllll 16 full sized tomato plants.  In a garden bed that is 4 feet wide and 8 feet long.  So I ended up with a tomato thicket.  I couldn’t even reach the beautiful tomatoes in the back, and the plants grew so intertwined together that they couldn’t get enough light to actually produce a lot of fruit.  This was my end of season I’m-taking-all-the-plants-out-and-calling-it-quits-harvest.


2)   Compost – As a basis for a garden bed, compost is amazing.  Those tomatoes, though completely a mess grew, and grew and grew and grew.  The tomatoes I was able to pick were beautiful, flavorful and awesome.  And the compost was cheap – it cost about $50 for a half a truck load of the stuff, the garden center picked it up and dumped it into the back of the pick up truck for me and I just had to scoop it out into a wheel barrow, throw it in the beds and then turn the beds over.  The only problem was that I had to borrow Mark’s truck to go get the compost – and then wash it.  Thanks Mark!

3)   Lettuce Alone – For me and J, growing lettuce was not a successful enterprise.  First, the lettuce didn’t grow very well.  I’m not sure if the soil drainage wasn’t right, or if sunlight wasn’t right, but the lettuce definitely failed to thrive.  Second, we eat a ton of salads.  The lettuce I was able to grow would not even have made half of one of J’s salads.  I don’t think I’ll try lettuce again.  The return on investment of time and garden bed space was pretty low. 

So, what am I going to try to grow this season?  Stay tuned!

~ Natalie

The Mom-Cut

On Sunday I waltzed into Hair Cuttery and left forty-five minutes later… sporting my first “mom-cut”. “Mom-cut” is apparently the term applied to any drastic haircut a woman gets after she has become a mother. Much like the “breakup-cut”, the “mom-cut” is not always viewed in a favorable light by one’s friends, who may believe the decision for a post-baby haircut is undertaken only after a complete loss of sanity caused by sleep deprivation.

For me, the decision to chop off over twelve inches of hair was made for three reasons, all of which were considered after a reasonable amount of sleep:

  1. My hair was taking on an accidental Rapunzelesque quality. This might be fine for fairy tales, but for a thirty-two year old women it seemed a little silly.
  2. Miss M was using my hair as a stabilizing mechanism whenever I was holding her. I wish I could be tough and say I barely felt a thing when all eighteen pounds of my daughter were swinging from my ponytail with a baby death grip, but, truth be told, it hurt. Like a lot.
  3. Some thoughtful friends directed me to pictures of these kids. I support the right of a child to choose to rock a hair-free noggin, but I also think there is underlying dignity afforded a child when he or she is able to make the choice.

Miss M’s response to my cut was nonexistent, unless you count the spit bubble she blew at me upon my return. My husband’s response to my new ‘do was, “I’m having flashbacks to when you were nineteen.” I think I’ll keep him.   Check out my mom-cut (complete with rainy day frizziness) below:



French Onion Soup and Imperial Chicken

Today I decided that I would try my hand at french onion soup because I had a bunch of leftover onions from the holidays wasting away in my basket and with Mark getting ready to go out of town, I didn’t see another good opportunity to use them all before they went bad.  I also had a sliver of Gruyère cheese leftover as well, and that cheese is expensive so it was nice to find a use for the rest of it also.

I searched the interwebs for a recipe and ending up combing ones from Tyler Florence via Food Network, Smitten Kitchen and The Pioneer Woman. Let’s get started.

First I threw a stick of butter into a dutch oven and put the pot over a burner on medium heat.


Then I started peeling, halving, and slicing 5 medium to large sized sweet onions.  The recipes generally call for regular, yellow onions but I generally tend to buy the sweet ones because I prefer them in most things, so that’s what I used.


ImageOnce the onions were sliced, the butter was melted and just starting to brown.


So I threw the onions in and stirred them around to coat them in the butter and then let them cook (stirring occasionally) for about 20 minutes.  While the onions were cooking on the stove, I pre-heated the oven to 400 degrees and grated this little nub of Greyere cheese that I had left:



I added a little bit of parmesean as well to stretch the cheese and increase the flavor profile.


I didn’t have alot of bread choices on hand today, so I took 4 slices of regular Shepherd’s sandwich bread and I used a biscuit cutter to cut circles that would fit inside of my ramekins.  But you could (and probably should) use slices of french loaf.



After I cut the bread, I buttered it on both sides and set it aside for now.


After about 20 minutes, the onions looked like this:


I put the pot in the oven and cracked the lid just a bit to let out some of the steam.


Then I walked away and watched the football game for 30 minutes.  When I came back, they looked like this:


I stirred the onions a bit and added a half a teaspoon of sugar to help with the browning…


And 2 bay leaves to help with the flavor.


Then I mostly covered the pot again and put it back in the oven for another 45 minutes.  When I took it out, it looked like this:


I set the pot back on the stove top over medium/high heat, removed the bay leaves, added about a cup of white wine, scraped down the sides, and let it cook down about 10 minutes.


Then I reduced the heat to low, added about 3 tablespoons of flour, and simmered for another 5-10 minutes.


Then I turned the heat back up to high and added two boxes (aka two quarts) of beef stock, three cloves of minced garlic, and a couple of dashes of Worcestershire.  Once it came to a boil, I turned the heat down and let it simmer for 45 minutes.


While the soup was simmering, I started on the “Imperial Chicken.”  This is a version of a recipe I actually learned to make as a child through a cooking class my mom signed me up for.  It’s nothing special, but I thought it would pair well with the soup.  First take two chicken breasts…


And slice them in half…


So that you have 4 breast pieces.


Then you need to assemble the breading stations.  I use wax paper for the dry stations for easy clean up and less dishes.  On the first piece of wax paper, pour about a cup of flour, then melt a half a stick of butter in a bowl.  On the last piece of wax paper, combine about a half of cup of Parmesean cheese, a cup or so of bread crumbs, and about 2 teaspoons each of oregano, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper.  You can really use any seasonings that sound good to you, or you can use pre-seasoned bread crumbs, there’s no magic formula.


Before you started assembling the breaded chicken breasts, heat a large pan with about 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of oil on medium/high.  Really you can use any lipid that you want, but I find that half butter and half canola oil is great for browning.  The important thing is that the amount should be enough to fully coat the pan.

Drop each piece of chicken in the flour…


Then in the butter…


Then in the bread crumb mixture.


Once they are all prepared, place them in the hot pan and cook for about 7-10 minutes on each side.  You want the outside to look like this:


And you also want the insides cooked through so if your crust is getting nicely browned, yet it still gives to the touch of your finger in the middle, turn the heat down and let it cook a little bit longer.  While this was happening to took the opportunity to move my dirty dishes to the sink…


Wipe down my counter… Image

And set the table.


When the chicken is brown on the outside and cooked through, remove to a plate and let rest for 10 minutes.


While the chicken is resting, turn on your broiler (if it has a low setting, use it) and place the buttered pieces of bread under it until it’s nice and golden brown.


Once the bread is toasted, pour the soup into ramekins until they are about 3/4 full…


Then add two pieces of bread, (if you used french loaf, you could just use once slice)…


And then a handful of cheese.


Stick the ramekins on a cookie sheet and place them under the broiler until the cheese is bubbly and browning on the corners, like this:


Place the ramekins on a plate with the chicken and serve.


I liked this dinner because it really was easy to make and the flavors went well together. Here’s a link to the recipe.  Try it sometime when it’s cold and grey outside like it was today.

— Kate

Making Baby… Food

Miss M had her four month birthday last Friday, and the pediatrician gave her the thumbs up to start eating solid foods.

We started off the first evening with brown rice cereal mixed in with her formula. Her first meal was one tablespoon. She thought it was a grand and remarkable adventure and ended up covered from head to toe with liquidy goodness. She went straight into the bath.

The next meal I prepped a slightly thicker texture of brown rice cereal. It hadn’t previously occurred to me that in order to avoid allergy and digestive complications every food needs to be introduced one day at a time for several days. I actually think waiting in between new foods makes it so much easier; I only have to learn how to make a different puree every three or four days.

After three days of brown rice cereal, Miss M got her first taste of avocado puree. This puree was a little more complicated to make, but I think that’s because I have a hand-me-down generic blender that dates from the 90s (before anyone actually expected blenders to blend things). I blended the raw avocado with formula, then pushed the whole concoction through a strainer. The resulting goop was adored by Miss M, who ate some and used the rest as a pore-cleansing face mask and hair conditioner.

Today I tackled a cooked puree: sweet potato!

First, I peeled, chopped, then steamed three sweet potatoes.


Then, I mashed them using a potato masher and added 1/2 tsp. cinnamon.


I found these one ounce freezer trays with lids!


Since the portions were going in the freezer, I didn’t add formula yet.  Once they’re defrosted I’ll mix in the formula. I wasn’t fancy and just used a spoon to scoop the mashed potatoes into each section, but you could totally clip the end of a ziploc bag and squish it in so the process was a little less messy.  I put the lidded trays in the freezer overnight, then ran some water over the bottoms to easily release the frozen cubes. For now, I’m keeping each one ounce portion in labeled freezer bags.


At our store, a 2.5 oz. container of mashed sweet potatoes was $.92, and I was able to make 24 oz. for a little over $3, so I’m excited about how much cheaper it was to make my own!

For anyone interested in making baby food, I recommend “Great Expectations: Best Food for Your Baby & Toddler: From First Foods to Meals Your Child Will Love.”  I’m sure there are lots of other good resources out there, but this is the one I used to get me started and it was really helpful. 


Book Worm

My cape cod cottage has a couple of cool things going for it (and a few things that aren’t).  One of the things I absolutely love is our combo living/dining room.  Since our house is small, this room is for sure the heart of the home and I really do love having one big, open space.

On what used to be the exterior wall of this room is a great set of built-in bookshelves.  They are separated by an original window that now looks out into our Florida-soon-to-be-sun-room.  Here’s shot of how they looked before we moved in…


And here’s a close up of what it looked like with our stuff in there for Christmas:


Not bad, but not great.  For a long time I was obsessed with the idea of covering the back of the shelves in a grass cloth wallpaper.  I still really like that idea but what stopped me was cost.  I couldn’t find anywhere that would sell me less than a large roll of the grass cloth which means I would be paying for a lot more wallpaper than I needed without a good spot to use the leftover.

So I finally decided that a $20 can of paint was better than $80+ of wallpaper.  But deciding what color to use took some time.  First we tried a bright green color that we thought might play off of the green leafs in the dining chairs.  But after we got it on one panel, we knew it was too bright and modern for our cottage space.


So we decided to go ahead and be copycats.  I had seen the built-in book shelves that Sherry & John had done over on Young House Love and upon further inspection realized that their blueish grey wall color wasn’t all that far off from the light blue paint on the rest of the walls in our great room.  So I checked out the color they used (Dragonfly) on Benjamin Moore’s website and decided it might be the color for us as well.

Turns out?  It TOTALLY was!


After some considering, we decided to paint the whole wall and boy do we love it.  Here’s a closeup for ya.


So there you have it.  We really love the drama that the dark wall provides, plus we feel like it makes the rest of the walls look more blue which is awesome because while we really liked the color, it did read a little white/light for us before adding the dark, teal blue.

The other thing that I love is that while the color is the same as John & Sherry’s bookshelves, we were able to fill the shelves with items and a color scheme that reads a little more traditional than theirs does.  I was a little worried that I would end up copying Sherry’s decor choices as well (hello white animals) and was pleased that I was able to work with what I had and create vignettes that were our style.

So what’s next?  We’re thinking of sanding and re-finishing the oak floors that run through the entire two main levels of our house.  Crazy?  Possibly, but we’ll for sure keep you posted!

— Kate


We had a great New Year’s Eve party at Julia’s house.  Since they had recently re-refinished their basement after some flooding issues (good times!), we were so excited to party it up in the new space!

They chose a 20’s/Speakeasy theme and everyone really got into the spirit of it!  Here’s some pics of the costumes.  (Of course I fussed around with them in Photoshop to give them a vintage feel.)





We had such a good time celebrating and the food was delicious!  Here’s some of what we ate:

Happy New Year!

– The Playing Houses Girls