How-To: DIY Home Renovation Project

 

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“Your home should tell the story of who you are and be a collection of what you love.”
Nate Berkus

When my husband and I moved into our big two-story farm house in 1993, we knew it would take a lot of time, effort and money to update it. Besides having the wiring and plumbing redone to bring it up to code, the interior of the house needed a serious makeover. It was obvious the previous owners didn’t have any decorating sense whatsoever.

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Though it wasn’t quite this bad, it was still pretty bad.

The walls in the dining room and living room were painted light green (the color of pond scum), the windows were hidden under heavy full-length drapes (the kind you’d find in a funeral home or the Munster’s house) and the floors were covered with filthy shag carpeting (I’m sure it harbored all kinds of nasty microscopic critters). The downstairs bathroom looked like it was straight out of a 1970’s flop house – big gold sunflowers against an olive green background, a grungy mustard-colored linoleum floor and a bathtub they probably hauled out of a junk yard. The bathroom upstairs had a long closet decorated with goofy duck stickers instead of a bathtub or shower. I kid you not. It was ridiculous!

Our realtor referred to this 1917 fixer-upper as the “Bates Motel”, but beneath all the unsightly trappings we could see that this place had a lot of character and loads of potential.

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Not exactly welcoming…

For starters, beautifully carved woodwork, plate rails and beveled mirrors in the spacious dining room, bay windows in the dining room, living room and master bedroom, and underneath that hideous shag carpeting we discovered a magnificent oak floor with mahogany inlay. We were also impressed with the size of the kitchen – 17 ft. x 17 ft. with high 10 ft. ceilings – and the charming built-in cabinet, not to mention the transoms above the bedroom doors (something you’d usually find in grand hotels, not private homes.) Suffice it to say this house was a diamond in the rough.

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This is the detailing I’m talking about. Beautiful, huh?

After buying the house for a song, we decided we could save a lot of money if we tackled minor renovations ourselves. It’s taken quite a few years (and muscle) to do some of the improvements and, as with most old houses, there’s still plenty to do. But, anyone who has seen the before and after pictures will agree this place looks ten times better than it did when we first moved in.

If you’re thinking of remodeling your home, I have some ideas for easy and affordable upgrades you can do yourself.

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Look at that technique!

Red Walls

An example of a burgundy dining room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give walls a fresh coat of paint. Probably the easiest and least expensive way to change the look of any room is to repaint it. Think beyond the usual shades of beige and go with colors that reflect the mood or purpose of the room or your personal decorating style. For example, try bright yellow or tangerine in the kitchen, rich burgundy or hunter green in the dining room, and fresh lilac or jade green in the bathroom.

  • Need help selecting the right colors? Check out the interior paint guide at bhg.com
  • Learn how to paint like a pro with help from diynetwork.com

Restore or replace your flooring. If you’re lucky enough to have hardwood floors underneath your worn carpet (like we did) and they’re in relatively good condition, you may just need to spruce them up with a floor sander/polisher from a rental place or buy this handy Floor Scrubber/Polisher. You can always get an area rug if you want to add some color and warmth.

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It looks harder than it is, we promise!

On the other hand, if your floors are in bad shape, you’ll want to hide them under new carpeting or flooring. Look for special deals from Empire Today, one of the featured offers in Smart Perks.

Refinish cabinets, shelves and furniture. Instead of investing in new kitchen cabinets, consider refinishing your existing ones with paint or stain. Why not dress them up with different knobs or handles too?

Go to hgtv.com for a simple tutorial on refinishing kitchen cabinets.

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Photo Courtesy of Pinterest User One Good Thing…

Replace faucets and sinks. Make an outdated bathroom look like new instantly by replacing your faucets and sink with more modern designs. You don’t even need a plumber to do it!

 

Re-tile the floor or backsplash. Tiling is relatively easy. All you need is a little know-how and the right supplies, like tiles (standard subway-style tiles are the most common and the easiest to install), a v-notched trowel, tile mastic (adhesive), a tile cutter, and grout. You can find most of these things at home improvement stores. Go to diynetwork.com for step-by-step instructions on tiling floors, backsplashes, showers and more.

Update window treatments. Get rid of those heavy drapes or dated curtains and put up some sleek new blinds, Roman shades or sheers. Or, you could create your own custom curtains, drapes, shades & more out of materials you already have on hand. Check out the amazing (and easy) DIY Window Treatment ideas from hgtv.com!

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Just one of many options from one of our partners, 3 Day Blinds. Check out Smart Perks for a coupon!

You’ll also find some cool ideas in Melanie’s March 2nd blog post!

For supplies and products, look no further than Smart Perks! You’ll find some great offers from Build.com, Lowe’s, 3 Day Blinds, and more in our Home & Garden section.

Final Note: Before you invest in an older home, have it inspected by a professional to make sure it’s structurally sound. It’s easy to correct cosmetic flaws, but if the foundation is fragile you’ll have a nightmare on your hands. If you don’t believe me, rent the Tom Hanks’ movie The Money Pit!

Good luck and remember, it’s worth all of the effort once you see the fruits of your labor! Have any of you renovated your home yourself and have pics to send? Include them in the comment section!

Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, may not be handy with a hammer, but she does know how to create an awesome honey-do list.

Journal_wPencil

I have kept a journal since I first learned to write, somewhere around the first or second grade. So the idea that anyone would find it difficult to write just a few sentences a day is incomprehensible to me.

I cannot force anyone to write daily. But I can shout from the roof tops why I think it is the prescription for a healthier and happier life.

Author Pat Conroy said, in his book My Reading Life, “Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself.”

Journaling is not only your live-action autobiography, it can be a useful tool to help you accomplish any number of goals. From training for a race to losing weight, over-coming a personal struggle to achieving your goals, your journal is whatever you make of it.

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These colorful journals from Flow magazine range in subject from How to Slow Down to Fresh New Beginnings.

Maybe you’ve heard of Oprah Winfrey’s Gratitude Journal? Each day writing down something or someone in your life you are thankful for? This simple task is a common suggestion for coping with depression.

Or if you are dealing with grief or a loss, a journal is a safe place to let all of your emotions flow freely without filter or judgment. Your journal can be a place to remember your loved one every day, which can bring enormous comfort.

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Art Journal from Somerset Life, Volume 10, Issue 1

Many doodlers and artists alike keep fun, funky and fabulous art journals with elaborate drawings and water colors, mixed-media fabric scraps, art papers, and embellishments. They’re stunning.

For me, my journal is sanity-saving. The very act of putting pen to paper gives me an immediate feeling of calm.

I like ruled pages. My collection of leather-bound Moleskine notebooks is vast. I have one in virtually every color, and I get a certain thrill opening a new one and seeing those blank pages in front of me.

I write stream-of-consciousness style, with no attention paid to self-editing. Just pouring the contents of my overactive mind out onto the page. Nothing is off-limits. I write everything from the mundane details of everyday life, “the commute was beautiful, with the sun rising all blue and pink over the frozen lake, and The Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ on the radio” to my struggles with anxiety, or progress on achieving my goals as an amateur photographer.

I tell family stories. Some days when I’m feeling nostalgic, I can devote pages to my favorite memories of my grandparents.

In the summer I detail my garden endeavors, birds at my feeder, progress on home renovations, and my ongoing struggle with finding and fitting into a swimsuit that doesn’t make me feel like a dancing hippo at the circus. My journal is the place where I hold myself accountable. Tracking how well I’m doing on sticking to a diet (Two cupcakes? Really? Did you need that second cupcake?) And also, where I rally myself after a setback.

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Love this glue pen for adding quotes to my journals.

I can talk myself down or build myself up. I like to glue motivational messages inside my journals. Or use little doo-dads, stickers or Post-Its. With the popularity of Smash Books, a journal/scrapbook hybrid, you can find all kinds of cool little embellishments to add to your journal.

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These cute sticky notes and pockets are fun additions to your journal.

It’s January. A blank slate. A fresh new chapter in your life. You don’t need to invest in anything fancy. Paper and a pen. That’s all it takes. Your journal can be whatever you make it. Simple to elaborate. Regardless, you’ll find it can be a powerful tool to create change in your life, or to provide you with peace.

What are you waiting for?

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 Blogger Melanie Bisson, a Smart Perks employee, could fill a POD storage unit with all of her journals. She’ll never go digital.

How To Survive Hosting a Big Family Thanksgiving

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Practically everyone I know looks forward to Thanksgiving.

It’s one of the few times you can get together with family or friends to catch up on each others’ lives and reminisce, and of course watch a little football.

But, let’s be honest the main attraction is the feast… turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes & gravy, pumpkin pie topped with real whipped cream… oh, yeah!

Slice of pumpkin pie served on antique china. Bacground of assorted pumpkins and what is left of the baked pie.

Sure, you may have to loosen up your belt a bit (or change into your lounge pants) after indulging in all the glorious food, but you can always diet for days afterward to cancel out all the calories you’ve consumed. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

My family has been hosting this holiday for years. At first it seemed a little daunting and stressful, but now that we’ve got it down to a science, we actually enjoy it. Besides, everyone contributes something towards the meal. We’re just responsible for the turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy.

Of course, we need to take care of all the preparations, too ― shopping for groceries and other essentials, thawing the turkey (I buy frozen because it’s cheaper), cleaning the house, setting the tables and getting up at the crack of dawn to stuff the bird and throw it in the oven. Fortunately, my husband and kids pitch in and somehow it all comes together in the end.
If this is your first time hosting and you have no clue what to do, don’t sweat it. I’ve got some tricks to help make your turkey day a success.

  • Plan ahead. This is a must! I decide on the menu weeks in advance and ask each guest to bring something, like a side dish, salad, rolls or dessert, oh and a bottle of wine (you can never have too much wine).
  • From there, I make a list of the things I need to buy and shop around for the best deals. Stores generally offer discounts on turkeys, breadcrumbs for stuffing, and other popular Thanksgiving fare days or even weeks before the holiday.
  • Thaw the turkey. If you do get a frozen turkey, you’ll want to purchase it a week or more in advance. The reason being it takes about 5 days to thaw a 20-24 lb. turkey in your fridge. The folks at Jennie-O have some tips on how to properly thaw a frozen turkey.
  • Make sure there’s enough tableware. We tend to have a big crowd every year (25-28 people), so I usually end up borrowing extra plates, glasses, silverware, serving bowls, and platters from a relative or friend. I don’t worry about them matching. Everyone will be so busy eating they’re not going to notice (or care)! Besides, mixing different patterns and colors make your presentation a little more interesting and avant-garde.
  • Tidy up the house. I de-clutter and clean the house, at least the rooms my guests will see, in stages. Otherwise, it can be too overwhelming. I do the dusting and vacuuming a day or two before the event so everything stays clean. A word of advice ― recruit family members to lend a hand, even if you have to bribe them!
  • Set the table the day before. It gives you one less thing to do on Thanksgiving Day. I cover them with nice tablecloths (if I need extra, I’ll borrow one or two from my mom or sister-in-law), and place napkins and silverware at each place setting. I also make sure I have salt & pepper shakers at each table.
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    Photo by Good Housekeeping.

    As for the centerpieces, I create my own with candles, miniature gourds & pumpkins, and different colored leaves. Need some inspiration? Check out these do-it-yourself centerpieces on Pinterest.

  • Timing is key. This is where it gets tricky. You have to figure out how long it’s going to take to prepare everything (turkey, potatoes, gravy, sides, etc.) so the whole meal is done at the same time. It helps to do what you can ahead of time and have your guests bring pre-cooked or pre-made items so all you need to do is heat them up in the oven or microwave, or keep them chilled until you’re ready to eat.
  • Start with the turkey as it takes the longest. Usually the packaging includes cooking instructions. If not, you can look them up online at www.allrecipes.com. It also depends on whether or not your turkey is stuffed. Some people prefer to have the stuffing outside of the bird, but our family has always cooked the stuffing inside the turkey. Either way be sure to remove those little bags of giblets (heart, liver, neck, etc.) from the turkey before you pop it in the oven. In fact, you may want to cook up some of those little gizzards and add them to your stuffing to make it more flavorful. Here’s a recipe for classic giblet stuffing from Better Homes & Gardens.centerpieces country living
  • Make it casual. We have our guests arrive early in the afternoon for “social hour” with wine and cider, and some light appetizers (crackers & cheese, veggies & dip, etc.) before dinner. The main meal is served buffet style ― it’s less formal and more manageable. My husband carves the turkey and everybody dishes up their own plates then finds a place at the table.
  • Take time to enjoy the meal and each others’ company. In fact, we don’t start clearing the table until everyone is finished. Most of the time we’re all so stuffed after the meal we wait an hour or two to have dessert, giving us time to relax, catch up on the game, or take a stroll around the neighborhood.
  • Ask for help. I find that people (in my case it’s the women) are always willing to help out, whether it’s setting out the food, clearing the table, or doing the dishes. We talk and laugh a lot in the process so we don’t mind being stuck in the kitchen while the others are sacked out on the sofa.

Finally, don’t panic! I decided a long time ago not to fret over things like lumpy gravy or mismatched silverware. After all, it’s dinner with your relatives or friends, not the royal family!

Here’s to a happy and stress-free Thanksgiving!

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Click here for Free Thanksgiving Chalkboard Printables.

Blogger Catherine B, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys a good Riesling with her turkey.

Holiday Cards: Adding More Joy to Your World, Less Humbug to Your Holidays

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Ebeneezer Scrooge has finally gotten hold of me in the last couple years.

At least when it comes to Christmas cards. Or Valentine’s, Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving. I have been single-handedly doing my part to keep the greeting card industry and United States Postal Service afloat for over two decades now. Chew on this. According to the Greeting Card Association, 1.6 billion cards were sent out last holiday season. The cost of a first class stamp is .49¢. So assuming no over-sized cards, which require additional postage, that’s $735,000,000 in postage alone.

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This year I was seriously considering humbugging it and making the switch to email cards. Or a text message. (shudder, chortle, snort). I kid. I will NEVER send Season’s Greetings via a text message.

However, I’m a “reach-out and touch someone” kinda gal. I don’t want anyone to stare into a cavernous, empty mailbox and hear the echo of “Hellllllooooooo in there”, a la Charlie Brown. Call me Mary Sunshine, but I want to make people smile. I want my friends, neighbors, coworkers, the people I’ve fallen out of touch with over the years, to know that I still think of them warmly and wish them the best.

Besides, despite all the time and money associated with sending holiday cards, sending them makes ME feel good. I enjoy the tradition. I also love going to the mailbox and seeing some brightly colored envelopes, with a return address from someone I miss. 12185008_1255686671124168_2853116667187239140_oAlthough I have to admit, through the joys of social networking, my three dogs have more friends, and receive way more cards than I do. True story!

Don’t get me wrong, if I don’t get a card from you, I won’t feel snubbed. I understand the pressures of life and the need to put first things first. No one can get every single thing done that they want to do. But making cards is something I enjoy.

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So right about now, this time of year, you’ll probably find me spending at least a Saturday afternoon or two, sitting in my craft room, listening to Christmas tunes and making cards.

Making my own cards gives me a chance to play, get glitter on my face, exhale and most importantly put some of myself into my cards. 337661_327967827229395_574144619_oI don’t make all my cards, but maybe a couple dozen for close friends and family. Like this one, that I made for my cousins to remind them of the Christmases we spent together growing up.

I know that not everyone hoards craft supplies year-round. Not everyone has separate boxes stacked on separate shelves in their craft cupboard, one for craft papers and stickers, another for rubber stamps and ink pads, or 4 wooden dowels that hold about a dozen or more spools of festive ribbon each. My husband will be the first to tell you how expensive craft supplies are. Well, you should never pay full price for craft supplies.

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If you have a Gmail account, Google has gone through the trouble to sort your emails for you. That means you have one whole tab just for Promotions. Virtually EVERY single company you sign up for emails with offers a first time subscriber discount or coupon to use either online or in the store.

After that, whenever you need a coupon or coupon code, you simply click on your Promotions tab, and I promise you will find an email with a discount, usually percent off coupons, for one item or your entire purchase and/or free shipping. You’ll also get advance notice of sales. And, you don’t have to see them until you need them with the Promotions tab. This works for Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, Crafts Direct, JoAnn Fabrics. If you still get a newspaper, Michael’s has a flier every week containing coupons for 20-50% off one item, and a percent off your entire purchase. During Black Friday, they’ll even give you a percentage off sale prices.

One of my favorite Smart Perks partners, Expressionery, has an email sign-up incentive of $10 off your first $30 purchase with free shipping. You’ll also find additional discounts at http://www.smartperks.com. Expressionery is a great source for self-inking address stamps. So much easier than labeling! You can really power through your stacks of envelopes in minutes. Colorful Images is my go-to source for personalized shipping and gift labels. They always have a great discount available online.

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Tiny Prints and Snapfish are my go to online sources for holiday photo cards. Being as my husband and I don’t have children, but have three dogs, our dogs are usually the highlight of our cards. In fact, I actually got a complaint last year for sending a photo card with a photo of just my husband and I. Some years I’ll have such a hard time choosing from my favorite photos, I’ll have to order more than one card. I go for natural poses for the holiday cards, just catching the pups doing what they do, being their goofy selves.

While I’ve received discounts from both Tiny Prints and Snapfish, both online and in my mailbox already this year, I typically wait to do my ordering of photo cards until Black Friday. peanutsstamps-1441218230778-23546992-ver1-0-900-675-153806You’ll not only get the best prices of the season, but you’ll receive your cards back in plenty of time to get them in the mail.  If you want to ensure your cards arrive on time, try to get them to the post office no later than the end of the second week of December, or earlier if you’re mailing cards outside the U.S.

Well, I’d better get busy…those cards aren’t going to make themselves.When it stops being enjoyable for me and turns into a chore, that’s when I know it’s time to scale back. But in the meantime, whether you send cards or not, whether you celebrate the holidays or not, whichever holiday you celebrate, I hope you take time to pause and enjoy the season and create your own traditions.

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Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, can’t wait to watch Elf a half dozen times. Smiling is her favorite, too. 

Iconic Slow Cookers: The Audrey Hepburn of Kitchen Appliances

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Sausage, Bean & Pasta Stew. Click for the recipe. Photo Courtesy of Food Network.

Thinking deep philosophical thoughts this morning.

Like, “Do people in southern California love the Crock-Pot® as much as the rest of the country?” Because right now, in addition to sweater weather, changing leaves and football, people are going nuts over the start of Crock-Pot season!

Seriously…is there a more universally beloved counter-top appliance than the slow cooker?

Sorry toaster. Not even close.

The mere thought of walking in the front door after a day at work and that rush of delicious aroma, from a hearty satisfying soup or stew, enveloping you like a warm bath sheet or downy comforter, is pure bliss.

CrockPots

Clockwise from left to right: Cheetah Print from QVC ($39.99), Bella Diamonds from Kohl’s ($29.99), NFL Crock-Pot from WalMart ($39.42) and Purple Polished Stainless from Kohl’s ($29.99).

The slow cooker is unmatched in versatility. From pot roasts, soups and stews, to desserts and warm beverages, the Crock-Pot is the go-to appliance for any occasion.  People are even baking bread in a Crock-Pot these days. Is there nothing this little wonder cannot do? My new must-have is the darling little Crock-Pot Lunch Cooker. In pink! When I see a product this cute, and something every office worker MUST HAVE, I have to buy one. Christmas gift for the hard-to-buy-for? HELLO. What else are you going to get that is so adorable, functional and will last forever for $20?

Crock-Pot Lunch Cooker $19.99 @ Target

A good Crock-Pot is timeless. It never goes out of style. It’s the Audrey Hepburn or James Dean of the cooking world. However, like shoes, you can never have too many crock pots.

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The Crock-Pot Little Triple Dipper Food Warmer $34.97 at casa.com

I own 5 slow-cookers. Two mini-dip warmers, which only have one setting, a round 5-quart and oval 7-quart Crock-pot, for potlucks and smaller Sunday meals, and then the granddaddy of them all, the 6 1/2-quart All-Clad Programmable Slowcooker, the Mercedes of slow cookers with the weight of a Mack truck.

At one point I became convinced I couldn’t live without the three-crocks-in-one heating unit buffet server, until my mother bought it for me. The box was the size of a small car. Where is one supposed to store that thing? It was ginormous.

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Black rose Bella 6-qt. slow cooker $39.97 at Nordstrom Rack online.

However, if I had a bigger house, a larger family, or did more entertaining, that beast would be mine.

Even though I do own an All-Clad Programmable that cost over $150, another Christmas gift from Mom (thanks, mom), I’ve found that the smaller 5-6 quart manual slow cookers are every bit as good, despite having fewer settings. Plus, they cost a lot less.

The best thing about Crock-Pot cooking is how simple it is. When is the last time you made an appetizer in 5 minutes? AND got rave reviews for it? Trust me. This recipe for Sweet & Spicy Meatballs is a perennial favorite at holiday potlucks.

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1 14 oz. can Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce

1 12 oz. bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce

1 2-lb bag frozen, pre-cooked, cocktail meatballs

Directions: Place meatballs in the slow cooker. Combine sauces and pour over meatballs. Cover and cook 4 hours. Prep time 5 minutes. 30 appetizer servings.

Another of my fall favorites, perfect for a Sunday afternoon of leaf-raking or couch-surfing, this slow cooker French Dip from the Let’s Dish Recipes blog. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a tiny pink Crock-pot to buy.

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Hello Gorgeous!

Blogger Mel B,  a Smart Perks employee, never met a counter-top appliance she didn’t like.

Roman Holiday: A Trip to A Local Italian Market

Food is the stuff of life, right?

A good meal not only sustains us, it’s the heart of so many holidays, celebrations, and family get-togethers. The dinner date. Catching up with old friends. The client lunch. Meals are where we make memories, toast to health and happiness, and delight in the most tantalizing of flavors, as well as the fruits of someone’s labor, be it family or a professional chef.

Food reminds me of my heritage and family traditions. I am Serbian, and grew up with my Grandma baking potica, a traditional Serbian sweet bread made with walnuts and honey in a flaky brown and cream-colored spiral, and sarmas, a meat mixture wrapped in cabbage leaves boiled with tomato sauce, sauerkraut and Polish sausage for hours, at every Christmas dinner.

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My family came from a small iron ore-mining town with a large immigrant population and lots of different cultural delicacies. So we enjoyed baklava, spanokopita, porchetta, antipasto, fresh crusty Italian bread, spaetzle, hard salami and delicious salty cheeses.

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Foccacia

Now that my grandparents are gone, and I am living in a different city, I don’t eat the foods of my childhood every day. However, we still make our Serbian sarmas every other Christmas. It’s a big production, but luckily my Grandpa taught us all the little tips and tricks before he passed (like freezing the cabbage beforehand and then boiling the whole head, so the leaves peel off easily and whole).

When my husband and I are both so busy with work, and life is hectic, we just don’t always have the time or energy to shop for fresh ingredients, or spend a lot of time in preparing authentic ethnic cuisine on a weeknight. It’s much easier when a meal comes in a box, and you can just pop it in the oven or microwave. But so much of the heart, soul and emotional symbolism of eating a good meal is lost with this lifestyle.

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As much as I love grocery shopping (I always shop when hungry…gasp…so taboo) at a big chain grocery store, whenever I have the time, I visit my all-time favorite, family-owned, authentic Italian grocer – Cossetta’s. It’s more than a mere grocery run. It’s a full-sensory adventure. 12047167_1229474950412007_5034716741244026546_nThe smells, the bright colors…you’re transported from the neutral palettes of most everyday life.

In the late 1800’s a young man named Michael Cossetta came to St. Paul, Minnesota from Calabria, Italy, and settled in a little Italian neighborhood in St. Paul called the Upper Levee. By 1911, he opened a tiny food market called Cossetta’s, which drew customers from everywhere who appreciated his quality foods and genuine hospitality.11930928_1229474957078673_2699722492694218449_o

Since 1984, Cossetta’s has been known for its award-winning pizza, homemade sauces, handmade Italian sausages and welcoming staff.  Cossetta’s recently celebrated it’s 100-year anniversary, and the fourth-generation family decided to expand the tradition to include all the Old World sensations and offerings a customer could experience in Italy without actually traveling there.

It’s about an hour from my house, but well worth the trip. Since I don’t get to Cossetta’s frequently, I like to stock up, and freeze some things. Because everything is so fresh, I can’t help but buy all of the ingredients for at least three nights of Italian meals in a row.

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“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” The Godfather

Since most people (like me, with little self-discipline) are too busy devouring their meal to remember to save room for dessert, Cossetta’s has smartly located the impressive Pasticceria — their pastry shop, where you can purchase an authentic cannoli pastry like you would in Sicily— in front of the regular market.

Only after I’ve filled a box with all of my favorite cookies and splurged on a cake, I head to Cossetta’s full Italian Market , featuring everything you need to make an authentic Italian meal, from antipasti to pizza, bracciole to parmigiana, masterpieces with only the best imported or home-grown ingredients. 11998952_1229965397029629_5135466810060602391_nMost of the time, I take shortcuts by buying Cossetta’s freshly made dough and thick, spicy pizza sauce, and then topping with their chewy, salty fresh shredded mozzarella (pronounced Moot-za-relle by my Italian friend from Long Island), which I buy by the quart.12004140_1229474900412012_9185852308898427024_n

It’s so good that sometimes we can’t resist digging in to the shredded cheese before we get home. If I’m not up for cooking, I might take home a chef-prepared meal.

The meat market is full of the freshest cuts of meats with romantic Italian names, straight from Carmela Soprano’s kitchen. I always buy Cossetta’s meatball mix in bulk, pepperoni for our pizzas and sandwiches, hard salami, spicy sausage links for my pasta and gravy (Sauce? What’s that?) several porchettas (a pork roast covered in Italian spices and seasonings), Italian beef roasts, veal cutlets, and thinly cut and rolled bracciole.

12019778_1229475070411995_6510653163129296253_nWe love meatball subs on crusty, demi-baguettes, baked fresh that morning. It’s our first night meal. Meatballs on our baguette, covered in marinara and heaped with mozzarella, with parmesan sprinkled liberally on top, then placed under the broiler. Yummo!

Second night is pizza night.

The first Sunday is a roast. Because Sundays were always the day my Grandma made a roast for the family. And a spicy hot porchetta sandwich with pepperoncini peppers tastes great with a cold beverage and a football game on TV.

I know that Cossetta’s is our own local gem, but if you haven’t found a local ethnic grocer in your area, it’s probably because you haven’t looked. Whether it’s Greek, Mexican, Asian, or Ethiopian, I guarantee you will find a grocery store that will transport you to another place, a vacation destination in your own backyard. Fall is the perfect time to start stocking up for the winter ahead, when you’ll be so glad you have some delicious meals to look forward to.

So go, already! Mangia!

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Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee,  gained 10 pounds just writing this post.

From Garden to Table: Time to Get Your Zucchini On!

I love vegetables, especially if they’re fresh from the garden. This year, I can actually say we’ll be enjoying zucchini, cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, and sweet corn from our very own garden!

After 20 some years without one, it’s about time.

I have to give my husband all the credit as he did the tilling, planting and tending. In my defense, he’s semi-retired so he has the time to do it. I don’t.

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San Marzano tomatoes from blogger Mel B.’s garden last summer. She blanched, peeled, and froze these in Zip-Loc freezer bags to use in sauces throughout the fall and winter.

The tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet (I can’t wait for BLTs! I also like them sliced with a bit of salt & pepper – my mouth is watering just thinking about it!)

The zucchini and cucumbers, on the other hand, are growing like crazy! In fact, my husband brought in a giant, blimp of a zucchini the other day. My first thought was, what the heck am I going to do with this?! Since I couldn’t exactly use it as a door stopper, I had to come up with other uses for this humongous summer squash. So, I searched online for recipes featuring zucchini as one of the main ingredients, and found the perfect recipe for Chocolate Zucchini Bread on allrecipes.com (see recipe below). I figured as long as there’s chocolate in it, my husband and son will eat it (make that devour it!).

Because I had a surplus of the green stuff, I made a double batch. I kept one cake-size pan of it at home and brought a loaf in to work to share. I must admit I’m not much of a baker (I don’t have the patience and usually make a huge mess in the kitchen), but I’m proud to say my zucchini bread was a big hit with both my family and co-workers.

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Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Ingredients
2 (1 ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate
3 eggs
2 cups white sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups grated zucchini
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease two 9×5 inch loaf pans. In a microwave-safe bowl, microwave chocolate until melted. Stir occasionally until chocolate is smooth.
2. In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, oil, grated zucchini, vanilla and chocolate; beat well. Stir in the flour baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared loaf pans.
3. Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a loaf comes out clean.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2015 Allrecipes.com

This is my own recipe for a super-easy side dish you can whip up using fresh zucchini and tomatoes.

Zucchini & Tomato Parmesan

Ingredients:
3 medium-size zucchini, sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped or 2 cans stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup diced onions
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. olive oil
Italian seasoning (basil & oregano) to taste

Directions: In large skillet, sauté zucchini, tomatoes and onions in hot olive oil for 5 minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and seasoning. Stir to coat well. Serve hot.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

This is a recipe that Smart Perks blogger Mel B. has been enjoying since she was a little girl. It was her grandmother’s recipe.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk (milk w/lemon juice or vinegar 1/2 tbsp for 1/2 cup milk)
2 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cup flour
1 tbsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
5 tbsp. cocoa powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups grated zucchini

Topping: 1/3 cup chocolate chips, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Directions: Combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients. Pour into 13 x 9 greased and floured cake pan. Sprinkle topping over all. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.

Even if you don’t have a garden of your own, you can find fresh zucchini and other healthy, delicious and home-grown produce at your local farmer’s market.

Whether your veggies are the fruits of your labor, or your local grower, enjoy the fresh taste of summer!

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Little dog, big zucchini. Home office dog, Beanie.

Smart Perks Blogger, Catherine B, a Smart Perks employee.