Get thee to the Swap-o-Rama-Rama

I almost forget to tell you about this event tomorrow!

Des Moines is hosting its first Swap-o-Rama-Rama at the Des Moines Social Club, 1408 Locust St. from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. I’ll be volunteering at the door, and then at 2 p.m. I’ll be giving a quick demo on how to make a T-shirt rug. You cannot make a T-shirt rug that quickly, but people can at least learn how to get one started, using T-shirts they pick up at the swap.

Basically, the way it works is that people pay $10 at the door and bring a bag of used clothing. The clothes get sorted into jeans, tops, skirts, etc. And then you can rifle through them and pick out some things you might want to wear. The rest of the day you can go to workshops and learn how to embellish, resize, and upcycle those clothes into all-new-to-you garments. There will be sewing machines there and everything.

Cool, huh?

The ladies of Vitae Design Collective (seamstresses extraordinaire) are also helping put together a fashion show.

So, after you hit the farmers market, come on over!

Freelancing: month one

Talking with a friend last night, we both realized it was almost August already. And that made me realize that I’ve made it through my first month as a freelancer!

It’s been good. Really good. Kind of strange, given that a week of it was spent in Lawrence doing basically nothing, a week in Nia training and another week getting ready for and then riding in Ragbrai. But considering that I’ve spent this week actually working, and almost being overwhelmed by work, I feel like things are going well. I even got paid for a couple things today.

There’s always this fear that hangs over you. Like, OK, I can pay my bills this month, and next month. But what if shit hits the fan in October and I’m totally screwed? Which is not a very positive place to hang out, so I try to keep those thoughts as fleeting as possible.

Another interesting tidbit. This month I had time to thrift, and then I put up a bunch of those items on Etsy just to see if anyone would buy them. And they did! My handmade stuff rarely sells as quickly as this stuff has. So now I’m pondering making vintage a larger part of what I sell. It’s hard, because you want to stay committed to your original plans, but eventually you have to decide what’s worth your time. And I so love the thrill of the treasure hunt when I find this stuff at garage sales, so I’m happy to keep doing it.

I would say, though, that the number one reason I’m doing so well right now is that I did take several months to plan my departure, and move my debt payments into saving for this change. I would highly recommend that you do that if you’re pondering working for yourself. A lot of things have not panned out yet (though I believe they will eventually), so you need to be ready if you’re not making a full income right away. Don’t do something crazy like go without health insurance or start spending your 401k money – that is last resort type of stuff.

I’m also still struggling with time management a bit. I’ve checked quite a few things off my to-do list, but I’m finding that the less desirable things (like working out!) will still fall to the back burner if I don’t schedule them in. Because who’s gonna make me do it but me?

If you ever have any questions for me about how I’m making this work, feel free to ask.

How I make recycled candles

Candlemaking has been quite the learning process, especially with my somewhat unorthodox method. Basically, one day Mike and I were driving either to or from Wisconsin and I got this idea that maybe I could melt down old candles that no one wanted anymore and make new ones out of the wax. And what I really wanted to do was put the candles into found objects I collected while thrifting. I looked on etsy and found that others were pouring their wax into teacups and jelly jars, but no one was really using recycled wax.

So I bought a bunch of supplies and dove into it. I discovered that making a candle is actually pretty easy, but making a perfect candle is a lot harder. And when you’re using a slightly different product for every single batch, you are going to get a slightly different result every time.

But, I love a challenge, so I’m still tweaking my process and experimenting with new containers. In case you were interested in how I do it, I thought I’d give a little tutorial.

In my craft room I have a stockpile of candles that basically look like this.

I have just about every color, shape and style – leftovers from weddings, bags of half-burnt candles people give me, garage and estate sale finds.

If they’re too large to melt whole, I start by putting the candle in the freezer for 15 minutes to an hour. When it comes out, it will be really brittle, and sometimes even crack.

I put it in a plastic tub and whack the crap out of it with a hammer until it breaks into chunks.

To melt it, I have this little setup with a burner and a pot with a lid. This keeps everything completely separate from what I would use in the kitchen. Trust me, everything gets too waxy to use anywhere else.

I bought a couple of metal pitchers so that I could do two colors at a time, and this has really helped me since I started making candles with stripes.

So I fill my pan with about an inch of water and heat that to boiling. This melts the wax with a double boiler effect. Then I drop in the chunks and wait for it to melt. I usually stir it a bit, and if there is any debris in there, I’ll pull it out.

Meanwhile, I heat up my glue gun so that I can glue the wicks to the bottom of my containers. I usually use a pencil to push the wick into the exact center of the container without burning my fingers.

Then I string the top of the wick through a clothespin, center it on top of the container, and pinch the end to keep it secure. If your container is wider than the clothespin, you can twist the wick around a pencil and rest it on top.

When the wax is completely melted, you can use a thermometer to test the temperature. Often with big batches sitting there a long time it can get a bit too hot, which can effect the wax when it cools, so I try to keep it below 175.

At this point, if my wax is unscented I usually add a fragrance. In this case I used apple because it seemed to go with the green color, but I have tons of others, and sometimes I will use a few drops of essential oil, like citronella. Originally I thought I would only use essential oils, but I found that too limiting so I added the fragrances.

When wax cools, it actually creates kind of a sinkhole, so you really have to pour twice. The first time you fill it a little lower than where you want it. Let it cool for at least four hours.

Then pour the second layer to fill in the hole, and let that cool. With this candle I poured white for the second layer, and then did a third layer in green to create the stripe.

When it’s all done I put a safety sticker on the bottom that has room to write in the scent. For my tins I also print off logos and stick them on the side.

My initial investment was probably about $100 for a starter kit with a pitcher, wicks, scents and colors, plus the burner and the pot. Later I bought a heat gun, which is great for cleaning out old containers or fixing any bubbles that come up to the surface. It’s basically like a hairdryer, but not for your hair!

Pesto revisited

I just updated my post about how to make Pesto Genovese with fresh basil. It takes all of 5 minutes to make, and you don’t even have to cook it!

Green beans with shallots

Anytime we come home from the farmers market with fresh green beans, I know exactly what to do with them, thanks to this perfectly simple recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

She uses haricot vert, which are skinnier green beans, but I usually just use the regular fat ones. I also skip the tomatoes at the end — I think the beans are just fine without them.

So here’s what you do. Fill up a sink with water and drop in the green beans. Any dirt or grass should sink to the bottom.

Snip off the ends and break them in half if they’re more than about 2 inches long.

Boil a pot of water and drop in the beans for about 4 minutes. This cooks them while keeping them crisp and retaining their bright green color.

Drain the beans in a collander. Then heat a pan (you can use the same one) over medium heat and melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Slice a shallot into thin rings, and saute those until they are translucent.

Drop in the beans and saute those for another few minutes – less if you like them crisp, more if you like them softer. Season with salt and pepper, and just before you serve them, squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the top.

They went perfectly with our little grill-out for two.

In case you were thinking about getting a dog…

Know that you will come home to scenes like this more times than you would like to believe.

Even when you swear those peanuts were on a shelf 6 feet high.

And you will just be glad the trash was hidden so you don’t have to touch the entire half-chewed contents of it once again.

Tip of the day

If you need to clean gunk out of your microwave, heat a bowl of water for 2-3 minutes before you get started. The steam will loosen the gunk so you can just wipe it away quickly. You may not even have to use any cleaning spray.

How’s that for green cleaning?

I think I read that in Real Simple once, and it has turned a 15-minute scrub-a-thon into a super easy clean. They also suggested putting a lemon slice in the bowl of water to give it a fresh, lemony smell.

77 miles and one happy ending

I finally rounded up an assortment of photos from my day of Ragbrai. Just a quick recap for anyone who doesn’t know – Ragbrai is a bike ride across the state of Iowa that takes place every July when it’s just about as hot as it can be here. They cap it at 10,000 official riders, but when you add all the unofficial people it can be a lot more than that. I’ve heard about how cool it is for years, I’ve written stories about it, I’ve gone to it when it came near Des Moines (because Lance Armstrong rode it a couple times when he wasn’t doing the Tour de France). But I’d never actually been a part of the ride itself, and it just felt like time. Plus, I knew my best friend, Erin, and her boyfriend Jason, would be riding this one day in particular because it was stopping in his hometown (Ottumwa, Iowa).

So that wasn’t really a quick recap at all, but there you go.

I was pretty nervous going into the day because due to training for the Bolder Boulder 10k race in May and spending the week before Ragbrai doing Nia, I didn’t have as much time to devote to cycling as I wanted. When we did do our 60-mile ride (and I am kicking myself for not bringing the camera that day – it was gorgeous!), I struggled at the end with an uncomfortable seat and was not sure how my butt would survive an even longer ride. Plus, the logistics of getting us all there, a car left at the finish, and a place to stay overnight the night before so we could get up at the crack of dawn, were a little crazy.

And you will just never believe where they put me and Mike. In a juvenile detention center! That is one place I never thought I would sleep. But it did give us our own bathroom (sort of), and a door to shut at night.

Oh, and did I mention that Ragbrai is notorious for teaching people from out of state that Iowa is absolutely not flat? These rides are long, hot, and hilly. But as I discovered, they are also wonderful.

Though it stormed early in the morning, the clouds cleared and we had a sunny day to ride, with temps in the mid 80s. With the humidity, it did bake us in the afternoon, but July in the midwest could easily be in the 90s or even 100s, so we got lucky there.

In the first town we got the whole group together and stopped for Chris Cakes, a pancake stand that turns out more pancakes in half an hour than you’ve probably seen in your whole life.

Dad, about to chomp.

They were the beginning of a day of eating anything and everything we could find, so that we could replinish the 2,000 calories or so we burned. My list goes like this: A banana, a Larabar, pancakes, a hardboiled egg, coffee, mac and cheese, chips, Gatorade, chocolate milk, peanuts, a Clif bar, a strawberry smooothie, chocolate ice cream, an apple, and I’m sure there’s more I can’t remember. By the time we got to the end we were starving, and ate a whole dinner with strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert. A la mode, of course.

By lunchtime I was feeling a little out of it, and not sure the rest of the day would be great. But after I rested for a while, ate more, drank more, and saw Smoky the Bear and several riders with thongs on the outside of their bike shorts I felt a little better. At that point Erin and I separated from everyone else so we could talk and the hills flattened out a little. Then I stopped at a gas station and spotted two people drinking the miracle drug out of cartons – chocolate milk!

I immediately went inside and bought some. I’ve heard many times that chocolate milk is the perfect substance to help you recover after an athletic activity, and I often drink it after a run. I felt soooooo much better after drinking it, that I made it up 3 of the most monstrous hills I’ve ever ridden. When we finally met up with the rest of the group I was on some kind of weird chocolate milk trip/cyclist’s high. I felt like I could conquer the world. So I ate some homemade ice cream (why not?), and we kept on going till the end.

The whole group, minus my stepmom (the photographer).

And weirdly, my seat felt fine the entire time. Yeah, it hurt in a way that riding 77 miles will do to you, but it didn’t cut into my enjoyment of the ride at all.

You just can’t imagine what it’s like to ride across these normally deserted country roads with thousands and thousands of people from all over the country. There is every kind of rider in every age group, from kids to grandparents. There are pelotons of superfast people going by. There are fit people, plumpy people, people in costume, people who drink every single night (and day) and still manage to ride. Ragbrai is everything people say it is, and more.

I loved seeing the little town squares, and their cute little general stores.

Oh, and I just about forgot to mention the happy ending. As we pulled into the driveway at Jason’s mom’s house, he did this!

And she said yes!

Now Erin and I get to plan our weddings together. She and Jason went on to finish the whole ride, and I’m so proud and happy for them.

Pita Pizzas

I always forget how quick and easy these little pizzas are, so I wanted to make sure I shared the recipe with you this time. It’s more of a technique than a recipe, really, since you can change the toppings however you like.

Start by sauteeing Italian sausage style soy crumbles with a few slices of onion. I may have overdone it on the onions this time, but I looooove onions.

Preheat your oven to 400 and grate a nice pile of mozzarella cheese.

Then lay out your pitas (preferably the kind without the pocket in the middle) on a nonstick pan. If you want to make 4 or 5 and they won’t all fit on one pan, just do it in two batches.

Spread each pita with a little marinara sauce. I like a lot of sauce, so I used about two heaping tablespoons per pita.

Then layer on the soy crumbles (obviously you can use real Italian sausage if you want to make it meaty), and top with a handful of cheese.

Bake for 5-10 minutes, or until the cheese is melty and just starting to brown.

Serve with your favorite salad. Mine is red lettuce from the garden, halved cherry tomatoes, parmesan cheese and light balsamic dressing.

And the winner is…


Who wrote: “i love doing it all! i love to cook but usually keep it very very simple with 2 little ones climbing up my legs and insisting to help. i also love to craft and knit and sew and try anything and everything.”

Sarah, please email your mailing address to

Thanks to all who commented. I love hearing from you.

So, I am off to pedal my heart out and eat homemade pies. I’ll have a full report when I get back!