Saturday, October 14, 2017

DIY Gifts: Letter Art

Our basement has been home to my DIY Gift Workshop this year.  Now that I have finished the personal journals, we have moved on to canvas art.  Note:  You do not need to be an artist to do canvas art.

Some Thoughts:
Let me get this out of the way first - I am very careful about giving people gifts that need to on display.  We all have different tastes.  Even people who might think they know my taste could always give me some art I would never use (although I would totally appreciate their thoughtfulness).  Someone might even give me something I love, but simply have nowhere to put or no use for.  With that in mind, if I am giving any art/craft type pieces I like to keep them small in size and seasonal.  In other words, nobody is getting a 8 foot by 10 foot abstract multimedia collage from me (also because I would not know how to make it!).

A few different pieces came about in my workshop - with different recipients in mind and different methods used.  Let's take a walk through them.

1.  The Butterfly Project

-Sharpie (blue and black)
-Mod Podge
-Tissue Paper

The Butterfly Project is going in with a gift for a young girl.  I used an 8x10 canvas (bought in a bulk pack on sale at Michael's).  I used the butterfly stencil from Dollorama to stencil on these two butterflies using Blue and Black Sharpies.  Sharpies will bleed (just a tiny bit) on to the canvas, so I always retrace after removing the stencil to get rid of any rough edges.
Next, I added this "filter" if you will, using blue tissue paper.  I got this idea from Letter Art, by Clare Youngs, where she uses tissue paper to make actual letter art.  This is obviously not the same thing, but I really liked how her projects looked and thought I would channel some of that into this project.  I had a few different colours of tissue paper that I tried, but I preferred the blue filter for this piece.  I cut the tissue paper (almost) to size.

After this, I put a thin layer of Mod Podge on the canver and began pressing the tissue paper down on top.  I used a ruler while doing this to remove as many air bubbles as possible.  I did this in sections - be careful because you need to make sure the entire canvas has Mod Podge on it or you will get bubbles in it.  Avoid using excessive amounts of Mod Podge because tissue paper is quite thin, and if it gets too wet it will tear.

Once the Mod Podge underneath dried, I then trimmed the tissue paper even closer to the edges of the canvas, and then added 3 layers of Mod Podge over top.  Wait 20 minutes (at least) between each layer.  Again, go easy on the Mod Podge because you do not want to soak through the tissue paper.

I also have an easel ($2.50 at Dollorama) that will hold the canvas to avoid any holes in the wall.

And....voilà!  A simple butterfly canvas for a sweet little girl this Christmas.

2.  O Holy Night 

For this canvas I wanted to do a simple excerpt from O Holy Night lyrics.  I used a silver metallic Sharpie.  Since the script was going to be thin (not wide) I did not do a pencil underlay first.  Instead, I drafted multiple ideas and layouts on scrap paper until I found the arrangement I liked.  I then copied it (very slowly and very carefully unto the canvas).  I covered it with 3 thin layers of Mod Podge.

3.  Christmas Carol Mash-Up
Once I decided what I wanted the central words for this collage style canvas to be (Peace and Joy), I added them to the canvas.  Then, slowly and carefully, I added all of the other lyrics from various carols that I wanted to include.  Some of them had to be traced over several times.  I did not do pencil underneath, again because if you are not doing a bold text it can be hard to cover it up.  I did a few coats of Mod Podge over the top because I wanted a glossy finish and also to protect the canvas.

4.  Merry and Bright
This canvas did not go exactly as planned.  WARNING: Mod Podge will make gold metallic Sharpie run and fade.  It did not do this with any other Sharpies, but for some reason it did with the Gold Metallic.  The original plan was just for the nice bright gold MERRY AND BRIGHT canvas.  When you are doing bold letters with the Sharpie, instead of tracing outlines and colouring them in, you need to write a "thin" letter and then go over it repeatedly as you work to make it bigger and stop any bleeding edges.  I used almost an entire Gold Metallic Sharpie to make this canvas.  After going over it with a few layers of Mod Podge, the text started to blur and smudge.  This made me sad.  In the end, I could not salvage it so I decided to do a gold tissue paper overlay using the same technique as I did for the butterfly.  I will be using this to make a Christmas display which I will share at a later date.

These canvases will take more time than you anticipate.  As with the journals, the most time will be sketching out and drafting your ideas.


Monday, October 9, 2017

A Family Trip to the Laurentians (Voyage aux Laurentides)

A few weeks ago we took our first family vacation (with a 3 year old and 11 month old) that did not involve visiting family.  It was busy, chaotic, exhausting, and fantastic!!!

Where did we go?
We stayed in Sainte Agathe des Monts, a small town in the Laurentians.  It is about 25 minutes South of Mont Tremblant.  (Aside: I used to live in Québec - but not in this region - I always imagined I would marry someone from there because of the language....but alas.....I did not!  Although my husband's mother is an American born to two Québécois).

How did we get there?
Short answer: By car.

Long answer: We decided to take the "back roads" instead of going up the 401, this way we could avoid driving through Montreal traffic and it would only take us about 15 - 20 minutes longer.  It is about a 6 to 6 1/2 hour drive from the Toronto region.  So, we set off and took Highway 7 (traveling through Port Perry, Peterborough, Ottawa, etc.) and onward to the TransCanada Highway.  This was a beautiful drive.  Really beautiful.  There are not a lot of places to stop on this highway - but there are some - and there are also some really beautiful picnic stops.

The day we left, it was unseasonably hot and almost 40C with the humidex.  We stopped in Havelock - here there is a gas station, a Tim Horton's, a Subway, a Foodland, and a few other small restaurants.  There are some nice picnic tables and parking set up along the railway tracks of the town.  More importantly for us - across the road from the Tim Horton's and gas station there is a small park.  In the park there are a few picnic tables, benches, bear-proof garbage bins and also of course, the playground equipment.  It was boiling hot, but we were able to put our blanket down in the shade and eat our lunch.  Our kids were able to stretch out for awhile on the play equipment before it was just too hot to handle and we had to get back in the car.  Note: There is not parking at the playground, we had to park in the parking lot beside it (which is what everyone seemed to be doing).

The Park in Havelock

Our next stop on the way was Perth, Ontario.  Which isn't actually too far from Havelock (relatively speaking), but we needed to go to a Shopper's Drug Mart and pick up some supplies for our trip.  In Perth there is quite a bit, Shoppers, a grocery store, Dairy Queen, McDonald's, and several other fast food outlets and chain stores.

We took the same route on our way home - but on the home route we stopped in Kanata (the Terry Fox Drive Exit), where we picked up a few groceries at Farm Boy, then we went to Walter Baker Park where our kids were able to play on the park equipment, run up and down the tobaggan hill and stretch out.  We also used the washrooms that were conveniently located right next door inside the arena.  The gazebo at the park was unfortunately freshly spraypainted with some anti-Semitic graffiti, but we did not allow our kids to play in it (it was also filthy).  The rest of the park area was great.

Our final stop on the way home was in Marmora, Ontario (East of Havelock).  Marmora was quite a beautiful little town.  For us, the best part was that they have a fantastic kids playground and park (including splash pad, but this was closed for the season).  You cannot miss it if you are driving through town - you drive directly past it.  There is also a Subway and Mac's plaza that you can walk to from the park without crossing a major roadway - and there are washrooms in the Mac's store.  We let our son pick a little treat in the store (a small bag of Cheetos, which he only managed to eat a few of), used the washrooms, and got back on the road after a picnic and play session at the park.

Where did we stay?
We stayed for 5 nights at the Super 8 Hotel in Sainte Agathe des Monts (Québec).
MONEY SAVING TIP: We used points from our BMO World Elite MasterCard to pay for the hotel (entirely - for 2 rooms for 5 nights).  We love this card and we have used it for many hotel stays, although beware that it does have a significant annual fee - but for us it is worth it.
The reason we chose the Super 8 was because:
a) the price was right
b) it had a great indoor pool (the selling feature of this hotel for sure) with an 80 foot waterslide and waterfeatures.  The pool was heated to a great, but not too warm, temperature.  Be advised though - the pool is very shallow and is more of a playpool with the slide and water features.  This was perfect for our kids - but may be not as desirable if you have older children.
c) Breakfast is included.  Super 8 is a budget motel - the breakfast provided was more than sufficient (yogurt, waffle makers, hard boiled eggs, oatmeal, breads and toast, muffins, tea, coffee, juice, some fruit), but I have to admit that I really missed the hot breakfast items (like eggs, sausage, etc.) that you get at some other (also more expensive) hotels.  We actually ate several breakfasts of our own food.
d) Location - This hotel is centrally located in Ste Agathe des Monts.  It is easy to find and easy to get on the highway from their location.  It is also located on the same street as a Maxi grocery store and a very large Giant Tiger.  Nearby are many other stores and restaurants as well as access to cycling trails.

The hotel was great, mainly because of the pool.  It was not the cleanest (but not dirty) and obviously not the most luxurious (it is a super discount motel), but it met all of needs, the pool was fantastic, and the staff at the hotel were all excellent, helpful, and very friendly.

What did we eat?
Aside from the breakfasts at the hotel, we made a lot of food ourselves which we purchased at local grocery stores (IGA Extra, Metro, Costco in St Jérome).  We also had takeout one night from St Hubert, we ate two meals at Verger LaCroix (more about that later) from their canteen, and we also got dinner one day from a Casse-Croute in Saint Donat.  All of this allowed us to keep our food budget nice and low for the trip.  We have never (literally never) eaten in a restaurant as a family.  Part of it is budget, but way more of it is because it is not relaxing with an 11 month old and a 3 year old who love to run wild.  Seriously.  When the day comes that I can go out with my kids and relax and enjoy a good meal that I did not cook.............I will enjoy it.  Whenever that is.  Ha.  When we travel we like to bring most of our food or shop locally and do picnics.  We actually enjoy this and it is convenient and budget friendly.

What did we do?

Place Lagny - This is the waterfront park in Sainte Agathe des Monts on Rue Principale.  It is very easy to find.  There is a small trail on the waterfront, picnic tables, a dock, a children's play area (pirate themed), as well as a splash pad.  In addition - there is a building with washrooms.  Washrooms are key with kids!!!

Croisères Mont Tremblant - Sainte Agathe des Monts is about 25 minutes from Mont Tremblant (the village).  We love this area.  This was an unplanned activity.  We were driving through the village on an incredibly hot day, when we saw the signs saying the cruise was departing in 40 minutes.  We just decided to do it.  It wasn't cheap - $26/adult and $8.50 for old 3 year old, the youngest was free.  The cruise lasted one hour.  The crew was kid friendly.  An hour was more than long enough for our 3 year old and 11 month old to be contained on a boat.  It was beautiful and I am very glad we did it.  Bonus: As we were heading back to shore, a very severe thunderstorm came over the mountains and we watched it roll in, including the lightning.  Now, if the storm had unleashed while we were still on the water I would have undoubtedly been petrified, but thankfully it waited until we made the 5 minute walk back to our car (parked in the municipal park parking lot around the corner from the launching dock - where parking is free and there are also washrooms).  It was a crazy storm and I am very glad we were off the water at that point!!

Verger LaCroix
I cannot recommend this place enough.  St Joseph du Lac is a small town about an hour South of Sainte Agathe des Monts, it is sort of an outlier of Montreal.  I am not sure what to compare it to - but it is essentially orchard row.  It is stunningly beautiful, with mile, after mile, after mile of orchards.  We visited Verger et Cidrerie LaCroix on a busy Thursday.  It was hopping with school groups (if you want to go when it is not superbusy - most of the school groups are gone shortly after 1pm) and our kids loved it.  What will you find at Verger LaCroix?

First, you will find a market stand full of amazing apple products.  Walk through the market stand and you will find a large (very large) children's play area with play equipment (lots of it), hay based play centres, a small farm animal area/petting zoo, a picnic area, an interpretation centre for school groups, and all of this is of course backing onto a beautiful apple orchard.  There is also a canteen with fresh made goodies at reasonable prices (in 2017 we ordered grilled cheese, grilled cheese with caramelized onions and apples, pulled pork burgers, etc. - all between $3.00 - $5.00).  We ordered lunch from the canteen two days in a row (yes - it was so fun here for our kids we went back the next day).  Bathrooms are on site.

On our second day here, we decided to pick some apples.  The U Pick (Autocueillette) is very reasonably priced - if you are picking up to 40lbs of apples it is $1.00/lb regardless of variety.  We picked a 20lb bag of Honeycrisp apples and they were simply amazing.    In addition, I was able to capture some beautiful pictures of both our sons in the orchard.  I am very happy about that.

In the shop, you can buy prepicked apples and many delicious goods.  My favourite treat that I am obliged to mention is the Apple Oatmeal Cookies.  THE BEST.  Absolutely the best apple oatmeal cookies I've tasted anywhere.  I could not eat enough of them.  And they were reasonably priced.

There is one other thing I wanted to mention about this place: it is very clean.  Both days we went there, immediately after all the school groups left, a crew of staff came out and started cleaning like crazy - making sure there was no garbage or food left anywhere, cleaning the bathrooms, etc.  This does not go unnoticed by moms who like cleanliness!!!

If you are in the area, I highly recommend a stop here.  It can cost as little or as much as you want.  It is very family friendly.

Also in Saint Joseph du Lac, we visited Intermiel a large beekeeping company.  There were also many activities here for kids, but when we arrived both my boys were asleep.  We never wake sleeping kids!!  So I ventured into their gift shop alone.  Heaven!!!  Honey everywhere.  There is a large sampling station as they offer many products ranging from skin care to Mead, to wine, to of course many types of honey.  I picked up a few gifts here - and a 3kg pot of honey fro $20.00 (and excellent price).  It would have been great to spend more time exploring this place.  Hopefully we will be able to visit again one day.

Les Vergers LaFrance
In St Joseph du Lac.  A beautiful orchard and cidrerie (is there an English word for this??)  Cider Mill?   Here there is a restaurant as well as play equipment for children.  The shop here largely focuses on their distilled products, jam, and apple donuts.  We had to try the apple donuts.  They were still warm when I purchased them, and very tasty (my husband loves donuts, I prefer cookies).  Are you getting the good food theme of our trip?  It must be Québec!!

La Maison de Lavande
This beautiful lavender farm is more geared for adults.  Just walking inside their beauty gift shop is relaxing.  A beautiful setting with beautiful products.  I was able to pick up some items here that I wanted for some Christmas gifts I will be making.  Just heavenly.

Les fromages du verger
Les fromages du verger is a small fromagerie located in St Joseph du Lac.  It is a fromgerie with an orchard.  The staff here are very friendly and I was able to sample several cheeses before deciding on the "Boheme" which we enjoyed for a picnic dinner.  There is a play area for children and they invited us to visit their sheep in the barn which was greatly appreciated.

As I mentioned earlier, you could spend days (days!!) in the St Joseph du Lac area visiting all the different farms and orchards.  It is beautiful and a delight especially if you enjoy the outdoors and good food.

Now for a complete change of venue, I have to mention that I made a large trip to Costco in St Jérome.  I need to mention this because this one single trip alone more than paid for the cost of my Costco memberhsip.  It is hard to get lots of French resources at reasonable prices in Ontario.  I was able to pick up great resources for both personal and professional use (books, DVDs, French language toys, etc.).  One dictionary (French language only) that I picked up was $20.00 less at Costco than I saw it listed for in other stores in the area.  I would also be remiss if I did not mention how much cheaper beer is in Québec.  Personally, I do not drink alcohol - but my family is from Belgium (of course they all drink beer and wine, except for me!) and my brother in law is Dutch so......we picked up some Christmas gifts that resulted in significant savings (my husband looked up everything and told me what to buy and it worked out to be about $100 in savings just for the beer).  There are also great cheeses to be had....of course (it is Québec) as well as some bulk maple products.  And of course, I picked up a pizza here for our supper that night.

Saint Donat -  Parc des Pionniers

Saint Donat is one of the region's best kept secrets.  It is primarily a ski/snowmobile/cycling destination - but it is in a stunningly beautiful area (technically just outside the Laurentians).  The drive alone is worth it.  We love visiting this area.  There is a beautiful main street with lots of shops, cafés, and restaurants.  (Aside: also near the area is Lac Supérieur - which does not have much but does have a great kids park, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, if you need a place for your kids to get out and run around it is by the library - also seemingly in the middle of nowhere.)

We went to St Donat to take our kids to the Parc des Pionniers.  Parc des Pionniers is a beautiful waterfront park.  There are two large play areas for children, trails, picnic tables, benches, washrooms, and a stunning view.  We easily spent a few hours here.  There is also parking located across the street.

The beach at Parc des Pionniers

In a nutshell:
The Laurentians are a fantastic area to visit (especially with kids) - the area is stunningly beautiful and there are many outdoor, free or low-cost activities that you can do as a family.  In addition, there are plenty of well priced, affordable, delicious dining options in the area.

Bon voyage!!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Great Grocery Project: September Recap

This month turned out to be quite busy!!!

There was lots of planning, and prepping, and getting ready for things to come - mainly my return to work in December.  We also took a vacation, which is why I am a bit late posting, but I will get to that later.

This month we spent $432.49 on groceries.  There was a lot of stocking up on things like cheese (on sale for $3.77), potatoes, carrots, onions, frozen pie shells, and two frozen turkeys.  September was also the month I decided to make a change to the grocery shopping.  The change is not in what we buy, but in methodology.  I have been regularly reading the flyers for years, I actually really enjoy it.  However, life is getting to the point where I do not have time to read the flyers weekly.  We get a lot of them!  If you read the flyers regularly, you know that the best sales essentially rotate among various stores in different (or sometimes the same) weeks.  If you read this blog, you also know that I regularly shop at No Frills, and my local No Frills will price match with Metro and Walmart flyers.  And so, I made the decision that I will no longer read the flyers weekly.  Going forward, I will be reading only the No Frills, Walmart, and Metro flyers.  This saves me time a fair amount of time and energy which is a big win in our house.  In addition, I subscribe to SaleWhale, so if there is something specific I really need that I am desperate to have (unlikely) I can search for a sale quickly using Sale Whale.

What did we spend our money on?
Beverages = $2.99
Bread = $10.96
Dairy = $111.61 (I stocked up on cheese specifically when it was on sale for a great price).
Frozen Food = $35.00 (I stocked up on frozen pie crusts on sale for $2.49, frozen corn, and 4 frozen pizzas for emergency meals).
Meat = $33.57  (Two frozen turkeys, some Reduced for Quick Sale ground beef and chicken).
Pantry = $133.21 Prepping for a few tight months with no income before I go back to work.
Prepared Food = $10.99  Did you know it's Pumpkin Pie season at Costco?  You literally cannot make a pie of the same size for what it costs to buy these.  And they know it.  There was actually an article devoted to this in the current issue of the Costco Members Magazine.
Produce = $70.06  There was lots of stocking up on root vegetables and potatoes at fantastic prices.

Recipe Share:
I made and froze a lot of beets this month.  I also tried a few new beet recipes.  Thanks to some readers at The Prudent Homemaker, I decided to try a beet chocolate cake.  AMAZING.  Actually - it was so good.

Click here for the recipe I used.  I used all purpose flour instead of cake flour (but had to increase the cooking time) and I did not grate the cooked beets because you end up pureeing them anyway.  I also used a different (cream cheese) icing.  This cake is sooooo good.

I also made a Beet Cranberry Chutney.  This recipe is super easy to make and very yummy.  You can use fresh or frozen cranberries as well as home roasted or boiled beets.  It can also be frozen.  It was delicious with crackers and goat's cheese.  It would also pair well with cream cheese or brie, and poultry or pork.  Or the vegetarian tourtière recipe that is suggested on the recipe link (I imagine, I haven't tried it with this myself).

For the French version of the recipe click here.

For the English version click here.

How did we save money this month?

When I started going through my list, I realized I probably should have done an earlier post. Nonetheless, here we are. 

1. Price matching - I continue to price match at No Frills.

2. Optimum Points Bonus Day and Survey - I love the Optimum rewards program through Shoppers Drug Mart.  This month I made purchases on a day when I could earn bonus points.  I also am a member of their consumer panel, and so I earn extra points by completing surveys they send.  Finally, every Tuesday I receive a coupon with a special offer via text.  I've never used one of these, until last week when we were on vacation and I realized I had forgotten to bring Little Swimmers and there were some other items I needed to pick up.  I happened to get a great coupon that Tuesday - so I used it.  Hurray for bonus points.

3. Ebates Cheque - I received an Ebates cheque for $11.77.  

4. Costco Executive Membership Rebate Cheque - I received our rebate cheque which was for $75.00.  I'm a bit blasée about this program.  It covers the cost of the Executive Membership (but not the full membership) because we do not spend enough money at Costco.  It's not a loss because we still save loads on some specific items at Costco that I can't get on sale other places (specialty cheeses!!), but it's hard to get excited about it.

5. House Photos - I will save most of the details for another post, but we were getting photos done of our house and I staged it myself and made my own flower arrangements with flowers from the grocery store.

6. Vacation - We went on our first non-family visiting vacation in five years.  (Expect a future post about this).  We traveled to the Laurentians and used points from our MasterCard so we did not pay a penny for our hotel.  UPDATE: Trip details are now available here.

7. Clothing Discount - I have a list of things I need before returning to work - so I went to the Vaughan Mills outlet mall.  I was about to pay at a store when I remembered that 3 years ago (the last time I was shopping for work clothes), this store offered a discount for members of my profession.  There was no sign posted, but I asked if they still did this.  Yes they do!  $34.75 came off my bill.  BIG SMILE.

8. DIY Christmas Gifts - I made personal journals and also started working on some additional DIY Christmas gifts.

9. Make Ahead and Freeze - I am making ahead and freezing food for a party we are hosting in October.

10.  I filled up at Costco when I noticed gas there was actually a lot cheaper (it isn't always) and this saved me $12.00.

I hope you all had a wonderful month!!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Reading: Build a Better Cheese Platter

Have I mentioned how much I love cheese? No gathering in our family is complete sans fromage.

Saveur has an excellent feature piece on cheese monger Lillith Spencer. If you love cheese and you love to entertain this is well worth your time.  The photos alone are magnificent. True works of (edible) art.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

DIY Gifts: Personal journals

The Christmas DIY has begun. I like to plan Christmas gifts for the adults on my list by theme. Last year's theme was Baskets of Plenty - I made gift baskets full of homemade and some store bought goodies. This year's theme is Read, Write, Relax. Of course nobody knows the theme except for me. I don't send out a message, "prepare yourselves for your Basket of Plenty." No. The theme is just a way for me to organize my thoughts and my spending. My first DIY share this season is for the Write part of Read, Write, Relax. 

I wanted to make personal journals. The thing I love most about this craft is that it requires so few materials. 

Necessary materials:
-permanent marker
-scrap paper

Optional materials:
-ruler, math set

The journals I used are from Dollorama and cost $3.50 each. They are textured on the surface.  I used silver and gold metallic Sharpies from Michael's which cost $7.99. The butterfly stencil I used cost $1.25 at Dollorama.  They do sell Sharpies at Dollorama but not the metallics.

What to do???
Even though letters are obviously involved, I do not consider this lettering. At all. Lettering is an art that takes loads of time and study. Nonetheless, you do need to prep for this. I sketched many ideas out on scrap paper before moving ahead with the "good copy" in permanent marker. 

Because of the textured surface, the marker does run a bit. Keep this in mind because you do not want to be doing any fine print or intricate designs with a big Sharpie on this surface. In addition, you may need to trace around the edges after any stenciling in order to hide the bleeding (see butterfly below). 

Once you have come up with and rehearsed your design you can move ahead to the final copy. DO NOT RUSH. Permanent marker is not forgiving. 

This is an uncomplicated project - but you may be surprised by how long you spend formulating and practicing your design.   Examples are posted below. 


Monday, September 11, 2017

Recipe Share: A Tale of Two Squash

Is there a more seasonal fall vegetable than squash?  Squash is one of my favourite vegetables, and it is one of the reasons I look forward to fall every year.  This weekend I had two butternut squash to use up, so I tried several new recipes and also revived some old favourites.  If you are looking for some ideas on how to use up your squash.....look no further.

Squash and Lentil Curry
This Squash and Lentil Curry from Ricardo checks all the boxes.  I had all the ingredients on hand in my pantry (except the squash, of course).  This is so easy to make - just dump all the ingredients in the slow cooker, give it a stir and walk away for 6 hours.  That's it!!  It is quick to assemble, economical, and healthy - what more could you ask for in a meal?

The spices in this dish are very mild - you could easily add more for stronger flavouring.  I used Perez Curry Spices (one of my favourite blends) and added a bit more than what the recipe called for and it was still quite mild.  If you are not sure about Indian food - this is an excellent "gateway" dish.  Serve it with naan bread or Basmati rice and enjoy!!

Curried Peanut and Butternut Soup
The recipe can be found here, just replace the Pumpkin with Butternut Squash.  This recipe is from Bonnie Stern's Friday Night Dinners, the South African menu.

Squash Coffee Cake
This recipe is another gem from Ricardo.  I made two of these and send one to work with my husband.  This is a wonderful coffee cake recipe - I am sure the Butternut Squash could also be replaced with pumpkin and taste equally delicious.  But there is something fun about telling people it is a Squash Coffee Cake.

Finally, if you have the cookbook Friday Night Dinners, I highly recommend the Roasted Carrot and Butternut Spread from the Thanksgiving Menu.  Unfortunately, I do not have a link for the recipe and I do not repost recipes without permission/copyright.

Happy cooking!!

Blurry Curry, my 3 year old wanted to test his photography skills

This Squash Coffee Cake freezes well

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sunday Morning Read: Rabbi Sacks on Faith, Family and Community

The title of the text is actually "Cultural Climate Change", but this is a extremely thoughtful and well laid out thesis and arguments on the importance of faith, family, and community in society - and how they are all interrelated.  This text is lengthy, but it is worth taking the time to read every word - and you do not need to be Jewish to appreciate the thoughts and arguments laid out here.

Rabbi Sacks was the Chief Rabbi when we lived in the UK.  I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I have read a great deal of his work and he is very wise.

Click here to read the entire text.

Here are a few teasers from this text:

Now I simply want to ask: how does this affect us in the contemporary world? The answer lies in three dimensions. First, family. Second, community. Third, society. What happens to family, community, and society when the West loses its faith, its religious faith?


Having children or raising them involves enormous sacrifice of time, money, effort and energy. Religious people understand the concept of sacrifice. We live by it. It’s part of our lives. But people in a secular, consumerist, individualist culture find it much harder to live by sacrifice. Nothing in the culture says sacrifice, and throughout history that is the reason why when a culture begins to lose its faith, its birth rate starts to decline. This is not just happening now. It has happened throughout history.


It is that ability to come together as communities to help one another that is our apprenticeship in liberty. Today, this kind of community exists mainly in religion. Let me give you a dramatic example of this. In 2011, a British medical charity did a survey in Britain. It discovered that the average Brit between 18 and 30 has 237 Facebook friends. When asked how many of those you could rely on in an emergency, the average answer was “two”. A quarter replied one, and an eighth replied none.


 But America, which received wave after wave of immigrants, had to work for this identity, this shared bond of society. You had a word for it and that word is a very interesting one. It’s a key word in American politics. That word is covenant. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Great Grocery Project - One Year Recap

Shazam!  Just like that.  One year is over.  I started this project a year ago, knowing that we were heading into a period where my income would be reduced by 60% (also called Maternity Leave).  Many unexpected things happened during this time - I became very ill and was largely incapacitated for about 8 weeks pre-birth of son #2, we had to do a massive unplanned renovation on our house, etc.  But all is well.  The kids are good.  I've always used a rough budget amount - but this is the first time I have tracked exactly what the money is being spent on as opposed to just saying food in general.  This has been very useful.

So let's get to it - between September 1 2016 and August 31 2017 we spent:
$5006.76 on groceries.  This works out to about $417.23 per month.

What does this mean?
Well Stats Canada has lots of data that can put this amount in perspective.  According to them, in 2015 the average family in Ontario spent $8475 on food (this includes eating out, which we rarely do).  In addition, analysts were predicting that in 2017 the average family in Canada would be spending an additional $420 on groceries - bringing the average family spend to $8895.00.  A more recent article in the National Post suggests that Canadians spend $200 per person per month on food, even increasing to $240 per person per month depending where in the country you live.  Given this data, I would say that we are coming in well below average.

A few notes: Our children are very young and don't eat much food, I know that when kids (especially boys) hit puberty and the teenage years they tend to eat quite a bit more.  As an anecdote, a friend of mine has three sons.  A few years ago they were all between 16-20 years old, living at home for the summer and working very physically demanding jobs in landscaping.  She told me she was spending $1500 a month on groceries.  Now, I think this probably could have been cut back, but I can see how someone could easily spend this much on groceries every month with three very hungry, physically active teenagers.

The other thing to remember is that I have been off work for essentially this entire year.  I find it easier to have something small and quick for lunch when I am at home.  When I am making lunches for work it requires more planning and strategy and food savvy.

Regarding the food categories - I include milk (which we drink) in Dairy not under beverages.

OK.  Let's get to the good stuff.

What did we spend this money on????

Produce - $1296.64.  This was hands down our biggest category.  We eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.  I also have a stand-up freezer that is FULL of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and grapes for the year ahead that I use in smoothies, baking, for snacks, etc.  The cost of the "freezer fruit" for the year ahead is included in this total.  The most expensive fruit I buy are grapes.  If I were to cut out the grapes it would cut this amount back.  We planted a blueberry patch at our house two summers ago, but at the moment we are working on growing the bushes as opposed to yielding fruit for them.  My dream would be to grow more of our own fruit by adding a small orchard to our property - but dream is the key word here.  It is something we are considering for the future.

Dairy - $1089.08  This amount is high, but not much higher than the Ontario average of $783.00.  We are milk drinkers.  We are also cheese eaters.  It is a cultural thing for us (both of us are from French/European backgrounds).  And you might be surprised to hear that I very much restricted the cheese we bought this year.  Very much so.  There were no such restrictions on milk in our house.  If you are wanting some perspective on dairy prices in Canada - it is $4.27 to buy 4L of milk - and that is a good price.  One 444g block of plain old cheddar cheese can be purchased for $4.44 or sometimes $3.97 on sale.  Butter, on sale, is $3.50-$4.00 a pound.  Canadians pay a lot for dairy compared to our American counterparts.  If I had to significantly reduce our grocery spend, I would have to cut way back on milk and cheese.  But I love milk.  I really love milk.  I also really love cheese and I have really missed lots of cheese this year.  I digress...

Pantry - $770.27  This includes all pasta, baking supplies, peanut butter, etc.  We make everything from scratch (almost) so I am not surprised at this amount.

Meat - $387.25  This is far below the average household spend of $1079.00.  I knew that I could reduce our meat spend significantly by making a few changes.  I always stock up on frozen turkeys when they are on sale and use them for many recipes.  I bought almost no red meat this year, aside from ground beef on sale.  I did not buy any fresh fish - instead I bought frozen fish from Costco.  I only bought chicken two or three times.  I bought large pork roasts on sale or from Costco which last us for many meals.  We are more eggs than we normally would (egg salad, poached eggs, fried eggs, omelettes, lots of quiche).  We did not purchase any lamb at all (normally we might have it a few times a year).  I bought lots of meat Reduced for Quick Sale and immediately put it in the freezer to use up as needed.  We ate more beans (which I included in the pantry budget).  I only purchase meat when it is on sale (except for frozen fish).  On a final note - although I love fresh fish - I really like the frozen trout from Costco because the fillets are individually wrapped inside the package.  This stops them from getting freezer burn when you are opening and closing the bag.  It is a really nice feature and I was more than impressed with this product.  The frozen scallops at Costco are also great, but I did not purchase any this year.

Bread - $297.09  I thought I was spending more than most in this category, but it turns out I am about average (the average is $315).  The bread issue I go back and forth on.  My son loves toast.  He also loves really healthy sourdough grain breads.  I can get these at Costco in a 3 pack for $6.99.  They immediately go in the freezer and are used for toast.  The factory for Stonemill Bread is not far from where we live - I went there one day and even in their "outlet" the prices are not as good as at Costco.  I am not willing to cut the bread budget when this is something healthy my son likes to eat for breakfast (but I would obviously if we had to).  It is definitely cheaper to make your own bread if it is an All Purpose Flour using recipe, however the price of grains here are such that when you get into some other specialty type breads it is not much cheaper (if at all) to make your own.  I do love making Challah.  This coming year I want to try making my own Naan bread and Tortillas.

Prepared Food - $257.28.  This amount is much more than I think we would typically spend on "prepared foods" at the grocery store.  The big spend in this area was largely due to health issues at the end of my pregnancy.

Beverages - $234.89  When I look at my data, about 80% of this was spend between September and December, when I was ill and was on Doctor's orders to be drinking certain things like cranberry juice and tonic water (disgusting by the way).  However I am not afraid to admit that I do really love the occasional Pure Leaf Iced Tea.  I really love it and get it when it is on sale for $3.00/bottle.

Frozen Food - $199.50.  This category for us typically consists of frozen vegetables, pie crusts (my vice), and emergency frozen pizzas.  If you are wondering about the pie crusts - here are my thoughts: I love making my own pastry but it makes a big mess that I don't always have time to clean up (when I'm working, not so much right now...).  I buy these when they are on sale for $3.00 or sometimes $2.49 for 2 crusts.  Now, flour can be purchased pretty cheaply - butter not so much.  I have done the calculations and most double pie crust recipes call for about $2.00 worth of butter alone.  So it literally only costs about twenty to thirty cents more to buy the premade frozen crusts.  Why do I buy these?  Because when I am in a rush, or in a jam, or feeling lazy, or just life, I know that I can pull these out of the freezer and in 10 minutes of thawing they are ready to go which allows me to quickly whip up things like quiche, fruit pies, Chocolate Cream Pies, meat pies, etc.  And - I do not have to make a huge mess on the counter.  I like making messes when I cook - but I also like having time to do other things - especially when I am working.  So there are my thoughts on the frozen pie crusts and that is why I buy them when they are on sale.  Tenderflake can thank me for the spike in sales by sending free pie crusts.  Do you hear me Tenderlfake?   Hello???

Minor notes -  I also spent $30.84 on dips and sauces (mostly hummous) and $8.37 on baby specific foods.  There you have it.

That is it.  
That is what I spent on groceries last year.  Every penny.  The only distinction I did not make in this data is that I did not spend all of this in cash.  Some of it was in points redemptions but that was just getting too complicated given all the other tracking I was doing (I also tracked what I spent by store, and what I spent in each store by category but I will not bore you with all that data).

So where do we go from here?
I am finishing this year with a freezer FULL of food and a well stocked pantry.  The next few months will be very tight as I am finishing my mat leave and starting a one month infant care leave (which will mean zero income).  Following that, I will be back at work in December and paying for preschool as well as childcare.  I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful job that also pays well, so yes, if you are wondering, even with the cost of childcare it is still worth me going to work - although that changes with every child we add to the tribe.

I am planning to run this particular series for one more year - because I know things will look a bit different when I go back to work.  After that, I will not be tracking everything so precisely and will go back to my more general food budget.

Thank you so much for following along with us over the past year - I look forward to sharing more and learning from all of you in the year ahead.  If you are looking for additional ideas or ways to save money on your food spending I highly recommend that you follow The Prudent Homemaker, here you will find a great community with loads of ideas on how to reduce your grocery spending.

Finally, I will leave you with a little recipe share, because I love recipe sharing.  Earlier this week I purchased a 500g tub of Krema Lemon Balkan Style Yogurt, Reduced For Quick Sale for $0.99.  These tubs are normally $5.99.  I was going to use the yogurt for smoothies, but then I found this delicious recipes for Lemon Scones.  I made two batches and gave half a dozen to my son's preschool provider.  They are delicious - and you know what - I bet you could make these using plain greek yogurt as well because you would still get the lemon flavouring from the rind.

Here is the recipe.  Smother them in strawberry or raspberry jam.  You will not be disappointed.


Monday, August 28, 2017

How have we saved money this month?

I usually lump these in with The Great Grocery Project, but since my next post in that series will be a year-long recap, and the past few weeks have been crazy busy, I am giving the money savers their own post.

1. Not renting a car!! This will be our biggest save, although it is also paired with a big spend. My car is 6 years old and starting to get many small rust spots on the bottom due to stone chips and our climate/road conditions. We want to drive this vehicle for (we hope) another 5-6 years. Rust spreads like wildfire, so in order to maintain the body we sent it in for some body work.   Not cheap but necessary. This left us without a vehicle, which we need for various reasons. It was going to cost between $500-800 to rent a car that would fit our car seats for a week and we just cannot spend that right now. After talking it over, my husband arranged to work from home for 3 days this week and I will drive him the other two days. His work is 70km away and involves driving across the city, so it is a huge inconvenience to do this with a baby and preschool runs for the preschooler, but I think it is definitely worth the savings.

2. Hotel Points - last weekend we traveled North to Ontario's Cottage Country for a family event. We could have done the trip in one day, but it would have meant a late, miserable drive home. We were able to redeem Mastercard points and stay at a hotel. This made the trip much more relaxing and "saved" us $400.00 (although we would not have spent that without the points).

3. Benefits Investigation - I recently changed to a new benefits plan through work. When I phoned to clarify some of the plan details I found out my old history had been wiped, and I was essentially starting as if I had no claims. Obviously this wasn't being advertised in order to avoid a flood of claims before the official start date. I immediately booked Optometrist appointments for myself and my husband and we were both able to get new glasses without paying anything out of pocket (aside from our benefit payments of course). Fantastic !!

4. Daytimer Refills - Daytimer has been my go to organizer for 20 years. I cannot give up the paper calendar!! I must write things to stay organized. Last week I reviewed all the available refill packages and changed my usual order in order to save $20.00. This change will have zero impact on my organization.

5. Stretching the Grocery Dollar - While trying to use up some items on hand and avoid a trip to the grocery store, I made a Crock-Pot full of The Pioneer Woman's Refried Beans. I substitute 4 cups of the water with chicken broth. I used this to make bean soup, refried beans as a side, refried beans and cheese dip, and beans with corn muffins.

6. Duck Dynasty Cookbook - Have I mentioned that I love Dollorama ?   Have I mentioned that cookbooks are my vice? While picking up some hangers at Dollorama, I checked the book section (obligatory because they get ends from publishers and I have had many great finds here). There, waiting for me, was a copy of a Duck Dynasty cookbook for $3.00. I suspected it would be full of simple, uncomplicated, delicious, Southern recipes. It has not disappointed. I made cornmeal muffins and served them with bean soup, refried beans, with eggs, with homemade jam, and on their own as a snack. I love recipes and I need a hard copy because I like to make notes in my cookbooks.

I will stop here for now...but speaking of Crock Pots....if you are interested in the history of the Crock Pot, I highly recommend this article from Tablet Magazine. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Martha Stewart Gets It Done

I always love these types of articles about how busy, successful businesswomen (and men) plan their day.  This one is no exception.  Although I was thinking while reading it, yes, that is the secret - I could get so much more accomplished in a day if I had three personal assistants and a driver.  Ha!  I do enjoy Martha Stewart though.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Great Grocery Project - Mid August Recap

We are just a few weeks away now from the end of the Great Grocery Project's inaugural year.  The next post in this series will be a major, and I mean MAJOR, recap of a full year of grocery spending in our house.  Yikes.

So far in August, I have spent $464.56 on groceries.  Just over $150.00 of this was entirely spent on produce (in particular blueberries) that were frozen for the year ahead.  The Dairy category this month was also a big spend because I was completely out of butter - I picked up 6 lbs of butter at Costco for $3.65 a pound, which is about as cheap as you are going to find it in these parts, aside from the increasingly rare $2.99/lb sale.

Other things I picked up this month included Lean Ground Beef on sale at No Frills for $2.77/lb.  I bought two large packages.  One package was used to make a meatloaf and 10 frozen hamburger patties - currently thawing for tonight's dinner.  Another package is in the freezer.

When I did my massive produce run to a local farm I picked up a dozen corn on the cob (which is actually cheaper at most grocery stores).  I made Southern Style Creamy Corn, which I love and I find this stretches the corn more than just eating on the cob (which is also amazing).  Creamy Corn is served as a side with fish, poultry, beef, pork - pretty much any protein including baked beans.  I also serve it with Baked Beans and cornbread.  My favourite is setting aside 3 cups of the Creamy Corn to make Corn Chowder which is very economical, delicious, and provides yet more meals derived from a dozen cobs of corn.

I was also (finally) able to pick up a 10kg bag of flour at Costco.  They had been out of stock for quite some time as a result of the E coli recall that stretched across Canada.  We tend not to think of flour as a raw agricultural product, but it is.  This story received widespread coverage across Canada, in particular because a toddler became extremely ill after consuming raw flour.  Now, all flour packages have a HUGE warning label on them warning you not to eat it raw.  This is a bummer because what fun is making cookies and cakes if you cannot eat the dough???  Alas, I finally have a good supply of flour.

How have we saved money this month?

1.  Vacation  - We have just been on a family holiday.   Virtually no spend holidays this year mean keeping it simple.  Nobody has complained about this.  We went to stay with family for 6 days and we just relaxed (as much as you can with kids), visited with a few friends, and did lots of swimming.  One day we picked up some treats for everyone at a grocery store (we got pizza, watermelon, raspberries, a cheese ball with crackers, some freshly baked goods, etc.) and we spent $40.00 on that.  I went out for breakfast with friends one day and spend $7.00 including tax and tip.  We allowed our son to pick out one book for himself to read (he can't read yet - but loves to look through books) on the way home, this cost $8.00.  So - all in our 6 day vacation (not including gas) cost us $56.00.  In case you are wondering - I did volunteer to bring groceries and cook - but our host - my mother-in-law did not want us to do that.

2.  Free Fruit Tray  - I went to visit some friends from university for lunch, and there was a fruit tray leftover.  My friend and her husband were leaving that night to go on vacation, so she sent me home with the fruit tray.  Great snacks for everyone!

3.  Garden Harvest - It was looking doubtful, but I have finally been able to get a harvest from my garden.  We have been enjoying zucchini bread, chocolate zucchini bread, green beans, yellow beans, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and soon we will have beets as well.  Hurray!!!  I found a new recipe for chocolate zucchini bread in the current issue of Ricardo that uses much less sugar than my current recipe, so I am looking forward to trying it.

4.  Cereal Clearance - We (generally) do not eat cold cereal because it is not filling and very expensive.  I do keep a box of Cheerios on hand for snacks when we go to the park, but this tends to last a loooong time.  I was in Walmart one day and they had Maple Cheerios and Canada Day Fruit Loops (all special editions because of Canada's 150th birthday) on clearance for $1.00 a box.  This is very, very cheap.  Even on sale, these boxes would be typically $3.00 a box in Canada.  I bought 3 boxes and we have been enjoying them as special treats and snacks.  And this also reminded me how not filling cold cereal is.

5.  Ebates and Sephora - I ordered foundation from Sephora via Ebates in order to earn cashback.  I also ordered my 3 free samples - perfume samples and blush.  I love high end perfumes - I have never bought a bottle in my life - the free samples keep me going!!

6.  Parks, parks, parks!!  We continue to hit up parks all around us.  I have been trying to get my boys outside for 3-4 hours every day and it has been awesome.  And FREE!!!!!!  It is a bit of a hassle packing a picnic and loading/unloading the car most days, but it is so worth it.  Outdoor play is like therapy.  As long as it's not too hot!

7.  Anniversary - We celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary.  There is something I really want to get for my husband, but it is not in the budget right now.  Instead I got a special treat from Amadeus Patisserie in Thornhill (the absolute best).  It was a fraction of the price - and incredibly delicious.  This is the one place where I would choose purchasing over making from scratch.  Hello - St Honoré, Cheesecake, Pistachio Delight.  Yes!!  Wait.....these were for my husband.....not me.......

That is all I have time to write for now.  I will be posting another update on our renovation shortly as soon as I can.

Flour Warning

The best desserts.  Ever.

Produce Haul

Tray freezing for bagging

Monday, August 7, 2017

Ravings and Ramblings on a House Overhaul: Part 1

Readers know, because I have been mentioning it on and off for literally the past year, that we have done a massive renovation on our house.  There was no step by step follow along or regular updating on the endeavor, but now that it is (almost) completely finished I am going to share a bit about it.  This will not be your typical DIY post - but if anything I can rant about  share helps someone else with their project, that would be fantastic...

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start...

A few years ago I wrote a small primer about our little house, which you can read here (Nutshell Recap: After searching high and low in the GTA we bought a house in 2012 which we managed to find for well under $500K, which if you live in this area you know is very hard to do).  When we bought our house we were debating between it and one other option, which cost significantly more but was a larger house.  In the end, we went with the lower priced house knowing that if we wanted to make improvements (or if we had to) we would be in a better financial position to do so.  We have never regretted this decision.  Not even for one second.

While living at this house we have done a few improvements (like renovating our main bathroom which was so poorly designed and small that we could barely walk through it without touching both sides of the wall in some spots).  We also did a major exterior renovation (also known as landscaping!) which was the best money I think we spent on our house.  It increased ourliving space, did wonders for the curb appeal of the house, and increased the amount of time we spent outside playing with our kids exponentially.  The other work we did to our house was superficial, largely painting rooms and furnishing them.  We redid the closet in our master bedroom.  We turned one of the rooms into a guest bedroom and upcycled furniture where we could.  All of these projects were done a few years ago, and not part of our current renovation.  Fast forward to 2016...

One day in August 2016 I walked down to our basement and discovered the floor was damp, but thankfully not flooded.  Noooooo!!  I knew, immediately, that if this was water coming in from the outside as opposed to a plumbing problem coming from upstairs we would be looking at a minimum $25,000.00 in repairs - and that would just be for interior weeping tile.  I will spare you all the minute details - but yes - in the end we had water coming in from outside (this is a common problem in older houses in Ontario) and so we had to gut our entire basement, have an interior weeping tile installed and then restart from almost scratch.

This involved:
-all new flooring, insulation, drywall
- new cabinets and sink for the basement wet bar (also so it can easily be converted to a basement apartment for resale)
-we completely rebuilt a basement bathroom.

We also had to replace our roof, the pump in our septic tank (not the source of the basement leak, but it died and needed to be replaced), and one of our sump pumps.  And this is just for the basement.

This unwanted project fell into our lap when I was about 30 weeks pregnant with Baby #2.  By the time I was 31 weeks pregnant I became very, very ill and was pretty much bedridden for the rest of my pregnancy.  The baby arrived early, but not preterm, when our house was in complete shambles and our basement was gutted.  While we were doing our renovation, we rented a storage cube which became infested with mice and the company refused to allow us to claim any damages.  This was so infuriating and I don't want to write much more about it because I still get angry when I think about it.  This meant we were out about $3000.00.  Let me just say this: Never use Cube-It.

I wish that I could say this entire situation was handled with grace and ease...but no.  It was very stressful and some days I was miserable (just ask my husband).  Nonetheless, I was reminded of a few important lessons:

1.  Sometimes it doesn't matter how smart you are with money, life happens.
We have been very careful not to take on any non-mortgage debt since we got married.  We did take on a car payment after my husband was in a car accident (his car was a write-off but he was unhurt) and we had to suddenly replace a vehicle, but otherwise we have no "consumer" debt.  Knowing that I was going to be on maternity leave, I saved up a significant sum to cover some major expenses we knew were coming up and some slush money.  All of this went up in smoke when we had to do all this unplanned work to our house.  We had to take on some debt.  Now, it is "house debt" but it is still debt and you know what - this is alright.  It is not ideal, it is not what we would have wanted - but this is life.  Sometimes these things just happen and are beyond our control.  I cannot allow myself to be constantly stressed because we had to stop water from creeping into our basement.  We will get it paid off and life will move forward.

2.  Careful research is the key to saving money on a home renovation.  Do not rush.
What I found over and over again during this massive project, is that I was able to save significant amounts of money by carefully researching all of my options.  Time and time again taking some extra time to investigate something, read up on something, or get an additional quote paid off.  And that does not mean we always went with the cheapest option - we always went with what we thought was the best long term option.

Now - where was I?
Oh yes, in our basement...

Floorplan: We made no changes to the footprint of the basement.  This is the easiest way to save money.  As soon as you start moving plumbing around.....big money!

Flooring: We went with carpet and professional grade plank vinyl.  I would have done the whole basement in the vinyl but it was more cost effective to do the split.  If you have not investigated vinyl flooring in years - I highly recommend it.  It is highly water resistant, cost effective, resilient, and the look of it has come along well.  I know many food based businesses who are using the professional luxury vinyl now as their main flooring.

Do what you can, not what you can't!
We did all of the demo and removal of junk ourselves.  For everything else we hired a contractor.  Normally we would do all the painting ourselves (this is our first time hiring a painter), but because of my health issues during pregnancy it was not a possibility this time.  Hiring a well-researched professional, especially for electrical and plumbing work is key.  If you do not know how to do it - don't!!

These pictures are in the house's current state.  In Part Two I will discuss the bathroom renovation (it needs its own post).  In Part 3 I will talk about the upstairs/main floor of the house.  In the final part I will show the final product in all of its glory.
Luxury Vinyl Plank Flooring

Luna Frost Countertop with Top mount sink
Countertop: Here is reason # 1 while I will probably never be featured on a DIY or reno blog.  HGTV will never call me.  I like laminate countertops.  Don't get me wrong - I love the look of stone countertops (and we do have stone elsewhere in our house) - but I just do not understand spending thousands of dollars on a countertop.  It is just a countertop.  I am an avid cook and I have never said to myself, " know what would make this food taste so much better?  If it was cooked on an expensive slab of Carrara marble."  Never!  I have never, in the middle of a major canning session, said "Oh this Blueberry Maple Pecan Chutney would be so much easier to make if I had a gigantic quartz island."  Friends, it just hasn't happened.  And so, for our basement countertops I bought Luna Frost (1849) Laminate countertop made by Wilson Art.  It cost $640 installed.
This guy likes the countertop

Solid Wood Open Shelving, just waiting to be staged...

Basement Wet Bar
Cabinetry:  Due to the space we were filling, we knew we would be best suited to get custom cabinetry.  We did get solid wood cabinets and shelves - but we may not have done this if we did not have a personal connection which enabled us to get them at wholesale prices.  To save money we got open shelving for the uppers and no upper cabinets.

This is what we have so far.  More to come soon...