basic curry powder

This is a frugal tip, but it’s also just good practice in the kitchen.  If you like to cook, and you buy spice mixes, you’re missing out on a lot of fun.  Making your own spice mixes is easy, fun, and the results are much better than the storebought kind.  As far as frugality goes:  it’s cheaper even if the mixes seem cheap enough.  Here’s why:  if you buy whole spices and toast, combine, and grind them yourself in small batches, they’ll always be fresh when you use them.  As a result, you’ll use less.  There aren’t that many spices out there, but spice mixes are endless.  Instead of having to buy fifty spice mixes, or feeling defeated when a recipe calls for one you don’t have, if you have the ingredients and can make your own, the sky’s the limit, but you don’t have to buy that many things, and if you don’t like something, you just don’t have to make it again.  So save some money, have some fun, and get better tasting food!

We’ll start with the most basic spice mix of all:  Curry powder.  Some people run the other way when a recipe calls for it.  But if you make your own, there’s no reason to turn up your nose at a simple recipe with curry powder on the ingredient list.  But there are 90 different kinds of curry, you say?  Not a problem – use your favorite.

I am using Alton Brown’s recipe with minor alterations.  He wisely suggests that you make up a big batch of the stuff but don’t grind it until the day you want to use it; then only grind the amount you need.  I take a middle-of-the-road approach with this.  Many curries are meant to be quick and easy.  If I have to grind my spices every time, that might not work so well.  So instead of making a big batch and grinding every time, we’ll make a small batch and grind the whole thing.  It’s a compromise between very fresh and very convenient that I think we can all live with.

So, let’s take a look at the ingredients:

There are three kinds of whole seeds in this:  cumin seeds (top), coriander seeds (bottom), and cardamom (right).

There are three kinds of pre-ground spices:  dry mustard (top), turmeric (bottom), and hot paprika (right).  Alton Brown uses cayenne, which I don’t buy; I use hot paprika instead of cayenne in everything and while I can tell the difference, it’s too difficult to get quality cayenne here.

Gently toast the whole spices in a dry non-stick pan.  I move them around pretty regularly so they don’t burn.  When they start to smell really good, transfer them to your spice grinder, along with the ground spices, mixing everything up really well.

Grind in your spice grinder.  You can use an actual spice grinder, a coffee grinder that you’ve designated as a spice grinder, a grain grinder (as I do), or some other grinding apparatus of your choice.  I wouldn’t recommend a mortar and pestle because we want a very fine powder.

Keep it in a glass jar in your spice cabinet (the recipe makes more than what you see there – I used a bunch of it for dinner).  Try to use it within about two months.

A note on measurements:  if your measuring spoon collection doesn’t include the rare 1/2 tbsp spoon, remember that 1/2 tbsp = 1 tsp + 1/2 tsp.

Basic Curry Powder
original recipe

1/2 tbsp whole coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tbsp whole cardamom pods
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp hot paprika or cayenne pepper

1.  Measure out the whole spices.  Toast in a dry, non-stick pan on medium heat, moving around the pan frequently, until fragrant.

2.  Measure out the ground spices.  Combine with toasted spices.  Transfer to grinder.  Grind on a very fine grind.  Store in a glass jar.

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Vanilla extract
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vanilla extract

If you had the choice to pay $103.12 or $11.99 for something, which would you pick?

A 20 mL bottle of vanilla extract costs EUR 2.75 at the supermarket.
A 750 mL bottle of vodka costs EUR 9.99.  Three vanilla beans cost EUR 2.00.
750 / 20 = 37.5
I can get 37.5 times as much out of the vodka as I can out of the vanilla extract bottle.
2.75 * 37.5 = 103.125

So really, this is kind of an easy choice.

After seeing this idea on several blogs, like here on Suburbhomestead, I realized that I was throwing a lot of money away on vanilla extract.  It might sound silly, but when some of my recipes call for a whole tablespoon of the stuff – or at least a teaspoon – that means that one of those little bottles is only enough for four or five recipes.  After a little reassurance, I decided I had nothing to lose and a lot of money to save!

All you need is vodka and vanilla beans.  I am using a nicer glass bottle, but only because I have one on hand.  You can just put the vanilla beans directly into the vodka bottle.

The great thing about vanilla beans is that last a really, really long time.  When I get through this entire 750 mL of vodka, I can get another bottle of vodka and just add it.  The beans will continue to work, potentially for years.

I used a razor blade to slice a slit from one end to the other of each bean, to help get the vanilla flavor into the vodka.  The pictures don’t show it, but vanilla beans are soft and have an almost gel-like consistency, kind of like a dried apricot.  A razor blade is a good way to cut into them without mushing them up.

Put the vanilla beans into the bottle…

Fill the bottle with vodka.  It really doesn’t get any easier than this.

The bottle on the left used less than half of the vodka I got for 9.99.  The bottle on the right cost 2.75.  It just makes me laugh.  I feel like such an idiot that I didn’t do this before!

I put mine in my bean pantry.  It should stay in a dark place.  Every day, I’ll take it out and shake it gently.  After about a month, it should be ready to use.

This is what it looks like after about two weeks; it still has another two weeks to go, but it smells absolutely divine!

And it has a lovely amber color too, making it practically decorative!  However, it really is best to keep it in the cupboard.

A teaspoon of vanilla extract in a recipe = a teaspoon of this stuff.  It’s the same damn thing.  Isn’t that awesome?

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Re-growing celery
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linen closet makeover

This is not your standard closet makeover, that starts with a trip to the Container Store, or at least a dollar store.  My budget for this project was $0.00, and I stuck to it.  My linen closet was always an issue for me, because it has a hanger bar and no shelves.  How to organize linens in such a setup without spending money?  The other thing holding me back was that I hate our linens.  They are awful.  I have one set of sheets that I love, which are either on the bed or in the washing machine; and I have a set of ugly but very warm flannel sheets that I put on the bed when we can’t stand to freeze anymore.  But the rest of our sheets?  Hideous.  They are all handmedowns from my mother in law, who judges a sheet’s attractiveness on the number of contrasting colors and its ability to stand out in a crowd.  They are also all king size, and our bed is a queen.

Our towel situation is no better.  All our towels are handmedowns as well, mostly shades of beige, except for one garish set of bright turquoise towels that don’t play well with our white-gray-purple decor.   And of course they don’t match each other.  Whenever I think about redoing my linen closet, I think about those hideous sheets and towels, and I lose heart.   At some point, I had the brilliant idea to buy a hanging sweater organizer (purple and gray!) to provide a little shelf space in there, and I’m thrilled with that idea, but clearly it wasn’t enough, and I wasn’t really using it very much.

This week, I realized that I was running out of storage space in the pantry, and the linen closet was the most underutilized storage we have.  So my ugly sheets and ratty old towels had to be faced.   If we didn’t have frequent overnight guests, almost all of those sheets would be designated “project fabric.”

So, first step is to face reality.  Here’s the Before… keeping it real for you…

Got to have a plan!  The plan:  store linens, towels, toiletries stockpile, and paper goods stockpile.  Getting the bathroomy stuff in here would clear out space in the pantry for food storage, something I really need.

First step was to get the clothes out of the linen closet.  I had been storing our out of season clothes on the bottom shelf.  I moved those to the upper level of the bedroom closet.  The clothes that were hanging on the hanger bar went either to the coat closet or the bedroom closet.  That cleared out a great deal of space.

Having no budget means making do with what I have on hand.  I collected a bunch of white plastic baskets and lavendar edged bamboo baskets that I already had.

The large blue box doesn’t match the color scheme and I am painfully aware of this – can you tell it’s in hiding back there? Anyway, it has toilet paper and extra tampons in it.  In front, tissues, swiffer cloths, paper towels, and disposable gloves.  On top of the box, left to right:  dental care, skin care, and hair care.

On the bottom, I have a row of white plastic baskets in the back row:  soaps; shampoo; shower gels; tampons; and baby wipes.  In the bamboo baskets in the front:  cosmetics; shaving supplies; bath sponges; deodorant; and cotton swabs.

(You have to do a special course to fold towels and neatly ironed sheets like that, I’m telling you, it’s a talent… 😉 Oh, whom am I kidding… I don’t waste too much energy on the hateful things!)  Hanging sheets on hangers is the only solution I could come up with since there’s a hanger bar but no shelves, but I’m okay with it for now.  I think that for $0.00, this is a solution that I can live with.  It freed up one whole pantry shelf, two craft-closet drawers, and bits of other storage here and there.  It’s also so organized that my husband can find things without having to ask.  (He is always asking me where things are, because I’m always moving them around.  When I showed him the finished result, he gave me the raised eyebrow.  He knows that it’s quite likely I’ll redo the whole thing in a few days weeks months.)

As for labels… I wanted to stick to the linen closet theme, and I had an old orphan lavendar pillowcase, so I took it apart and used the border to make mini pillows, with the label written on them.  Then I attached them to the baskets with a bright purple bow.  I only used about a tenth of the pillowcase fabric, so that leaves more fabric for other projects, and it didn’t cost anything.  And, to make them even more fun, there is actual lavendar inside the pillows, to keep everything smelling nice!

That’s my no-money linen closet organization makeover!

I’ll do an update on this if I ever get new towels and sheets! 😀

You might also like:
DIY Ziploc bag organizer
Before & after: craft closet

This post is linking up with the following:
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Organize and Decorate EverythingA Delightsome LifeChic on a Shoestring DecoratingThe Shabby Nest

tulle rose bouquet

I love handrolled roses, ever since the Valentine’s Day of my engagement to my now-husband.  He was living on the tiny Greek island where we later were married and lived together for a year.  I came down from Athens for the Valentine’s weekend, bringing with me a bouquet of my favorite roses:  ivory tinged with red.  (Why should guys have all the fun of giving roses?)  But a Greek island with a population of 200 souls in the depths of winter doesn’t have roses for sale, or any kind of flower for that matter.  With absolutely no craft supplies or know-how, my then-fiance made me a huge bouquet of paper roses out of … paper towels.  I still have this bouquet, and I expect I always will.

To continue in the tradition of handrolled roses that cost absolutely nothing, I decided to make a little centerpiece for our Valentine’s dinner.  I was inspired by this beautiful kissing ball made by the very talented Kristin of My Uncommon Slice of Suburbia.  It wasn’t just the finished product that drew me to this project – it was the fact that she used a wiffle ball for the base.

As much as I love reading about creative diy projects on blogs, most of the time I end up sighing and saying, “well, if we had Michael’s in Greece, maybe I could do that.”  Or, “well, if I had extra money to buy ____, maybe I could do that.”  When Kristin wrote:

I really wasn’t in the mood to leave the house for a styrofoam ball, this wiffle ball worked just fine.

it hit me:  I never have the stuff you’re supposed to have.  And yet, I actually have a styrofoam ball.  (I definitely don’t have a wiffle ball – although ping pong balls are another story!)

So I decided to give it a try.  However, the project calls for fabric.  Unlike every other female blogger on the planet, I don’t have a fabric stash.  Things are far too tight financially for me to go running off to the fabric store.  However I never throw anything away if I think it will come in handy.  We had attended a wedding in August, and I still had the little circles of tulle that wrapped the Jordan almonds handed out at the wedding.  Two circles of pink tulle and two circles of white.

I followed Kristin’s tutorial on making handrolled roses, but had to make a few changes because of my materials.

First, I cut around and around the circle from the outside in, ending up with a very long strip.

I rolled the strip until the flower was big enough,

then secured it with a pin and kept going until I ran out of fabric.

Kristin uses a glue gun, but the tulle was so fragile that I decided to sew it instead.  I sewed across the bottom of each flower, one third of the way up, and wrapped the stitches around the side to flare the top (blossom end).

Then I put a pin through the center of each blossom,

and pulled it as far down as I could inside the blossom,

and stuck it into the styrofoam ball.

At this point it became obvious that I didn’t have anywhere near enough tulle to make a kissing ball like Kristin’s.  Instead, I decided to turn it into a bouquet of roses.  I used the white tulle to wrap the bouquet, pinning the white fabric to the bottom of the styrofoam ball.

I liked Kristin’s idea of setting it on a candlestick.  I tied a pink bow on a candlestick and set the bouquet on top.  I may not ultimately keep it in the candlestick as I work out the rest of the centerpiece.

A nice thing about this project is that in addition to being free, I can easily take it apart and reuse the white tulle, the pins, and the styrofoam ball in other projects.  The pink tulle flowers, even without the ball and pins, will not lose their shape, since they’ve been stitched, and the whole thing can be easily reassembled next year if I want to.  I think free and reuseable in other projects is even more frugal than free!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This post is linking up to:

Chic on a Shoestring Decorating  

DIY ziploc bag organizer

If you’re an American living abroad, you probably miss Ziploc bags, zipped Hefty bags, and the like.  Here in Greece, they do sell zipped plastic bags, but they are godawful quality, the zip doesn’t really work, and they aren’t real freezer bags.  So if you’re like me, you beg your American friends and family to throw ziploc bags into anything they send you in the mail (“they make great packing material!”).  And then you end up with a pile of bags, but no real secure feeling of being able to replace them.  So you reuse them.  Enter the ziploc bag mess.

A scary pile of used ziploc bags gathering on the counter, begging to be washed.  No good way to dry them.  No good way to store them.  A drawer becomes home to a messy mixture of sizes.  When you want one, you have to pull out five before you find the right size.  Sometimes the ones you pull out of the drawer are still wet on the inside.  It’s enough to break your American heart.

After struggling with this mess for over two years, I found the solution:  my own personal  Ziploc Bag System!

First, let’s take a look at how I stored my bags before I finally tackled the problem.  I have a lot of kitchen cabinets (yay!) but am severely lacking in kitchen drawers – so much so that I don’t even put my forks and spoons in a drawer!  The bottom drawer is where I store my plastic wrap, aluminum foil, wax paper, wooden skewers, and plastic ice-cube bags.  And my bags.

Yeah.  That’s not really a long-term solution, is it?  I had been trying to come up with a solution for a long time.  I tried a number of things.  First, I organized them by size and put all the tiny ones into a small one, all the small ones into a medium one, all the medium ones into a large one, and so on.  That meant that to get a tiny one, I had to open about 5 bags and scrounge around trying to find the one I wanted.  It meant that the method was only effective for up to three days.

Then I tried rolling them by size and putting a rubber band around them, and storing each size separately.  Something about pulling the rubber band off, unrolling, taking out a bag, rerolling, rebanding, just didn’t appeal to my innate laziness.

Then I tried rolling them by size and putting them into toilet paper tubes.  1 point for reusing an otherwise recycle-bin item, but -10 points for being only marginally better than the rubber band method.   I briefly entertained the idea of using empty tissue boxes, but they were too bulky and we don’t go through tissues fast enough to generate enough boxes for all my sizes of bags.

The result of all these attempts was the same:

Yup.  Doesn’t look any better the second time.

Unrelated to my ziploc struggle, I also have another kitchen struggle:  that of breaking water glasses.  When we moved here, we didn’t own any glasses (or pretty much anything else, for that matter), so we bought 6.  Then about a month later, we bought another 6.  And so on.  The other day,  when I realized we were down to our last two glasses again, I found our supermarket’s storebrand glasses on sale for only €1 each – a steal, since up til then I’d been paying €2.30 each for the cheapest glasses they sold.  I grabbed a whole box of six – and after bringing home the box, I couldn’t just put it in the recycling bin.  It was too special.  It must have a greater purpose in life.

Well, now you see where I’m going with this.  After sitting on the kitchen counter for about 48 hours, I knew what its greater purpose was.  (Clarification:  the box sat on the kitchen counter for 2 days.  Not I.)


  • 1 repurposed water glass box, 6 sections
  • 1 piece of white contact paper
  • a razor blade
  • a crazy pile of ziploc bags

Total price:  free, baby!

Step 1:  cut your contact paper to the appropriate size.

Step 2:  attach contact paper to the box.  My super high-quality contact paper is very easy to work with, and peels right back up if there are bubbles or wrinkles, so this was a breeze.

Step 3:  admire your finished bag organizer!

I wasn’t quite done yet.  I still had that drawer to tackle.

Step 4: dump all ziploc bags into a pile for sorting.

Step 5: sort your bags by size.  Since I had seven sizes but only six sections in my box, I combined the half-gallon (top right) and the tall skinny (bottom left), since I only had a few of each.

Step 6:  roll each group of bags and put in the dividers, with the largest in the back.

The entire project took about ten minutes, start to finish, and was free, because I had the contact paper on hand.

With such a lovely new home, my bags don’t need to hide in the drawer.  So I found them a more convenient home, which will save me aggravation in the kitchen.

If this picture confuses you, remember:  this is Greece.  There are no laundry rooms.  Washing machines go in the bathroom or, if you’re lucky, the kitchen.  I’m extremely lucky, because my washing machine goes next to my dishwasher.  If you’re wondering about the clothes dryer, forget it.  This is frugal living.  We use the sun.

Before I even tackled the bag organization problem, I had to deal with the washing/drying problem.  In the past, when we lived on a tiny, beautiful Greek island, I would hang them on the clothesline on our veranda, where they would dry gracefully in the breeze.  Now we live in a city, and our balcony overlooks a major street.  They can dry there too, but with an invisible layer of city street grime that I’d prefer not to eat, since I have to wear it anyway.

Do you know how to wash a ziploc bag?  Here’s what I do:  first, rinse out any bits of food.  Then, put a few pumps of dishwashing foam in the bag, and fill it about 1/3 with water.  Close the zip, and massage the bag with your hands, getting the soap into all the corners.  Dump out the water, and rinse.

Then, hang it on the handy ziploc drying line that you’ve got over your kitchen sink!

I usually hang them inside out first, and then turn them right side out and hang again to dry the outside.  Since I keep my clothespins on my washing machine (which is about a foot to the right of the photo), it’s all very convenient.

And when there are no bags to dry, it pretty much fades into the background.  (Please disregard the pizza dough I’m rising on the counter….)

It’s also a handy way to hang pretty much anything that needs to dry quickly and you don’t want to put outside on the line.

To make this, I just used a white cord (€0.50 at Jumbo in the gift-wrapping section) and two no-drill stick-on hooks (€4.95 each at Praktiker) – these hooks are expensive, but they are reusable and we are renting, so can’t drill holes in the tile.  They hold a lot of weight and actually hold up our shower organizer with all the shampoo and soap bottles, so they’re a great thing to have.  In the US, I think they’re called “command hooks.”

That’s all there is to it, and the line can be removed easily if needed.

Let’s take a look at that drawer again:

Much better!

Remember:  if you are trying to save money, washing and reusing bags is a great way to save money.  But make sure you’re not taking any risks with your health.  I don’t store raw meat in these.  For that, I use regular non-zip bags, which I then put inside a ziploc.  I also sometimes put a little bit of bleach in the water if I think it’s necessary.  Use your judgement, and if you think a bag may have lived its food-storage life, repurpose it in your craft room or another area of your home.

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