The Mess Hall

Rants and ramblings on all things edible, wearable, doable, or usable with a focus on Home and Health. Home is fun, easy on the wallet, and “gool” for the greatest game of tag ever (Life). Welcome to my home, the Mess Hall. Get in the Mess!

26 Apr

Stairway to Heaven…er, bedrooms

Posted in General on 26.04.15 by Octopi

There are new adventures at The Mess Hall! Starting now, I’m coming to you live in Season 3ish of The Mess Hall: The Burbs Edition.  Yes, you read that right!  The Next Great Adventure brings me and Parsley with my love in the northern suburbs of Chicago.  Goodbye City House, Hello Country House! 

New house means new projects <sinisterly rubs hands while cackling like a mad scientist>.  This place has stairs INSIDE (sooooo fancy compared to my sweet little condo).  That said, the stairs have seen better days, so time for a spring fresh-up!

Pulling out the Paint from Projects Past, I was able to concoct a fun ombré vision.  A perfect project for a rainy, spring day.  Enjoy!  

Ombre Stairs

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23 Mar

Mess Hall Mascot

Posted in General on 23.03.13 by Octopi


Today’s a big day in the Mess Hall. I brought home Parsley, a rescue dog I adopted from Found (located in North Center neighborhood). !!!

Parsley was a stray that dropped by an outdoor training class at Found. She was really underweight but they got her healthy again and also did some great training with her as they prepared her for a forever home.

As you can see, in just a short time I think she already feels at home. She’s already adopted her crate as her safe zone, she’s made friends with her hedgehog toy, and she appears to enjoy a good road trip, so be prepared for human and furry visitors!

I know she’s really feeling at home because she’s been dropping some monster dog farts…I personally wasn’t going to do that to her until we had been living together a bit longer, but to each her own. I think that’s also a sign I’ll be modifying her diet!!

She is currently snoring softly in her crate and I love her all the more with every snort and sigh. I’m not sure who will be rescuing who in the end – I think it’s a bit of both.

Viva Parsley!

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03 Jan

Magic World of Magnets

Posted in General on 03.01.13 by Octopi

In the course of my little kitchen revolution, here and here, I added a handy little feature to free up a bit more counter space: a magnetic strip on the wall for cutlery.

I found a 2 foot long metal strip in the lumber section of Home Depot for $1.50. I believe its original purpose is to provide bracing/fastening to wood beams/pieces for decking, etc. I painted it the same color as the wall and slapped some super-strong ceramic magnetics on it. Voila!

Next time I will put some kind of metal paint primer before the main paint job because I think it will have a tendency for the paint to get scratched as is.


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21 Aug

Zucchini Magic

Posted in General, Makin' Food on 21.08.11 by Octopi

Every once in a while I get an epiphany about how awesome something REALLY is.  I’ve mentioned kick-ass properties of spinach, and now want to spread the love about zucchini. 

I mean, how many other vegetables can you make sweet AND savory goods with?  This morning I cleaned out the inventory of this splendid veggie at the neighborhood market to embark on a fantastic adventure of tartes AND bread.  This post is a focus on the tarte

You know it’s OK to cut corners when cooking, right?  Cuz it’s taken me a while to be OK with that.  As long as you are in the kitchen whipping up some tasty goodness, it’s totally cool to cheat a little bit and maybe NOT make the crust from scratch or whip up some homemade pesto that you only need 2 tablespoons of in the recipe.  So, without further ado I present…..

Zucchini Tarte With Gruyere Cheese and Herbs (inspired by recipe)


  • 2 lbs fresh zucchini, thinly sliced (4 cups – I had 2-3 monster zucchs, which seemed to be enough)
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced (garlic fiends may want more)
  • Whatever tasty herbs you have laying around the house or are growing for consumption!
  • salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons pesto
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup grated gruyere cheese plus a little extra for topping (or similar cheese)
  • 1 (8 ounce) packages crescent roll dough (cheaters never prosper….except sometimes)
  • This makes ONE tarte – I doubled up to make more…

Makin’ it Happen

  • Preheat oven to 400F degrees.
  • CRUST:  Unfold crescent dough from the tube and press dough evenly into the bottom and up the sides of a tart or pie pan to form a crust, pressing gently to seal any perforations; spread crust with pesto.
  • FILLING:  In a large skillet, saute the zucchini, onion, and garlic in the olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes.
  • Stir in herbs, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let cool slightly before stirring in the beaten eggs and cheese.
  • Transfer the filling into the shell and spread evenly; sprinkle the top with a little extra grated cheese.
  • For easier clean-up put the pan on a baking sheet in the oven to catch any overflow.
  • Bake at 400 F until set and crust is golden, about 16 to 19 minutes.
  • Remove to a wire rack and let cool slightly, about 10 minutes before removing sides of pan (if using tart pan – you may need to run a knife around sides of crust to loosen).
  • Let it rest another 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
  • Good served warm, cold or at room temperature.  This probably freezes well too.
  • Tasty goodness!

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13 Jun

Fitted Sheet Folding Jamboroo

Posted in General, Usable on 13.06.11 by Octopi

Melissa teaches the world how to fold a g.d. fitted sheet.  This is something that Ariel never, ever knew.


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10 Jun

Matchmaker: Plant Pairings

Posted in General, Urban Farming / Gardening on 10.06.11 by Octopi

Hey, Spinach.  You are awesome.  You are SO versatile, you can go in salad or get cooked up or ANYTHING.  You know, I know somebody who I think you’d really get along with.  Her name is Strawberry.  I think you’d be really good for each other.  Plus you’d be fun to hang out with together (in my salad!) – should I give her your number?

Plant pairings.  Probably easier than human match-making.  I came across this really helpful little table from the recent Organic School Project e-newsletter.  It lists a plant and then other plants that it grows well with.  So if you are still getting seeds in dirt, keep these in mind.

From Organic School Project: “When paired appropriately, companion planting can be advantageous, resulting in higher yields, disease reduction, and pest management. Such partnering is even said to help maintain soil quality, as is seen with the Native American tradition of planting corn, squash and beans together.”

I’ve even got edibles and inedibles cohabiting in rail planters: a couple strawberry plants are hanging out with some pansies as I type, and they seem to be getting along really well…I think they just gossip about the other porch plants all day.  (Old Man tomato plant shakes his head).



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17 Apr

Pea Soup….HAMMM

Posted in General on 17.04.11 by Octopi

This video is from the other weekend but finally just got a chance to post.  You may want to turn your volume down a bit, we got pretty excited (girls + higher decibals = sorry).  Pea soup kids, straight from A’s family recipe!  Super easy, you don’t even need to measure out ingredients.  So, despite our obvious thoughts on how the soup made our place smell, you should know that it’s worth it.

Happy Pea Souping!

Ingredients (as per the video, don’t miss it!)

  • A bag of peas
  • A wad of ham
  • Handful of carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion
  • Bay leaf
  • water (enough water to cover about 1 1/2 to 2 inches above the rest of the ingredients in the crockpot.  A put in 3 inches above and it was too much)
  • Bunch of pepper


Makin it Happen

  • Dump all the ingredients in the crockpot
  • Cook on low for 8-12 hours (since ours was overnight it was pretty long, but it may not need that many hours)
  • Smoosh the ingredients all up in the crockpot at the end so it gets all nice and smooth
  • Eat up!

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19 Mar

Mo’ Grow! Garden time.

Posted in General, Urban Farming / Gardening on 19.03.11 by Octopi

Yo yo peeps! It’s that time of year!  Whether you’ve never grown food before or are looking to tweak your growing plan for the season, now’s the time to be thinking about it.  I was at the Family Farmed Expo yesterday and got totally psyched to grow some stuff. 

Why grow?  Because it’s fun, you learn cool stuff when you do something you haven’t done before, it’s satisfying to eat something YOU grew, it tastes better than store-bought stuff, and it’s economical once you have the hardware in place (the physical garden space created is more of a one-time capital expense – the annual upkeep isn’t all that much).

I attended some workshops led by some inspiring folks and thought I’d share some thoughts with you for the “Plan” mode of your gardening scheme.  Consider these in conjunction with some stuff posted on The Mess Hall last year.

1) Why Grow – what’s your goal?  Is just to see a seed turn into something big?  Is it to create a fun experience for some family/friend quality time?  Are you trying to maximize the amount of food you get out of your gardening space?  Are you an heirloom nerd?  Think through what you REALLY want to get out of the experience.  I’ll share my goals: 

  • Have fun!  A and I had a blast last year watching our peas grow, bitching about the broccoli plants, and enjoying the fruits of our labor.
  • Try something new.  While the broccoli was a pain in our asses, I had never grown broccoli before and was eager to see what it looked like through the stages. I have a greater appreciation for what I see in the grocery store now.  This year I want to create some self-watering containers because it sounds like something busy girls would appreciate.  I mean, who has time to do ALL that watering?!  So keep your eyes peeled (what a gross expression) for a how-to post on making self-watering containers!  Also, we’re going to try carrots this year too.  Stay tuned!
  • Get more food out of the space and harvest it at the right time.  We let the arugula grow too long last year, didn’t start early enough to maximize the already short season, etc.  Trying to improve on some of that.


2) Where to Grow: hola urban gardeners.  I feel your pain. I really do.  But there’s GOTTA be a way to grow.  Even if you’ve got a shit-ton of space, why do more work than is necessary?  I’m still an advocate of square foot gardening to use the smallest space in maximum efficiency.  Also, remembering the hours of weeding our row garden growing up, I’m all about options that cut down on weeding.  The University of Illinois-Extension Hort Center has some great ideas for home gardening, including space considerations and plant selection / garden planning ideas.  Here are some basic considerations.

  • Sun: do you have any places with at least 6-8 hours of sunlight?  That’s your sweet spot.
  • Soil prep: at minimum, you need aerated soil, compost, and organic granulated fertilizer.  In keeping with square foot gardening, we used a combination of peat, compost, and vermiculite.  The vermiculite helps with aeration and keeping the mix lighter.  You’ll want to consider weight if you’re growing on your roof or other elevated area.  If you’re planning to shove seeds straight into your backyard, make sure your soil doesn’t have any nasty things like lead or arsenic in it.  If you live in the city, that may well be the case.  You can send in a sample of soil to UMASS – Amherst and get your soil tested for pH, heavy metals, etc. for only $10 or so.  Also, leefy plants will be more likely to suck up nasty stuff like lead than fruiting plants.
  • Paths: if your garden is large enough and at grade, consider paths through your garden space so you can easily get to plants (within arm’s reach).  Consider wood chips, etc.  This is also something to consider if you are creating a garden that is part of a greater ornamental scheme.  Don’t go hide your garden.  Make it accessible, embrace it and show it off to others!
  • Irrigation: Got hose?  If not, how much are you willing/able to haul from your bathtub (which we do for our porch plants).  You may want to create an irrigation system for at-grade gardens or self-watering containers.  Also consider a rain barrel to collect water for your garden.  For example, if you’ve got sun on the side of your garage, throw a barrel there and collect the water from the roof of your garage. 
  • Protect your assets:  Got critters?  Squirrels and bunnies can be pretty ruthless.  Consider how to protect your plants so the critters don’t benefit from your bounty before you do.  Chicken wire can do the trick to keep the bun buns out, but you may have to consider other ways as well.  One guy at the expo mentioned that you can just get dog hair from the local vet clinic and sprinkle it around the perimeter of your stuff.  Who knew?  If anybody tries that out, let me know. 
  • What defines a gardener or a garden?  There was a guy on the small-space gardening panel discussion whose name I didn’t catch, but had a great point.  What’s a gardener?  Do you have to plant, maintain, AND harvest in your own space?  If you don’t have space, perhaps your neighbor does and you can offer to help plant and maintain a garden for use of their space in exchange and share the bounty.  Also, what’s a garden?  Do you have to have it at home?  Perhaps your work location has some space that you (and your colleagues) could jump on for a gardening project.  Or perhaps there’s a nearby community garden to share space in.  This guy helped organize the creation of a community above-ground garden in a freakin empty asphalt parking lot.  Lesson learned: be creative and rallying as a group can be very rewarding!


3) What to Grow: I know, it’s a bit overwhelming.  I suggest cheating.  No, really.  Just use the experience of others.  For example,

  • Did you have any nearby friends or family that grew anything last year?  What worked really well for them?  What was a fail?  Then ask key questions:  What did they plant in, when did they plant, did they plant seed or did they plant seedlings (already started somewhere else).  What kind of soil did they plant in and when were they able to start harvesting?
  • What are some of your favorite things to eat?  Pick one or two things and google up or read up on the back of seed packets, etc.
  • What are the experts doing?  Some CSAs have pretty good lists of what you’d get out of your share.  For example, Tomato Mountain has a listing by month of what you’d typically see.  So take a look at what a local CSA is doing – if you see that you’d be getting lettuce pretty much every month of the season from them, it’s a good bet you can grow something similar at home.  The Local Beet co-produces a guidebook of Chicago-area CSAs with links to websites.  Check it out! 
  • Sometimes it helps to work backwards: be realistic about what you CAN’T grow.  Not to be all glass-half-empty and stuff, but we’re not growing fruit trees on our porch.  Nor will we be growing space hogs like pumpkins, squash, and broccoli (lesson learned).  Know the amount of sun you’re going to be working with, how deep of soil/mix you’re using, etc.  And, realistically, how often you’ll be watering.  If you think you’ll miss a day here or there, pick some heartier varieties and consider self-watering containers.


That should be enough to get the brainstorming going.  Keep on keepin on!

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19 Mar

More blender! I mean, more cowbell. No, more blender. With cowbell? Anyway, hummus.

Posted in General on 19.03.11 by Octopi

Spring fever is upon us, and apparently that means I crave all things made by blender.  Smoothies and chocolate malts have been on my mind (and in my belly!) but I feel the need to expand the horizons.  I’ve never made homemade hummus before but it seems super-simple and way cheaper than buying hummus at the store.  So here goes: homemade hummus!


  • 1 15-ounce can (about 2 cups) of drained well-cooked or canned chickpeas, liquid reserved
  • 1/2 cup tahini, optional, with some of its oil (I didn’t have any tahini nor could I find it in the hood, so I mixed up 3 parts peanut butter with 1 part sesame oil – 3 tbl of peanut butter and 1 tbl of sesame oil, about 1/4 cup in total- half the amount as if you used tahini)
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus oil for drizzling
  • 2-4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, or to taste (I minced mine up and roasted it in olive oil before putting in)
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin or paprika, or to taste (I used 2 tspns of cumin and 1 tsp of paprika)
  • Juice of 1 lemon, plus more as needed
  • a dash of cayenne pepper (optional)


Makin it Happen

  • Dump everything in the blender.  Blend.  Add more seasoning at will. 
  • Note: you can always add more liquid but you can’t really subtract it so so start slow.  I put about half the olive oil in at first and slowly kept adding until it was the consistency desired.  I also added a bit more lemon juice in a similar manner.

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27 Feb

Cardamom Butter Cookies

Posted in General on 27.02.11 by Octopi

Cardamom is a spice I will always associate with my Grandma Anne and my Mom. It’s the key ingredient in a favorite family recipe for bread. Regardless of which of those two would make the bread, the smell of that spice permeating the house is unforgettable. Here’s a great cookie recipe using cardamom. It doesn’t hurt that the recipe uses two sticks of butter so that, when combined with two tablespoons (and a little goes a long way) of cardamom, there is just no turning down of these cookies. You WILL eat them!

Cardomom Butter Cookies



  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3 cups sifted flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbl ground cardamom (oh yeah!)
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice


Makin it Happen

  • Cream butter and sugar til light and fluffy
  • Add eggs and vanilla and beat well
  • Sift together remaining ingredients (or dump in like I do, which may give certain family members apoplexy)
  • Mix er up good
  • You can do a couple things in actually making the cookies. You could:
      A) chill the dough, roll it out and use cookie cutters
      B) shape the dough into rolls, chill those, them slice them into thin roundish/ovalish cookies. This is how I  made them this time around. I made three rolls, but froze one to make at a later date.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes (until just brown on the underside). Depending on how thick the cookies actually are, you may need more or less time in the oven. Just keep an eye on them.
  • Makes several dozen (or more) cookies, depending on how thick you cut them.

Nutritional Content: These cookies will give you superpowers. Just eat them.  Then maybe run afterwards.  But you’ll run really fast.  Because of the superpowers.

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