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Thoughtfully Simple
Unchained Kitchen



Pretty Floral Napkin Rings

I know that in yesterday's post I advocated decorating with fresh flowers (and I still do!) but here's another way to add blooms to your table: Flowered napkin rings.

I'm a big fan of napkin rings. They're inexpensive, and if you buy some neutral plates, napkins, and tablecloth (those are the priciest items anyway), it's easy to change the look with seasonal napkin rings and a coordinating runner. Here are some cute options to get you started:


"Stained Glass" by LyonsCreations on Etsy


Felt Daisies by mojaziemia on Etsy


Eye popping red enamel by Cost Plus World Market

Beaded bling by Crate and Barrel


Reducing Party Waste

I'm sure you know that today is Earth Day because it's been publicized, oh, everywhere.  In the spirit of this occasion, let's examine some ways to reduce your party's waste in terms of supplies, decorations, and gifts.  In addition to being nicer for the planet, you probably also know that the throwaway party supplies never look quite as chic as some of the alternatives.

Promise me you'll never use one of these kits.


Of course, the obvious answer is to avoid using disposables. When you don't have enough in your supply of silverware, glasses, and dishes...

Borrow from someone else. My friend Pam did this for her big holiday party. No one cared that her cocktail glasses didn't perfectly match...her guests were much more interested in the contents of the glasses

Go for the medium route. Purchase inexpensive but heavy plastic items that can be reused many times. You'd be surprised at how many products can go in the dishwasher. For instance, I once had about 30 people over for martinis. I don't own 30 martini glasses, so I bought disposables. As I was cleaning up the next day, I lamented all the waste that my martinis had created. Our friend Larry (who had crashed the night before and was now being a good guest and helping to clean up) looked at me like I had three heads and said that they were heavy enough to go in the dishwasher and duh, did I hate the earth or something? Ok, he didn't actually say that, but I took his advice to heart and have since used the martini glasses several times. I am amazed at how well they've held up!

If you can't avoid using disposables, ask people to write their names on their cups (I'll have more on this idea at a forthcoming date), recycle what you can, or choose products made from recycled materials.


Are you still using crepe paper? Oh, honey. I'm sorry, but crepe paper has no redeeming qualities. It's a pain to work with, it can't be reused, and it looks bad. There, I said it. What can you do instead?

Decorate with fabric. It can be reused many, many different times. I bought some inexpensive cream-colored poly silk for a cabana-themed summer party in 2003, and have since used it for a bridal shower, halloween, another summer party, and Christmas. With some duct tape, 3M Command Hooks, and lightweight rope, you can create amazing installations without doing permanent damage to your walls. The next time I use it, I'll snap a photo for you.

Use fresh flowers, and then compost them. If you grow your own cutting garden, display your own flowers, and then compost them yourself, you are my hero. If you can't do all that, join the club and console yourself with the fact that buying fresh is better than buying fake. Remember that large, tight amounts of "filler flowers" (i.e. baby's breath, carnations) can make quite a statement without breaking the bank.

Decorate with party favors. For a recent costume party, we snapped Poloroids of people in costume as they entered the party, then turned that into a voting contest. At the end of the night, everyone took home their photo. The wall of photos was a fun activity, and also decorated an otherwise bare set of utitility closet doors.


I know, it's so satisfying to rip apart gift wrap, but as I'm sure you can imagine, it creates a lot of waste. Some alternatives include...

Putting gifts in a pretty but unwrapped box, and tie with a ribbon. The box will certainly be reused.

Using old newspaper or magazine pages IF they are relevant to the occasion or person. For instance, the "Home" section for a housewarming present, or the front page of Sports section, featuring the recipient's favorite team....and then that idea really only works if the gift you're giving is also sports-themed. Otherwise, you just look cheap and possibly crazy.

Then there's the old standby, the gift bag. You know this will get reused and regifted!

When all else fails, buy recycled gift wrap, repurpose previously used gift wrap (best done for a smaller present the second time so that you don't see the original creases), or recycle instead of throwing out.


Flowers for Dummies

I'll admit, I'm not so good with flowers. They're my weak spot when it comes to event planning.  For instance, I didn't know what a stephanotis was until seven years ago, when my wedding florist informed me that their proper name was not "those little white ones that look like a starfish".

Ah, I know what these are!

Although I do much better these days, guides like this one by Real Simple make flower selection stupidly easy. It's great for any type of event, not just a wedding. Simply select the season, the type of bloom (big, med, small), and colors and voila! the guide will reveal which bud's for you:

Real Simple Flower Finder


Afternoon Tea vs High Tea

Today's post is really more of a Public Service Announcement.  Here it is:

"High Tea" is not what you think it is.

I'll admit, this is a somewhat obscure pet peeve, but I cringe whenever I hear someone use the terms High Tea and Afternoon Tea interchangeably.  They are actually very, very different.  If you think that "high tea" means an elegant affair of scones, pretty sandwiches, and wee little pastries served on a three-tiered server - well, I'm sorry.  That's not High Tea.  That is Afternoon Tea. I think the confusion comes from the word "high" and many people assume that "high" means fancy.  In this case, it doesn't.


This is AFTERNOON TEA, not HIGH TEA!  (photo source)

So what is High Tea?  It's a casual mini-meal eaten at the end of the day and often consists of a hearty meat pie and strong black tea.  It was originally practiced by working men in the UK who would would come home hungry from work, but find that it wasn't quite time for supper.  The name comes from the high-topped table that one would historically sit at to eat such a snack.

The term "Afternoon Tea" originates from the time of day that society ladies would gather in their parlors to sip tea from prim cups and eat dainty treats served on china.  Since true High Tea is hardly a special occasion worth mentioning, it's safe to assume that when someone says "High Tea" they actually mean "Afternoon Tea".

Armed with your newfound knowledge, if you're in Chicago and are looking for a place to have Afternoon Tea, I highly recommend the Four Seasons.  After years of intensive field research (a.k.a. excuse to chat over fancy food), my friend Andrea and I have decided it's the best.


OMG, there's a National Grilled Cheese Month


I know.

I mean, it's not like the grilled cheese sandwich needs its own month to raise awareness, but whatever...I am only too happy to celebrate this divine foodstuff for the rest of April.  BTW, who decides these things?  Is there a National Grilled Cheese Board?

Disclaimer: if you're looking for healthy recipes featuring low-fat cheese and bread alternatives, keep looking.  It's a big internet.  I'm sure they're out there somewhere - just not here.  When it comes to grilled cheese, I'm only interested in the real deal.

Right, so what can you do to commemorate this glorious sandwich?  I propose serving the following at your next gathering, even if it doesn't take place in April.  I won't tell the National Grilled Cheese Board.


Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Four Ways

Bread: White, buttered on both sides of each slice. (I insist that you do this, and be sure to use softened butter)
Filling: Aged sharp cheddar.  Bacon and tomatoes (with pulp removed) optional.
Accompaniment: Tomato Soup

Bread: Brioche or hearty multi-grain
Filling: Brie and thinly sliced green apples
Accompaniment: Chutney

Bread: Jalapeno
Filling: Mild cheddar, Jarlsberg.  Sliced jalapenos and peppers optional.
Accompaniment:  Berry preserves (blackberry or raspberry recommended)

Dessert (pictured at top)
Bread: Challah
Filling: Mascarpone spread
Accompaniment: Chocolate soup (see recipe in link above, or purchase from Frontier Soups)

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