Our Penny-Wise week

Posted by Anita on 04.26.07 12:15 PM

(c)2007AEC  ** ALL rights reservedHere I was, feeling all smug about having cooked and eaten six days worth of local, affordable, and (dare I brag?) delicious food for the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge. And then I read CookieCrumb’s post about eating wheatberries to keep your carbs up… and instantly felt terribly guilty about all the bread we’ve eaten this week. But damn, this challenge was hard enough, even with all of the exemptions we claimed.

Every time I reached for a bottle of soy sauce or a pinch of chile, I repeated to myself a favorite quote from the Chronicle article profiling Cookie and her husband Cranky’s early take on the challenge: “One of the things you learn when you do this is that [eating] local is not a cult,” says [Cranky]. “You learn about things and you make exceptions.”

Keeping what I now call “The Cranky Principle” in mind, I’m proud of our results. We certainly did well in the budget department: Our 6-day food expenditures came to $123.73 — equivalent to $144.35 for a 7-day week, or just 35 cents over budget. (If you’re curious about all the gory details, feel free to peek at the spreadsheet, which also details the distance the food travelled to our plates. Oh, and there are some pictures — obviously not everything we ate is here, but it’s a good assortment.)

A few observations on our week:

We ate about the same quantity of food as usual, and about the same protein-to-carbs ratio. We ate more ground meat than we do in a typical week, although in truth I think that if I had had more time to plan my menu, and more time to shop around, could have done better in this regard.

(c)2007AEC  ** ALL rights reservedI bought more food at the grocery store than I usually do, and less from the farmers market. Sad to say, the ‘Big Organic’ producers like Earthbound Farms make it hard to walk by that $3 bag of (four!) romaine hearts when the budget’s tight. When it came down to it, I suspected the premium for farm-fresh produce would eat into the budget. I’ll be glad to leave the shrinkwrapped lettuce behind next week, though, and go back to my delicate Little Gems.

We didn’t do as good a job of eating seasonally as we could have. I’ll chalk some of this up to my not planning ahead sufficiently — we jumped into the challenge with less than 24 hours’ notice — but a lot of it did come down to the fact that the things we like to eat at this time of year aren’t terribly cheap, yet. So I fell back on a lot of the foods I used to make when money was tighter: Roast chicken, meatloaf, sandwiches, stir-fries… and lots of leftovers for lunch.

Speaking of lunch: Forgetting your brown bag can be disastrous. I left my chicken-salad sandwich in the fridge at home on Tuesday! Luckily, a short streetcar ride put me at the Ferry Building, where the Tuesday lunchtime market meant I had my choice of Donna’s tamales (too long a line), Prather or Taylor’s burgers (too pricey), Acme ‘sandwiches’ (too skimpy!), and Mijita’s chilaquiles. Guess which one this Mexican-breakfast addict chose? At $7 a plate, they’re not a bargain, but compared to Mijita’s other choices, they’re a steal. My forgetfulness did bust the budget, but only by the teensiest bit.

(c)2007AEC  ** ALL rights reservedOur revised alcohol budget of $9.75 per week for two people still seems incredibly low. We went to 150% of budget and spent $14, which bought us a six-pack of Speakeasy Untouchable Pale Ale and a 375 ml half-bottle of Bonny Doon Big House Red. And yes, we found ourselves standing in front of the fridge pondering the empty booze shelf by the middle of the week. Next time, maybe we’ll buy a big bottle of Anchor’s Old Potrero Rye and drink a fifth of it — very slowly — mixed with good ol’ Hetch-Hetchy branch water. (Doesn’t sound very food-friendly, does it?)

I definitely enjoyed taking part in the challenge. Even though most of our food already came from local or semi-local sources, participating here opened my eyes to both the variety of items in our foodshed, and the distances that even our ‘local’ farmers market food travels to get to our kitchen. I have to admit that I’m looking forward to being able to just shop and cook from the hip, without taking notes or making calculations. And I know that despite all of the ways we stretched the rules, we learned a lot.

Most of the participants are just past the halfway mark of their challenge — we started early and shortened our week to 6 days due to a previous dinner commitment tonight and a weekend full of travel. For an amazing peek into the nuts and bolts of eating locally, check out all 20 of the participating bloggers over on the PELC roundup page. I’m utterly in awe of folks who are giving this a go in places like Maine and Syracuse, where spring has just barely sprung.

cooking, farmers markets, locavore, other blogs, shopping
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Pennywise and foodish

Posted by Anita on 04.20.07 10:47 PM

whole-foods-locally-grown-logo.jpgAfter much hemming and hawing, I decided there aren’t enough good reasons not join in next week’s Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge. So, we’ve committed to spend a week — or, in our case, six days — eating as much as we can from within our foodshed.

As if consuming foods grown or produced exclusively within a short radius of our home wasn’t hard enough, we’re also doing it on less than $144 a week, plus a mere $8 (!) for alcohol, in an effort to prove that it’s possible to be a locavore without spending any more than the average American two-person, two-earner family.

Coming from our house, where we have been known to spend $144 on a single dinner and $8 on one cocktail, this is going to be …interesting. But luckily, we have a gorgeous new kitchen where we love to cook these days. As for dining out, that’s one reason for our loose interpretation of the challenge week (the official start of the event isn’t until Monday the 23rd): We’re attending a benefit for a very worthy cause on Thursday night, and it doesn’t feel right to pinch pennies under the circumstances.

I’ve also done my best to plan meals for this week that are within the grasp of the average American home cook, both in terms of technique and ingredients. I’ve got a serious edge, living in the Bay Area, where we have so many great local artisans and farmers within close reach, so I didn’t want to stack the deck any further by choosing esoteric items or high-falutin’ preparations.

As far as exemptions go, I am allowing myself the so-called “Marco Polo rule”: I’m not tying myself to local spices, nor small quantities of condiments. Cameron’s going to continue to drink his coffee (it’s from Peet’s, a local establishment) and I feel no need to abandon my nasty Fresca habit. We’ll add the cost of these items to our budget, as well as any other non-local items we consume. We’re also buying bread that I have to assume is baked with non-local flour, but at least we’ll be supporting local artisans.

walking tostadasAnd because some of our favorite items come from slightly further afield, we’re going to extend our challenge radius to 200 miles, from the standard 100. But mostly, when we have a choice, we’ll opt for a product grown or made as close to us as possible. We’ll also be using fruits and herbs from our own garden, so perhaps that will keep our average distance down.

Tonight’s dinner was an old favorite, a taco-salad-like dish known in my family as “Walking Tostadas.” I sauteed some ground beef in a skillet, added some taco seasonings and a pureed tomato, and simmered. On the plate, the dish is simply a handful of broken tortilla chips, topped with the taco meat, then some shredded cheese, lettuce, salsa, tomatoes, avocado, and sour cream.

Here’s how it breaks down…

chips: 1/6 of a bag from Rancho Gordo (Napa / 50 mi) — $1
ground beef: 1 pound Prather Ranch (Shasta / 200 mi)– $6
tomato for puree: Whole Foods “locally grown” (Dinuba / 200 mi) — $0.66
lettuce: 1/2 of a romaine heart: Earthbound Farms (SJ Bautista / 88 mi) — $0.50
cheese: 1/2 wedge raw-milk chipotle cheddar Bravo Farms (Traver / 225 mi) — $1.50
crema: 2oz creme fraiche Bellwether Farms (Tomales / 50 mi) — $1.33
salsa: 2oz prepared Primavera (Sonoma / 50 mi) — $1
avocado: 1/2 a small one, part of a $3 grab bag from Will’s (Soledad / 130 mi) — $0.50
grape tomatoes: 1/6 of a large bunch from Balakian Farms (Reedly / 200 mi) — $0.50

(edit: The grape tomatoes were from Bruin Farms in Winters, 65 miles away)

Total this meal: $12.49 with plenty of leftover meat

I’m not going to go into this level of detail all week, I promise. But so far, I’ve estimated we’ll spend a good bit under our budget. Tomorrow’s trip to the farmers market will be the real test, but the most expensive items — meat and cheeses — are very predictable.

cooking, farmers markets, garden, locavore, other blogs, shopping
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Signs of spring

Posted by Anita on 03.11.07 6:12 PM

cardoons (c)2007 AEC Yes, cardoons. Also nettles, green garlic, and pea vines. Ah, it’s even beginning to smell a bit like springtime at the Ferry Plaza farmers market.

Since Cameron will be in NYC all week, and I follow him back on Tuesday, we weren’t really doing our usual food-shopping rounds, although we couldn’t leave without a gorgeous Prather Ranch rib-eye for the grill and some jumbo brussels sprouts to roast.

And we did manage to stock Cameron’s bag with carry-on nibbles for his flight — petit sec from Fatted Calf and some sweet treats from the ladies at La Cocina. But mostly, we ate our breakfast, poked around, took a couple dozen photos (more than half of them floral, not food), visit with our favorite vendors, bump into a trio of old friends, and soak up just enough sunshine to make us forget all about the winter coats in our suitcases.

In between work and family time in New York, we’ll do our best to post about our wanderings. We’ve got reservations at a few restaurants we’ve been longing to try, and a list of cocktailian haunts as long as your arm (thanks, Murray!). When we get back, expect a thorough kitchen-remodel update.

farmers markets, shopping
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Home again, jiggity-jog

Posted by Anita on 02.26.07 7:34 AM

callas and concrete (c)2007 AECWe didn’t by any plum buns or fat hogs — although we did buy both pâté maison and calabrese sausage from the Fatted Calf, so I’ll take that last one on points. But we did spend a very chilly late morning at the market Saturday. By some miracle, the dogs let us sleep until 9:30, so we were on the late shift, but still mostly alone in the artic air.

Chilaquiles? Sí, por supuesto! (And also delicious tacos de pollo hiding under some rather insipid guacamole.) We made quick rounds of the veggie stands, admired some of the first signs of spring — plenty of blossom-studded boughs, stacks of baby onions, and buckets of tulips and calla lilies to make you glad you left your nice, warm bed.

I’m getting a chill just thinking about it, though. Damn, it was cold! Quick, inside the building, chat up the guys at Prather, flirt a bit, get a lovely flat-iron steak for the grill and one of those heritage chickens we’re hearing so much about. (That’d be $15-ish each, not per pound, thank god.) After warming up — and a stop at Miette, of course — it’s back out front to pick up chips, tortillas and Yellow Eye beans from Rancho Gordo… where Steve tells us we just missed Alan Richman from GQ and that the NY Times will be singing his praises two weeks hence. Let’s hope he remembers us when he’s well and truly famous.

All in all, a successful re-entry into San Francisco. The kitchen’s coming along nicely, too — but it’s all under tarps at the moment, so the promised update will have to wait.

In the meantime, there are more market photos here

farmers markets, meat, shopping
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A biodynamic pair

Posted by Anita and Cameron on 01.17.07 7:57 AM

biodynamic wines (c)2007 AECAlways up for a challenge — and excuses to try new wines — we joined this month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday, focusing on biodynamic wines. I thought we might have a difficult time sourcing an appropriate bottle, so I was pleasantly surprised when the wine merchant at Plumpjack Wines in Noe Valley identified a dozen or more biodynamic wines for us, and another 20 or more bottles that were being produced using biodynamic principles, or by wineries that are in the process of converting to biodynamics.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any indication that the wine we ultimately chose from his options — a white from Domaine Tempier, the producers of our favorite rosé — was created biodynamically. According to information on a number of sites, Tempier is indeed a venerable (albeit uncertified) organic winery, but they only occasionally dabble in biodynamics… and one can surmise that their low-end $12 Bandol Blanc probably isn’t the wine they’re dabbling with. (I’m glad we’ll get to try it… but I’m cranky that it was misidentified.)

So, over to BevMo, this time with Fork & Bottle’s list of biodynamic producers in hand. Trust, as they say, but verify.

Wine Blogging Wednesday logoOur tasting notes:

Patianna Sauvignon Blanc ’05 Mendocino (California) – $14.99 ($18 winemaker’s list)
80% Sauvignon Blanc clone #1, 20% Sauvignon Musque

Pale champagne color; yeasty on the nose; watery and thin flavors, but with an incredibly long finish (with no unpleasant aftertaste); the merest hint of effervescence. Cameron felt the wine had a toasty nose, and found hints of shellfish and sour in the corners. Anita missed the classic dry melon/pear flavors she loves in Sauv Blanc — in fact, there was little fruit at all. It was hard to believe that this was a New World wine. Compared to the similarly priced Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc (our “house” white), we agree that the Patianna winds up sour and unbalanced.

Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche ’04 – $16.99 (€5.09 winemaker’s list)
80% Grenache, 20% Syrah

Straight out of the bottle and then in the glass, there’s a whiff of caramel nose, which doesn’t last, followed by a faint cherry nose and not much else, even when fully (over)warmed. Clear, medium-ruby colored. A lot of mineral tang at first, and though the wine eventually opened up, it never went far enough for us to really enjoy. Better with food than alone, not surprisingly. Fairly astringent for a 2-year-old wine. Thin, not a lot of complexity — it tastes like dried cherries and not a lot else. Trés French and not unpleasant, but seems over-simple and uninteresting compared to our usual array of $8-12 Cotes du Rhone options. Cameron would buy it again for something uncomplicated to drink in the summer…if we could get it for five Euros. Anita would use her seven bucks to try something else.

other blogs, shopping, wine & bubbly
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Farewell, Sunday supper

Posted by Anita on 01.05.07 3:37 PM

chix leg (c)2006 AECRuth, Joe and Jeremy Hoffman
Hoffman Game Birds
Manteca, CA

January 5, 2007

Dear Hoffman clan,

I’m having a hard time putting into words how sad I am to read in the CUESA Newsletter that I will no longer be able to buy your birds on Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Your beautiful chickens have become one of our weekly staples, and we’d even started coming to the market earlier so as to avoid being disappointed by your “sold out” signs.

I hope you’ll consider teaming up with a retail outlet in San Francisco; I don’t know how often we’ll be able get to Berkeley to visit Magnani’s Poultry, but the thought of going without your birds is too much to contemplate.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my love of your poultry, but I also couldn’t let the opportunity pass to let you know how much we appreciated what you’re doing. I hope the attached post, about your chickens, sums it up adequately.

Sincerely, and sadly,
~ Anita

farmers markets, other stuff, shopping
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Flavor of friendship

Posted by Anita on 01.02.07 2:27 PM

yokohama chinatown (c)2005 CTCFlashback to Thanksgiving, 2005: We were sitting around my parents’ living room, visiting with some of their friends who had come over for coffee and dessert. Talk turned to our upcoming trip to Thailand, and our brief stopover in Tokyo on the way to Bangkok. Mom’s friend M, who is Japanese, asked us what we were planning to do there.

We chatted about our plan to tour the Tsukiji fish market the first morning, and then mentioned, sheepishly, how we’d heard about a museum in Yokohama devoted to the history of ramen noodles. M told us, very excitedly, that she’d grown up in Yokohama and would be visiting her family there for the New Year holidays — right at the same time we’d be passing through. She’d heard of the museum but had never been — could she come along with us? (How fast do you think we said “yes”?)

tsukiji (c)2005 CTCA few weeks later, we arrived in Tokyo late Christmas night, and headed straight to bed. We had a date the next morning at 3:45am with our Tsukiji guides. And then, on the very same day, we boarded the shinkansen (bullet train) down to Yokohama to meet M. Despite massive jet lag and a complete language barrier, we only made one minor misstep — we picked a queue that led to a smoking car.

By the time we realized our mistake, all the nonsmoking seats were taken. Fortunately, sitting in the smoking car had one advantage: We got to spy on Japanese salarymen as they smoked and snacked on food they’d brought onboard from track-side kiosks. One man’s lunch in particular piqued my curiosity — could it really be a fried-pork sandwich?

Yokohama raumen museum (c)2005 AECM was the best Yokohama guide you can imagine, creating a food-filled tour of her hometown just for us. We started out the day, as planned, at the Shin-yokohama Raumen Museum, which features outposts of famous ramen shops from all over Japan in a setting that replicates a 1950s-era Japanese neighborhood. We sampled four different kinds of ramen, amazed at their variety and depth.

We followed our ramen-fest with a boat ride across Yokohama’s harbor. The ferry dropped us near one of Japan’s most famous department stores, where the basement food halls were filled to the ceilings with traditional new year foods, osechi ryori, which M explained would be enjoyed as a room-temperature feast on the first days of January.

Yokohama Chinatown (c)2005 CTCAfter touring the food halls, we strolled through the city’s bustling Chinatown. We browsed through cookware shops, pressed our noses to the windows where cooks flipped stir-fries in enormous woks.

Knowing we were on our way to Thailand, M wanted us to try Japanese curry. She knew just the place to take us — another food museum! (You have to love a country where there are no fewer than seven food-related attractions in a single area.) Although much less of an actual learning experience than the Raumen Museum, the Yokohama Curry Museum offered a few exhibits, centered around a food court. We feasted on beef curry, curry udon and other curry dishes, and amused ourselves in the impressive gift shop full of ingredients and mixes from all across Asia.

new year decoration (c)2005 AECAs we walked around Yokohama, M pointed out a number of traditional holiday decorations called kadomatsu: bamboo, pine, and straw in simple, elegant arrangements on either side of the doors of nearly every establishment and home.

At some point that afternoon, M asked how we’d enjoyed our shinkansen journey. We told her that we loved the gliding from Tokyo’s center to its suburbs, and out into the countryside. Talking about the train ride reminded me of that curious sandwich I’d seen. Sure enough, M explained, it was a katsu sando: Tonkatsu on white bread, garnished with a spicy-sweet sauce. Wow!

It turned out we were just blocks from Katsuretsu-An, Yokohama’s most venerable tonkatsu restaurant. Even though we were stuffed from our museum grazing, M insisted on taking us there for dinner. We feasted on a meal that started with steaming bowls of miso soup garnished with pebble-sized clams, followed by juicy-crisp tonkatsu.

katsu san (c)2005 AECAs night fell, M walked us back to the train station, and even rode part of the way back to Tokyo with us, to make sure we knew which way we were headed. As she bade us farewell at her transfer point, she handed us a tidy white box that held a thoughtful gift: A katsu sando of our very own. We stashed it in our hotel minibar and shared it on the shuttle to Narita the next day, reminiscing about our wonderful day, and the heartfelt generosity of our new friend.

restaurants, shopping, travel
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That holiday feelin’

Posted by Anita on 12.22.06 8:25 AM

Menu for HopeI’ve appealed to your sense of adventure, your sense of holiday panic, and now I’m going to appeal to your sense of altruism. As you enjoy this season of plenty, couldn’t you spare $10 or $20 for the UN World Food Programme? If you haven’t already done so — or, heck, even if you have — please head over and buy a ticket or two for the Menu for Hope charity raffle.

If putting food in the mouths of starving kids isn’t enough motivation for ya, let me try another tactic: Have you seen some of the things you could win? There are dozens of top-shelf cookbooks, hosted dinners at schmancy restaurants, some really cool culinary art donated by pros, one-of-a-kind treats made just for you, baskets of local ingredients from all over the country, food tours of some of the world’s culinary capitals, high-end kitchen gadgets galore, even the chance to meet a celebrity or two. Honestly, I’m having a hard time not bidding on every dang thing on the list!

You might think, with close to $50,000 in tickets already spoken for, that your odds would be slim. But as of right now, you have a 1-in-12 chance of winning our prize… and a 33% chance of taking home at least eight other offerings, including two different prize packages that include the highly covetable Tartine cookbook.

To boost your chance of winning, may I suggest that you check out Sam’s cool list of the odds on the prizes donated by West Coast bloggers? Then head over to the donation page and buy a ticket, stat: bidding closes at 6pm Pacific time today.

other blogs, shopping
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A desert oasis

Posted by Anita on 12.19.06 10:32 PM

valley cheese (c)2006 AECI’m back here in Vegas, and… oh, who am I kidding? I’m back here in Henderson, home of tract houses, chain restaurants, and megamarts. Very nice ones, all of them, but still… a bit prefab. On my last visit, I drove almost 10 miles to the nearest Whole Foods, on the other side of town, in a fit of homesickness. Imagine my disappointment to find rock-hard avocados, bin after bin of out-of-season produce, and sickly looking everything. I guess it was better than Vons, but only just.

So when a friend suggested that I check out a place called Valley Cheese, I was a little skeptical. If even Whole Foods can’t deliver the goods in this culinary wasteland, I didn’t have much hope that a small shop would do any better. When I found their rather sad website, I was even more suspicious. But — what the hell — I was bored and hungry, and needed an excuse to get out of the house.

Valley Cheese & Wine is the kind of place you could drive right by for months and not even know it’s there, set back off the street in what can only be described as an upscale industrial park, adjacent to a construction site. Inside, it’s another world: The spacious shop is anchored by a wall of gourmet dry goods — pasta, oils, vinegar, pickles, and such — on one side, and a pair of cold-cases on the other: one with a well-kept assortment of cheese, and another displaying surprisingly robust charcuterie options. The entire center of the store is given over to rack upon rack of wines.

Both of the owners, Bob and Kristin, welcomed me within minutes. When Kristin found out I was a first-time customer, she offered the “nickel tour”, a full circuit of their various wares, complete with an explanation of the cheese case schematic ( “East Coast artisans on the left, West Coast on the right, Europe on the lower shelf…”) — an obsessive after my own heart, to be sure.

Bob talked about their groceries and salumi offerings, including a half-dozen varieties of Fra’Mani sausage… but nothing from Armandino, alas, due to problems getting their orders filled correctly. He also went to great pains to tell me that everything in the store was hand-selected. They were both adorably proud of their shop, and rightly so.

My only gripe — and it’s a very small one — is that they keep all of their cheeses and meats under plastic, both in the display cases, and when wrapped for you to take home. I’m guessing it’s difficult to keep artisanal products properly hydrated in the desert climate otherwise, and everything looked and tasted just fine, so perhaps I’m just being irrationally persnickety.

This corner of Henderson’s awfully far from The Strip to make Valley Cheese & Wine a side trip for most visitors, but if you happen to be making your escape at Green Valley Ranch or any of the Lake Las Vegas resorts, it’s definitely worth a long browse. Just be sure to bring a map.

Valley Cheese & Wine
1770 Horizon Ridge Parkway
Henderson, NV 89012
702.341.8191

shopping, Vegas, wine & bubbly
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Gifts for procrastinators

Posted by Anita on 12.18.06 1:05 PM

giftyboxStill searching for the perfect holiday gift? I’ve got a few ideas for you that I guarantee won’t just collect dust, or get relegated to the re-gifting shelf.

First off, a cool little idea called Giftybox. The Classes & Workshop Giftybox ($49) includes a pass to a workshop — including food- and drink-related classes at Seattle’s Culinary Communion and San Francisco’s Compassionate Cooks, among others across the country — plus nice discounts at five other locations of the recipient’s choice.

If you’ve got a better handle on your giftee’s tastes, you might opt instead for the Wine Tour & Tasting Giftybox ($59), with options for California, Washington, Oregon, New York and other wine-producing regions. With this box, your lucky friend gets a gift pass for a winery tour & tasting of her choice, including a bottle of wine, plus tastings and discounts at 5 additional wineries in the region.

You can order either Giftybox as late as Tuesday morning (9am PST) to receive it by the 21st, via 2-day FedEx… plenty of time to wrap it up and sneak it under the tree.

If neither of these presents strikes your fancy, might I humbly suggest a gift that combines the warm, fuzzy glow of altruism with the dream-inducing rush of a lottery ticket? I’m sure you’ve already bought plenty of tickets for the Menu for Hope raffle — we’ve raised more than $25,000 already!! — but consider buying a handful for your friends and family.

A ticket makes a nice stocking-stuffer: Pick out a prize that suits your giftee’s personality, print out the page from the donor’s site with a note explaining you’ve bought a ticket on their behalf, and tuck it into a pretty envelope. (Sam explains it all much better at the bottom of this post.)

There are so many great prizes up for grabs, and some of them (not naming any names, ahem!) don’t have very many bids at all… so your odds of winning are incredibly good.

holidays & occasions, other blogs, shopping
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