Archives

Finding New Recipes

I think I’ve mentioned once or ten times that one of my goals has been to prepare more home cooked meals.  Some nights, many nights, I still fail at this.  Either we have too much going on to be able to have a family dinner, or frankly, sometimes I’m just too tired to cook.  Or to even think about cooking.

I saw a hilarious little meme recently that said something like “There’s no food in the house. Just lots of ingredients to make food.”  Hahaha!  I can totally relate to that.

Part of my problem is that I don’t have a large repertoire of tried and true recipes to pull from.  Nor do I have a freezer stocked with meals you just stick in the oven for an hour and you’re done.

I’ve been trying to remedy that by finding new ones to try.  If my family likes it, the recipe goes in the binder.  I just need to take the next step and make extras to freeze.

One of the blogs I follow is The Pioneer Woman.  Do you know her?  Until recently, I had no idea she had a show on The Food Network, too!  Duh.  I started recording it because she has a lot of good, basic, simple recipes that I can handle.  They’re by no means low cal, but I figure eating anything at home has got to beat how much we consume when we eat out.  Am I right?

One meal I tried recently that was a big success was her chicken parmesan.  I made it with my homemade tomato sauce that I canned using tomatoes I grew!  It was deeeeliccioussss!  And I was pretty proud of myself.  Except I had a nightmare that night that I gave everyone botulism.

BUT . . . I’m happy to report that everyone is fine and showed no ill effects from my sauce.

chickparm

Chicken Parm over past w/garlic bread.

I also made her PB cup cookies which didn’t even last long enough to cool down.  My husband was shoving them in so fast, burning his mouth in the process.  But they were so good, he didn’t care!

pbcupcookies

PB cup cookies, still gooey.

Now that Winter is Coming (see what I did there, GOT fans?), I need to get on the stick (did your parents use that expression?).  It would be so nice to just stick a pan of something or a casserole of something in the oven and not have to venture out when it gets super cold outside.  Or not have to think of something creative to have for dinner.  My brain doesn’t work very well in the winter.

If you have some good “tried and true” recipes that freeze well, let me know!

My First Building Project

The first thing I did when I decided to start growing my own food was to pick out an unused corner of my yard for a compost pile.  As I showed you at the end of this post, it’s nothing fancy.

Initially, this worked just fine because the pile was pretty small.  But now that I’ve added an whole new season of leaves and grass clippings and kitchen scraps, it’s kind of getting out of control for the tiny little space I allotted it.

A compost pile needs to be “turned” every so often.  That simply means you get in there w/a shovel or pitchfork or something and give it a good mixing.  It keeps the pile oxygenated which helps the bacteria do their job.

With such a small space and no walls to speak of, every time I turned the pile, it spilled into my shoes, filling them with bits of yuck (technical term).  Since it needs good air circulation, I didn’t want solid walls, but I needed a little more support than what I had.

So I decided to remove the wrought iron fence – whose only purpose was to keep the dog out – and replace it with wooden slatted walls.  My first building project!  Yay!

And scary.

I haven’t used power tools or built anything since I was in middle school and had to take wood shop.  Aahhh, the good ol’ days.  I still remember my teacher – Mr. McMahon – a bearded, red-headed, pot-bellied Scot.  Looking back, I still can’t believe he let us (at 12 years old!) use machinery like that.  Of course, that was after he’d scared the crap out of us with the gory safety videos of someone chopping their fingers off with a band saw or getting a giant splinter in their eyeball because they forgot their safety glasses.  Hahahaha!  Good times.

But I digress . . .

So after taking a few measurements, off to Home Depot I went.  I found the Lumber department easily enough.  And I knew I needed untreated lumber – you don’t want treated lumber for a compost pile because those chemicals will leach into the soil you are making.  Kinda defeats the purpose of growing your own organically, yes?  Untreated lumber will decay faster, but that’s the trade off you make.

I wandered from pile to pile trying to decide what I needed and envisioning how I would use it (not having taken the time to draw up an actual plan for this project).  There was no one to ask for help which was kind of good because I probably wouldn’t have asked anyway.  I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to feel stupid (are there such people? yes, believe me, I know plenty), and I’d rather figure it out for myself.

I knew I wanted my walls to be approximately 4×4, but all the boards seemed to come in 8-ft lengths.  Lucky for me, I heard another customer (a woman!) ask about getting wood cut.  Hey!  Just what I need!  Did you know they’ll do this for you?  For free!  At least, when their saw is working.  Which it wasn’t.

Oh well, I got this!  Last spring, I bought myself a reticulating saw. My first power tool! (If you don’t count the rechargeable drill and screwdriver, which I don’t.)  I had visions of me scarfing up all the free pallets I could find around town and using them to make all kinds of fun stuff (seriously, google it, it’s a thing).  So of course I’d need a saw to take apart the pallets!

Never took it out of the box.

Until now!

I paid for the boards, came home, and performed a feat my husband has trouble with called reading the instructions.  I grabbed my work gloves, donned my safety goggles (thanks, Mr. McMahon!), and got to work.  Using my metal construction worker tape measure, I marked the lengths I needed and, with my trusty reticulating saw, I cut those suckers in half!  All by myself!

Boards

Last few boards to cut.

Here’s a close up of the saw.  It’s a little heavy and kinds scary when you first turn it on, but you get used to it.

Reticulating saw

Reticulating saw.

Not owning a pair of sawhorses, I just laid the boards across the frame of the kids’ old sandbox which we were tossing.  It worked fine.

Then it was time to build!

Guess who wanted to help?

Maya

Whatcha doin, Mama?

Since each board was 4-ft long, and I had two posts that were 4-ft high, I just made two 4-ft square walls and connected them to the existing fence posts using exterior 5/8” screws.  I wanted the boards toward the bottom of the wall to be closer together to keep the compost from spilling out.  But I gradually increased the spacing as I went higher, using my level to keep the boards straight.

I used my drill with the Phillips head bit (the one that looks like a plus +) to make the work go faster and to get the torque I needed.  Mine has a magnetic head (is that standard?) to help keep the screw from falling off before you really get going.  See . . .

Drill

Drill with magnetized screw.

A couple of things that would have made this project easier:

  1. If my yard were level and the fence posts plumb (level & straight), that would have been a HUGE help.  There was just no way I could attach a plumb wall to a non-plumb post and have it work out.  So now my walls are crooked.  Oh well.
  2. If I didn’t have any compost in the compost pile to begin with, it would have been much easier to get the right angle going with the drill.  As it was, I had to step and sometimes sit in a giant pile of wet leaves and grass to reach the right spot.  I’m still itchy.
  3. If I didn’t have a dog who wanted to supervise.  She was the Chief Leaf Inspector and Tool Thief.  Couldn’t turn my back on her for a second.

Here is the finished project:

08done

I built that!

I left a wide opening to make it easier for me to work the pile.  I’ll have to block it off so Ding Dong doesn’t get in there when I’m not looking, but I’ll probably just use some rope or something.  I may also put some wire mesh along the two fence sides to keep the compost from leaking out into the neighbor’s yard.

Anyway, I know it isn’t going to win any HGTV awards or anything, but that wasn’t the point.  It was something I’ve been meaning to do, and I did it.  All by myself.  And I feel much more confident now finding my way around the lumber yard and using power tools.

Hmmm, what should a build next?  Maybe a shed!

A Family Heirloom

My mama brought me a family quilt today.

Isn’t it beautiful?!

quilt

It was made by two “old maid” cousins of my grandmother – Nellie & Goldie (how awesome are those names, btw?!). 

My grandmother passed away last year, so the quilt (and another one like it) went to my mother.  My mother brought one to me and gave the other to my sister.

I love this quilt!  It still smells like my grandmother – a combination of her soap, baby powder, and the drawer liners she used in her bureau – and it makes me feel connected to the women in my family, going back generations.

I would absolutely LOVE to learn how to do this.  Not only is it a practical skill, but quilting allows you to create a family heirloom that can be handed down for years to come.  I can just envision myself sitting in front of a fire on a cold winter evening, quilting my little heart out. 

Quilting and skills like it – what I refer to as “heirloom skills” – are being lost.  I worry that, in the not-so-distant future, the people who know how to quilt or can or grow food will be long gone.  And those skills will be forgotten for good.  People don’t seem to appreciate or care about that stuff anymore.  Everything is so massed produced these days that anything made by hand is something to be treasured.

I want to do my part to keep that knowledge alive by learning and passing it down to my children.  A very special, very important family heirloom.

Perspective

So I think I might have mentioned how I never really liked or learned to cook until recently.

I always used to say I didn’t know how to cook.  Hubby would correct me and say “you know how to cook, you just choose not to.”  Okay, that’s partially true.  Sort of.  Sure, I could make “normal” stuff – cereal, sandwiches, heating a can of soup. 

That’s not really cooking. 

I could also scramble eggs, bake potatoes, and grill pretty much any kind of meat.

Okay, we’re getting closer.

I guess I could follow a recipe, but I never really did it.  Maybe on holidays.  It wasn’t that I was intimidated.  It just didn’t interest me.  I’d take one look at the instructions, and if it had more than 5 ingredients, or involved continuous stirring for hours on end . . . nope.  Plus I pretty much never had the right ingredients or equipment required.  I still don’t own a spring form pan or a double boiler.

apple pecan bread

Reminds me of a bit comedian Richard Jenny (RIP) once did about gourmet cooking:

“Today we’re going to make a massively complicated dish using ingredients you don’t have, utensils you can’t afford, in a kitchen bigger than your whole F-ing apartment!”

That pretty much summed up how I felt about anything to do with scratch food prep.

Why am I telling you this? 

Perspective.

If you are sitting there saying, yep that’s me, and there is no way I’ll ever be able to can my own veggies or make bread from scratch . . . well, I’m here to tell you – IT CAN BE DONE!  If you want to do it.  I’m a perfect example.

pasta pom

I saw a quote recently that resonated with me:  “You can learn new things at any time in your life if you’re willing to be a beginner.”

Too often, once we get to a certain age (ahem), we are afraid of feeling stupid.  We don’t want to appear like we don’t know how to do something.  We don’t want to fail.

So what!  A year ago, I could barely boil water (that’s only a slight exaggeration).  But so far in 2013, I’ve made homemade strawberry jam and homemade bread, I’ve learned how to water-bath can, and I’ve started cooking real meals.  Are all of the things I try a success?  Nope.  Are some of the recipes duds?  Yep.  But that’s okay.  That’s how I learn.

And if I can do it, anyone can. 

And it’s not just cooking.  There are tons of things I want to learn more about!  Gardening, first-aid, quilting, firearms, chickens & goats & bees – oh my!

Find a friend you can learn from. Take a class. Watch some YouTube videos. Read some blogs! That’s what I do when I want to learn something new. 

I’m definitely a beginner.  But I’m willing to be one.  Are you?

Pickles

Right now, I have more cucumbers than I know what to do with.  I must have optimum cucumber growing conditions this year because they are HUGE and abundant.  Since I use heirloom seeds, I was unsure how many would germinate and/or thrive.  So this spring, I planted six cucumber seeds.  Of course, all six lived. 

For weeks, we’ve been eating them raw, sliced for salads or just for snacks with ranch dressing, and I still have a ton.  So I decided I would try my hand at garlic dill pickles.

As I’ve said before, I’m new to canning, so my goal was just to successfully process a batch – regardless of what they end up tasting like.  I can work on that after I’ve mastered everything else!

Since my cucumbers were so big, I decided to do “chunks” instead of whole or spears.  And since I had so many, I decided on quarts instead of pints.  I looked through several of the blogs I follow for pickle recipes and recommendations.  It seems everyone has their own way of canning pickles!

cucs

I decided on a method that involves using cold cucs so as to keep them more crisp.  I was nervous at first because you aren’t supposed to put cold food into hot jars – you risk breakage due to the rapid change in temperature.  I asked the blogger and was told that as long as I didn’t pack the jars too tightly (with the cold cucs pressing up against the hot glass), I should be fine.

So, with much trepidation (seriously, I fretted about this all day!), I set about packing and processing my cucs.

Well guess what?

I did seven quarts of pickles today in my stock pot, and I didn’t break a single jar!  And they all sealed!  I’m so excited, I think I’m getting the hang of this!  I have absolutely no idea what they will taste like, but I don’t care.  I did it!

pickles

I still have a ton of cucs leftover.  I think I may donate them to a neighbor or two . . . or six.

Mental note:  Plant only one or two cucumber plants next year!

Canning Lessons Learned

Sometimes a novice is the perfect person to offer advice on a subject because they don’t make assumptions or skip over important details that an experienced person might take for granted.  This thought kept running through my head as I was making my first solo attempt at canning today and screwing up royally.

Back in January when I was salivating over the seed catalogs, envisioning all the yummy things I could grow, I knew at some point I’d have to find a way to preserve all of that produce that I would (hopefully) harvest.  I don’t like to rely on freezing overmuch – (1) because some things just don’t freeze very well, and (2) if the power goes out for an extended period of time, you’re screwed.

Enter canning.

This term initially confused the bejesus out of me because I thought canning meant you put things in a CAN.  Nope.  (I guess “jarring” would be confusing in other ways.)  Canning involves packing foods into glass jars and boiling them for a specified amount of time, thereby sealing in the nutrients and flavor, and keeping out the bacteria.  Canning allows you to store foods on your pantry shelves, unrefrigerated, for months or even years without fear of spoilage (if you do it right).

There are two types of canning:  (1) water bath canning, and (2) pressure canning.  People generally start with water-bath canning, and once they’ve mastered that, move on to pressure canning.  Water-bath canning can only be used for foods that are highly acidic.  The natural acids in foods such as tomatoes and fruits, or foods that are “pickled” using vinegar brine, helps keep bacteria from growing inside your jars.  Non-acidic foods need to be subjected to temperatures higher than the 212°F boiling point, which can only be achieved inside the pressure canner (not a pressure cooker, they are different).

For more detailed information on different foods, as well as instructions on both types of canning, BALL is generally held as the gold standard.  This is the book I use.

Back in June, I had my first canning experience (that sounds kind of weird or dirty, but you know what I mean).  My friend Po, who is somewhat more experienced than I (which isn’t saying much), came to guide me.  With her help, I was able to “put up,” as we canners say, fourteen 1/2-pint jars of strawberry jam.  Mmmmm!

straw jam

Since then, I’ve done a lot more reading on the subject.  I’ve also purchased my own canning equipment (pot, jar lifter, magnetic lid wand, etc.).  So, feeling brave, today I spent some time water-bath canning a small batch of pickled banana peppers all by myself (I used this recipe).  Since, it was only my second time ever canning anything, and the FIRST time I did it by myself, let’s just say I was making mental notes right and left.  Here’s what I learned:

Glass cook tops suck for canning purposes.  I bought a dedicated canning pot w/a rack so that I wouldn’t have to use my stock pot anymore (like I did w/the jam).  Well guess what?  The canning pot is bigger than my largest burner.  And because so much heat is reflected back onto the stove surface, the burner periodically cuts off, even on HIGH, as a safety precaution.  Well guess what?  That keeps a giant pot of water from actually BOILING.  Kind of the whole point of canning.  Ugh!  So in the middle of sterilizing my jars, I had to swap pots back to my stock pot (it is slightly smaller and fits the burner).  Stupid canning pot.  And guess what?  It says right on the label “do not use on glass cooktops.”  Whoops.  (BTW, I found out glass cooktops are also incompatible with certain pressure canners, too, so beware if this applies to you!)

Have all of your produce prepared (cleaned, seeded, skinned, chopped . . . whatever) BEFORE you begin.  I was madly trying to finish seeding & slicing my peppers before the water and brine were boiling.  Too stressful.

Consider doing a “dry run” when you are packing jars with things like peppers (before the brine is added).  The recipe called for 6-7 banana peppers, or 1-lb., yielding 2 pints.  Yeah, I skipped the “or 1-lb.” part, not considering that size does matter (haha).  I had twice that many peppers, at least, so I figured I had enough for 3 pints.  Well guess what?  I only filled (or so I thought) two pints w/those peppers, but after I processed them, they were mostly brine and only half peppers.  Next time, I will take a cold jar (one I’m not using) and really pack it to see how much it should hold.  And if I need more, I’ll cut more.  BEFORE-hand.

Have more than enough brine ready.  Brine is the vinegar “broth” that’s used to pickle foods (vinegar raises acidity levels).  I filled one pint, then got halfway through the second pint and realized I didn’t have enough!  Ugh!  I had to quickly (before the jars cooled too much) boil some more for that second jar.  Well guess what?  If I’d had enough peppers in the jars, the brine probably wouldn’t have been an issue.  Oh well.  You can always save any leftover brine for another day.

Make sure you have enough support in the bottom of your pot.  Glass jars should not rest directly on the bottom of the pot because they can crack.  I bought a disc to put in the bottom of my canning pot, but alas, it was too big for the stock pot.  I had to resort to the fall-back that many canners use – placing lid rings in the bottom of the pan.  Since I was already in a time crunch because of my other issues enumerated above, I took the lazy way out and only grabbed a few rings to use – not enough to cover the entire bottom of the pan.  Well guess what?  When that water really gets boiling, it pushes the jars around.  And they WILL tip over if they come to the edge of their support.  Ugh.

Most important revelation – with all those pots of jars, water, and brine boiling away, it gets quite humid in your kitchen.  My hair looks like a shrubbery.

pick pepp

Even after all that, my jars gave a satisfying *POP* when I pulled them out to cool.  Such a wonderful sound!  One that will entice me to try again and again.