Saturday, July 28, 2012

Its Freezing Time!!

Its really getting into the best (food) parts of summer. Corn, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums, cherries, cantalopes, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash are but a FEW of the crops in season right now. Whether you're a backyard farmer or just a savvy shopper, now is the time to take advantage!

I know I already did a post on freezing. AND, its soooo super easy that people probably don't need to read about it. BUT, until recently, it didn't even occur to me to consider using my freezer this way. I always thought about canning during summer but never had the nerve (or equipment) to do so. This is definitely the cheap and easy way to get more fruits and veggies into your family's food plan!

As I talked about in my previous post: Less time= less money, much of the work of kitchen projects can be reduced by just doing a few extra items when you are already prepping. A week or so ago, the family had some nice grilled corn on the cob at dinner. Instead of just doing up 3 for the family, I had the hubby do 5. Since he was already cooking corn, a few more made very little difference. After dinner, I cut the kernels off of the cob, dropped them into a ziptop baggie and threw it into the freezer. Just last night, for an easy supper, we did burritos. It was so nice to be able to pull out just a 1/4 or 1/2 of cup of already cooked corn. A few seconds in the microwave and we had a nice veggie addition to our wraps!

We've also been getting a lot of fruit in our farm boxes and we're starting to get a small stream of family/neighbor garden goodies as well.  I already have some peaches put up and I'm off to do some blueberries and strawberries today. I'm looking forward to reaching into my freezer in the middle of December and pulling out a little piece of summer!

Why Freeze?
1) Fruits and veggies saved now will taste better. When you save something picked at the peak of season and locally produced, the flavor can't be beat. Freezing will preserve those qualities!

2) Frozen fruits and veggies are better for you (and the environment) than trying to get them off-season later. Freezing got a bad rap somewhere along the line but it is, in fact, a GREAT way of preserving foods. Freezing has been shown to keep a higher nutrient level in fruits and vegetables than any other way of preserving-- especially if you freeze them as close to the time they were picked as possible. Think of your foods as having a timer inside of them. As the time ticks down, more and more of the nutrients and flavor inside the foods will disappear due to enzyme activity and oxidation. So if you are buying those strawberries from Argentina in December, consider how long it took them to get to your local grocery store (and what nutrients are likely to be left in them) AND what kind of environmental impact there is from transporting them.

3) Freezing IN SEASON saves money. Whether you are buying frozen fruits and veggies or fresh imported ones out of season, there will be a premium to be paid. Right now, farmers need to get that produce sold and distributed-- they've got a limited window to move that food and prices reflect that. Its especially true for organic produce -- this is the best prices you'll find all year! And, if you are lucky enough to have your own garden or have friends or family who do, nothing beats FREE!

4) Its SOOOOOO easy!! While many people out there are big canners, I haven't quite gotten up the nerve to tackle that skill yet. But what I can do (and so can you!) is freeze. Most fruits and veggies will require a little bit of prep-- but is a small price for the payoff of a well stocked freezer!

Seasonal produce (organic, optional)
ziptop baggies
baking sheet
parchment paper. wax paper or silicon mat
prep tools-- peeler, knife, cutting board

Prepare produce as you will want to use it (peel peaches, slice/hull strawberries)
Spread produce evenly on a lined baking sheet.
Put in freezer for several hours or overnight.
Place fully frozen food into baggie, remove as much air as possible and seal completely.
Label food with name & date!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tiny Recycling Craft: Gift Card Holder

Gift cards can be a great gift-- especially for difficult-to-buy-for people (like teens) or people you don't know really well (like a child's teacher). However, I find I have a love/hate relationship with them. I love the ease and knowing that its likely to be used/appreciated. I hate that its impersonal. To combat that feeling, I try to put a little effort at least into the packaging. In general, I prefer to put it in a bag or box but it has to AT LEAST get into an envelope-- preferrably with a card or note.

Right now I'm putting together a set of goodie bags as a thank you for the group (5!) of ladies that rotate as instructors in my son's preschool. His last day of class is this Friday and then in 2 weeks he starts kindergarten-- YIKES!!  Anyways, the final item in the goodie bag is a $10 gift card to the movies. I really didn't want to just toss it in the bag AND I needed a card/tag for the gift anyways. The only problem was that I found the only gift card holders I had were Christmas themed! I do however have an unreasonably large collection of blank/generic note cards that I practically never use! If you keep greeting cards, this would be a great project to reuse one!

Here's how I turned a basic notecard into a little card & envelope the perfect size for a standard gift card:
Choose a card with a print that won't be disturbed by cutting.
 I used this Monet print with a fairly abstract pattern.
Cut card in half

Cut envelope in half

Don't forget to stick down flap!

Cut a piece of paper the same width & about 1/2 the height
of your half envelope.

Apply glue to the edge of flap

Tuck flap inside envelope & rub to adhere.

Fold flap towards back of envelope.

Trim flap if desired for professional finish.

Attach gift card with double sided tape & include message!

All done!

I love that I got a super cute card & envelope set that perfectly fit the gift card AND it cost me absolutely nothing but about 10 minutes of my time.  If you have scissors and glue, you can do this too!

I think next Christmas I'll try making some of these instead of buying my usual ones from the store.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Veggie Variety: Zucchini Pancakes

Well, its getting to be that time of year--- zucchini season!  It's on sale in the grocery store, turning up regularly in my farm basket and people at work and school are starting to bring in bag loads to get rid of. Now, I'm a fan of most squash varieties but I have to admit, I do get a little bit tired of eating it when I have to do it all by myself. The Hubby-- who is known for eating just about anything-- scrunches up his nose at it (unless its breaded and deep fried).  And heaven forbid you should put something green --that isn't broccoli -- in front of the little dude!  So what's a girl to do?? I had to try to find some way that I can eat the squash I like without torturing the rest of the family or having to resort to deep frying. Enter..... zucchini pancakes!!  I've made these several times over the last year or so and managed to get two avowed squash haters to down their portion with little to no fuss!

I was intrigued by this recipe when I first saw it on an old episode of "Barefoot Contessa". Ina Garten was also trying to find something new to do with all the zucchini she had gotten out of her garden. I thought this idea was a great way of using the zucchini where it is certainly present but not in your face. It doesn't completely hide the zucchini (I'm not a fan of hiding veggies, in general) but the flavor is very mild, basically like a potato pancake but with zucchini instead.

I serve these with a side of dip-- usually homemade ranch but any creamy type of dressing will go well here.  Sometimes I just keep it simple with a blop of sour cream on top. If you like fancy, try a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of herbs. If you like applesauce on your latkes, you might like it here as well.

The only trick to this recipe is to keep an eye on the batter. Zucchini vary wildly in terms of water content and the longer your grated zucchini sits, the more water will separate out. This means that you may need to add flour if your batter sits for a while or its a particularly moist zuke.

Recipe: Zucchini Pancakes (adapted from Barefoot Contessa, Food Network)

1 large zucchini or 2 medium
1/4 - 1/2 yellow onion
2 large eggs
3-8 Tbs. flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
butter for cooking

1) Grate zucchini & onion (a little goes a long way, I like 1/4 but if you LOVE onion, try 1/2) into a medium sized mixing bowl.

2) Lightly beat eggs and add to mix.
3) Stir in 3 tablespoons of flour, baking powder, salt & pepper.
4) Check consistency of batter-- if its too watery, add more flour 1 Tbs at a time. Be sure to check batter over time as well & add flour as necessary to maintain correct consistency.

5) Preheat your usual pancake pan on a medium heat. Add small pat of butter to heated pan. When butter is melted, lower the heat slightly (not all the way to low).
6) Spoon mounded tablespoons of batter onto melted butter. Cook as you would a typical pancake, until both sides are browned and middle is set. Watch heat-- too high will result in browned but mushy pancakes, too low and you'll be there all night. You know you are doing it right when it really looks like a breakfast pancake (albeit slightly green). A couple of these in the pic below probably could have been left on the pan for another minute or two.

Did you give these a try? Comment below and let us know how they turned out!

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Coconut Oil-- not just for tanning!

Cutting out processed foods is, in itself, a process. First you get rid of the obvious, like twinkies. Then comes the fairly easy to spot, like chewy granola bars. Next you'll find some of the slightly tricky to catch items, like "whole wheat" breads. But there still remains a few items in the pantry that are still HIGHLY processed and pretty unnatural. They masquerade as wholesome & nutritious and you'll never know by reading the labels. This week I'm taking on cooking oils!!

3 Reasons I do NOT want to use vegetable cooking oils:
  1) Almost certainly from a GMO crop.
      Something like 88% of the non-organic corn products out there are gmo'd. Canola and soy are somewhere over 90%. These are genetically modified organisms. These plants varieties were created in a lab by inserting DNA from bacteria or other different species to give the plant a special property-- usually pesticide resistance (round-up ready) or to actually produce their own pesticides (BT).
         While the government has stated that these food items are just as safe as the natural form, very few studies have been done which bear this out. At the very least, I can say that we just don't know what the long term effects will be from eating these artificially created plant products. I'm not comfortable with that. And, because there are other, proven safe alternatives, (eaten traditionally for hundreds of years) I'm happy to give these oils up.
2) Processing chemicals
      To manufacture a typical bottle of canola oil, first the seeds are crushed or pressed, then the resultant fluid has to be refined & purified. To do that, petroleum based solvents like hexane are typically used. Then because of the smell of the solvents, further "deodorizing" is done with other chemicals. In the end, you have a lot more than just canola oil in that bottle.

3) Omega-6 fats
       The final reason NOT to comsume these vegetable oils comes from their fat make up. Most of these oils are predominantly made up of omega-6 fatty acids with little to NO omega-3's. I discussed the importance of reducing omega-6's (and increasing omega-3s) in my previous post: real food revolution.  I predict that much like they have taken back what they said for years about the safety of trans-fats, the major health agencies will eventually come out against these oils as well.

What to use instead??

When you are looking for a fat to cook your food in, coat a pan or add to a recipe, there are a few less processed options.

A) Butter!!
A nice, pastured (grass-fed) butter can go into most baking recipes. It is also great for coating pans. I saw a simple, genius, tip the other day-- save the paper when you unwrap a stick of butter. Then you'll have an easy way to grease a pan the next time you cook!

B) Olive oil
Olive oil is a great natural alternative to most of the processed vegetable oils. BUT you have to be careful about what you buy. A LOT of domestically produced oils are refined and processed just as much as canola. Go for imported and cold pressed, virgin oils. This will be as close to the olive as you can get!

C) Animal fats
A lot of people are flocking back to the use of lard (pig fat) and tallow (beef fat) for cooking purposes. I think I just missed enough of that growing up that it seems kind of icky to me. Its definitely natural (if you are careful about your sources) and unrefined but its not my cup of tea.

D) Coconut oil
Coconut oil is pressed like olive oil (but from coconuts....) It can be virgin, cold-pressed (most natural) or highly refined. The more virgin your oil, the more pronounced the scent/flavor will be (just as in olive oils). The refined oils have a higher smoke point & more neutral flavor but are subject to some of the same issues as refined vegetable oils. Interestingly, coconut oil can actually be a solid at room temperature ( it melts around 75 F) so it can be used on the colder side much as butter would be. For this reason, it has gained in popularity especially in the vegetarian/vegan crowd (as well as being an excellent plant based source of some essential fatty acids).

Ideally, one would use olive oil for things like salad dressings-- where no or very low heat is applied-- as olive oil has a very low smoke point and use coconut oil for higher temperature applications- virgin has a lower smoke point and refined has a higher one.

What I did:

This week I bought a jar each of refined organic coconut oil and virgin organic coconut oil and used each in several cooking techniques.

I tried the refined first because I expected it to be the most like what I was used to in a cooking oil. And, I was not disappointed.  I found that the refined coconut oil has no particular odor. I used it to saute my beef in the first step of making stew (where I usually used canola) and I had no odor, taste or cooking difference at all! I also used it in a baking recipe in place of canola and had no difference here either.

Knowing that the virgin coconut oil would have a distinct but soft coconut scent/flavor, we saved it for more asian style dinner entrees. I found the scent not too overpowering,  not completely coconutty but just a hint of something kind of tropical. We used this twice-- once in a green curry stir fry and once to make pad thai. As the flavor married well with the recipes, honestly I didn't notice anything different from when we've made these in the past.

So, I encourage you to give coconut oil a try!  Its pretty painless and another way you can reduce the processed foods in your kitchen. While it might not have been something June would have used, certainly many other cultures have used this traditionally in their cooking.

As a side note, since I have both types of coconut oil in the cupboard now, I'll be finally able to experiment with a few recipes I've been collecting for homemade lotions, creams & other bath/beauty products!

Comment below and let me know if you gave coconut oil a try and how it went!

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pizza Supreme Spaghetti

If you are feeling bored with plain old spaghetti, this recipe might just perk you up (it should at least make the kids happy.....)  Not only does it add some interest to an otherwise kind of blah meal, you'll also up the health quotient by packing in lots of nice veggies!

The basic idea is to take your favorite pizza supreme ingredients and put them into the pasta sauce instead of on a pizza. Not necessarily the most ingenious of recipes, I know. But it is just different enough to be interesting-- especially to kids. It also doesn't hurt if you say "pizza" . And it allows you to put lots of veggies in without the family rebelling too much. Our picky eater actually ate his whole dinner with NO complaints tonight... YAY!!!

Below is my version. We went with sausage, tomatoes, olives and artichoke hearts. I don't really care for bell peppers so I didn't include them but they would go really well here as well. Just be sure to saute them (or any onions or garlic you might use) prior to adding to the sauce or they'll be too crunchy!

Recipe: Pizza Supreme Spaghetti

12 oz  pasta (I used whole foods 365 whole wheat spaghetti but penne could also go well here)
25 oz jar tomato sauce (I used wf 365 organic tomato sauce "classic" flavor)
14.5 can diced tomatoes, drained
14 oz can artichoke hearts, drained & quartered (if uncut)
2.25 oz can sliced black olives
12-16 oz mild italian pork sausage

1) Start by heating water for pasta. Follow manufacturer's preparation instructions.

2)  Remove any casings from the sausages before cooking! In a large, high sided pan, cook loose sausage meat as you would ground beef. Be sure to cook through completely!
2) Add in jar of tomato sauce with cooked sausage.
3) Add in drained veggies
Simmering sauce
4) Simmer on low until pasta is done cooking.
5) Drain cooked pasta.
6) Combine drained pasta with sauce, mix thoroughly to combine.
7) Serve with grated parmesan for a traditional approach or go wild and top with shredded mozzarella for the full pizza effect!

Dish finished with parmesan

Left overs freeze well! This makes 2 full dinners for our little family or 1 dinner and 4-ish single lunch portions for the freezer. If you prefer your pasta super sauce-y use 8 oz of pasta instead of 12. If you prefer less sauce & more pasta, go with 16 oz.

Bonus Tip: If you run out of grated parmesan sprinkles but have shredded parmesan and a mini food processor (I used a magic bullet) you can quickly turn your shreds into sprinkles! It didn't get gummy or clumpy. I did take care to pulse it quickly for just a minute--until I could see the whirling parmesan pieces were getting light & fluffy like snow flakes.

Comment below and let me know how this recipe worked for you!

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Real Food Revolution- what YOU need to know and the gov't won't tell you!

My brain is filled to bursting! I can't even believe all that I've learned about nutrition in the week or so! In the Real Food Summit ( I've been attending the last week, as well as personal research and blog reading, I've come across some world-changing ideas. My head is practically on fire. I wish I could hold a press conference-- when you find something that seems so important -- life saving even!-- you just want to share that information with everyone!

I've opted to share just 3 key findings that really made me think. While nutrition information isn't necessarily the cornerstone of this blog, I think good health is a cornerstone of good homemaking and a real food approach is definitely something that June could approve of!

Three Revolutionary ideas:

1) Saturated fat consumption doesn't cause heart disease.
        There are NO studies that actually show a cause and effect between the two. However, one recent study actually shows that there is NO cause and effect link between saturated fat and heart disease! (Siri-Tarino PW, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jan. 13, 2010, epub)

2) Red meat, eggs and full fat dairy aren't bad for you-- they are actually GOOD for you.
        There is a caveat here-- it has to be the RIGHT kind of red meat and dairy. And no, I'm not talking about lean cuts or lowfat. I'm talking grass fed. Grass, pasture, you know nature?? Cows, sheep & other grazers are designed to..... graze. By feeding meat & dairy animals corn, soy and other grains, you are basically giving them McDonalds. That's right, grains are junk food for cows!! How can we expect the cows to be healthy (why do you think they need so many darn antibiotics...) and produce quality meats & dairy if we aren't feeding and caring for them as nature designed?

        To get the actual health benefits from eating meat & dairy, the cows must be allowed to eat their natural diet. The pH of a grass fed cow's stomach is substantially different than a grain fed one. The proper pH is necessary for the cow's stomach to convert the grasses to the healthy OMEGA-3 fatty acids we have heard so much about. Some of the known health benefits of omega-3s :

        In a grain fed cow, instead of omega-3's, you get omega-6's. Omega-6's aren't the bad guy here. But they compete with the omega 3's and prevent our bodies from getting the benefits that 3's provide. Historically, humans had a 1:1 ratio of 6's to 3's in their diet. Over the last 140 years or so, that ratio has skewed towards the omega-6's until today where the average ratio consumed is 15.1-16.7 to 1!!  Where are all these extra omega 6's coming from?? Grain fed beef & dairy is a big source! In a grass fed cow, the ratio of 6's to 3's is about 2 or 3:1  but in a grain fed cow, its 18-20:1! Another hidden source of omega-6's is processed vegetable oils. Vegetable oils are entirely (or almost entirely) made up of omega-6 fats with ratios from 5:1 (canola) up to 75:0 (safflower).

       The health benefits from a proper omega-6 to 3 ratio can NOT be emphasized enough. Lowering that ratio (by increasing seafood consumption, grass fed meats & dairy and decreasing consumption of grain fed meats, dairy and processed vegetable oils) is CRITICAL to improving one's health. A decreased ratio (5:1 or less) has been shown to: decrease the risk of breast cancer, suppress the inflammation in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis and decrease incidences of asthma AND a ratio of 4:1 or lower has show to have a 70% decrease in total mortality (Simopoulos AP, Biomed Parmacother, 2002 Oct 56(8): 365-79). That's right 70%. I'll take those odds all day long!!

        Besides the benefits from an omega 3 standpoint, grass fed meat, dairy & eggs are also high in something called CLA- conjugated lineoleic acid. This compound occurs at a 300-500% higher level in grass fed meats & dairy than grain fed.(T.R. Dhiman. 2001. Role of diet on CLA content of milk & meat. Journal of Animal Science. 79) CLA is a potent ANTICARCINOGENIC compound. It's unique properties were first noted in 1979 when mice (coated with a beef extract-weird but true!) were exposed to a strong carcinogen and then produced 20% fewer tumors (than the uncoated ones). This compound was later identified and confirmed as a potent anticarcinogen in study in 1987. Michael Pariza, the scientist who discovered CLA, later remarked that "few anticarcinogens, and certainly no other known fatty acids, are as effective as CLA in inhibiting carcinogenesis in these models" (Ha YL, Grimm NK, Pariza MV. 1987. Carcinogenesis 8(12) 1881-7) So one can conclude that properly raised meats, dairy & eggs can actually help prevent cancer.

        These findings directly contradict a recent study (An Pan, PhD, et al, Red Meat Consumption & Mortality, JAMA, March 12, 2012, epub) that caused quite a stir when the main researchers concluded that there was an increase in mortality due to both cardiovascular disease and cancer from people who ate more red meat. Here's the thing though--all the red meat in question was from conventionally raised grain-fed beef. There was no distinction between a steak and a fast food burger. At the end of the study, even the researchers had this to say:  increased red meat consumption was correlated with a less active lifestyle, more likely to be current smokers, drink alcohol, have a higher BMI. It was also correlated with a greater energy input (calories) but lower intakes of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. So how in the world did they conclude it was the fault of RED MEAT!?!  I think my former high school science students could have done better. Shoot, I think my 5 year old could do better! And this is what they use to scare people away from meat!

3) You don't need to worry about mercury in seafood.
        For the last several years, there has been the concern of mercury (Hg) in seafood. The government has published recommendations that people not consume more than 1 or 2 servings a week. Simultaneously they've also recommended that we increase our omega-3's by eating fatty fish (like salmon). I personally have struggled with this paradox for the last few years. I'm so happy to find out that I really don't need to worry anymore!

       In the past, there were 2 main seafood eating studies published. One showed that an increase in consumption of seafood led to an increase of blood Hg levels and a negative effect on the children born to women in the study. The second showed increased eating of seafood led to no blood Hg and positive effects (health and IQ) on the children born to women in the study.

        The first study is the one that was used to recommend restrictions on seafood/fish consumption. The problem is that it doesn't take into account a second factor--- selenium (Se). Selenium is an element that is naturally occurring in most fish and seafood. Selenium actively binds to mercury. This blocks mercury's negative effects. The strength of this chemical bond is a matter of scientific fact (Look at the wikipedia footnotes for entry- Selenium). It is over 1 million times the strength of the next most attractive element that Hg can bind with (or therefore anything contained in our bodies or cells!).

          So getting back to why the women and children of the first study were so negatively affected by eating seafood and the second group was not - it has to do with the ratio of selenium to mercury. The women of the first study were consuming PILOT WHALE meat (which isn't even a fish, its a mammal) and shark meat. These just happen to be two of the very few seafood species that have a LOWER selenium than mercury ratio. Thus, excess mercury was present causing negative side effects to both women and children! In the second study, the people were eating more conventional fish & seafood. Therefore the Hg, while certainly present, was completely deactivated by its bonding with the natural selenium present in the fish, and the study participants had NO negative Hg side effects and multiple positive effects from eating increased seafood.

        In the works NOW is a study that is measuring the SeHBV (Selenium Health Benefit Value) which is the ratio of selenium (Se) to mercury (Hg) for all the major consumed fish/seafood species of the world. It will be completed in 2013 and hopefully become a part of seafood packaging so that consumers like ourselves can identify which foods will be safe (those with a 1:1 or better Se/Hg ratio) and those that are not (those with less than a 1:1 ratio of Se/Hg).

        A few preliminary studies looking at the Se/Hg ratio of wild caught fish off the Pacific near Hawaii took a fairly large sampling and found all of the fish had positive ratios EXCEPT mako shark & swordfish. And in 97% of the fish tested in the freshwaters of the western U.S. had a Se value HIGHER than the Hg value.  (Energy & Environmental Research Center, University of North Dakota (EERC). EERC Research Finds Mercury Levels in Freshwater and Ocean Fish Not as Harmful as Previously Thought. June 22, 2009)  So, unless you are into eating shark or whale, all of the seafood choices you can make are likely to be completely mercury safe! And eating higher amounts of seafood has been shown to have multiple health benefits for adults and children.

       The key to nutritional revolution is this: we are designed (by God or evolution) to function at optimal health with the resources that occur naturally on Earth. As a species, we are facing a worldwide (certainly countrywide at least) health crisis. Obesity. Type 2 Diabetes. Heart children!! We are poised to have the first generation whose children actually have less longevity than their parents. That alone should tell us that our current approach to health and nutrition is just plain WRONG!! The key to finding out where we went wrong requires us to analyze what we did in the past that was successful-- after all we made it this far as a species, right? So consider what your great, great, grandparents ate. Chances are, if you eat that too, you are likely to be in better health than your peers.
        I encourage anyone who has read this far to do their own research!! I heard some things and thought, "oh, that can't possibly be true". After extensive and varied research into these topics, I'm convinced. But not only the science backs these claims up. If you think about it-- I mean really think about it, you know that what we eat today-- low fat, low nutrient, chemically laden garbage--has little to no resemblance to the diet we ate historically that was so key in keeping our species successful.

What you can do today to dramatically reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease & cancer:
 1) cut out processed foods-- ditch all your foods that have ingredient lists that read more like a chemistry lab than nature.
2) replace conventionally produced meats, dairy and eggs with PASTURED ones.
3) change out processed high omega 6 vegetable oils with low omega 6 pastured butter, lard, tallow or coconut oil.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Savings Tip: Crockpot "Rotisserie" Chicken

I love the ease and convenience of the supermarket rotisserie chicken. With no effort at all, you can bring home a great roasted whole chicken for about $5-6.00. However, it is much cheaper to buy a whole chicken and do it yourself. Not to mention when you do it yourself, you know exactly what is going into your family's food! I, personally don't have a rotisserie but I discovered that roasting it in your crockpot will give you a similarly tender result with about the same amount of effort as buying a pre-cooked one!

Okay, this "recipe" is so easy its almost embarrassing! I had specifically asked for a larger, oval crockpot for my birthday over 2 years ago for the sole purpose of being able to cook whole chickens in it (well that and larger pot roasts). And yet, embarrassingly enough, yesterday was the first day I ever did it. The results were nothing less than spectacular. I can't believe it took me so long to get around to it. Soooooooo easy!! Soooooooooo tasty!! Soooooooo little effort!!

I had the opportunity to pick up some nice pasture raised whole chickens at a good price. As I am new to this whole pastured meat thing, I had heard that sometimes the meat can be a little bit tougher (since the chickens actually run around and stuff). And as a result, they really benefit from low & slow, moist cooking. I gave a new spice rub a try-- #33671 from I only made a half batch but the skin portions still ended up being a little strong on the paprika for me. I think next time I'll just stick to my preferred lemon pepper/garlic salt combo.

I spiced up the chicken, popped it into the pot, put on the lid and set the temp to low. I let it cook for approximately 6 hours. I checked the temp in a few places and it was completely cooked through. I wanted to take a nice "after" picture with the roasted chicken on a plate but the whole thing was so tender that both wings and one whole leg & thigh fell off when I was taking it out of the crock pot. The whole chicken was super tender and moist. And, there was tons of concentrated chicken stock at the bottom of the pot.

We ate all that we wanted the first night and made burritos out of the leftovers the second. This still leaves a chicken quarter for Hubby to take to work for lunch! Yay whole chickens!!

Do you have any "its so easy I can't believe I didn't know about that" type tips?? Comment below!

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Friday, July 13, 2012

A Beginner's Bread Baking Part II: Whole Wheat English Muffins

I like English muffins for breakfast. Sometimes toasted with peanut butter for a quick meal and other times with an egg (and/or cheese and meat) tucked inside for a hearty breakfast sandwich. I don't eat many in a given week, just one or two, but I like to keep a small supply in the freezer so I have one whenever the mood might strike. With all the foods we've eliminated due to excessive (and unpronouncible) ingredients, English muffins were about 2nd on my list of foods I was missing.

So, once again, off to the kitchen!!

After doing some research and a few test recipes, I've learned a few things about English muffin recipes. First, there's a lot of them. Some are simple and others have an ingredient list even longer than the ones at the grocery store! Secondly, there are no fewer than 3 major approaches to making an English muffin.

You can go dough based and roll or hand shape your muffins. The first recipe I attempted used a dough based approach. While the outer appearance and flavor were acceptable, they were completely lacking the critical nooks and crannies characteristic of a great English muffin. This also made them a bit dense.

There is batter based where you spoon a looser, more liquidy type of mix into ring molds where they cook. I was going to go for a batter based approach for attempt #2 but I don't have any ring molds and I'm not particularly interested in buying any (or eating 4-6 cans of tuna to make some) just for this recipe.

Finally there is what I'm calling the overproof method. This involves making something with a consistency between a dough and batter an allowing the yeast to rise until the dough falls under its own weight. The proponents of this method claim it is the most traditional approach. I don't know if that is true or not but it is the technique I found the most success with. With a few modifications from the recipe posted here (to get to 50% whole wheat & streamline the process) I think I have something workable.  The flavor is very similar to my old grocery store brand (VanDeKamps) and the process was pretty easy (although it does take a long time overall, it is mainly short bursts of activity here and there, like bread making) The recipe below yields 6 larger muffins or 8 medium sized ones.

Recipe: Whole Wheat (50/50) English Muffins

1 cup milk (I used whole)
1 Tbs butter
1Tbs honey
1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur's)
1/2 tsp salt--see note at step 4
1-4 Tbs water
1 cup corn meal

1) Gently warm milk in a saucepan or in microwave (be careful of hot spots!) until it is very warm but not scalding hot.
2) Add in honey and butter. Stir until butter melts and honey dissolves.
3) Add yeast to warm liquid. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until foamy (if it doesn't foam, your yeast is dead & you need to start over!)
4) In a large mixing bowl, combine flours and salt (if you used salted butter in step 2, you may omit the extra salt).
5) Pour foamy liquid into flour mix. Stir to combine. Soft dough should form.
6) Slowly, 1 tablespoon at a time, add the water. Stir vigorously to combine. Stop adding water when dough is wet enough to stick to all sides of your bowl and the consistency is between a batter and a dough.
Dough Mix before rising
7) Cover dough mix with a tea towel or plastic wrap and place in a warm corner of the kitchen. Allow it to rise until it collapses (approx. 2 hours for me-- it may be more if your yeast isn't as fresh or your kitchen is colder). NOTE: The longer the dough sits, the more sour the bread will be. My first batch sat about 7 hours (the original recipe called for overnight) and was MUCH too sour for me. The 2 hours I used for the subsequent batch isn't sour at all. If you want them somewhat sour, try 3-4 hours to start with and go up from there to find your preferred balance!
Dough mix at maximum rise
Dough mix after collapse-
note wrinkled surface &
pulled bubbles at edges.

8) Pour corn meal into a dish with sides.
9) Stir dough thoroughly and scoop out approximately 1/3 cup dough mix.
10) Drop dough scoop into corn meal. Roll until evenly coated on all sides.
11) Carefully pick up dough ball and gently pat into a flattened circle 3-4" in diameter.
12) Place on lightly greased skillet on stove. Be sure to leave 1-2" between muffins for expansion.

13) Once skillet is filled, turn heat on to low. Not super low but not medium either. Cook first side until golden (12-15 minutes). Flip & cook other side (8-10 minutes). Low and slow is necessary for the insides to cook without the outside getting too brown.
14) Remove to wire rack for cooling.

15) Use fork to split muffins for maximum nook and cranny-ness.


If you aren't going to eat all of these in the first day (I'm not judging here....) you might consider keeping them in the fridge or freezer as they are preservative free.

Comment below and let me know how this recipe worked for you in your kitchen!

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Beginner's Bread Baking Part I: Honey Whole Wheat Bread

I fear bread.

More specifically, I fear yeast.

I have been baking a wide variety of sweet and savory items at home for years (even decades, now) and I had not until recently been able to overcome my fear. I don't know what it is about it, but bread and other yeast based baked goods seemed too complicated, too finicky, too daunting.

I no longer have the luxury of this fear. I have been completely unable to find a bread that meets my requirements. I'm looking at the food labels, searching for basic ingredients ONLY to be listed (flour, yeast, water,salt, honey) and no dough stabilizers, preservatives, etc. The only bread in the entire big chain grocery store that met my requirement was one brand of sourdough. At smaller, specialty stores, I've also found some brioche hot dog & hamburger buns. However, I'd prefer to have the health advantages of whole wheat for the family in addition to meeting my ingredient restrictions. Plus we also enjoy bagels and english muffins- which I haven't been able to find AT ALL.

So, to the kitchen!!

It started with a batch of cinnamon rolls about 2 months ago. They were okay. But what made them not particularly spectacular wasn't the dough, it was my running out of cinnamon halfway through the recipe! I was actually pleased and surprised to have a dough rise when the recipe said it should and otherwise match all of the stages it was supposed to! This gave me the confidence to go further.

A few weeks ago I posted this about homemade pretzel bites. Also a yeast based recipe. These actually came out as expected. I would make them again, any time.

I decided I was ready to bake some bread. I wanted whole wheat (since that was what I couldn't find in the grocery store). So I found a recipe that actually used 100% whole wheat flour (this is not usual and I'll talk about that in a minute) and just jumped right in. The resulting loaf was...... um.... not good. It was more than a bit dense and the crust was much too hard and the bread itself was quite crumbly.

After doing some research (which I probably should have done before I started....) I learned that whole wheat flour does NOT act the same as all purpose or bread flour. Because it retains the bran (fiber) part of the wheat kernel, any 100% whole wheat recipe is going to need some extra time for the fiber to absorb liquids and become fully incorporated into your dough. The best 100% whole wheat bread doughs typically process overnight. This explains why almost every "whole wheat" recipe I found was at most 50% whole wheat.

I'll admit after this disaster, the fear had returned a little bit. But as I continued looking for appropriate baked goods at my local stores, and continued to fail to find any, I had no choice but to go back into the ring.

I decided to ease my way into whole wheat baking with a little bit of basic bread baking practice first. I found a well reviewed, part whole wheat bread recipe. This would give me the ingredient list I'm looking for, some bread making practice and some of the whole wheat nutrition I wanted (which is better than none....)

Here is the basic recipe I used for Honey Whole Wheat Bread from


I followed the recipe's instructions almost exactly. I made one substitution, all purpose flour for the bread flour because that was what I had on hand. It is supposed to make 3 loaves but they will be slightly shorter-- if you want tall sandwich loaves, it is better to divide it in 2. I did divide the dough into 3 parts as directed but I only made 2 loaves-- one ended up with less dough (more like a true 1/3 portion) and was a bit short, one ended up with more dough (more like 1/2 portion) and was perfectly sandwich sized. I used the remaining portion (less than 1/3) to hand shape some buns.  

The end result is wonderful! The bread does have a very very strong honey flavor (which the 5 year old LOVES) but I would probably try a little less next time. And, I'm finding the bread to be slightly crummy-- no doubt due to the flour substitution. I've learned that bread flour has a higher gluten content, making it have a stronger protein structure. If I can remember to buy some, I may try the next batch with the bread flour. The one difficulty I did have was the large amount of dough. It kept creeping up my kitchen aid dough hook and onto the motor. I might try dividing the dough in half and kneading each part separately!

We ate some of the buns right away that dinner with some grilled hamburgers-- delish!! We popped one sliced loaf into the fridge and popped one unsliced loaf into the freezer. We just got into the 2nd loaf a few days ago and it is just as good as the fresh one was.

If you too have been fearing bread, this is a great first timer recipe. Even when the results aren't perfect, they are darn tasty!!

There is a wonderful resource at which has all sorts of bread making answers and tutorials whether your making your first loaf of white bread or grinding your own grains for a free form artisan type loaf.

Comment below and let me know how this recipe worked for you. Are you a first timer, too? Or a seasoned bread baker??

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sunday Savings Tip: Bye, Bye, Papertowels!

As I experimented with cloth diapering a few years ago, I was introduced to the whole paperfree community. I learned that every disposable item in our house, even toilet paper (!) can be replaced with cloth. While I'm not quite ready for bathroom stuff, I know there are plenty of other places where I could switch out cloth for paper.

As a simple beginning step, I stopped buying paper plates. I know they are completely unnecessary but I often bought them anyways to save on dishwashing (which I hate with a passion). A second simple swap is hankies. Not necessarily for everyone in the family, but for me. I bought 3 really cute vintage hankies that reminded me of the ones I used to take to elementary school (before pocket tissue packs were invented).  I keep them tucked in a zippered coin purse in my bag and ready for quick nose wipes, crying cleanups, etc. Since I have several, its not a big deal if I don't get to washing the dirty one or forget to get the clean one back into my purse right away.

I've been working up to tackling our biggest paper consuming room-- the kitchen! With a few basic supplies from my local mart-type store, I now have a convenient and tidy clean up center that uses cloth instead of paper towels, without too much fuss or inconvenience. Because we all KNOW that if it isn't easy, people won't use it or stick with it!

I know many of you are saying-- well, why doesn't she just use a kitchen/dish towel for clean up? I have a 5 year old, a 2 year old and a dog. There are just some things that once you clean them up, you can't reuse that towel without washing. I do have a half dozen nice kitchen towels but I am hesitant to use them to wipe down counters or clean up spills with them, knowing they are likely to be permanently stained.

Here is my simple plan:

2 packages ($3.48 ea Wal-Mart) of 9, kitchen utility towels
1 pair of scissors
1 plastic shoe box ($.97 Wal-Mart)
1 small plastic trash can ($4.88 Wal-Mart)

By cutting the utility towels in half, they fit perfectly in the shoe box. That also happens to be the same size of the smallest towel in the select-a-size brand paper towels we've been using, so it feels familiar. I don't plan on hemming the cut edge of the terry towels unless they start to fray too much. For right now, I'm just going to see how they hold up. I picked a nice basic beige to hide a plethora of stains (and it is a nice a neutral as well). One package of 9 towels becomes 18 and actually fills the box to the top. That means I'll have a set to use and one to wash.

The shoe box fits right behind the kitchen spigot for handy dispensing. The trash can is on the shelf right above the garbage, so its close to where the throw away impulse is likely to take people.

So far, this has been working great. We still had about 1/2 a roll of paper towel a week ago when I set this up and its still about 1/3 filled. The towelette bin isn't completely emptied out, we've been averaging about 2 a day. I'm finding myself using each towelette several times-- once to dry a dish, once to dry some hands, once to wipe a face and/or once to clean/dry the counter and then toss it.

We all know its better for the environment, but it also helps the wallet when you don't have to keep buying items to replace those that have been used once and thrown out. For my initial "start-up" costs of about $18, I can expect the savings to be returned to me in 1-2 months of not buying more paper towels. You could easily cut costs further by only purchasing one set of towels and washing more frequently and just hanging a simple plastic grocery sack for the laundry bin. That would take the cost of the project down to under $5. That's a winner in my book!

Comment below and let me know what you think! Is this something you could see yourself doing? Do you do something like this already?

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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Homemade PLAIN Granola

Peaches & Cream Parfait with Homemade Granola

As far as fast food treats go, McDonald's fruit and yogurt parfaits have been a favorite of mine for years. I liked that it was basic stuff-- fruit, lowfat yogurt and granola. It also had only a few Weight Watcher's program points which made it a reasonable choice for a drive thru breakfast or mid-afternoon snack. The part I liked best about it was the tiny little packet of granola you got to stir in before eating. It added a nice crunch and touch of sweetness (which is helpful when the berries are particularly tart).

When I went looking for a store bought granola that would be similar to the one they serve at McD's, for my own homemade parfaits, I ended up completely stumped. Most granolas had added dried fruit, nuts or coconut and an ingredient list that seemed unnecessarily long.

It became clear, very quickly, that I would have to make what I wanted myself. After testing several recipes over the last few months, I have finally found a great recipe for just plain granola. Its pretty simple and will give you fairly consistent, good results. If you leave it big pieces, you'll get unshaped crunchy granola bars. If you break it up, you'll get a great basic granola you can use as a topping or breakfast cereal with milk.

As this is completely and perfectly plain, it does lend itself quite readily to custom blends. If you are looking for something more, just add in a 1/4-1/2 cup of almonds, raisins, dried blueberries or cranberries, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, shredded coconut, etc. Basically the only limit is your imagination!!

Kept in an airtight container, this granola will last up to 2 weeks. If you do add dried fruit pieces or nuts, you may want to consider keeping it in the refrigerator. I have also heard that it will keep indefinitely if you keep it in the freezer but I have not tried that myself.

This recipe was adapted from the one I found on this website.

Recipe: Plain Granola

2 cups rolled oats
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 Tbs. canola or other light flavored oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1) In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the oil, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla.
2) Stir in oats until well coated.

3) Spread on a pan lined with silcone mat or parchment paper.
4) Bake at 325 F for 10 minutes. Stir (edges will tend to brown first). Mix will look very wet as its cooking.
5) Bake for 10 more minutes, stirring at 5 minute intervals until golden brown.

6) Cool on baking sheet. Break up into large pieces for granola bars or put into a baggie and crush for crumbled topping/cereal.

Freeform Granola Bars
Granola Crumbles

7) Store in an airtight container!

Comment below and let me know how this worked out for you! Did you leave it plain or fancy it up a bit??

Monday, July 2, 2012

Pinned It! : Waffle Hashbrowns

So I've been skimming Pinterest for some time now and I've gotten some really great ideas for practical projects, some common sense solutions (why didn't I think of that?) and some really awesome inspirational photos to keep me motivated! I've especially been living on the food boards, looking for new ideas in the kitchen!

I tried no less than 3 different cooking ideas I saw as pins on Pinterest last week. First was a totally quick food project for the 5 year old's preschool 4th of July party-- which I had forgotten about until 8 pm the night before. I had to make do with what was in the pantry. Thankfully, I found this pin and was able to more or less get something similar that we could bring the next day.

Memorial Day Pretzels by

Item number 2 was this pin that I was very excited about as I've had 3 beets hanging around the fridge for a week from our last farm box delivery. I've never eaten a beet that didn't come out of a can before (and can I say ewwww!). I was hoping that making chips our of them would take away some of the fear of the unknown for me. I even bought a new mandoline slicer just for the job ($20 @ Target!). They looked great going into the oven but they were a TOTAL FAIL!!! Half of each chip was getting too brown and the other half wasn't crisping. I ended up with a mix of overdone and underdone chips (with about 3 actual chips being done correctly). I think I might have sliced too thinly or perhaps too unevenly?

Baked Beet Chips by

Last night was pin #3. I saw this pin several weeks ago-- sometime before Father's day I know because I was thinking of doing these for Hubby. But, I made him a chocolate cinnamon roll from SmittenKitchen instead. I've been thinking about this since then but it seems like too much effort for breakfast (I really don't like anything more complicated than microwaving or toasting in the morning). So, yesterday when we were looking for a sidedish to go with our burgers (with homemade whole wheat buns but that's another post...) I thought it might be a good time to give this a try.

Waffle Maker Hash Browns by

Overall, I thought it was a success. I spread my shredded potatoes fairly thin-- the Hubs likes his hash browns more crispy than not. The results were nice mix of brown crisp squares and soft white shreds. I used 3 medium potatoes and got 4 not quite waffle sized patties. I only sprayed some oil on before the first batch and there was NO sticking what-so-ever! If you have a well-seasoned waffle maker, you can probably go with no oil at all.

My Waffle Hash Browns (about 1/2 way done cooking...)

We all agreed that it worked pretty well. Since I have a very small waffle maker, it did take some time as each person's patty had to be cooked individually. But I really liked that I didn't have to stand and supervise a tempermental pan of hot oil (and clean up the inevitable mess afterwards). I would definitely try this idea again but I think I would instead try a larger portion of potato, cooked longer. I'd also like to try a mix of vegetables-- I think sweet potato could be interesting here and I have a zucchini patty recipe that uses shredded squash and onion and I think mixing that with the potato (or on its own) would be worth trying. I'll let you know how it goes!!

Anyone else try something they saw on Pinterest recently?? Comment below!