Jan 26, 2015

Why You Shouldn't Use Teflon Cookware

I can't tell you how long it's been since I used a Teflon pan. At least a decade. I have stainless steel pots and pans, plus a few cast iron skillets and a cast iron Dutch oven. They work great! But I confess I've grown tired of cooking one pancake at a time, with my children eating them faster than I can cook them. So recently, I decided I should buy a large griddle. Thinking ahead to living in our tiny house motor home, I thought it would be smart to buy an electric griddle with high sides - that way I could use it to cook more things, thereby reducing the need for certain other pans. But it didn't take long for me to realize this type of griddle isn't available without a Teflon coating. In fact, I could only find one electric griddle that wasn't Teflon-coated - and it has rotten reviews. Oh, how I wish they still made electric cast iron griddles!*

When I mentioned my plight on my personal Facebook page, one of my friends wondered why I was going to such great lengths to avoid Teflon. This made me realize that many people are not yet be aware of the dangers of this common cooking product. Hence this post.

Toxic Gasses

Heated Teflon releases 15 toxic gases. Which ones escape depend upon the temperature the pan reaches, but the outgassing begins at 396 degrees F. 

The manufacturers of Teflon already recommend that birds owners don't use Teflon cookware anywhere near birds. Why? Because Teflon's toxic outgassing frequently kills birds. But guess what? There is a name for when the outgassing affects humans, too: "Teflon flu." In fact, experts say most people confuse Teflon flu with...the flu. The symptoms are the same and go away after a time.

But it Gets Worse

In 2005, the EPA announced most humans - and probably wildlife - hada man-made chemical called PFOA in their bloodstream. According to Toxicologist Tim Kropp, PhD, "It would take your body two decades to get rid of 95% of it, assuming you are not exposed to any more. But you are."

Manufacturers claimed PFOA was only used to make Teflon and should not be on or in the finished product. But studies show that Teflon cookware does emit PFOA when heated to 446 degrees F or more.

Now, you might think: "I'd never cook anything at that temperature!" But it takes only 2 minutes for a Teflon pan to reach this temperature. If you accidentally burn something in the pan, or leave the pan, forgotten, on a hot stove, the pan will likely begin emitting toxic gas. In addition, stove drip pans may be Teflon coated, and can reach dangerous temperatures, also.

Health Hazard

PFOA is known to cause cancer, liver damage, growth defects, birth defects, and more in lab animals, according to WebMD. It's also known to cause birth defects in women working in or living near Teflon plants - and might also be linked to high cholesterol. And in 2005, the EPA named Teflon a likely human carcinogen.

Other products contain Teflon chemicals, including clothing, carpets, furniture (most anything water or stain resistant) - even the tape that holds your water pipes together. These items aren't normally heated, so toxic gas isn't a concern. (Except Teflon irons. Ugh!) But PFOA does not break down, so whatever we put into the environment isn't going away any time soon.

Manufacturers of Teflon have until this year - 2015 - to remedy Teflon's problem. But since the inventor and patent holder of Teflon (DuPont) apparently knew about the dangers of Teflon before anyone else did, do you trust them?

And that's why I won't be buying any Teflon cookware.


* In case you're curious: I do know about non-electric cast iron griddles, but I'm not sure one will work with our motor home's small, three-burner stove. And I do know about ceramic griddles - but in my experience they don't work well after just a couple of uses.

Jan 23, 2015

Free Art History Curriculum: Grant Wood

American Gothic is far and away Wood's most famous painting.
Grant Wood: b. February 13, 1891 in Anamosa, Iowa (find it on the map) d. February 12, 1942 in Iowa City, Iowa (find it on the map) 

Style: Realist/Regionalism

See some of Wood's most famous paintings.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: When you look at American Gothic, what do you think the people in it are thinking? Why do you think Wood named the painting American Gothic? Looking at Wood's other works, what sort of paintings do you think he preferred creating? How does Wood use color? Texture? Shape? Shade and light? How do his paintings make you feel? How do you think the artist felt about farming? About the farmlands of America?

* Biography of Grant Wood
* Power point biography of Grant Wood
* The story behind American Gothic
* See a photo of the real life models for American Gothic
* Coloring page: American Gothic
* Famous paintings are often imitated; look for some American Gothic parodies (NOTE: You may wish to select a few you feel are appropriate for your child to view.)
* Video: Biography of Grant Wood
* Activity: Portraits Inspired by Grant Wood 
* Activity: Grant Wood style landscapes
* Activity: Wood was known for painting textures; rub a leaf, then try to duplicate the look with just colored pencils
* Activity: Wood-inspired collage


Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.



Jan 21, 2015

How to Make a Child Safety Kit

Every once in a while, our insurance company gives us child safety kits - brochures, really, designed to give to police in case our children get lost or stolen. This is not something any parent likes to think about, and such ID kits are not something we're likely ever to need. But...if the need did arrive, we'd never forgive ourselves for not having the information handy.

So last weekend, I finally got my act together and filled them out for the first time. I didn't tell my children what the kits were for; I just told them I was going to take their fingerprints - a statement that was met with happy squeals. I jokingly called the photos I took specifically for the kits "mug shots." And the kids loved comparing their weight and height, too. A fun time was had by all, and in just a few minutes, I had a complete kit for each child.


Where to Get Child ID Kits

If you don't have a current child safety kit for each of your kids, it really is worth the little bit of time it takes to complete them. If your insurance company doesn't give them away for free, you may feel uncomfortable about ordering kits online. (You might think: "How do I know this is legit and not some weirdo collecting info on children with families?) So the FBI recommends getting kits from the National Child Identification Program - although there is a fee for kits from this source. (I do love, however, that churches can order bunches of these kits to give every child in their congregation or community.) The Polly Klaas Foundation (named after a famously abducted child) offers kits absolutely free, and is a known and legit organization.

But wherever you get your child safety kit, it should include:
  • A place to put fingerprints (along with instructions and ink)
  • A place for a current photo
  • A place to record, periodically, your child's weight and height
  • A place to record birth marks and other identifying features
  • A place for recording basic contact information (such as address and phone number). 
 Some kits may even include a place for a DNA sample.


Some Other Important Safety Measures

In addition to having a child safety kit, it's an excellent idea to always have a recent, clear, headshot-style photo of each child in your purse/wallet or on your cell phone. This way, if your child does get lost, security or police have instant access to an identifying photo.

Your child should also play a part in his or her own safety. For a complete list of things you should teach every child from the time they are toddlers - with a refresher every few months, click here.


Jan 19, 2015

Bread by Hand vs. by Stand Mixer vs. by Bread Machine

Store bought bread is expensive - especially if you're buying "healthy" bread. Worse, almost all brands are packed with unhealthy ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, GMO soy or corn, azodicarbonamide (a chemical used in yoga mats and other non-food products), food dyes, sucralose, and more. (Real Food Forager has a good article with more reasons why store bought bread isn't healthy.)

Making bread at home, on the other hand, is much healthier - and typically less expensive. But it does take time and energy to create. So as a busy mom, you might ask yourself: What is the best, fastest way to make my family's bread? Entirely by hand? With the help of a stand mixer? Or with a bread machine? Over the years, I've made our bread all of these ways. Here's what I've discovered.




Making Bread Entirely By Hand
My No Fail Bread


For me, making bread by hand is immensely satisfying. Kneading is relaxing, and the entire baking process,  calming. To make bread my hand, first mix the ingredients together, then knead them with your hands. The kneading creates good texture by adding air bubbles and helping to develop the gluten in the bread. (Assuming you're not making gluten-free bread.) Kneading by hand takes about 7 - 8 minutes. Next, leave the dough  in a warm location to rise - usually a half hour or longer. Then "punch down" the dough (literally punch it with your fist, so it deflates). Depending upon the recipe, you may need to repeat the rising process a few times. Then you shape the dough, allow it to rise for a time, and bake it in the oven.

Recipe Recommendation: Here is the very first bread recipe I ever used. It's very easy, and no fail.

Pros:
* Best texture; with a good recipe, the bread is crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and not crumbly. This is the standard by which all other breads are compared.
* Many people find the process relaxing.

Cons:
* This is the most time consuming way to make bread.
* If your house is cool, getting the bread to rise without turning on the oven and putting the dough nearby can be difficult.

Making Bread With Stand Mixer
Homemade pita bread.

With this method, you let the mixer do the mixing and kneading: Put the ingredients in the bowl of the mixer, attach a dough hook, and turn the mixer on. Stand mixer kneading takes about as long as hand kneading. The rest of the steps are the same as if you're making the bread entirely by hand.

Pros:
*Similar in texture to hand made bread, unless you overmix the dough.
* Faster than handmade.
* Some people find this method easier than kneading by hand.

Cons:
* It's important not to overmix the dough, or you'll end up with tough bread.
* If your house is cool, getting the bread to rise without turning on the oven and putting the dough nearby can be difficult. 

Making Bread with a Bread Maker Doing the Mixing and Rising
Homemade garlic bread.

With this method, you dump all the ingredients into a bread maker, which mixes and kneads the dough, then let it rise in the machine, which does a great job of keeping the dough warm. Once the dough is done rising, you punch it down, shape, allow to rise again, and bake in the oven.

Pros:
* A very fast method - you just dump the ingredients in and the machine does the mixing, kneading, and rising.
* Perfect rising - even if your house is cool.
* Can walk away and let the dough sit for hours.

Cons:

?

Making Bread with a Bread Maker Doing All the Work
Another bread maker bread.

With this method, you dump all the ingredients into the bread maker and the machine does everything else: Mixing, kneading, rising, and baking.

Recipe Recommendation: Here's a wheat bread recipe that works well in the bread machine.

Pros:
* This is the fastest method - just dump in the ingredients and the machine does everything else.
* An ideal method if you'll be away from the house; requires no babysitting of the dough. You can even make bread overnight.

Cons:
* Bread made entirely in a bread maker just doesn't have the same texture as bread made any of the above ways. It tends to be a bit tougher and more crumbly.
* Often, the size of the loaf means you either get huge sandwiches from it (using two slices), or tiny sandwiches (using one slice, cut in half).
* Personally, my entirely bread machine baked bread often ends up with a fallen top - even though I've used many different machines and recipes. I never have this trouble with other methods.

Conclusion

As you can probably tell, my favorite method is to use the bread machine for mixing, kneading, and rising; then I like to take over with the shaping, the final rise, and the oven baking. I've used this method for everything from sandwich bread to cinnamon rolls, dinner rolls, and pizza crust. That said, I sometimes make bread entirely by hand. And sometimes I use a stand mixer. And sometimes I even let the bread machine bake the bread. Having all these options available to me really makes a difference when it comes to the temptation of buying store bought bread! But just so you know I'm keeping it real: Yes, when I'm uber busy or overwhelmed...I buy store bought bread, too

Tip: The best way to slice homemade bread.


Recipes:

Easy, No Fail Bread for Beginners 

No Fail Sandwich Bread

Bread Maker Whole Wheat Sandwich bread with honey

Bread Maker Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread with brown sugar 

No Knead Oat Bread

Pita Bread

From Scratch Biscuits (Made Healthier)

The Best Cinnamon Roll Recipe Ever

Tender, Crowd-Pleasing Dinner Rolls

Jan 16, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Choosing a Garden Site

Aside from the bit of research you did in part I of this series, choosing a location for your garden is the most critical aspect of having well producing plants. Taking a little time to think through your garden location can make the difference between a garden that produces abundantly and one that barely produces anything.



Sunlight

Your new garden needs sunlight. While there are some leafy green vegetables that grow in part shade, almost all vegetables and fruits are far more productive if they get at least 6 hours of sunlight each day. Ideally, those 6 hours happen in the morning and/or early afternoon; afternoon sun is the hottest and therefore sucks more water from the soil. So how do you determine if a potential garden site gets that much sun? By observation.

The old fashioned way of doing this is, in my opinion, the best. First thing when the sun comes up, go out into the garden, and sprinkle any shaded areas with flour. Then go out into the garden at noon and do the same thing. And finally, at around 3 pm, do this again. To make things more clear, use something to differentiate between the three different markings; for example, divide each area with an inch wide "line" where no flour falls, or use a hose to mark off the different area. Now you should have a clear idea of the sunniest spot in your yard; plant your garden there.
From The New Garden Encyclopedia, 1943

A similar method is to draw a rough map of your potential garden area (or whole yard) on a piece of paper. Beginning when the sun rises, go out in the garden and note where it is shady. Lightly color in corresponding areas on your map. Go out again every hour (or at the very least, at noon and about 3 pm) and do the same thing. Make sure the shade on your map is a different color, according to the time of day represented. (At Get Busy Gardening, they use a slightly different notation method. Choose whatever makes most sense to you.) From your map, you should be able to easily tell how much sun any given area receives.

A newfangled way to test a spot for sunlight is to use an electronic sunlight meter. Stick the meter into the soil first thing in the morning (just before sunrise), and remove when night falls. The meter will tell you whether or not the location gets full sun. The only problem with a meter like this is that it only reads the specific location where it's put. To read an entire garden site requires many days of moving the meter around.

Now a word of caution: Sun exposure changes according to season, so don't expect that a shade map made in winter will accurately represent the shade in summer.

Water

Naturally, water is essential for a garden. While some areas generally get enough rainfall to support a vegetable garden, drought will be a huge problem unless your garden has reasonable access to irrigation water. I recommend having your garden near enough a water spigot that a hose can reach all part of your garden with ease.

Soil

Certainly, soil health is a vital aspect of a productive garden - but as long as you're willing to bring in decent soil, poor soil in your chosen garden location isn't detrimental. To learn more about what type of soil you have, click here. If, after testing your soil, you determine it's not very healthy, be sure to read up on how to combat the situation.


Next week, we'll talk about the nitty gritty of getting the garden ready for planting.

Jan 14, 2015

Canning Baked Beans

Saving money is only one reason I can food at home. Another is better quality - and this baked beans recipe
falls into that category. My family loves this recipe (even my picky eater!), and canning it saves lots of time over making it from scratch on a meal-by-meal basis. To make the recipe more frugal, I encourage you to use homemade catsup and maple syrup, if you have either. Otherwise, try to get the more expensive ingredients (maple syrup, catsup, and molasses) on sale. And while I've given some notes on substitutions you may safely use, I recommend trying the recipe as is first.

How to Can Baked Beans

1 lb. Great Northern/Navy beans
1/2 cup chopped leeks (you can also use onions or onion scapes; the difference in flavor is only slight)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses (may be reduced, if desired)
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard powder
1 teaspoon kosher or canning salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 cups catsup (if using store bought, I recommend Heinz, which doesn't have bad-for-you high fructose corn syrup in it)
1 cup real maple syrup (may be reduced; you can even omit the syrup and just use more brown sugar)
1/2 cup white vinegar (apple cider vinegar is fine, too, as long as it has 5% acidity)

If you are a novice canner, before you begin, be sure to review the guidelines for pressure canning.

1. Pour the beans into a large pot and cover with 8 cups of water. Cover with lid and place over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes.
2. Turn off the heat and allow the covered pot to sit for 45 minutes.

3. Drain. Pour the beans back in the pot and cover with 8 cups of fresh water. Add the leeks and place over medium high heat. Bring to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes.
4. In the meantime, prepare jars and lids - then, the sauce: Pour 2 cups of water, the brown sugar, molasses, mustard powder, salt, pepper, catsup, syrup, and vinegar into a large saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring to a gentle boil. This mixture should not be thick, or it will make the recipe unsafe to can - don't overcook and thicken.
5. Working one jar at a time, fill a hot pint jar 3/4 full of the beans/leeks mixture, using a slotted spoon and draining as much cooking water from each spoonful as possible before adding the beans to the jar. Ladle enough of the molasses mixture over the beans to achieve 1 inch headspace. Bubble. Add lid and screw band, and place in canner of hot water. Repeat until all the jars are filled.


6. Process pint jars for 75 minutes in a pressure canner at 11 pounds of pressure.*
Makes about 8 pints. Recipe adapted from SB Canning.

* NOTE: If you live at a high altitude, read this important information about adjusting canning times.



Jan 12, 2015

11 Ways to Stretch Your Meat Budget

A few days ago, while I was grocery shopping with my family, I asked my husband to fetch some ground
beef. A few minutes later he returned...without the meat. "I didn't know what to choose," he said. Truthfully, I was a little annoyed, but when I headed over to the meat department and looked at the offerings, I, too, ended up walking away without the ground beef. It was just too darn expensive - about $6 a pound...and I was at a discount grocery store!

And it's not just beef. The frozen chicken breasts that for years have been a staple of my cooking and canning have become painful to purchase. Even pork, which has been among the less expensive meats the past several years, has increased in price.

According to American Live Wire, beef is at it's highest price in three decades - supposedly because we are exporting tons of beef to China and Japan. Crazy, right? Slate adds that cattle herds are at 1951 levels, and, of course, our population is considerably bigger now. Drought made feed more scarce - and expensive. Costly feed also explains the increase in the cost of buying chicken and pork. Oh, and did I mention there was an epidemic that killed tons of piglets? And when you consider that food costs in general are on the rise - well, it's enough to make you think you may soon need to feed your family Top Ramen for every meal.

But thinking specifically of meat prices, what's a Proverbs 31 Woman to do? Assuming you don't want to become vegetarians, that you want to avoid more meatless meals, and you can't raise your own meat?


1. Buy a local steer and freeze it.
Yes, this does take some planning, because it will cost several hundred dollars. But it should be much cheaper. (Ours was $2.50 a pound, which is an incredible bargain right now!) It will also be healthier, assuming it's antibiotic- and hormone-free, and possibly grass fed.

2. Look for clearance meat. Not all grocery stores have a clearance section for meat, but check those that do. Frequently. Sometimes this takes a willingness to sort through less than appetizing, gray and old-looking meat, but I can often find something worth buying - and at a greatly reduced price. Just be sure to either eat the meat that same day, or freeze it as soon as you get home.

3. Watch for sales. Look at local store's sales fliers and watch for good deals. When you find an exceptional deal, buy extra and freeze it. Don't fall into the old trap of only buying enough meat for that week; you need to stock up to keep things affordable.

4. When buying larger cuts, like a roast beef, ham, or whole bird, cook it all, but slice off servings and put them on each family member's plate. Don't put the larger cut on the table; in fact, tuck it away in the back of the fridge as soon as possible.

5. Never, ever let a larger cut only suffice for one meal (unless you have a very large family). Make that roast last for several meals. (This doesn't mean you must have the same meal each night. For example, the first night, you could have sliced roast beef. The next night, a stir fry. The following night, a soup. And so on. For ideas on getting many meals out of a ham, click here. For chicken or other foul, click here.)

6. Choose less expensive cuts of meat. Gone are the days when that was ground beef! Instead, look for tough cuts of meat, then cook them "low and slow" - on lower heat for a longer period of time.

7. Make the meat part of the meal smaller, and be sure to include other filling items in the meal, like high fiber veggies or bread.

8. With ground beef, use fillers to make it go farther. Cooked rice, uncooked oatmeal, and cooked lentils are classic choices that blend in easily. (Start with small amounts of filler, for less objection from your family. As time goes on, you can try adding more.) Other good filler choices include barley (cooked); beans (cooked and pureed); bread crumbs (Store bought bread crumbs are full of unhealthy soy; save your health and your wallet by saving stale bread or crumbs in the freezer.); grated veggies (especially zucchini, carrots, and potatoes); pureed veggies (most work fine, but carrots, onions, and  celery are classic; mushrooms are also an excellent choice). For meatloaf, burgers, meatballs, and the like, add an egg or two, along with another filler, like oatmeal.

9. If ground turkey or chicken is less expensive, use a mix of ground beef and ground poultry.

10. Choose dishes where a little meat can go a long way, like stir frys, stews, and soups.

11. Consider bartering with a neighbor who hunts. (Or learn to hunt yourself.)


But in your quest to make meat more affordable, avoid a few things, too:

1. Avoid processed meats. Some discount grocery stores, for example, sell meat that's already marinated or injected. This is a way of charging more for inferior meat - and it's not healthy, either. Usually, those marinades and injections are full of salt, corn syrup, and other unhealthy ingredients. In addition, things like SPAM, or even canned tuna, are usually not a good deal per serving.

2. Avoid Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) as a filler, even though many websites recommend using it as a filler. TVP is made from soy, and soy affects estrogen levels in the body, which is linked to cancer. In addition, unless it's labeled "certified organic," it's a GMO product.


What do you think? Is your family struggling to keep meat on the menu? How do you make your meat budget stretch?

Jan 9, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part I: Do Your Research

It's no secret that, God willing, we'll be putting our house on the market in a few months. So while I have the itch to start winter sowing, that's something I just won't be doing this year. (Wah! We're really going to miss garden fresh produce, that's for sure.) If the house sells quickly, I might be able to plant a winter garden at our new location. And, yes, I'm anxious to get started.

Are you like me, starting a veggie garden from scratch? Then this series of posts will guide you through the entire process - from planning to getting the plants in the ground. Today, we'll start with the most important part of getting in a brand new garden.

First, Know Your Zone

The first important step is to know your USDA gardening zone. Just go to this USDA website, click on your state, find your city, and see what color it is. Every color on the map coincides with a USDA gardening zone number. (Another name for this number is your "plant hardiness zone.') Be sure to jot this number down - and use the number when you're researching which plants will grow in your area. When purchasing seeds, always be certain they are appropriate for your zone. Seed catalogs will say something along the lines of "Grows in zones 10 - 12." If your number is within that range, you should be able to grow the plant. If it's not, you won't be able to grow it.

Now, Know Your Frost Dates

You also need to know when your area usually gets it's first and last frost of the year. The Victory Seeds website has a handy list with this information. Again, be sure to write down the dates. This information will help you determine when to plant seeds or seedlings. Generally speaking, you'll want to wait to put seedlings out in the garden until the last likely frost of spring has passed. (With winter sowing, you don't have to worry about this date.) You also need the date of the first likely frost of winter so you know when to expect most plants to stop producing (unless you have them in some sort of greenhouse).

Next, Find Your Local Cooperative Extension

The Cooperative Extension System is a national network of experts who disseminate research on many topics, including gardening. Every state has at least one Cooperative Extension office - and most have several. They are a gold mine for gardeners! Look up your local Extension by using this Cooperative Extension map. Just click on your state and a list of extension offices comes up. Choose the one nearest your location.

Your state's Extension Office(s) will have an informative website, with lots of gardening articles - many of which are specific to your gardening zone. In addition, you can call your Cooperative Extension and ask specific questions that a gardening expert familiar with your area will answer.

Finally, Read Books About Gardening in Your Area

In addition, I recommend finding books that are specifically about gardening in your zone. A good first place to look is your closest library, but a search online will often turn up even more books.


With all this information in hand, you are well on your way to understanding your local growing conditions. It won't take long, and it will save you lots of time, heartbreak, and money!