Showing posts with label Food. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Food. Show all posts

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 seals your water pipes. 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. Manufacturers say their Teflon products no longer contain PFOA - but what about all the other outgassing? And since the inventor and patent holder of Teflon (DuPont) apparently knew about the dangers of Teflon before anyone else did, do you trust them? I don't.

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 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 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?

Dec 10, 2014

Why Winter Squash is the Perfect Homestead Food Crop

This year, I've made a concerted effort to try as many different varieties of winter squash as possible - because I believe winter squash is the perfect food to grow on the homestead. I'll tell you why in a moment, but first I want to encourage you to try as many varieties as you can, too. I don't think I've ever met anyone who loved all varieties of winter squash - and many of the more common varieties are not among my favorites. Therefore, I recommend going to local farmer's markets and farm stands to buy and taste new-to-you winter squash. Who knows which ones will be your favorites and a great new addition to your garden? (Most grocery stores don't even begin to cover the very wide array of winter squashes that are available. This guide gives you an idea of the many types of winter squash, but even it is incomplete.)


Now, on to my list of why winter squash is the perfect homestead food crop:

Carnival squash.
1. Winter Squash is Prolific. Most winter squash has pretty high yields. For example, one butternut plant should produce 10 - 20 large squash, depending upon soil and sun conditions. And squash are one of  the easiest plants to grow. Just direct sow the seeds, add water, and watch the plant go wild! Oh, and did I mention that squash leaves shade the soil so you have to water less often? And weeds are naturally suppressed?

2. Winter Squash Is Super Easy to Preserve. While you can dehydrate, freeze, and can winter squash, you don't need to! It will easily last until spring if you keep it in a cool, dry location. Traditionally, that was a root cellar, but if you're not fortunate enough to have one of those, the garage or even just a cool cupboard works just fine.

3. Winter Squash is Nutrient Dense. The exact nutrients and calories in winter squash depends upon the
All winter squashes can be pureed into soup.
variety, but all winter squash are high in nutrients - and very filling. All winter squash are high in antioxidants, vitamins A, B6, and C, and fiber.

4. Winter Squash is Versatile. Winter squash kept the pilgrims alive, inspiring the 17th century poem "We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,/If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon." But while the pilgrims may have grown tired of eating pumpkins and other winter squash, you should not. There are a great many ways to cook it. Our favorite method is to cut it open*, scrape out the stringy part and the seeds, add a dab of butter, and roast at 350 - 400 degrees F. until fork tender. If desired, you can sprinkle a dab of brown sugar over the finished squash. But other methods of cooking abound; try broiling, microwaving, adding to soups and stews, stuffed, or mashing like potatoes. For recipes, check out my Vegetable for Every Season Cookbook.

Roasted winter squash seeds.
5. Winter Squash Seeds Are Edible and Nutritious. Never, ever throw out winter squash seeds! They are rich in Omega 3s, zinc, maganeze, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and fiber. Click here for instructions on how to roast pumpkin and other squash seeds. (You can also sprout winter squash seeds.) We've found the flavor of the seeds mirrors the flavor of the squash, so butternut squash seeds taste different from pumpkin seeds which taste different from sweet meat seeds.

6. Winter Squash Seeds Are Easy to Save. Just remove the seeds, let them dry fully, then store them. It will take only a few seeds for the average family to have plants enough to feed them for another year. Of course, if you save seed from a hybrid winter squash, it's a crapshoot as to whether or not they will sprout and produce decent food. So when you can, choose heirloom varieties for seed saving. (Do remember that if you grow other varieties of squash, or any plants in the cucurbit family, they may cross-pollinate, leaving you with seeds that may not be true to the parent plant. For more on this, click here.)

Roasted winter squash.
7. Winter Squash is Great for Homestead Animals. Many farmers and homesteaders feed their livestock excess winter squash. It saves money on feed costs and is good nutrition for many animals. Traditionally, pumpkin and winter squash seeds were fed to chickens, ducks, sheep, and goats as a de-wormer. (Chickens will eat the seeds whole; for other animals, grind them and mix into feed.) I haven't found scientific proof this works, but it's certainly easy enough to toss the critters some winter squash once or twice a year. In fact, I never compost winter squash; I give any leftovers, the stringy inner stuff, and the seeds to our chickens. They love it!

8. Other Parts of Winter Squash Are Edible. You can eat winter squash flowers, just like you would slightly more traditional zucchini flowers. Wait until you're certain the flower has been fertilized and is starting to grow a squash, then snip it off and cook it. Squash flowers are yummy! The Indians also used to eat winter squash leaves. I confess I haven't tried this - because where I live, squash leaves always end up at least somewhat affected by powdery mildew. (Click here and here for my natural treatments for powdery mildew.) But here is more information on eating the leaves.


* One complaint about winter squash is that some varieties are difficult to cut open. While the tough skin of winter squash is what makes it easy to store for long periods of time, it's true that a kitchen knife is no match against some varieties, like hubbard or sweet meat. The solution is to use a hatchet or sawzall to cut up these varieties. Not interested in doing that? Select winter squash with more tender skins, like butternut and delicata.



Nov 24, 2014

What Groceries to Buy When You're Broke

"Too Tired to Cook" is frugal, especially if you omit the ground beef.
Sometimes, no matter how close you stick to your budget, you end up with too little money at the end of the month. If you keep a well stocked pantry, this usually isn't the end of the world - but, if money has been tight for a while, you might find your pantry lacking, too. This can make it difficult to find cash to feed your family. But if you shop carefully, you'll find some items are definitely more affordable - and stretch further - than others. Here's what I buy when money is tight:

* Brown rice. Unlike white rice, brown rice gives you a good dose of nutrients. It's also fairly cheap and can really stretch a meal. Saute up some veggies, season them, and serve them on a bed of rice. Or serve plain rice as a filling side dish. Or add it (cooked) to a soup. If you're really struggling, go ahead and serve it all by itself. (Been there, done that!) But don't go in for minute-style rice; it's more expensive and most of the nutrients have been removed.

* Dry beans. Not only are dry beans cheap, but they are packed with nutrients, are a decent protein, and are quite filling. Some beans - like lentils - are great "fillers" for other foods, too. For example, you can use lentils with just a little ground beef (or entirely in place of ground beef) in things like enchiladas and casseroles. Other bean ideas include adding them to soups and stews, my "dump it" meal, lentil soup, and my  too tired to cook bean dish. Incidentally, don't be put off beans because they cause - ahem - flatulence. This is easy to combat with dry beans; just change the water frequently when you are rehydrating them. Also, make life a little easier for yourself by soaking at least one package of beans at a time, then freezing the leftovers. For more on using dried beans, click here.

* Flour. If you know how to cook from scratch, you can make all kinds of things with flour - including pancakes, waffles (learn how to freeze them here), bread, biscuits, tortillas, pizza crust, and pasta. I recommend whole wheat flour because, while it's more expensive than white flour, it's also more nutrient dense - and more filling. However, unless you're used to 100% whole wheat products, you'll want to use some white flour mixed into your recipes. I recommend using half - or a wee bit less - of whole wheat flour.

* Pasta. Pasta is relatively cheap and filling. You can make it yourself, but if you're new to from-scratch cooking, you'll probably want to buy it. I recommend whole grain pasta  because it's more filling and nutrient dense - although, granted, more expensive.

* In season vegetables. They are cheaper than veggies that aren't in season. You can learn when veggies are in season from my ebook A Vegetable for Every Season ($2.99), or here. Also consider frozen vegetables.

* Popcorn. The cheapest snack food around is probably popcorn - but only if you don't buy it in microwave bags. Either pop it in a pan on the stove, or use a paper lunch bag to pop it in the microwave.

What groceries do you buy when money is tight?

Oct 22, 2014

Why Nitrates Aren't Evil

Go to just about any cancer organization's website and you'll find information claiming nitrates - which are found in cured bacon, lunch meat, hot dogs, and many other meats - cause cancer. Go to any grocery store and you'll find products bragging about being nitrate-free. But, truth be told, the healthier you eat, the more likely it is you have nitrates in your diet.

What Are Nitrates?

Potassium nitrate (often shortened to "nitrate") has been used to preserve food since the Middle Ages. In the old days they called it saltpeter (Latin for "rock salt"). In the early 20th century, scientists discovered what made saltpeter an effective preservative, and it no longer became necessary to use saltpeter - a pure dose of nitrate was now known to do the trick.

Nitrates work by causing a reaction in the meat that creates nitric oxide. This, in turn, binds to the iron atom in the myoglobin in the meat (the stuff that makes raw meat look bloody even though all the blood has been drained off). This keeps the iron from causing the fat in the meat to oxidize - and it happens to cause cured meat to look pinkish-red. In addition, nitrates give meat a sharper taste and keeps certain pathogens, like botulism, at bay.

Why Nitrates in Meat Aren't Scary

Nitrates, my friends, are everywhere. You can't avoid them. Your very saliva makes up "93% of the total daily ingestion of nitrate" in your diet (your saliva reacts with bacteria in your mouth, creating nitrates), and "foods account for a very small portion of the overall daily nitrite intake."

When it comes to food, you can't avoid nitrates even by eating vegetarian. Vegetables actually make up the largest part of our dietary intake of nitrates (about 87%). The highest offenders are the very same foods health experts tell us to eat more of: spinach, beets, broccoli, leeks, radishes, lettuce, celery, cabbage, fennel, and cucumbers. In fact, one serving of arugula has more nitrates than 467 hot dogs.*
 ____________

"One serving of arugula has more nitrates than 467 hot dogs."
___________________
  
Are Nitrate-Free Foods Really Free From Nitrates?

Read the label. It usually says something like "No nitrates added." The food itself may naturally have nitrates - and the manufacturers of the food probably have substituted pure nitrate with celery powder or celery juice. Since celery is high in nitrates, food made this way certainly isn't nitrate free.

As an example, a recent look at hot dogs found that "natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite than conventional hot dogs contained. Natural bacon had from about a third as much nitrite as a conventional brand to more than twice as much."

So Why Are Nitrates Supposedly Bad?

In huge amounts, nitrates are toxic. But to get enough nitrates to poison you, you'd need to eat thousands of hotdogs in one day.

In 1971, one study concluded that nitrate-preserved meats could cause cancer - "only under special conditions amines are present, nitrite is available to react, near neutral pH is found, and product temperatures reach greater than 130°C, such as during the frying of bacon." In reaction to the study, new laws were passed, lowering the amount of nitrates allowed in foods. Today, ascordbic acid (vitamin C) is used to inhibit the chemical reaction that could lead to nitrosamines. For bacon, regulations are tighter, and inhibitors for preventing nitrosamines during frying must be present. This resulted in an 80% reduction in nitrate levels - and since the 1980s, every decent scientific study (at least 80 of them) has found no link between nitrates in food and cancer.

So Are Nitrates GOOD?

Maybe. They do keep dangerous bacteria out of our food - and scientists are now looking into the idea that nitrates are beneficial to humans' immune system - and maybe even our cardiovascular systems.

Does That Mean Preserved Meats are Healthy?

All this isn't to say we should gorge ourselves on cured meat. There are indications that preserved meats cooked at high temperatures may lead to higher levels of colon cancer, for example. And there is (very flimsy) evidence that nitrates may react with natural amines found in some foods, forming a carcinogen called nitrosamine in the stomach. But, despite what you may hear, nitrates are not to blame.


So while it's probably smart to limit your intake of cure meat, at least now you know not to waste your money on supposedly "nitrate free" foods that aren't really free from nitrates at all.

Oct 15, 2014

Improving Crock Pot Food: Making Better Recipes

As a busy mommy, you better bet I use my crock pot. But both my husband and I agree: Meals from the slow cooker are not our favorite. They tend to have a certain sameness about them - and often the flavor is a bit more on the bland side. Still, the crock pot really saves the day when I know I won't have time in the evenings to cook dinner, so I've been researching and experimenting with ways to make our slow cooker meals taste better.

* Saute! A lot of crock pot recipes call for throwing onions, garlic, and bell peppers into the crock pot raw. For much better flavor, saute them first: Melt some butter in a skillet. (If you prefer, use olive or coconut oil.) Once it's melted, add the onions and saute until transparent. (Or, for even more flavor, saute until they are caramelized and brown.) If the recipe calls for bell peppers, add them to the skillet and saute a minute or two. Finally, if the recipe calls for minced garlic, add it and saute until it's golden. Then and only then should you add these vegetables to the crock pot.

* Brown first. Most meats should be well browned before putting them in the crock pot. (An exception is poultry.) This adds flavor, and it gives the meat a better texture.

* Go bold with seasonings. With crock pots, your finished meal will come out much more tasty if you use at least double the seasonings. For example, if you have a stove top meal you've converted for the crock pot and it calls for 1 teaspoon of chili powder, use 2 teaspoons when you cook it in the slow cooker. And if you try a crock pot recipe that seems bland to you, go ahead and double the measurements for all the seasonings.

* Go last minute. Last minute additions to the crock pot can add a lot of flavor. For instance, if a recipe calls for cilantro, don't add it until a few minutes before you're ready to serve the meal.

* Garnish. Using fresh garnishes can also add punch to crock pot meals. For example, try using a few fresh herbs, just chopped, on top of each serving. Or use fresh salsa, just-chopped green onions, or just-grated cheese.

* Go for crispness. If you're using root veggies like carrots, cut them into large pieces. For other vegetables, try adding them about a half an hour before the crock pot meal is done cooking. These tricks keep the veggies from getting mushy and bland.

Do you have any tips for making crock pot meals better? Tell us about them in a comment!



Sep 29, 2014

Eating Groundnuts (Apios americana) - & Why You Might Want to Grow Them

Groundnuts from my garden.
A few years ago, I read about groundnuts (Apios americana, potato bean, hopniss, or "Indian potatoes"...not peanuts, which are also sometimes called ground nuts). I was instantly excited. Here is a vine with pretty flowers that doesn't mind some shade. And it produces food! And not just any food; the tubers contain 15 - 17% protein, much higher than the potato they taste a lot like. 

Groundnuts don't grow wild in my area, so I bought two tubers on eBay and planted them in a pot with well-draining soil. When the vines turned yellow in the fall, I tipped the pot over and discovered many more tubers had grown. They were all pretty small, though, so I replanted them in the pot. (I've since learned it takes two years to get tubers of edible size.)

Last summer, the plant thrived. It grew pretty green vines with pinkish flowers. When the vines turned yellow in the fall, I couldn't wait to tip the pot over and see if I had edible tubers. I did! Plus plenty of small ones to replant.

Groundnut flower.
Harvesting Ground Nuts

Groundnuts are unlike anything else I've ever seen. The tubers grow on "strings" (really roots). They remind me a bit of an old fashioned sausage string; tuber, root, tuber, root, tuber, root, all in one piece (see the photo, above). You'll want to put small tubers back in the soil so you'll have a crop for the future. Tubers that are at least 1/2 inch wide can be eaten. To prepare, just snap the tubers off their string-like root and scrub clean.




Cooking Groundnuts

When I researched recipes for ground nuts I realized three things:

1. Most people wait to harvest groundnuts until the first frost; like a lot of other root crops, the frost sweetens them.

2. Really, you cook groundnuts just like potatoes.

Some people peel their tough skin before cooking them, but most people boil the groundnut whole (skin on); the skin then comes easily before eating. 

Groundnuts are usually either boiled and chopped, fried, or roasted in the oven. Most people compare them to potatoes, but a few compare them to sweet potatoes, especially if roasted. I find they taste like a cross between a potato and a bean.

Please note that groundnuts take longer to cook than potatoes. For example, if you're boiling them for "mashed groundnuts," they'll need to boil about half an hour. Also, do try to avoid very large groundnuts, as they tend to cause gas.

3. You can eat the beans, too! Eat them cooked like green beans. (Oh, and the flowers are edible, too. Just remember, you want flowers and bean pods if you want your groundnuts to spread.)

Favorite Groundnut Recipes:

* Groundnut chips
* Groundnut flour
* Crock pot groundnuts and lamb 
* Glazed groundnuts

Sep 10, 2014

Walmart's Savings Catcher: Hit or Miss?

Perhaps a month ago, my local Walmart began touting what they call "Savings Catcher:" a website or app customers can use to automatically check for lower prices at mother grocery stores. If the Savings Catcher finds a lower price, Walmart gives the customer the difference. So, if for example, you purchased a certain brand and size of cheese at Walmart, but store #2 has the exact item on sale for a buck less, Walmart will give you that dollar. Sounds great, right?
Well, the first time I tried Savings Catcher, I had zero savings. The second time, after a large shopping trip that would feed us for at least two weeks, I received a whopping $1.62 in savings. Hmmm...

How Walmart's Savings Catcher Works

After you shop at Walmart, you can either scan a smart phone QR on the bottom of the Walmart receipt (after downloading the Savings Catcher app), or you can use your computer or other online device to go to Savings Catcher online. (I don't have a smart phone, so I can only give details about what it's like to use Saving's Catcher on my computer.)

Once at the Savings Catcher website, you'll need to set up a password, then enter a 21 digit number off your receipt, plus the date of purchase. That's it; the website does the rest. You'll receive an email that your info was received by the site and then, within a handful of days, you'll get another email explaining whether Savings Catcher found any better deals at other grocery stores. If it did, the email tells you how much money is going back into your pocket.

According to the Savings Catcher FAQ, each customer may enter up to seven receipts per week, and there is no minimum number of items that must be on the receipt. However, receipts can be no more than seven days old.

The Good

* Savings Catcher online is very easy to use, taking no longer than two minutes, tops, to enter your password and receipt information. Presumably, using a smart phone scan is even easier.

* Any money that comes back to you can be saved up - or turned into a gift card right away.

* According to a news release, Savings Catcher will soon include produce and general merchandise.


UPDATE 10/7/14: Click here to learn how to double your Savings Catcher funds.

The Not So Good

* Not too surprisingly, there are a number of items Savings Catcher does not consider. It doesn't compare prices on advertised sales that offer a percentage off, that require a separate purchase to get the advertised price, BOGO deals where no price is listed, online purchases, store brand items, deli, bakery, weighed items (like meat), consumables (like toilet paper), health and beauty items, and "select general merchandise items...including, but not limited to, electronics, media and gaming, toys, sporting goods, housewares, small appliances, home d├ęcor, bedding, books and magazines, apparel and shoes, jewelry, furniture and seasonal products...tobacco, firearms, gasoline, tires, prescription drugs, optical and photo products and services, or products that require a service agreement such as wireless, automotive or financial products."

* If Savings Catcher finds an item at a lower price, you can only get the savings in the form of a Walmart gift card.

* Each customer can earn a maximum of $599.99 Reward Dollars per year.

The Bad

* The Savings Catcher website says they "compare advertised prices from the top retailers located nearby the Walmart store where you shopped." The list of stores they compared prices with is available once your receipt has been processed and you've received information on what (if anything) you saved. In my case, none of the stores were what I'd consider comparable to Walmart; they were stores that very, very rarely have prices lower than Walmart. Worse, we have at least two grocery stores - closer than some of the stores Walmart used as comparables - that are what might be called "discount" grocery stores, with prices more in line with Walmart, that the Savings Catcher did not include. I hate to say it, but this seems pretty disingenuous; if Walmart really wants to make comparison shopping unnecessary - if they really want to "offer customers yet another reason to trust us when it comes to helping them save" -  then they need to compare prices with ALL the grocery stores in a given area - even those that may have lower prices than Walmart.

* Savings Catcher appears to work best if you buy a lot of processed food. The only items I saved money on were two processed food items my husband likes to eat once in a while. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise since the Savings Catcher FAQ says they don't compare prices on anything weighed - which is a good portion of what we buy when we cook from scratch. (That said, Walmart is promising to soon include produce in the Savings Catcher; that could make Savings Catcher more worthwhile.)

Conclusion

While I'm not very excited about how Savings Catcher currently works, I do think it has potential. If Walmart will compare prices with all grocery stores in a given area, and if they will include produce and meat, Walmart will really have a competitive edge. In the meantime, I will probably continue adding my receipt information into Savings Catcher - at least for a time - in the hopes that it will improve.



Aug 22, 2014

An Old Fashioned Trick for Measuring Butter, Peanut Butter, and More: Water Displacement

When I was a girl, cooking and baking alongside my mother, she taught me to measure shortening and margarine with a method seldom seen today. This, no doubt, is due in part to the fact that we now know how bad margarine and shortening are for us. But it's also due to the fact that most of our fats are packaged with measurements on them. Take, for example, a stick of butter, with its tablespoon and cup measurements printed on the wax paper covering it.

But there are still times I prefer the method my mother taught me (called the water displacement method). It's terrific for measuring homemade butter, or for all those smaller chunks of butter that end up in the fridge, or for measuring butter that no longer has its wrapping, or that was purchased in bulk, without measurements on the packaging. You can also use it to measure coconut oil (in it's solid state), peanut butter, or other solid nut butters. (This method won't work for runny nut butters.)

To use the water displacement method, fill a 2 cup liquid measuring cup with 1 cup of cold water. (It's important to use cold water so whatever you're measuring doesn't melt.) Now add whatever you are measuring to the cup, a bit at a time.

For instance, let's say you need 1/2 cup of butter. You've filled the measuring cup with 1 cup of cold water, and now you add butter until the water level reaches the 1 1/2 mark (as seen in the photo above). That means the measuring cup contains 1 cup of water AND 1/2 cup of butter.

Remove the butter, shaking off the water, and add it to your recipe. As an added bonus, this measuring method makes for easy clean up; little or no butter sticks to the measuring cup.

Tip: Be sure that whatever you're measuring is totally immersed in the water. If you're measuring a lot of an item (say, 1 cup or more), you'll need a larger measuring cup and more water - say 2 cups of water, instead of one.

Aug 20, 2014

The Easy Way to Make Butter

I had leftover cream from making buttercream cake frosting for my daughter's horse party, so this week, I did what I always do when I have extra heavy cream: I made butter.

When you imagine making butter, maybe you envision working hard with a butter churn. Or maybe you think of kids shaking a jar endlessly. Or maybe you picture big, stainless steel machines doing the work in a factory. But there's actually a very easy, quick way to make butter at home. The only "special" equipment you need is a mixer. (UPDATE 8-20-14: Several readers have asked if hand mixers will work for making butter. Yes, they will, though the process will probably take a bit longer. Also, you may use a food processor instead of a mixer.)


The Easy Way to Make Butter at Home:



1. Pour 16 oz.* of chilled heavy cream into the bowl of an electric mixer. Optionally, add ½ teaspoon of salt to help make the butter stay fresh longer. Mix on high. (The higher the mixer setting, the quicker you'll have butter. But setting the mixer too fast will make a mess of your kitchen!)

2. After about 2-5 minutes, depending upon how fast you're mixing, the cream will look thicker - like whipping cream. After another 1-3 minutes, it will look clumpy - kind of like white scrambled eggs; keep mixing, and within a minute or so the water will separate from the fat. This watery stuff is buttermilk.

3. Place a strainer (or a colander lined with cheesecloth of coffee filters) over a small bowl. Pour the contents of the mixer bowl into the strainer. The buttermilk will drain into the bowl below the strainer; use it for baking (or give it to the chickens as a special treat).

4. What's left in the strainer is butter. Place under cold, running water, then squeeze the butter into a ball and massage while continuing to let cold water run over it. When the water coming from below the strainer is clear, the butter is done.


* You can use more or less heavy cream, as you desire. Too much cream, though, will be difficult to mix. And if you use less cream, you'll also want to use less salt.


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Aug 8, 2014

Back to School Ideas

A whole week is nearly gone and I've only posted once. I do apologize; I just haven't been feeling great. Plus, I'm busy preparing for a duo birthday party (hubby and daughter). But school is starting up again for some of you, so I thought I'd point you to some older posts that are still relevant for school days. Enjoy!

* Back to School Breakfast Ideas - Quick, healthy ways to get your kids off to a great start each day.

* Back to School = I Love My Crockpot - Make school time easier by making good use of your slow cooker.

* Why Homeschool Preschool? - Why I, and so many others, choose to homeschool during the preschool years.

* Homeschool Preschool: Thoughts on Readiness - How do you know when your child is ready to learn?

* 5 Safety Rules for Every Kid - School time means more time away from mom and dad. Be sure your kids know these important safety tips.

* Keeping Toddlers Busy While Homeschooling - Tips from a mom who's been there!

* Sleep Deprivation: The Childhood "Epidemic" - Poor sleep means poor learning; here's how to help your child sleep better.

* Our Favorite Kids Education Programs Streaming on Netflix - Why not let TV time be education time?


Jul 21, 2014

Make Your Produce Last Longer

"My produce always goes bad before we can eat it all," I overheard a woman complain to her friend. "I spend all this money on healthy food, and most of it gets wasted!" She's not alone. Experts estimate Americans throw away 14 - 25% of their food, costing the average family $1,365 - $2,275. This is tragic, considering an estimated 842 million people worldwide don't have enough to eat.

What can you do to end food waste in your household? Check out the tips below. (And be sure to see the other articles I've written about food waste, too.)

"And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples,
'Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.'” 

* Buy only what you can reasonably expect to eat before it goes bad. Even if it means extra trips to the farmer's market or grocery store.

* Keep one drawer in the fridge for fruits, and another for veggies. Never store them together because many fruits release ethylene gas - —a ripening agent that makes veggies rot faster.

* Don't refrigerate bananas, garlic, apples, winter squash, potatoes, or onions. Tomatoes tend to turn mealy in the fridge, too. (Be careful to keep onions and potatoes apart, since onions hasten the demise of taters.)

* Freeze certain veggies. On shopping day - or perhaps the day after shopping - chop up produce you'll use for cooking, like onion, green onions, herbs, and sweet peppers. Pop them in a freezer bag, and you won't have to worry about them going bad.

* Use up the most perishable items first. For example, snack on bananas before you start in on the apples. You'll also want to plan your meals so the most perishable foods get used up first.

* Learn to use up just-about-to-spoil produce. You can make smoothies with them. Or freeze them. Or dehydrate them.

* Don't store countertop produce in a hot or sunny location. Keep them in a cool, dark location and they will remain fresh longer.

* Immediately remove produce that's overripe or spoiling. For example, if you keep an apple that has a spoiled spot in with the other apples, it will hasten the spoiling of them all.
I wouldn't want to have to do without my Progressive Keepers.

* Use Progressive International Keeper containers. They really work! There is a water reservoir at the bottom of the containers, plus adjustable venting - and all the information you need for correctly storing produce is right on the container itself. (Some people also swear by Tupperware Fridgesmart containers.)

* Don't wash fruits until you're ready to eat them; experts say water decreases fruit's life by 40%. Some people swear by rinsing them in vinegar and water; I've never tried this becauee I find fruits and berries last a long time in my Progressive containers.

* Remove ties and rubber bands before storing.

* Don't stuff fridge drawers. If you let produce have a little room to breathe, the food will last longer.

* Place plastic wrap over the stem end of bananas. Some people claim separating them makes them last longer, too, but I haven't found this to be the case. And while you're at it, buy green bananas and let them ripen on the counter. They'll last many more days this way.

* Consider whether it needs ripening. Avocados, tomatoes, stone fruits, mangoes, melons, pears, bananas, and apples, will continue to ripen if you leave them on the counter. Citrus, berries, grapes, and bell peppers will not ripen on the counter and will spoil quickly there.

* Buy from local farmers. The food is fresher than what you buy at te grocery store; therefore, it stores longer at home.

* Don't toss it just because it looks bad. With heads of lettuce or cabbage, remove the outer leaves and you'll find fresher leaves inside. Cut away bad spots in fruit, eat the rest.

* Compost! If all else fails, compost spoiled produce to feed the soil in your yard! Also, if you have critters (like chickens and rabbits) that can eat produce, it's fine to give them wilty, dry, or otherwise unpalatable produce - but never give them anything that's rotten.

 

Jul 2, 2014

How to Get the Most From Your Freezer

Want to be frugal and cut down on your grocery bill? You need a freezer - and not just the one attached to your fridge. Having a dedicated freezer allows you to save money by stocking up on food when it's on sale, preserving your home grown foods (if you don't can or you don't like certain foods in canned form), and freeze extras for quick, easy meals later (a much cheaper - and healthier - alternative to pizza or fast food).
But many of us don't use our freezers to their greatest advantage. If you want to save money, energy, and time using your freezer, keep in mind these things:

* Upright vs. Chest Freezers. Yes, upright freezers save space, but chest freezers are far and away more efficient. So if you're thinking about buying a freezer, you definitely want to go with a chest style.

* Temperature. Keep it at 0 degrees F. or below. This will preserve the food best.

* Keep it Full. A full freezer is a more efficient freezer. And if the power goes out, the food will stay frozen longer. Don't have enough food to fill the freezer? Fill empty milk and juice containers with water and pop them in the fridge.
* Maintenance Matters. Once every year or so, defrost the freezer to keep it running efficiently. That's also a great time to clean the freezer (it's amazing how dirty it can get!). I like to use Windex for this job; it's easy to use and the ammonia in it kills any bad germs. If you prefer, ordinary soap and water works, too. In addition, you should vacuum the freezer coils about once a year. Dust and grime on the coils makes the freezer work harder, making it use more energy and wear out more quickly.

* Stock It. Freezers make it possible to never pay retail on food. Why pay full price for meat, for example, when you can stock up when it's on sale? Freezers also prevent waste by making it easy to preserve leftovers - including things like enchilada or pizza sauce. Some people also keep a special freezer container where they put extra, leftover veggies; I recommend putting the extras on a baking sheet, then popping that into the freezer; once the veggies are frozen, add them to the container. When the container is full, it's perfect for pot pie, shepherd's pie, or soup. If you really have your act together, you can also stock your freezer with complete meals. There are two ways to to do this. The easiest is to cook double; for example, if you make lasagna, make two: One to eat that night and one to freeze. If you're really ambitious, you can plan out a lot of meals and spend a day cooking and freezing them.

* Keep Inventory. It is way too easy to loose track of what's in the freezer - and if it gets left in there long enough, it will become unappetizing. Truly the best way to keep track of what you have is to write or type up a list, like this:
Then keep this list someplace handy. You could tape it on the outside of the freezer itself, or on the inside of the pantry door, or on the front of the fridge. (I've seen some blogs suggest keeping your inventory on the freezer itself, written with dry erase pen. The problem with this is the ink can wipe away with one careless finger - and over time, the ink is difficult to remove.)

To make this list really work, though, every time you remove or add something to the freezer, you must mark it on your list.

* Organize It. Even if you keep an inventory, it helps tremendously if you organize your freezer in a logical way. That is, instead of just cramming stuff in wherever there is a hole, assign each area a type of food. For example, you might have one area that is beef, another that's chicken, another that's herbs, and another that's vegetables. Some people like to use plastic bins to keep everything neat and tidy. Others find plastic bins get too brittle and hard to handle, and use fabric bins or bags instead.
Canning jars without shoulders are suitable as freezer containers.
* Contain It. I like freezer bags better than containers, mostly because I don't have any space for storing extra freezer containers. Bags also take up a lot less space in the freezer if you fill them, seal them, then lay them flat until they are frozen. Additionally, it's easier to remove excess air from bags, which makes the food last longer. Just seal the bag most of the way, leaving enough room for a straw to fit in one corner. Put your mouth on the other end of the straw and inhale the excess air. If you do prefer to use containers, though, you can save space by using square and rectangular ones only. For liquid items like soup or stock, canning jars (real ones - not just ordinary glass jars) are a handy freezer container. Be sure to avoid jars that have "shoulders;" jars that are straight at the neck are much less likely to crack or break in the freezer. Also, be sure to leave an inch of "headspace" (empty, unfilled space) in the jar.

* Label It! Never, never, never, ever put a container or bag in the freezer without labeling it clearly! Trust me; later you will have no idea what it is or when you put it in there. Be sure to write the contents and the date on every package.


* Portion It. A huge container of food is usually harder to use than smaller containers of that same food. It usually makes sense, then, to freeze food in portion-sized amounts. That could mean freezing enough soup for the whole family, or it could mean freezing just enough for one person. If you want to freeze a larger bag of anything, use this little trick to keep the food from becoming a solid, frozen-together mass: Lay the individual pieces (whether berries or chicken legs) on a baking sheet and pop it into the freezer. When the food is frozen, transfer it to a bag.

* Prevent Freezer Burn. Using freezer bags (and getting the excess air out) really helps here. If you have things that won't fit in a bag, double wrap them in heavy foil or butcher's paper that's well sealed.

* Use It! Aside from having an inventory that you look at when planning meals, it helps to place newer foods in the back of the freezer and reach for the things in the front first. Rotating food ensures nothing will be forgotten and wasted.