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

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."
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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.

Jun 30, 2014

How to Buy Half a Beef (or a Quarter, or a Whole!)

Once you realize grass fed beef is better for you, it's not long before you understand you need to find a more affordable source for it than the grocery store. I think it's fantastic our two local grocery stores carry grass fed beef - but it's pricey! (An example: Our Walmart sells wee packs of grass fed ground beef - enough for maybe two tiny hamburgers - for $9.)

In the past, we'd often thought about saving money by buying beef from a local farmer. Now that we've made the commitment to eat grass fed for our health, we knew we needed to stop thinking about it and just do it. But if you've never bought a quarter, a half, or a whole beef before, it can be a little intimidating. So let me walk you through the process. (Incidentally, the process is the same for grass fed bison, which is becoming more and more common for farmer's to raise.)

How Much Do I Need?

First things first; you need to consider just how much meat you want to buy. This really depends upon your family's eating habits. Some people eat very little meat - and some eat meat every day. Also, if you can buy meat in bulk and save money doing so, consider that you might eat more beef than you currently do.

For an idea of how much beef you eat in a year, approximate how much meat you consume each week, then multiply the number of pounds by 52 (the approximate number of weeks in a year).

Finding the Beef

Now to find beef! Sometimes a local, old fashioned butcher shop (not attached to a grocery store) can help you with this. Either the butcher can connect you directly with a farmer, or he can act as a go-between. I recommend dealing directly with the farmer, as the cost is likely to be lower. (Although the butcher will come into play later, as I'll detail in a moment.)

Other places to connect with farmers selling beef include:

* Craigslist
* A local farmer's market (Ask around!)
* The county fair (Again, you'll have to ask around.)
* The Local Harvest website
* Or, if you have a friend who raises cows, ask them to raise a cow just for you

Questions to Ask Before Buying
Butcher paper wrapped (left) vs. plastic wrapped (right)


If you're fortunate, you'll have more than one farmer to contact. Give him or her a call and ask:

* Is the beef entirely grass fed, or has it been given grains at any time? (Some cattle are entirely grain fed, which you should avoid; others are fed grain most of their life, then allowed to graze on grass before being butchered; again - avoid that. What you want is cattle that's grazed on grass all its life.)

* Is the beef hormone and anti-biotic free?

* What breed does the beef come from? (It should be from a meat breed or a dual purpose breed, like a Holstein.)

* How is the beef available? (Usually you can buy a quarter, a half, or a whole cow. Don't panic if only whole cows are available; you may be able to find a few other families who are willing to buy the cow with you.)

* Approximately how many pounds is each quarter, half, or whole? (The number varies a lot, so this is a vital question! Be sure to find out the hanging weight, not the live weight of the animal.)

* Exactly what are all the costs? (Typically, there is a kill fee, which varies according to how much of the cow you a buying. There is also a price per pound of hanging weight, which should pay both the farmer and the butcher - or there may be a price per pound of hanging weight, plus a butcher's fee per pound.)

* When will you butcher? (Often butchering happens in late summer or early fall.)

* How will the meat be packaged? (Usually the choice is between butcher paper - which does, indeed, prevent freezer burn - and shrink wrapped in plastic, like a FoodSaver does.)

* At pick up, is the meat frozen or fresh?

* How does payment work? Will I have to pay in full up front? Part up front? Or can you pay in full upon pick up?

Grass fed eye fillets.
Storing the Beef

Before you commit to buying beef in bulk, you need to consider how you're going to store it. Most people freeze their beef. But how much freezer space will you need? 1 cubit feet of freezer space hold approximately 35-40 lbs. of wrapped beef.

Of course, the amount of space needed also varies according to what types of cuts you decide to buy. (More on that in a moment.) For example, ground beef takes up less space than, say, roasts. Remember, too, that you won't want to keep the beef frozen for more than about a year, or there will be some quality loss.

Another option is to can some or all of the beef - but you will still need freezer or refrigerator space to store the beef while you're working on the canning.

Comitting to Buy

Once you've figured out how much beef you want and who to buy it from, call the farmer and commit to buy. It's best not to wait too long to do this, because farmers usually only raise as many cows as they feel sure they have customer's for. So if you wait too long there might not be enough beef to go around.

Deciding What to Buy

Once you've comitted, you can expect to hear from the farmer's butcher shortly before butchering day. He will want to know how you want your beef packaged and what type of cuts you want.

This last part can seem pretty intimidating; most of us have no idea how many cuts we can get from a steer. To help, look at a cut chart, like this one. Bare in mind, too, that you can make your own ground beef with an inexpensive meat grinder. (If you have a KitchenAid mixer, you can also buy a meat grinder attachment for it.) That said, the butcher will probably recommend grinding the tougher cuts into ground beef.

Other Considerations

* If you're ordering steaks, be sure to specify the thickness you desire.

* Consider how much meat you want per package. For example, do you want ground beef in 1 lb. or 5 lb. packs? What about stew meat?

* On average, butchers usually age the cow for 7 to 14 days. You can request a longer aging, although it might not be available. Experts often recommend 10 - 20 days. (Aging gives the beef more tenderness and flavor.)

* Be sure to ask for the bones! It's very easy to make your own beef stock for freezing or canning. If you have dogs, you might want the bones for them, too.

* Think about any organs you'd like to have, also. If you're not buying a whole cow, not all organs may be available (if the person buying another part of the cow wants them). Some organs to consider: shanks and oxtail (for stews and soups), liver, tongue, heart, and cheek. You can even ask for the suet (fat) for rendering tallow (lard) or making soap; the butcher might even grate it for soapmaking, if you ask.

Bringing it Home

When your beef is cut and packaged by the butcher, you will receive a call to come pick it up. Be sure you have your freezer all ready to go! You may also want to bring a few coolers for transporting the beef.

And How Much Does it All Cost?

I have yet to find a farmer who is selling bulk beef for more than the grocery store - especially if we're talking grass fed beef. To give you an idea of the savings, below I've detailed the costs of the half beef we are purchasing this year. These prices are VERY competitive because we're buying from a family who raises beef for themselves, plus a few extras to pay for the cost of raising their own meat. Expect to pay at least a dollar more if your purchase from a professional farmer.

Weight for half beef (Holstein): about 270 lbs.

Kill fee: $27

Price per pound: $1.90, hanging weight

Butcher's fee: $.50/lb., hanging weight

Total cost of half beef: $675

Total price per pound: $2.50

And this is for grass fed beef! What a deal!

May 20, 2014

Wax Coating on Apples: Is it Safe?

UPDATE 5-20-2014: I am re-running this post (originally from 4-16-2012) because of important, new information.


Last week, I purchased some apples that seemed to have an unusually thick coating of wax. This, combined with a recent comment on this blog, got me thinking about the wax on apples. What I learned surprised me.

Apples and other fruits do have naturally-occurring wax on them. However, because most commercially sold apples are washed before being shipped to stores, most of the natural wax gets removed - and a drop or two of additional wax is typically applied to them to make them last at least as long as they would if they hadn't been washed. Most sources will tell you the wax is perfectly safe. It is FDA approved and made from natural sources. And besides, people have been waxing apples for centuries.

What is Apple Wax?
The wax applied to apples is usually cited as being Carnauba wax (from the leaves of Brazil's carnauba palm) or shellac, which comes from the secretion of the lac bug of Indian and Thailand. Both are considered pretty similar to an apple's natural wax. Further research shows that some apples may also be coated with beeswax or Candelia wax (from the Candelia shrub of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States).

UPDATE 5-20-2014:  I am now seeing a lot of apples that are coated with soy-based wax. Soy is almost always a GMO product, plus lots of soy in the diet increases estrogen levels. Therefore, I encourage you to read labels carefully, or buy organic only. (Bagged apples have ingredient labels, so they are a better choice if you don't buy organic.)

I have also read that wax may include dairy or gluten ingredients, so if you are allergic to either, again you'll need to read labels.

the Carnauba, shellac, beeswax, and Candelia may not sound  too bad, but sometimes apples are coated with food grade paraffin or other petroleum products. Now, paraffin was used for a long time in canning, though it was not supposed to touch the food. And paraffin is now common in foods like inexpensive chocolate. But it is made of petroleum, which gives me pause.

Who Cares?
When I mentioned this to my husband he said, "Who cares? People have been consuming petroleum products for a long time - even using kerosene [a petroleum product] for medicine. And mineral oil [also a petroleum product] has been in food and medicine for a long time, too." And, I thought, petroleum products have been used for skin care and cosmetics for quite a while, also.

In fact, petroleum products are used in a wide variety of foods - mostly processed - including candy, chips, crackers, food colorings, anything that says it's "enriched," artificial vanilla flavoring, baked goods, crayons (a true food for some kids) - and oh yes, many pesticides and fertilizers have petroleum, too. In other words, the list of foods with petroleum products in or on them is long.

Now, petroleum is a natural, God-made thing. But do we really want to eat it? To answer this question, I tried to research studies about the safety of eating petroleum products. "The Ecology Center" (an environmental and "social justice" group) claims a wide variety of human ailments are linked to petroleum - but doesn't site scientific studies. In fact, after one hour on the Internet, I could find only one study that looked at how consuming petroleum products might affect the human body: This study on rats that showed increased organ weight and inflammation.

So I cannot say definitively whether or not we should be concerned about consuming small amounts of petroleum in apple wax. But personally I am not worried about apple wax from other sources.

How to Avoid Waxed Apples

* Do not assume organic apples aren't waxed; under FDA guidelines, they may be.

* Read labels and signage carefully. The FDA insists grocery stores must indicate when apples or other fruits are waxed. These signs should indicate what kind of wax is used on the apples, too.

* Grow you own apples! Even if your yard is small, it may be possible.

* Purchase apples from a pick-your-own farm. If you want fresh apples year round, this means you'll have to store extras in a cool, dark location.

* Buy them at a farmer's market and ask if wax has been added.

* Avoid apples that appear overly-shiny.

Removing Apple Wax
It's always a good idea to wash produce before you eat it. This helps remove pesticides - and bacteria like e. coli that could make you very ill. However, washing apples under warm, running water won't remove wax - and soap used on apples may absorb into the fruit. Instead, try washing the apple under water first, then washing it in a bowl containing water, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of baking soda. Gently scrub.


May 9, 2014

Switching to Grass Fed Beef: Why & How to Do it Affordably

Maybe you've seen a "grass fed" label at the grocery store and wondered what it was all about. Maybe you've heard something about grass fed meat being healthier or more sustainable. Maybe you've even decided to switch to grass fed meat...but aren't sure how to make it happen. Not long ago, I began the switch to grass fed meat. Here's what I've learned.

Why Switch to Grass Fed?

Because, well, it's natural. It wasn't until the 20th century that cows and other farm animals were fed a diet consisting mostly of grain. (And then only because of an over-abundance of corn, followed by the realization that corn fed animals gained weight very quickly.) Cows are designed to eat grass. They are designed to spend their days grazing. And when we eat grass fed beef, our health benefits.

For one thing, grass fed beef is higher in Omega-3s that help keep us happy and make our bodies work better. Plus, grass fed beef has less fat, is lower in calories, has more vitamin A, E and beta-carotene, and is higher in antioxidants. (Source.) Better still, grass fed meat is usually also free of hormones and antibiotics that can reduce our health. (Read labels to be sure.)

But Not All Meat!

If you're buying beef, bison, venison, or lamb, by all means look for grass fed. But grass fed chickens and pigs? Nope. Both chickens and pigs naturally eat meat - and depriving them of their natural diet isn't healthy for them. (We don't really know for sure how it affects humans who eat them.) The good news is, in the U.S. it's illegal to sell chickens that have received hormones. Hormones are illegal for pork, too.

Grass Fed vs. Grass Finished

Read labels carefully! There is a big difference between "grass fed" and "grass finished." "Grass finished" means the animal was fed grain in a stall most of it's life, but then was allowed to graze or eat grass shortly before butching. "Grass fed" means the animal grazed all it's life.

But It's Expensive!

Yes, grass fed beef is more expensive than conventionally raised beef. But that's changing. More and more people are interested in eating grass fed meat, which should bring prices down. But there are at least four ways I've found to reduce the cost of grass fed meat right now.

#1: Look for sales. My local grocery store frequently has grass fed meat on sale. Better yet, they often put it in their clearance section where I can buy it for the same price (and sometimes less!) than coventially grown meat. (Just know that clearance meat has been sitting around a bit; it should be eaten that day, or frozen for later use.)
Grass fed beef has less fat, but it's easy to make it tender.

#2. Buy it from a farmer. Many local farmers raise grass fed animals and will sell you a whole, half, or quarter of a cow. This requires a large freezer and a chunk of money to buy your meat in bulk, but it is generally cheaper in the long run. (Bear in mind that most farmers butcher sometime in the late summer or fall.)

#3. Choose a different meat. Many of us love our beef, but there are definitely cheaper meats out there. One that might surprise you is lamb. I've found that I can often buy grass fed lamb at the grocery store for much less than any other type of meat.

#4. Check local butchers. Sometimes - but not always - it's cheaper to buy grass fed meat from a good old butcher shop, rather than a grocery store. Especially if you look for sales. For example, one of my local butchers recently announced they had more than the usual amount of grass fed bison, so they were selling it cheap, first come, first serve.

But it Tastes Different!

I've not found this to be true at all. In fact, when I switched to grass fed, I was surprised by how much fat there was in my beef; I'd always read that grass fed beef was super-lean, and expected it to taste differently because of this. That said, the leanness of grass fed can make the meat is a bit tougher. It's pretty easy to work around that, though. Just use a meat tenderizer; or put salt on the cut overnight, then wash it off; or use a cooking method (like braising or stewing) that's often used for tougher cuts.

Have you switched to grass fed meat? 

Apr 21, 2014

How to Make Meatloaf that's Not Greasy {Grease-Free Meatloaf Recipe}

Meatloaf is an easy, nutritious meal that even kids enjoy. But I have always disliked how greasy it often is. Recently, however, I found a simple solution to this problem.

Yes, you can buy super lean beef. But this makes for a very dry loaf.

And yes, you can buy special meatloaf pans. But I don't like having kitchen gadgets that are used for only one thing - especially if I can make a multipurpose tool (preferably one I already have!) work just as well. So...I use a wire cooling rack.

I simply place a wire cooling rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet, then place the meatloaf on top of the wire rack. This allows all the fat to drain out of the meat during cooking. The resulting loaf is moist, but not greasy. Perfect!

Just be sure to use a wire rack with a mesh pattern on it. The smaller the mesh, the better. (Large holes in the rack allow meat to drop down onto the baking sheet. If you don't have this sort of cooling rack, they are pretty easy to find - and you will use it for other things, like cooling baked treats and canning jars.

A simple wire rack makes meatloaf grease-free.
I should note that some of the meat will stick to the cooling rack. This is acceptable to me because I can't stand greasy meatloaf. If you want, do as I do and scrape off the bits that stick to the rack - then go ahead and serve them. They don't look tidy, but they taste great.

You can use any meatloaf recipe you like with this method. The recipe below is my family's favorite. It's easy and basic. You can dress it up, if you like, with additional spices or a sauce on top. I usually serve it as is. It's adapted from a recipe I found at Housewife How-Tos.

Easy, Grease-Free Meatloaf Recipe

1/2 yellow onion, minced
1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef (90% fat or fattier)
1/2 cup regular oatmeal
1 egg
Salt
Pepper
4 tablespoons catsup
2/3 cup milk


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place a wire cooling rack onto a rimmed baking sheet. (For easiest cleanup, you can line the baking sheet with foil first.) Set aside.

2. Place a skillet over medium high heat and melt the butter (or warm the olive oil) in it. Add the onion and saute until translucent.

3. Pour the onion and remaining butter or oil into a large mixing bowl. Add the beef, oatmeal, and egg. Season with salt and pepper. Add the catsup and milk. Mix together with your hands until well blended. If the mixture seems too runny, add more oatmeal, just a tablespoon at a time, until you prefer the texture. If the mixture seems to dry, add just a tablespoon of milk at a time until the texture is right.
4. Shape the mixture into two loaves and place on top of the prepared wire rack. Bake for 60 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted in the center of a loaf reads 150 degrees F.
Before baking.

After baking.
 

Apr 14, 2014

Read All Food Labels. Every Single One.

We avoid processed foods because we've come to the conclusion all those ingredients you can't pronounce aren't very good for our bodies. Our rule is that if man made it, we'll take a pass.

Recently, though, it seems it's more of a challenge to find good, wholesome food. I think some of this is due to skyrocketing food prices. Our local stores, knowing nobody around here is terribly affluent (at least by U.S. standards), tries to keep our food prices low-ish. But in doing so, it seems I must be even more rigorous than usual. Case in point:

We've been buying frozen salmon. I felt good about this because it was sold at a reasonable price, in my opinion, and was wild caught, making it healthy (or so I thought). But after months of eating the salmon, I happened to look a little more closely at the smaller print on the bag. Here's the label, with the important part circled in red:

That's right. Our "healthy," wild caught salmon had an added ingredient! I wish you could have seen my face when I read this, because I was so sad! Go ahead and look up sodium tripolyphosphate. I found it particularly depressing because it's only real use is to make the product look fresher and increase the weight of the fish. Who needs that? Not me!

Thankfully, the next time I went to the store, I found another brand of frozen, wild caught salmon that contained no added ingredients. (Now my face looks happy!)

And now I read ALL labels. Every single one. Because sometimes unlikely foods are processed.

Mar 28, 2014

Ridiculously Tasty Rhubarab Recipes

Last year, I planted my first-ever rhubarb plant. Since it's best not to harvest from a first year rhubarb, this spring will be the first time I pluck those beautiful red and green stems from the plant. I'm excited! And already planning all the yummy things I'll make with my rhubarb.

If you have a rhubarb plant, or if you're tempted by rhubarb at the farmer's market or grocery store, here are some great ways to cook it up!
Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie.

 

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie (you can can it!)


Rhubarb Banana Muffins

2 egg whites
2/3 cup milk
1/4 cups olive oil
2 cups all purpose flour (or 1 cup whole wheat flour and 1 cup all purpose flour)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup mashed banana (about 1 banana)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2/3 cup chopped rhubarb 
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a muffin tin with nonstick oil spray; set aside.
2. In a bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy. 
3. Stir in the milk and oil. Stir in the flours, sugar, banana, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg, mixing until just moist. Fold in the rhubarb.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin tin, filling each cup nearly to the top.
5. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool the muffins in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Makes about a dozen muffins.

Spiced Rhubarb Bake
4 cups sliced rhubarb
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon mace
6 whole cloves
1 orange
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a large baking dish; set aside.
2. Juice the orange. Grate the orange peel. Set aside.
3. In a bowl, mix together the rhubarb, sugar, cinnamon, mace, cloves, orange juice, and grated orange peel (zest). 
4. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and bake for 30 minutes. Serve hot or cold.
Serves 4 – 8.

Upside-Down Rhubarb Cake

2/3 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 1/4 cups diced rhubarb
4- 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar

For the Batter:
6 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup + 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
 Whipped cream (optional)

1.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease a 9 inch baking dish.
2. In a small mixing bowl, stir together the brown sugar and butter. Spread into the prepared baking pan. 
3. Spread the rhubarb over the brown sugar mixture. Sprinkle the sugar over the top of the rhubarb. Set dish aside.
4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and vanilla. 
5. In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add this mixture to the butter mixture, mixing well.    
6. In a another mixer bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until stiff peaks form. 
7. Gradually fold the egg white mixture into the butter mixture. Spoon over the sugar-sprinkled rhubarb.
8. Bake in the preheated oven for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the cake springs back when touched lightly.  
Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then invert onto a serving platter. Serve warm. Top with whipped cream, if desired. 
Serves 8 – 12.