none of the doors in my kitchen close on their own

None of the doors in my kitchen close on their own… except the refrigerator door, which always closes on its own, just seconds before I get there with whatever ‘over-full’ thing I happen to be carrying.  Like Jello. Boiling hot, slippery, liquid Jello, splashing up out of its shallow glass container and cascading to the linoleum below as I bump it into the suddenly sealed-shut fridge door.

It’s moments like these that remind me *why* the kitchen is my favorite room in the house- it has linoleum floors! No matter what I spill, I can always wipe it up and begin again more carefully, this time holding the door open with one foot while balancing on the other and slipping the pan into the bottom shelf where it will stay until all is solid and well.

I just made Jello from scratch for the first time using four packages of unflavored gelatin (obtained at the local grocery store, in the ‘Jello Aisle’) and four cups of white cranberry/peach juice (also found at the store, only in the “Juice Aisle”….)

That’s it. Two ingredients. It is idiotically simple, even though it took me forever to find the directions in the little box (I guess even idiotically simply just isn’t simple enough- woe is me). Come to find out the directions were inscribed on the individual packets of gelatin (duh)… I shall remember that for next time should this grand Jello experiment result in something even remotely Jello-like and we need to repeat the process.

One cup of cold juice gets poured over four packets of powdered gelatin. Three cups of  cold juice are heated over the stove until they are boiling. While the juice is working itself up to a boil, the gelatin is relaxing and swelling in the cold liquid- turning into a fascinating sort of gelatinous glob. Once the juice has boiled, the cold gelatin is stirred in until it is fully dissolved, then poured into a waiting 9×13 pan and sent to sit in the fridge until it is solid and ‘jiggly’. That is, of course, unless you spill it all trying to slip it in before the door violently and arbitrarily slams shut before you… In that case, I would suggest making something less tricky, like Pancakes Barbara.

(Convenient Literary Time Lapse Complete With Comfortable Bluegrass Music and Some Tea)

Here we are at the end of the day. The dishes are almost done, the laundry is almost folded and my child is almost asleep. I hear him in his little room at the end of the hall, murmuring his goodnight song to the stuffed woodland creatures dangling from the mobile over his crib. I’m exhausted and could really go for something cool and fruity.

Has the jello jelled? Yes it has. Hello there, my lovely, how charming you look, all glistening and gelatinous!

Ladies and Gentlemen – we have Jello, and not just any jello, but a perfect Homemade jello with no added sugars, colors, flavors or chemicals – just pure jiggly goodness. And while we are on the subject of jello’s goodness, let me say a few words about the health benefits of gelatin, the reason why jello is so adorably jello-like. Gelatin; it’s good for your aching knees, your brittle hair, your stubby nails, your lack-luster skin, your sluggish digestion and last but not least, your over-worked immune system.  Some studies suggest that the main constituents in gelatin may improve sleep quality and help regulate ones weight. I like those suggestions! It’s exceedingly low in fat and high in protein.  Sounds like much more than just a delicious snack! In accordance with our new year’s resolutions to eat more life-nourishing foods, I’m going to make jello… a lot… and eat it with abandon. The juice aisle is filled with flavors to be tried and I’m thinking chunks of fruit would be brilliant if stirred in before chilling. Oh boy, there is fun to be had here! Enjoy…

before he hits repeat

Someone – please stop my brother.

The youngest one of us (who is also usually the most jolly) has been needling us to anarchy for weeks now.

“Can I play Christmas Music?”

“Let’s turn on some… Christmas Music…”

“Who’s for a little bit of … Christmas Music!!?”

“Oh good – I’ll sweep the floor… andplaychristmasmusic…”

He thinks if he inserts these words quickly enough into a normal, every day, inconspicuous conversation that we the old ones will be duped into saying, “Oh sure – wonderful idea!”  He thinks wrong.

As my brother must learn, there are rules. There is protocol. There are expectations and reservations and limitations that keep time from happening all at once and becoming a Horrific Mess. The End. And since I am so much older and so much more experienced and so much wiser, I see that these boundaries are what give the holidays their extra glimmer. If we go around playing Christmas music all helter-skelter any ol’ time – we will wear it out and the world might end, or we might start another Black Plague, or at the very least we will all be sick of the sound of it by the time Christmas actually rolls around. We, the old ones, must preserve the sanctity of the holidays from they, the jolly ones. *steps off soap box*

At any rate, the fact is that the holidays are approaching at a frighteningly swift pace, and I can’t believe it. I’m still dawdling around wondering when the trees will reach peak color. How did I get so far behind? Keep up, Ann! In just a few days the Christmas music will start and reality will set in and I must be prepared.

A huge part of the holidays, for me at least, is the food. Yay food! The oldest brother said to me several weeks ago that he was planning on loosing something in the neighborhood of 20 pounds in preparation for the holidays. I have no idea how far he’s come towards that goal, but I admire his gumption. November and December have a cruel way with waistlines, and it’s terrifying and mystifying and wonderful all at once.

The recipe I’m going to share this week is a little secret weapon in the food-fight that will begin in mere hours. It’s a veritable bomb of comfort and joy that utilizes handy leftovers as well as several other ingredients that aren’t Holiday specific at all, just in case you need to call a time-out and recoup your losses.

 

Turkey Soup with Quinoa and Spinach

otherwise known as ‘Holiday Pause Soup’

You will need:

3-4 quarts of turkey (or chicken) broth

1/2 pound turkey meat (which could always be increased or decreased to your preference)

10 oz frozen spinach

1/2 cup quinoa

1/2 medium sized onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, diced

salt and pepper to taste

2 Tbsp butter or olive oil

Optional other leftover ingredients such as corn, chopped roasted veggies, etc.

 

Dice the onions and garlic and then sauté them in your butter or oil in a large soup pot. When the onions are translucent and limp, add your quinoa and let it brown for a minute or two. Then pour in the broth and cap it. Let the quinoa simmer in the broth for half an hour or so before adding the rest of the ingredients. I think a little pureed squash or sweet potatoes would add such great texture and taste fabulous! Let this boil until the spinach is cooked, about 10 – 15 additional minutes and then you are ready to serve. It’s a clever way to change the outfit of heavy holiday foods and add some much needed yule-tide greenery to your dish.

Well, gentle reader, so it begins. Are you ready? Make sure to double up on your vitamin C and get enough liquids in the midst of all the merry making. Honor the things that make this time of year precious and don’t be afraid to take a pause every now and then to reset and recharge. Have a bowl of soup, count your blessings and go forth and be merry!

 

but wait, there’s more… nontoxic cleaning with pantry ingredients

What if I told you that I not only use the inhabitants of my pantry to create wholesome dinners for my family and friends, but to make my house sparkling clean as well?

Just like a box of factory-made food, store-bought cleaning products often come slapped with a list of ingredients that take a PhD in chemistry to understand. Who needs all that? Most people are trying to simplify their lives, not add homework! But when I did my homework and learned that most of the unintelligible chemical nonsense is actually quite poisonous to both humans and the environment, I knew that something had to be done.

If I’m going to put time, effort and love into making wholesome food, why would I stop there? If I care so much about what is going *into* my body, why wouldn’t I care about what I’m spreading *around* my body? If I work so hard to eat locally in order to benefit my community, why would I clean in such a way that is harmful to the people around me?

Hard questions to be sure, but thankfully there is a rather easy answer and it’s to be found in the kitchen cabinets!

Here are a couple of recipes that I use on a weekly, if not daily basis in my home. I have a strict set of criteria for my cleaning products: they must work well – I need something I can rely on to get the job done the first time. The product must be as ‘clean’ as possible, meaning that it can’t contain any ingredient I wouldn’t put directly on my skin. I have a little one now and the thought of scrubbing out the tub he is going to soak in with a toxic cocktail of chemicals sends a shudder down my spine. The last thing is that they have to be efficient. I’m not too interested in something that may work – but it takes an untoward amount of time or effort to do so. Again, I have a little one and not a lot of time to spend putzing around with elaborate cleaning schemes.

Alright then! Having said all that, let’s get to it… and just in time for cleaning house before the holidays!

Window Cleaner/ Daily Shower Cleaner/ All Purpose Cleaner

*I use this to clean just about everything, from windows to floors…

1 cup vinegar

2 cups  hot water

2 tsp dish soap or 1/2 tsp castile soap

10 drops essential oil such as lemon, lavender or tea tree (optional)

Mix all ingredients in a spray bottle and use as desired.

Scouring Powder Replacement

* I use this any time I need a scouring agent – on baking dishes, cutting boards, stubborn stains, in the toilet bowl…

1 cup baking soda

5-10 drops of essential oil

Mix well and fill a parmesan cheese shaker. Use as you would scouring powder. To boost the effectiveness, I add a few drops of vinegar to create a powerhouse of cleansing foam that breaks down just about every mess I’ve encountered.

Bleach Alternative Spray

*this is one of my favorite recipes!

1/2 cup hydrogen peroxide

1/4 cup lemon juice

water to fill a spray bottle

5-10 drops tea tree essential oil (adds a cleansing, disinfecting boost)

Use to remove stains, to disinfect and deodorize, pour 1/2 cup of the mix in your white load of laundry in lieu of chlorine bleach. I use this on my whites and baby clothes and they come out squeaky clean.

Gunk-be-Gone

* for all your sticky messes!

Mix together equal parts of baking soda and coconut oil. Rub onto your sticky residues and then wipe off.  This works wonders, I love it!

So what do you think? Are you ready to make your home a little merrier for the impending holidays? An hour or so in the kitchen with a few simple ingredients could set you up with an inexpensive, powerful, people and earth-friendly arsenal of cleaning products that will make your house shine! Enjoy…

my german summer

The German appeared on the horizon like a subtle storm, exciting from a distance with all the intrigue and mystery of a tumultuous dark cloud. He came with his charm, his attitude, his quaint way of coloring outside the lines with the English language and a fascinating way of rolling cigarettes like the cowboys we’d seen in movies.

He refused to disclose his exact birthday and acted like a nineteen year old most of the time but his eyes and stories and balding head  betrayed the many years he had actually lived through. He had been every where and done every thing that was exciting and exotic and somehow ended up in the middle of corn country USA working on an organic farm in exchange for room and board and a chance to learn firsthand about America. The farmers he boarded with happened to be friends of ours and that’s how we met our German. I was 16 at the time and my brothers and I fell nearly head-over-heels in love with his grand adventures, foreign ways and delicious German food.

Unfortunately, in spite of his great size and athletic build that would have made him a top-notch farm hand, the German realized all too late that he really, truly, honestly and desperately hated to farm. He hated picking beans. He hated canning tomato sauce. He hated getting up early. He hated being hot and sweaty. He hated being in a small town where nothing happened. He did, however, love to cook and eat and swim and sit by a smoldering campfire and play mournful songs on an old guitar. The focus of his stay quickly became Food which meant he spent a great deal of time at our house in the kitchen with my mom, whipping up delightful things for us to eat. I do believe that was the only summer ever that I actually Put On weight instead of losing it. We had schnitzel and spatzle and creamy soups with brussel sprouts (or ‘Rose Cabbages’ as he called them), we made sour pickles in crocks and stomped sauerkraut with our feet using a centuries old secret family recipe he requested from his mother. At the end of the day, when we had finished our own batch of farm work and he had sung all of his sad songs by the fire, we ate thick slices of “Bee Sting Cake” while he told us what it was like to grow up on the East side of the Berlin Wall.

In September, the German left us – heavier and a little wiser about the world at large. No doubt he was glad to be heading back to his familiar life and I dare say we weren’t broken hearted to be getting back to ours. The only thing we truly had in common was our love of food and excellent after-dinner conversation. We had a small stack of handwritten recipes and he most assuredly never took his glamorous city life for granted again. It was a win-win situation.

This is one of our favorite recipes, absolutely the oddest thing I have ever eaten and you must try it before you judge it too harshly.

Soyunka (or, “Junk Food Soup”)

1 bunch of green onions, chopped

1 sweet red peppers, chopped

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

1 20 oz can tomato sauce plus one can water

1 1/2 cups dill pickle slices *with* the juice

1 1/2 cup sauerkraut

2 Tablespoon parsley flakes

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 cup chopped ham, bologna, sausage… any kind of cheap meat

Don’t laugh – it’s no joke, these are actually the ingredients! Saute the onions, peppers and mushrooms in butter or olive oil until they are limp. Add to a large soup pot then throw in the remaining ingredients. Cook on medium for 20 minutes or so then serve with crusty bread. It’s out of the ordinary, slightly alarming and leaves a strong impression, almost like the combination of homeschooling Midwest farmers and a city-wise German, but you only live once, might as well dive in and taste it, right? Enjoy!

strawberry rhubarb massacre

Hello, my name is Andrea and I habitually burn baked goods.

This is my story.

Once upon a time last week I baked a pie – a strawberry rhubarb pie.  I carefully chopped up my fruit and dumped it in a mixing bowl. I measured in the required amounts of lemon juice, instant tapioca, spices and vanilla. My boldest venture was to substitute the white sugar with half the amount of pure maple syrup, making this dessert something truly Vermont-like and wonderful.

I stirred my pie filling thoroughly and let my shiny **new** oven preheat. My favorite pie plate with the deep dish and charming crimped edges was lined with pastry dough and then filled with the pretty mess. All was ready. My timer stood at attention on top of the stove and the red preheat light clicked off.  I quickly sprinkled some sugar over the delicately slit top crust and then slid the beauty in to bake.

Fifteen minutes later when the first timer buzzed its warning, I dutifully came to the kitchen and turned the heat down before resetting the time. Forty-five minutes after that, I returned to the fragrance of glorious pie scenting the entire front half of the apartment. Crimson juices oozed from the crimped edges and bubbled up between the top crust slits. It was obviously ready to be taken out, but the crust looked slightly pale to me – it was *almost* perfect, but not quite. I envisioned a pie on the glossy front cover of a cooking magazine, golden and crisp and my pie just wasn’t there yet.

There I stumbled and there I fell, gentle reader. When will I learn that sometimes ‘almost perfect’ is as close as I should dare get to a magazine cover? Fools rush in, or so they say, and so I did.

“Let’s stick this bad boy under the broiler for a minute or two – that oughtta brown ’em up!!”

Oh, the pain of stupidity. Temporary insanity set in and it seemed like a good idea, I switched the control over to Broiler with a clever smile and put the timer on for another five minutes.

Five minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, does it? A five minute shower is hardly worth taking, the snooze button on my alarm that doles out extra sleep in five minute increments is a joke and I wouldn’t dream of only giving myself five minutes to EAT pie – but let me tell you, five minutes under the broiler of a brand new oven is something to be reckoned with. In fact, the poor pie didn’t even last the entire five minutes. I came running to the kitchen when I smelled smoke and the blessed timer still had a good minute on it.

Broilers kill, ladies and gents. Should have left well enough alone and not messed with something that was good and nearly perfect. My pie needed to be taken to some sort of pastry burn unit but unfortunately, they don’t exist – yet. We’ll see what happens if I keep on baking, they may open one and name it after me and I will leave something to it in my will.

My pie – oh, my pie. It was blackened and acrid smelling. The lovely juice that once oozed from its crust resembled a tarry black river of cooled lava. The sugar that so delightfully decorated the top had bubbled up into angry, swollen worts of Burnt. It was awful.

Thank God for the men in my life, who scraped away the charcoal top layer and enjoyed the goop that remained, saying that it gave the pie a “brûléed-type flavor”. They were actually quite impressed and honestly, so was I -that is by far the most damage I have ever done to a baked good, I have taken my dessert destruction to a whole new level.

Next time I will be content with almost perfect, unless, of course, I get a better idea.

yes I am this person

I got out my old calculator the other day and figured out that we spend (theoretically) $400+ a year on yogurt – alone. ALONE. That’s a ton of yogurt, but we eat it almost every day in our wicked-healthy-morning-smoothies and there is no way I am giving those up so I decided to crunch some numbers and see what it would cost to make my own yogurt each week.

I am not normally a person who likes to do math, in fact, I will go great distances to *avoid* having anything to do with numbers, but I am a sucker for saving a penny. I admit it – I love to save money. Not like, saving as in not spending it in the first place, but saving as in spending a *little* when you could have spent *a lot*. Beating the system.

Buying in bulk delights my soul, and my own mother can attest to the fact that shopping at the damaged discount food store gives me giddy goosebumps (and she might be the only person on earth who understands why). You would think I had a been set free with  unlimited credit in an upscale fashion boutique. It’s almost embarrassing – but any hesitation I might have (were I a more normal person) disappears the moment I find a slightly dented box of organic, free-range chicken broth for $.99 when I know For A Fact that the same product, undented, would cost $5. It’s all thrills and chills from there on out, my friends. No shame – only Gain.

So – knowing that about me, of course you believe that I actually sat down and figured out what it would cost me to make my own yogurt. Sometimes making things yourself is not always the cheapest way out – sometimes it is the best way in terms of *value*, but it doesn’t always cost *less*. Well, I have good news, very good news. Not only is it cheaper to make my own yogurt (saving us a whopping $250+ per annum) but I can make it fresher and simpler and I dare say Better than the store brand.

Isn’t it wonderful when you actually get rewarded for doing the right thing? Like deciding to make your own organic yogurt and being able to save a couple hundred bucks a year? It’s stinking Awesome – and that’s why I am writing this.

First – the recipe. It’s actually many recipes modge-podged together until I liked it and so far it’s worked pretty well. There’s no telling the difference between my yogurt and the expensive store brand. (So there.)

Yogurt

2 quarts of whole milk; it can be pasteurized, but skip the “ultra-pasteurized” stuff  (I know, I know – “BUT THE FAT!!!” I’m sorry, but milk fat makes good yogurt and happy people and if you scratch under the surface of all those fat labels you will find that there really isn’t that much of a difference between whole milk and 2%… go ahead and get the whole, you’ll thank me.)

1 package (1 Tablespoon) of plain, unflavored gelatin, available in the jello section of your local grocery hang-out (this is to give the yogurt more of a ‘store-bought’ texture, and to add a little protein and gelatin to the finished yogurt, both of which are really good for you.)

6-8 Tablespoons already made plain yogurt (this can be purchased at the store or saved from the last batch you made…)

A 3-4 quart pot for heating the milk

2 sterile (or really, really clean) glass quart containers with lids

a wooden spoon

a funnel (optional, but really handy!)

a candy or cheese thermometer

a small cooler or ice chest for incubating (I have an old two-person picnic cooler…)

Alrighty then. First off, dump the milk into your pot and then sprinkle the package of gelatin over the surface of the milk. Turn on the burner to medium to gently start to heat the milk. Stir the milk so that the gelatin dissolves and the milk doesn’t begin to scorch on the bottom. The milk has to reach between 100 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit, so while you are waiting (in between stirrings…) distribute the yogurt starter between the two jars. When the milk has reached temperature, gently fill the two jars – this is where the funnel comes in handy! Now stir with your wooden spoon so that everything is mixed well and comfy-like. Cap those bad boys and set them in your small cooler.

I’ve read lots of ways to do this part and have honestly only ever done one of them, but it works for me so I haven’t had any inkling to mess with it. I welcome your input and experiences – if something works even better, by all means – share it with the class!

I run hot tap water (about 110 degrees) and fill the cooler so that the jars are in a nice bath up to their shoulders. Then I put the cover on, wait 8 hours and pull them out. Into the fridge they go to set and in the morning we have fresh yogurt for breakfast. Yum.

The gelatin really makes the creamiest consistency which is even better if you wait a whole day, but we haven’t been able to wait to dip into that first jar.

And now for the numbers:

I was purchasing 2 quarts of brand-name organic yogurt a week from the store.

2 quarts= $8.00 a week x 52 weeks = $416.00 a year

Now, here are the figures for the homemade, bear with me now…

I had all of the equipment, which was a bonus

1 gallon of organic milk = $4.00  = $1.00 per quart

1 box plain gelatin (four packets) = $2.20 = $.55 per pack (roughly)

1 container start up yogurt (enough to start 6 quarts of yogurt) = $2.20 = $.40 per quart

So that is an $8.40 start up cost, but I don’t have to buy the gelatin or the starter yogurt every time…

Every quart of homemade yogurt costs me $1.58 to produce. I guess if you want to get hardcore about it (and don’t we all) you could count electricity for the stove and time and the hot water, bringing it up to a generous $2.00 a quart, which is *still* half of what I was paying.

((***It’s still worth it.***))

I know I absolutely geeked-out on this one, but I was too excited not to share.

Do you have some nerdy heart-throb of a money-saving habit you would like to share? Please do…

Bear Chili

They told me bear meat tastes like People – I didn’t want to ask how they knew.

My rugged hunter man went off into the woods and shot himself a decent-sized he-bear. When he came and announced the news to me I thought, “What are we going to do with all that meat?”

I’ve heard that it is a tough, sweet, oily sort of meat, not exactly everything we’ve come to love about good old Black Angus!  But, being the types to embrace adventure – culinary or otherwise – I decided to do my best to cook it into some edible form and Alex promised to eat it with an open mind.

From the various hunters and other adventurous cooks I interviewed, I realized that bear is not a distasteful meat, just a misunderstood and often poorly prepared one. It tends to be on the tough yet mild side and the fact that the animal itself lives all winter on hoarded stores of fat means that there can be quite a bit of grease, but that is easily pared off with a sharp knife, leaving you with less fat than most beef. It seems this meat wants to be spiced up and simmered long. I thought – “Chili!”

I used my crock pot and cooked the daylights out of it while I was at work and we ate it with homemade corn bread and a wild greens salad – a perfect, rustic, simple autumn meal.

Bear Chili

1 lbs lean bear meat, ground

1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes plus 1 can water

4 oz cooked black beans

4 oz sweet corn (frozen or canned or fresh)

1 Tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 onion, diced

2 Tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less, depending on how hot you want your chili to be)

1 Tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon salt

 

The first thing is to fry up your onions, garlic and bear meat (*or* ground beef, since I suppose not everyone has a package of bear just sitting in their freezer, waiting to be used!)  Start with about a teaspoon of olive oil or butter in a hot frying pan, add your diced onions and minced garlic and cook them over medium heat until they are translucent and fragrant. Next, add the ground meat with a little water. I don’t like to add more fat to fry the meat with when a quarter cup of water will keep things from sticking just as well. Break the meat into small pieces while it is cooking. Once the meat is thoroughly browned, turn off the heat and set the pan aside.

If you are using a crock pot, now is the time to rescue it from its shelf or box. If you are going to cook your chili on the stove top, get out an eight or more quart stock pot with a thick bottom. Pour the tomatoes, water, corn, beans and spices into the cooking apparatus. If you are wondering about the cocoa powder, let me tell you – it does wonders for a chili! It does not make your meat taste chocolate-dipped, rather it adds a depth and darkness of flavor that is hard to beat. Simply trust me and add the cocoa.

Now, scoop in the meat mixture and turn on the heat! As I said before, I let the chili cook on high in my crockpot for several hours. If you are cooking on the stove, let it simmer on a lower heat for an hour or two, stirring occasionally so that nothing sticks to the bottom. If you need to, cover it up or add water by the cupful if it seems to be losing too much moisture. It does need to cook for some time so that all those lovely flavors get a chance to work together and make something fabulous.

It will be fabulous, let me assure you, whether you use beef, bear, moose, venison or even ground chicken. You don’t necessarily need to be a huntsman to enjoy the fruits of field and forest.  Enjoy!