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…

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I can

I can.

As a teenager, canning season (with the exception of Christmas and Thanksgiving) was the most anticipated time of the year.  My mom and I and often a boy or three spent day upon day in our sweltering kitchen preserving batches of food we had either grown, gleaned or gained by gifts from over-burdened gardening friends. We were encouraged by the hot breezes that forced their way into the crowded room and the knowledge that our hard work produced a harvest that would be welcome come winter. We canned everything that wouldn’t run away starting with plump June strawberries and ending with thick, dark, highly-spiced apple butter late in the fall.  For months it seemed our kitchen overflowed with the steam of the canner, pots and pans filled with food bubbling away while waiting its turn, and hot, sweaty people working day and night to get it all done while the season lasted.

Our store of preserved food was a great source of pride and comfort for us. We were rather poor folk if you saw us in passing, or peeked in the windows and saw our homey but plain sort of lifestyle , but we felt rich indeed when we thought of the many boxes of canning jars filled with good food stashed around our little house. In every closet and under every bed were boxes of jars – apple sauce, pie fillings, green beans, tomato sauce, jams and jellies; mingled among books on shelves and underneath end tables draped with cloths – peaches, ground beef, brandied pears, spaghetti sauce, cherry juice, green tomato butter, chicken broth and even sweet breads. It was a treasure as real as if we had bricks of gold hidden in every corner. We studied long and hard to find the best places to keep things, things we used frequently like tomato sauce were stored in easy to reach locations where brandied pears and other such delicacies were often put high on back shelves to be saved for the holidays. I remember joyously traveling out to the far corner of the house to retrieve a jar of the delicious pears for Thanksgiving dinner, my heart swelling with the memory of sitting around the table, my family and I, late into the night peeling, coring, and slicing pears we had picked from a neighbor’s forsaken old tree, laughing and talking all the while. Nothing ever tastes so good as that food which is seasoned with good memories!

Before we moved East we spent the preceding year selling off all furniture that could be spared and settling our little farm into a peaceful place of sleep. We carefully wrapped over 500 jars of preserved food in old newspapers and packed them up for the long trip. We wouldn’t have dressers and chairs in our new home, at least not at first, but we knew that whatever happened we would have food. In the end, that food kept us going during our first  months out here while we found steady work and housing. Each time we opened a jar we were flooded with the tastes, smells and comforts of Home.  We had made it that far, we could keep going a little longer.

It’s canning season once more and this summer my greatest harvest was a little boy born in July. There doesn’t seem to be much hope of canning anything this year!  Nevertheless I managed to pack up several quarts of refrigerator pickles from the cucumbers in our small, townhouse garden. It was a small return for much effort (as anyone who has every tried to do *anything* with a four week old will understand) but it was immensely satisfying. I introduced an entire new generation to the wonder, pleasure, work and reward of preserving the harvest which seems to be more of an accomplishment than the six jars of kosher dills in the fridge. I am looking forward to many more years of canning with and for my family, making memories that will last longer and be even sweeter than the fleeting summer harvest captured in glass.  Here’s hoping you enjoy *your* harvest.

corn child

I heard the other day that there is now fresh sweet corn available in the area- it must truly be summer.

I grew up in ‘Corn Country’ surrounded by hundreds of acres of corn that were at least ‘knee high by the Fourth of July’. Most of what the farmers sowed each year was left to dry on the stalk. I’m not sure if it was just a rumor, but I know some people said that it was bought by cereal companies to make corn flakes. I remember scorching days when the clay the corn was planted in would split into a mosaic of cracks and crevices while the corn plants themselves would roll their leaves up tight in an effort to keep in their remaining moisture. They’d stand in their neat lines in the blazing sun while the locusts sweated on the roadsides, breathlessly waiting for rain with the rest of us. After a good, soaking sort of storm the leaves would unroll once more and the fireflies took up to dancing in between the stalks after dark.

Even though field corn was a rather common, every day and over-abundant part of life for us, there was still a little thrill of excitement and romance attached to the sweet corn harvest. Unlike the patient field corn that waits for its day to come in October, the sweet corn is a short-lived crop, needing to be harvested at just the right time and preferably eaten within hours of being picked. I think of it as one of those summer luxury foods that comes on and needs to be fully enjoyed while it can be gotten as close to the source as possible like peaches, melons and berries.

By some miracle of engineering you can now buy sweet corn in the grocery store at all times of the year, but that will never come close to being able to acquire it in season from a local provider – they’re practically two different foods! I think there is something about the local harvest that adds a sweetness and depth to the food you eat like nothing else.

One summer my brothers and I volunteered to help one of our farmer friends work the local Farmer’s Market by going out with him at 3am to harvest sweet corn to sell later that morning. “This is the way you do it, fresh as possible. It’s the right thing to do.” He was not a man of many words and the ones he did use weren’t often very shiny or complicated, but he usually meant what he said and punctuated the statements that he felt the most strongly about with the phrase, “…it’s the right thing to do…”

This is how my family and I ended up in a pitch black sweet corn field out in the middle of nowhere’s nowhere – we were doing the right thing. I have to admit that I never felt so much like a raccoon as I did that morning, slipping between the corn stalks that towered over my head, enjoying the cool of the damp darkness and the occasion bite of raw sweet corn from an ear that I picked to keep my stomach happy while we worked. The kernels burst in my mouth, each one filled with sweet, milky goodness that couldn’t be found in corn that had been grown ‘away’ and was tired from traveling across county in a truck. Sweet corn is one of those foods that likes its home and gives itself most graciously to those who are willing to make the extra effort to keep it there. The farmers and gardeners who brave the weather and soil and before dawn harvests are able to offer the best there is to their families, customers, and community.

It’s sweet corn season in Vermont and you better believe I’m going to take advantage of it! I may not be in the field at 3am picking it, but I’m sure there are some local producers who will be doing their share of ‘the right thing’… be sure to enjoy it!

wilted beet salad

One summer, when I was much younger, my family stayed on a farm way out in the country for a couple of months. We had been living in an expansive trailer park that was more like a factory farm of metal boxes lined up on cement. Going from that broiler oven to being surrounded by luxurious fields, a huge yard filled with trees and secret places to hide away in and visit with fairies and other imaginary friends was nothing short of miraculous. I was enchanted – there were raspberry bushes and strawberry patches and mulberry trees, swings and chickens and a *gigantic* woodpile that was reborn into a magnificent fortress that my brothers and I defended form the wrath of the two angry geese who patrolled the back yard.

One day I remember Jan (for that is the woman of the place’s name) telling me that men don’t often notice cobwebs behind doors, but most women do and that’s why you must be careful to always dust behind the doors. We were preparing for a Tea that she was hosting at the farm and she and my mother were busy cleaning and cooking and getting things ready for the afternoon. I was so excited, being under the age of ten and longing desperately for the prestige and privilege of a grown up woman, I had been included in the Tea. Mom and Jan were always willing to involve me in their womanly activities, letting me sit up with them at night and talk about the deep things in life over tea while the lightning bugs filled the fields like fallen stars and crickets serenaded us from under the porch windows. I felt grown up in all the ways that mattered to me at the time and it satisfied me tremendously.

I don’t really remember how the Tea that we were preparing for came off, my young mind fixed on one dish in particular that was being mixed together in the big, old kitchen and everything else remains a happy blur.  This was the first time I had a Wilted Salad. I haunted the kitchen even then, feeling that room contained all the important business of the house. Jan mixed together a warm salad of greens, bacon, vinegar and sweetening and it tasted like heaven to me.

Over the years we have repeated her recipe, adjusting it and adapting it to different greens and not always saving it for special occasions! This is an excellent side dish to throw together for any summer dinner. It tastes like that sweet and tart time in life when I was so young and yearning to be so much older.

Wilted Spinach and Beet Salad

3 red beets (with or without their greens)

1 lb  raw spinach

1/4- 1/2 lb bacon (depending on how much you like)

1 medium onion, sliced

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1-2 tablespoons of honey, brown sugar or maple syrup

Firstly, cook the beets and their greens if you have decided to use them. I like to boil mine in their jackets. Once they are cooked, slip them out of their coats and chop them into bite-sized pieces. If you are using the greens (which should be boiled with the beets until tender) chop them up too.

In a *big* skillet, fry up your bacon until it is crisp, drain most of the fat away then add the onions and let them cook until they get slightly clear. Add the vinegar and sweetener and let it all simmer together for several minutes before dumping in your chopped beets and their greens. It’s really starting to smell good now!

Wash your spinach and drain it,  then pile it on top of the dressing in the skillet and cover for about five minutes. The heat will start to wilt your spinach and then you can begin to mix everything together. Turn off the heat and stir until the dressing has completely covered the spinach. The spinach shouldn’t be soggy and cooked, just wilted.

Serve immediately and Enjoy!

shrimp – they’re just not that scary

I cooked shrimp for the first time in my life yesterday.

I know what you are thinking – how can a reasonably intelligent and adventurous home-chef like myself go for so long without having dealt with shrimp? I’ll tell you – fear. Clammy, white-knuckled fear and intimidation.

Growing up, shrimp was an expensive, exotic sort of food that was reserved for New Years Eve. I remember dunking my chilly, naked crustacean in cocktail sauce then relishing the way the mild, snappy shrimp mixed with the extremely pungent horseradish in my mouth. Oh my – good times.

My mom and I were the only ones who truly appreciated the delicacy, all three of my brothers avowing that they would never – under any circumstances – eat something that looked like a “sea bug”. It was one of the only foods my mom never insisted that they try more than once. Nope – more shrimp for the girls and that was always desirable.

For a long time I wondered if it wasn’t actually the cocktail sauce that I was addicted to, but one year my mom cooked Shrimp A’la Meuniere for my birthday and my doubts concerning the true nature of my love were set to rest forever.

I loved Shrimp and could love it without cocktail sauce. It was a revelation.

Now I ask you, how do you go about cooking a food you have so elevated? It’s somewhat terrifying. The thought of ruining a dish that contained shrimp was almost too much for me and yet for the past 18 months I have lingered at the seafood counter, gazing at the packages of fresh frozen shrimp before walking on, convinced that this was one culinary risk I was too timid to take.

My mom, whose fearlessness in the kitchen has yet to be matched by any single cook I have met, recently convinced me to buy my coveted bag of shrimp. “It’s not that hard…” she said, “… just thaw them in some cold water then cook them. Just don’t overcook them or you will loose that delightful *snap*.”

Oh, the delightful snap – something I dreaded loosing to be sure!

Calling back the memory of my beloved birthday dinner – the simple lemon, butter, garlic and herb sauce that so perfectly and delicately adorned the shrimp, I decided to do something of the same and serve it on pasta.

Shrimp with Garlic Butter, Lemon and Capers

1/2 lb  raw, fresh shrimp (thawed if you are using frozen)

3 Tablespoons butter plus a splash of olive oil

1 large clove of garlic, minced

2 teaspoons green capers

juice from 1/2 a lemon

grated Parmesan cheese to top

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 lb pasta, cooked and strained

Ah yes, shrimp and butter are the stars here. I figure the low calorie nature of shrimp allows for some extravagance, and I think I’m right. So there.

Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and olive oil (which should keep the butter from browning too much) and then the garlic and capers. Let them sizzle until the garlic is slightly brown and then toss in your raw shrimp. Stir well as they will cook relatively quickly. Once the shrimp have begun to curl on themselves and turn pink, add the lemon juice and some salt and pepper. The capers are pretty salty on their own, which is really nice in the sauce but you will want to taste it before adding *more* salt. A few moments more and the shrimp should look tight and plump and very pink. Turn off the heat and liberally decorate with parmesan cheese. One final stir and you’re ready to serve on top of your pasta with a side of salad or steamed veggies.

It was a quick, simple sort of meal but very delicious and worth the daring of finally deciding to cook shrimp. It wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as I had imagined! What food fear are you near to conquering? Let me encourage you to dive in and face it, you may end up with a dinner to be enjoyed and remembered…

Enjoy!

bread in a dutch oven – O the brilliance

Someone is getting a gold star.

I’m not sure who it is but I have tucked a shiny new star in my pocket along with a handful of confetti and a recording of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and when I find that wonderful person I am going to tag them with the star, baptize them with glitter and give them a round of applause, because they’ve made my bread-baking life into something glorious.

What happened? Go ahead and ask because I would love to tell you. Go ahead.

I read a book in which someone wrote that someone else said (the mystery person I am searching for) that you can reproduce the effects of crusty, hearty artisan loaves hitherto unattainable to myself by simply baking them in a covered Dutch Oven. Oh yes. Oh yes indeed.

Thank you, lovely random man, because it works. It really, truly, honest-to-goodness works. I’ve done it twice now.

Baking a basic ‘lean’ bread dough (flour, salt, yeast and water) in an oiled Dutch oven creates a gorgeous loaf of bread fit for the snoodiest of artisan tables. My husband and I love a good rustic crust you can tear at and dip into stew without the threat of disintegration and I’ve finally achieved it. Seriously folks, this can only be topped by giving birth (which I am fully intending on doing in a few short months).

The best part is that it’s so simple. So Simple. I made baguettes once and it was an elaborate process, absolutely worth it in the end but very time consuming and impractical for everyday eating. After hours of rising and kneading and rising and kneading, I baked the baguettes in a hot oven where an iron pan was sitting in the bottom. To this day I am not sure exactly *how* I managed it, but somehow I slipped the bread into the oven and poured a glass of water into the pan before shutting the door quickly and tightly. The hot pan immediately created the steam bath needed as the final step in making a truly chewy crust. Success, but at a price.

Oh, how differently this works! After the first rising, the dough is kneaded down and then placed in the oiled dutch oven to rise again. Then, when the dough is doubled and the oven is heated to the right temperature, the loaf is brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt and the cover is placed on top. This bakes for 20 minutes and the bread makes its own steam – how clever is that?!? Once the crust is firmed, the cover is removed and the bread finishes baking, browning and bubbling and making itself perfect.

Perfect, I say. We can hardly wait to eat it – and often don’t. Is there anything better than fresh, hot bread drowning in butter? Or – perhaps fresh hot bread dipped in garlicky olive oil and balsamic vinegar? I didn’t think so.

***throws glitter and claps***

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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…