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…

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…

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.

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!

the first man whose heart I won and the cookies that did the job

Roger lived up the road from the tiny homestead we lived on when I was a teenager. “Up the road” is common enough to hear out there, even though all the roads are flat as can be. To this day, my brothers and I have to say the words in our best ‘German Midwest bachelor farmer’ accent, followed by a deep sigh and then, “Poor Bob….” It’s become a tradition, and you’ll have to ask me about it another time.

But – back to Roger. I believe he parked his old truck on our front lawn the first day of fair weather the year we moved there, introduced himself and told us in great detail about having died after a heart attack and how the miraculous physicians at the Toledo hospital had resurrected him. My brothers and I stood amazed and slightly terrified on the stone driveway, but we very quickly came to realize that Roger had a talent and deep passion for telling amazing and terrifying stories, and sometimes they were even true.

He was sixty-five and retired from a life of doing anything and everything that was dangerous and just barely decent. When he was young, brave and insanely good-looking he shipped himself off to the jungles of who-knows-where to fight some smokey war and when he came home he married a fiery Quaker girl and kept right on fighting. He was a widower now with not much adventure left in his hard-used heart, so he took up with our farming ventures and was always deeply interested in whatever it was we had going on. He would park his truck on the side of the road and lean against our fence and talk for hours if we’d let him. He never came in the fence, never stepped foot inside the house, he was just as happy as could be standing on the side of the road telling stories and doling out advice.

One day I baked him cookies and he ate them right there.

“Annie – I swear you’re gonna make some poor shmuck a good wife someday! Mark my words. Why, if I were a hundred years younger, your mama would have me to deal with!”

I blushed deeply and didn’t know what to say. I was fifteen and still reeling from the dizzying heights of my most awkward phase.  “You know, you remind me something of my Marty – she was quiet and all domestic and ornery as heck! ” I tucked his words inside and kept them there as protection against the spinsterhood I saw rapidly approaching (at fifteen!!)

He would spoil us with warm, juicy Indiana melons in the summer – a luxury we could never really afford, and we baked for him. One spring he presented me with the loveliest yellow rose bush that fragranced my entire garden. He watched us ‘grow out our pinfeathers’ as it were, and go from a bunch of ambitious kids to a handful of dreamy-eyed young adults bent on moving far from home and finding adventure of our own.

 

Roger’s Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter or shortening

1 cup each brown and white sugars

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon each baking soda and salt

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats

1 cup raisins

I admit, this recipe doesn’t seem to hit the mark health-wise but it certainly reminds me of good times and the sweet man who lived up the road and made a very awkward, frizzy-haired teenager feel pretty with his blatant praise. In my old recipe notebook I’ve scribbled out the proportions for tripling the recipe, which goes to show you how well-loved these cookies were, simple though they be!

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the fat and sugars then beat in the eggs until the mix is ‘fluffy’. Add the vanilla and stir again, then add your dry ingredients. Stir to combine well then drop the cookies with a cookie scoop onto a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes.

Share with a neighbor, served with icy milk on a warm Spring day.

 

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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Hunter’s Breakfast

Here I am, cuddled away under layers of flannel pajamas and an over-sized hooded sweatshirt. The sun is just coming up and the quiet beams of light illuminate the icy stars etched on the window next to my bed. The frost has outlined the glass and framed the world outside like a perfect picture, crimson and orange leaves are waking and shaking off their night’s worth of ice and I can’t help but think of the determined people out among the frost, hunting. My next immediate thought concerns breakfast.

It’s the time of year when people don a contradiction of blaze orange and woodland camouflage and no one thinks anything of it. We see them at gas stations with large, hot coffees, at the diner grabbing a quick bite to eat, or walking along the outlying roads of the town.

I’ve known many hunters and they each have their reasons for gearing up each fall and winter and heading to the wilds. Some like the sense of getting their meat ‘the old way’, some enjoy the solitude, some are thrilled with the sport of it, and then I’ve known some who just really like the taste of wild game.

My husband and I were up visiting some friends in Northern Maine and they served us this delightful breakfast casserole made with moose sausage. It was incredible. Not only was it simple to make and good for a crowd, but it could be made ahead and cooked up when it was needed. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a breakfast so much, accompanied by fresh, hot coffee and a cinnamon roll – I felt ready to go out and conquer the wilds myself!

Hunter’s Breakfast Casserole

1/2 pound game sausage

4 eggs

4 slices of bread, cubed

1/2 cup milk

1 cup shredded cheese

1 Tablespoon flour

1 Tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon basil

1/4 – 1/2  teaspoon each salt and pepper

 

*You could very easily substitute regular pork sausage for the game, if you so desired.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 8×8 baking dish.

The first step is to brown the sausage in a frying pan, breaking it up into small pieces as it cooks. Once it is thoroughly browned, turn off the heat and scoop out the sausage  onto a plate that has been lined with paper towels. This will help to absorb any excess fat from the sausage, especially if you are using pork. I don’t believe game is as greasy and you might be able to skip this step if yours is dry enough already.

While the sausage is draining and cooling, beat together the milk and eggs in a mixing bowl. Add the flour, salt, pepper and basil, stir well, and then add the bread cubes and shredded cheese. Once everything is mixed, add the cooled sausage and stir once more. Pour the whole thing into your waiting baking dish. Cut the butter into small pieces and place around on top of the casserole.

I usually put the baking dish onto a baking sheet before putting it in the oven, just because the eggs can be a little bit excitable and spill over the sides sometimes. The casserole needs to bake for 30-45 minutes, or until the center of the dish is rather firm.  Remove and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

If you are saving the dish for another day you have two options; you can bake the casserole and let it cool before covering with foil and keeping in the fridge until it is wanted – in which case you would gently heat it up in the oven, covered, at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or you can assemble the casserole and *not* cook it, but cover and keep in the fridge to bake in the morning – uncovered.

This meal could easily switch ends of the day and be served as a dinner, just add a cup of cooked spinach, broccoli florets, sauteed onions or bell peppers – you are only limited by your imagination!

Happy Hunting!