Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tools to Make Canning and Preserving Easier

Canning and preserving food the old fashioned way takes time and effort, there is no doubt about it. I think it is worth it, so I have found some new fashioned tools to make old fashioned home canning easier and take less time.

Over Sink Cutting Board

When you are quartering, chopping or peeling fruits or vegetables, it helps to have an over the sink cutting board. It's close to where you need it to be, and keeps juices and scraps contained instead of dripping all over the floor. Juicy tomatoes are notoriously messy to cut. I found one that is adjustable and has a drain type area to put scraps. If I had lots of money to spare I would get one with a colander attached.

Food Processor

A food processor is very helpful for quick slicing, dicing, shredding, chopping, and pureeing. I love my KitchenAid 12-Cup Food Processor. It works great for soups, salsas, and purees when I don't want to spend too much time chopping. It is also a very useful machine for everyday in the kitchen. KitchenAid makes a very good food processor. It is powerful, well made, easy to clean, and they provide a great warranty and customer service. 

KitchenAide Mixer Attachments

My KitchenAid Stand Mixer is an integral tool in my kitchen. I use it all the time. You can also get some wonderful attachments to make fruit and vegetable processing easier. 
The Mixer Attachment Pack for Stand Mixers has a grinder/shredder and a strainer. The grinder/shredder works really good for shredding or slicing large quantities of vegetables. The strainer attachment is great for tomatoes and fruits. It removes seeds and skins effortlessly. I use it all the time to prepare big batches of tomatoes for juice or sauce and for fruits to make jam or sauce.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Easy Jambalaya

Until I figured out this recipe, Jambalaya sounded complicated and exotic. Once I made it and it turned out awesome and super easy, I realized that it's basically a thick soup or stew, and it all made sense from there.

This was one of the first dishes I made for my husband when we first met. It is hearty and spicy and perfect for impressing a man who likes to eat.

It's a pretty easy, relatively quick recipe, and you can make it from scratch or with leftovers. It can be a great way to use up leftover meats and rice.

This recipe is a 'creole style' jambalaya, as opposed to the 'cajun style' which does not have tomatoes.

I always serve it with my skillet cornbread (I will post the recipe for that one next!)

In my last post about making soups , I broke down soup into a basic formula with basic instructions.
Basic Soup Recipe= Stock + Bulk + Flavor + Seasonings + Extras 


2 T vegetable or olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2-2/3 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
4 gloves minced garlic
1/2 can tomato paste
4 cups chicken broth
28oz can diced tomatoes (undrained) or 1 quart of tomatoes from your garden
1.5 cup long grain rice
2 t dried thyme, 1 t dried basil, 2 bay leaves, 1/2 t dried red pepper, 1/4 t black pepper
6-8 cups of any 3 meats (cubed ham, shrimp, sausage, chicken)

Stock: The stock in Jambalaya is made from the vegetable trinity and tomato paste. 
  1. Heat oil in a pot
  2. Cook the Vegetable Trinity (onion, celery, pepper) in the oil until tender
  3. Add 4 cloves of minced garlic and 1/2 can tomato paste
  4. Heat and stir until fragrant and mahogany in color
Bulk & Seasonings: The bulk is the rice and tomatoes

  1. Add uncooked rice, broth, and tomatoes to the mix (if you have pre-cooked rice, omit the chicken broth and add at the end. May need to add salt and pepper to taste)
  2. Add dried seasonings
  3. Bring to a boil, then simmer covered for 15 minutes or until rice is done
Flavor: The various meat or seafood you choose to add make up the flavor of the jambalaya. My favorite combination is ham, shrimp, and andouille sausage. It's easiest to use already cooked meats, but if you choose to use raw, you may have to modify the cooking time.

  1. Add your chosen meat and heat through.
  2. Taste and add more salt, pepper or hot sauce if needed. 

Slow Cooker Directions:
You can use a slow cooker if you choose, but as I learned the hard way, the rice turns into a gluey unappetizing mess if you slow cook it. For the best results, add cooked rice and meats and heat through just before serving. If you are using raw meat you could slow cook it with the rest (except for shrimp).
(Low 7-9 hours, High 3 hours)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Super Soups

I love making soups, because they are easy, fun, and healthy. Soups also take very little time or thought to prepare, both of which are in short supply on busy days. Plus, it’s almost impossible to make a bad batch of soup. You can always add more seasonings, or more water if it’s too strong, and if you overcook the vegetables you can puree and turn into a chowder.  Soups are also a great way to make meat go farther, and a creative way to use leftovers.

If you learn the basics of making soup, you can whip up a pot in no time without a recipe. I enjoy the spontaneity, making it up as I go. You can make a big pot and freeze or can for later enjoyment. I can my soups in the summer and we enjoy wonderful healthy homemade soups all winter long.

There are options for every schedule. You can throw ingredients in a crockpot and have magically ready for dinner, or you can throw ingredients in a pot on the stove and have ready in a couple hours, mostly unattended.

Basic Soup Recipe
  1. Stock
  2. Bulk
  3. Flavor
  4. Seasonings
  5. Extras 
Stock or Broth
Every soup starts with a stock or broth. This is the liquid part of the soup. It can be meat or poultry stock, or vegetable stock. You can use homemade stock or store-bought. If you do buy it at the store, look for low salt, no MSG, and say no to the bouillon cubes. I like to use a high quality concentrated liquid stock. It’s expensive but well worth it.

Ambitious folks make their own stocks, but I don’t have the time or storage space.  For vegetable soups, you can make a simple stock of onion, carrots, celery, bay leaf and seasonings, simmered for 20 minutes.

The bulk of the soup is the vegetables. The combinations are up to you. See the list below for ideas. Keep in mind strong flavored vegetables can overpower others. Chop the veggies into uniform pieces so they cook evenly.

Flavor or Base
The flavoring of your soup can be a meat or poultry, or a strong flavored vegetable. Examples of strong flavored vegetables are broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, tomato, and cabbage. Chop into uniform pieces and add to the stock.

If you are using raw meat or a soup bone, you will probably need to separate the fat when the soup is done.  I prefer to precook the meat or use leftover meat. If you do have to separate the fat you can do it by skimming off the top with a spoon, using a special fat separator, or refrigerating and removing the solid fat off the top.

When you have all of your ingredients in the pot, bring to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for a half hour to an hour (depending on the size and rawness of your ingredients). Now comes the fun part, the tasting! Taste the liquid part of the soup and season to your tastes. Add salt, pepper, herbs, and red pepper as needed. Let it simmer a bit longer and taste again.

If the flavor seems to be missing something, try a splash of something acidic. I’ve found that this is the secret ingredient that seems to round out the flavor of the soup. Depending on the flavor of your soup, you can add red wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or even regular white vinegar. Lemon or lime juice is good in tomato based soups. You can experiment, but try a little at a time and see what happens. Have fun! The soup is done when the vegetables are cooked through and the taste is how you like it.

You can make your soups more fun and more filling with some extras such as pasta, grains, and dairy products. Pastas and grains can be cooked in the soup, but will absorb much of the liquid and make the soup thicker. The texture can be a little different, so some people will cook separately and add at the end. Egg noodles and smaller pastas work well in soups. Grains such as barley and rice are also a nice addition to make soup more substantial.

To make a creamy soup, simply puree the vegetables after they are cooked, and add cream, milk or sour cream before serving. Mashed potatoes can also be used to thicken a soup without adding fat.  You can also use flour or cornstarch to thicken a soup, see the Condensed Cream of Anything Soup recipe for more.

If using a slow cooker, cook on low for about 10 hours or high for about 6 hours. If cooking by stovetop, simmer for 1 to 1.5 hours, or until vegetables are the texture you like.

Storing Your Soup
Soups make fabulous leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer. The only issues you may have are with the extras. Pasta, grains, and cream don’t always reheat well. The soup will still be edible and taste the same, but the texture can change. This has never stopped me, but if it bothers you, you can keep those ingredients separate and add before reheating. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Natural Baby

As the saying goes, having a baby changes everything. There are so many choices to make and green/natural options to weigh. I spent much time researching, planning, and shopping for the best earth friendly baby products.

I realize that not everyone wants to hear about the down and dirty baby stuff, so I created a separate blog to share what I learned about bringing up baby green.

See posts about cloth diapering, and washing cloth diapers with soapnuts.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Good Old Fashioned Percolator Coffee

Percolator heating up
Coffee snobs will tell you that percolator coffee is far inferior to other fancy methods of brewing coffee. We use a vintage Pyrex glass percolator to make our coffee, and we are very happy with the taste. The fact that there is no plastic contaminating our coffee is a big bonus.

We became hooked on the percolator after using a small aluminum pot on our camping excursions. Nothing can quite compare to coffee made over an outdoor fire. One day we decided to buy a glass percolator for home use, and we never looked back.

Starting to bubble up
You can find the vintage Pyrex percolators many places online in various sizes, and they are pretty reasonably priced. Replacement parts are also readily available, in case you break something, but we have used ours for years without any problems.

The only issue with percolator coffee is the risk of over-heating, which can make the coffee bitter. It takes some practice, but after you have the method down, you can make a pretty decent cup of coffee.

1. Add cool water too percolator.
Coffee is done!
2. Place the tube and filter basket in the percolator.
3. Add coarse ground coffee to the filter basket, 2 tsp per cup and put the basket lid on (no paper filter needed)
4. Place the glass lid on the pot and heat on Medium until it starts to percolate
5. Once you see bubbling in the top, turn to low and let it perk for 2-3 minutes.

You don't want to let the coffee boil, because this can make the coffee bitter or acidic.

The best coffees to use are smooth and low acid beans that are ground very coarse. We like to use fresh ground, locally roasted, Organic Fair Trade whole beans.

The glass percolator is easy to clean- all parts can go in the dishwasher, and stains clean up nicely with vinegar.

It takes more time than a drip coffeemaker, but we enjoy the ritual and love the clean, plastic and paper-free taste of old fashioned percolator coffee.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Saving Money on Natural Products

I'm sure we all would like to use more natural products, but many products labeled 'Green', 'Natural' or 'Organic' can be cost prohibitive.

I have done some experimenting with products, and in order to make it into our routine for good they must work well and be a good price. Here's a couple that I have found:

Tom's of Maine Toothpaste

This brand has many flavors to choose from but we prefer the Peppermint Baking Soda with Fluoride. We experimented with other natural brands without fluoride, but we noticed our teeth started to hurt after a while. This one works great and we have been using it for years with no cavities. After you have used a natural toothpaste for a while, if you use a conventional brand it will actually feel like your mouth is burning and have sickly sweet taste.

We preferred the original recipe, before the company sold out (google it for more info). The updated version was not as good, but they seem to have made some adjustments, and it is better now. It is more expensive than conventional brands, but we can buy it online in multi-packs and save money.

Seventh Generation Dish Soap

Soap is soap, and this one works just fine. I like that it is non-toxic, biodegradable, and free and clear of fragrances and dyes. I use it as dish soap and diluted for hand soap. I save money buy buying it online in a case of 6 bottles.