Apr 23, 2014

Top 10 Canning and Food Preservation Tricks

Recently, I was chatting with some other moms when I mentioned that I'd been emptying the freezer of tomatoes so I could can them. When I mentioned some of the tricks I use, they seemed surprised. "Why have I never heard of that before?? That would be so much easier!" one mom said. So with that in mind, here, my friends, are my very canning and food preservation tricks all in one location.

* Frozen tomatoes. Sometimes I just don't have time to can tomatoes in one huge bunch. Or maybe I don't have enough ripe tomatoes to bother canning them at that moment. So I freeze them. To freeze tomatoes, just lay them on a rimmed baking sheet and place them in the freezer. When they are hard, transfer them to a freezer bag. And no, once I've canned these tomatoes, I cannot tell they've been frozen.

* Easy to peel tomatoes. If you freeze tomatoes, they are SO easy to peel! While they are still frozen, place them under warm, running tap water. The peels push right off!
Turn tomato skins into tomato paste. It's quick and easy!

* Love those greens. Got green tomatoes? You can use them as is, but if you prefer, you can ripen them indoors

* Easy peasy tomato paste. Keep those tomato peels - and dehydrate them. Then grind them up and store them in an air tight container. When you need tomato paste, just mix equal parts ground skins and water. So much easier than cooking down tomato paste on the stove!

* Get a rocker. For your pressure canner, that is. A rocker guage not only means you don't need to have your pressure gauge checked every year (and yes, for safety, you really must do that if you don't have a rocker gauge), but I find it's easier to keep the pressure regulated on my canner if I use a rocker.

* Easier dried herbs. When dehydrating herbs with small leaves, keep them on the stem. Once the herb is thoroughly dehyrated, just run your fingers down the stem (starting at the cut end); the leaves come right off and into a jar you've placed beneath your hand.

* Use fruit peels. Most fruits should be peeled before canning. (That's because the peel can harbor more bad stuff that may lead to food poisoning.) But that doesn't mean you have to compost them. Instead, make fruit peel syrup or jelly.

* Don't peel it. When making applesauce, don't peel the apples! It's not necessary at all, and applesauce made with the peels has more nutrition. Plus it's quicker and way easier!

* Note it! Keep a canning diary that lists what you can, what it cost, and how much you put up. It makes
planning for upcoming years much easier.

* Why have two when you can have one? You really don't need two different canners. That's because you can use your pressure canner as a water bath canner! That is, as long as the pressure canner is big enough that at least two inches of water goes over the jars.

Apr 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy, Grease-Free Meatloaf Recipe

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


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

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

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

After baking.
 

Apr 18, 2014

How to Buy Bath Towels that Last

Are you tired of buying bath towels only to have them shrink, fade, and unravel a short time later? Next time you're shopping, use this bath towel buying guide and avoid the disappointment and waste!

#1: Materials Used

The first thing to look for in quality towels is the type of material they are made from. The best towels are made of either cotton or bamboo. Cotton comes in several quality levels:

100% Cotton - 100% cotton towels are the minimum in quality you should look for. Many durable bath towels are made of ordinary cotton.

Prima Cotton - This type of cotton is made from the same plants that make the best Egyptian cotton, but are grown in the United States. A brand name for prima cotton is Supima cotton.

Organic Cotton - This type of cotton is about giving you a more natural product. Towels marked as made from 100% certified organic cotton are made from fibers that were never treated with chemicals while growing.

Turkish Cotton - Made from cotton that's grown in the Aegean region. Turkish toweling is almost as absorbent as Egyptian cotton, and is usually fluffy and thick.

Egyptian Cotton - The highest quality cotton available. The fibers are extra-long, highly absorbent, and very durable.

There are also micro fiber towels whose primary advantage is they dry quickly after use.

Be sure to read fabric labels carefully. Look for "100%" (i.e., "100% prima cotton"). Towels labeled "made with" (i.e. "made with prima cotton") include other fibers - usually synthetics.


Cotton plant.
#2. Construction
 
 In addition to the type of material used, consider the fabric weight. Sheets are given a thread count, but towels are measured by grams per square meter, or GSM. A lower GSM means the towels are thinner and lighter; a higher GSM means they are thicker and heavier. I recommend only considering towels 400 GSM or higher.

400-600 GSM towels are often used for beach towels or guest towels that aren't often used. They are medium weight, and each additional 100 GSM makes the towels a little more absorbent and heavy.

600-900 GSM towels are of the highest quality. They are heavier, more absorbent, and more durable.

You may also see references to "twist" - or the number of twists per inch made with the yarn during constructing. A lower number means the towel is softer and more plush; a higher number means the towel is more durable and heavy.
 
Some other construction methods are of note, too. For example, if the towel is combed cotton, the material is literally combed so that only the strongest and longest threads remain. Terry cloth towels have extra yarn and longer thread loops, making them more absorbent. Ringspin cotton is made from finer, smoother yarn, resulting in a softer towel, while two-ply towels are made with double the amount of yarn, making the towel absorbent, durable, and heavy.


#3. Size Matters

It's not true that all bath towels are of the same size. Some manufacturer's cut corners by making them smaller - and some more luxurious bath towels are considerably larger. The standard size of a bath towel is anywhere from 27 x 52 inches to 30 x 58 inches. If you want over-sized towels, look for "bath sheets," which are usually about 35 x 60 inches to 40 x 70 inches.

Hand towels are 16 x 28 inches to 18 x 30 inches in size, finger towels are about 11x18 inches, and wash clothes are about 13 x 13 inches.


#4. Making the Purchase


It may seem that buying towels in person is the best way to go. After all, if you can handle the towels, you can tell by feel how soft they are, and you can look closely to see how well made they are. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for manufacturers to apply a finish to the towels to make them feel softer or look shinier - and that finish will go away the first time the towels are washed. And unless you can see that the towels are raveling in the store (highly unlikely), it's pretty tough to tell much about the quality of the construction by just looking.

Instead, I recommend buying towels online - or at least consulting the store's website to look at online reviews. Begin by seeking out towels with 4 and 5 star ratings. From there, look at the worst reviews for the towels. Read those reviews carefully. Is the customer really complaining about the quality of the towels, or something else? It's also important to note how many great reviews there are vs. how many bad reviews there are. If, for example, a set of towels has one hundred 4 star reviews and 2 bad reviews, it's likely you will be pleased with the towels. Another thing to look for, however, is how long the customers have had the towels. Some people leave a review immediately after buying the product - perhaps even before using the product. Such reviews aren't very helpful. But reviews written by customers who've used the product for, say, a month or more, are highly useful.

Apr 16, 2014

Last Minute Easter Ideas that Point to Jesus

* Make Resurrection Buns. These are SO easy! Even toddlers can help make them - and I've yet to meet a kid who wasn't delighted with how the buns turn up empty when they bite into them.

* Make Empty Tomb Cookies. These are slightly more involved, but still fun.

* Make Resurrection Eggs for the Easter hunt. It's really easy if you use the printables found here. Or take it one step further and create 3-D items for the eggs. A similar idea is to put together an Easter basket with elements from the true Easter story.

Found on Pinterest. Original source unknown.
* Put a little forethought into the food for Easter. For example, by arranging cut fruit into a cross, you point to the true meaning of the holiday. Or turn donuts into empty tombs. (See other examples here and here.) Or make pretzels into crosses. Or make the bread into a crown of thorns.  Or make a simple breakfast of bacon and eggs something to remember.

* Have the kids make an easy Easter playset, complete with Jesus, angels, and Roman soldiers.

* Make a cross "wreath" for the front door. Here's a nice example.

* A lot of children's Easter crafts forget to explain why Easter is so important to our salvation. Remedy that with this simple "paid in full" craft that turns pennies into a cross.
Via Mom on Time Out.

* Make a simple paper chain garland with your kids. Write the many names of Jesus - one on each chain.

* Provide an Easter treat for a family or children in need. It doesn't take much time to put together some Easter baskets for the children, or a box with meal fixings for the whole family. Be sure to include something that tells the true story of Easter and what it means - perhaps a tact or a children's picture book.

Apr 14, 2014

Read All Food Labels. Every Single One.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 11, 2014

Letter of the Week: T

T is for Tractor, via Our Crafts-n-Things.
This week, begin by showing your child an upper- and lowercase T. "T says t! Like teddy!" Then consider playing a game that lets you review all the letters she or he has learned so far: The Teddy Bear Letter Game. (Take turns being the growly teddy bear.) There are also lots of T foods you could eat today, including turkey, tuna, toast, tortilla chips, tomatoes, tarts, tapioca pudding, and tea.

For more about Letter of the Week activities, click here


* T is for Turkey (see also)
* T is for Turkey (2)
* Turkey hat craft
* Turkey lunch
* Turkey counting
* T is for Treasure (this would tie in with a memory verse: Matt. 6:21)
* Treasure letter maps
* T is for Tire Tracks
* T is for Tiger (lowercase; this is a craft kit, but you could easily fashion this yourself; see also)
* T is for Tiger (uppercase; see also; and this, also)
* Tiger's Teeth paper plate craft
* Tiger paper bag puppet
* Tiger paper plate craft
* Tiger toilet paper roll craft
* T is for Train  (see also)
* Train name writing craft
* Train shape craft
* Train printable craft
* Train colors activity
* Train lunch
* T is for Table (see also)
* T is for Turtle
* Turtle paper plate craft
* Turtle counting
* Turtle lacing, size sort, etc.
* Turtle weaving craft
* T is for Tree (see also)
* Tree shape activities
* Tree life cycle activity
* Tutu hand print craft
* T is for Tea
* T is for Telephone
* T is for Tractor
* Teeth craft* Teddy bear counting and more
* T is for Tulips
* Tulip hand print craft
* Truck counting
* Teddy bear color game
* Teddy bear mask craft
* Teddy bear drawing
* Teddy bear lunch
* Teddy bear snack (see also)
* Phonics: The Letter T
* Sesame Street: 10 Tiny T's do the Tango
* Sesame Street: The Missing T's (part I; part II)
* Sesame Street: Limerick Letter T
* Sesame Street: Cookie Monster and Letter T
* Sesame Street: T Words
* Sesame Street: T Dance
* Sesame Street: T is for Turkey


Apr 9, 2014

A Christian Mom's Guide to Cleaning for Company

The living room floor was covered with toys. I desperately needed to vacuum and mop. The kitchen was obviously disorganized. There was toothpaste and muddy hand prints all over the bathroom counter. But I had guests coming - a mother of a toddler and her husband - so I drove myself to get the house clean. As I scrubbed away at the floor, though, a sudden, strong thought hit me: Why was I driving myself so hard to have a tidy house for company? Did it really benefit my guests? Or was it really about me and my self image? An even stronger thought came to me: "You know, if you really want to help a younger mom, you won't tidy up at all."

Hmmm...I reduced my to-do list a bit, and continued mopping.

Fast forward to when our guests arrived. And at one point, as we stood in the kitchen preparing strawberries for dessert, my guest commented with no small bit of regret: "Your house is so clean and creative! I wish I could do that."

I was taken aback for a moment. (I don't think of my house as clean or creative.) Then I laughed and said, "This is from the Lord! Let me tell you what came to me while I was trying to whip my house into shape for company!"

Here's what I think God was trying to tell me: If, as a slightly more experienced mom, I want to help other, younger mothers who are struggling, showing them a spic-and-span house (or as spic-and-span as my house gets) isn't at all helpful, is it? This just makes other moms feel like they aren't doing enough, or are doing something wrong. On the other hand, if I show them how we really live...that's a lot more helpful! They see that none of us are superwoman, and that focusing on our husbands and children is a lot more important than keeping our homes spotless.

So next time another mom wants to visit my house and I look around disparagingly at muddy hand prints and messy floors, I will resist the urge to rush about cleaning. I will stop being a too busy Martha, and instead try to be more like Mary, hanging on Jesus' every word, ready to serve him in more important ways. How about you?

Apr 7, 2014

Equipping Your Kitchen - at the Thrift Store

Kitchen tools can be costly. A good mixer is over $200. A good bread machine, over $100. Even smaller tools like strainers and spoons add up quickly. And yet good tools can save you a lot of time and effort in the kitchen, making healthy, from scratch food much more do-able.

When it comes to equipping your kitchen, if you're on a budget, thrift stores are your best friend. In January, I made a list of kitchen tools I wanted to acquire, and by shopping at thrift stores, I've already obtained most of them - and for very little money! I've purchased an electric knife to make my homemade bread much less crumbly ($3; savings $17), a salad spinner ($1; savings $20), a manual beater (50 cents; savings $19), and a Food Saver that looks like it's never been used ($9; savings $151). My total cost? $13.50. Total savings? $193.50!

Of course, this takes a wee bit of dedication. I visit a thrift store at least every other week - once a week is better. It's smart to get there on a Friday, before the stores are inundated on the weekend - but I rarely get to go before Saturday or Sunday, so this isn't a must. Some weeks I walk away with nothing. Other weeks, I seem to hit the mother load.

Not all thrift stores are created equal. Those in my town (which is not prosperous) have much slimmer pickings than a thrift store I frequent in a nearby town that's a bit more affluent. Some thrift stores have higher prices than others. Some thrift stores seem to have a better selection of kitchen gear than others. So you need to be willing to explore a bit.

And, frankly, some items are very difficult to find in my local thrift stores. For example, I haven't yet found a coffee grinder or the large stainless steel bowls I'd like to add to my kitchen.

Yet even if you only acquire a small portion of your kitchen tools from thrift stores (or, for that matter, garage sales or Craigslist), you'll still save a lot of money!