Mar 4, 2015

Storing Food Without Plastic

I've not been quick to jump on the anti-BPA bandwagon, but it does seem more and more damning evidence is linked not just to BPA, but to other chemicals in plastic (including those touted as safe alternatives to BPA). One of the more interesting observations is that males seem more susceptible to hormone disruption caused by plastic than females; since boys are far more likely to develop autism than girls, researchers wonder if plastic could be a reason for autism. And did I mention that plastics - which are found not just in plastic bags, bottles, and boxes, but also in the lining for commercially canned foods - are also linked to hyperactivity in children?

So I've been thinking a lot about just how much plastic our food is exposed to. A mother could drive herself crazy trying to rid her family's exposure to plastic, pesticides, and other chemicals. (As a wise friend of mine says, there is no perfect food in a fallen world.) But here are some easy ways to avoid plastic - and save some money, too.

In the Refrigerator:

* Use canning jars. These work really well for stock, soup, stew, salads, etc. Short, fat jars work for storing partially used fruits and veggies. (I keep a few used canning jar lids around to use for purposes such as this, but you could buy new ones if you don't can. It's also fine to reuse glass jars from store bought food.) (UPDATE 02/05/2015: My husband read this post and said, "But there's plastic in canning jar lids." I replied that while this is true, I'm assuming the food won't touch the plastic on the lid. He pointed out that offgassing of plastics is a concern. He's right. See, a Mom could go crazy!)

A plate set over a plate or bowl protects food in the fridge.
* Put leftovers in non-plastic bowls (or the platters or dishes that they were served on) and cover them with a plate, instead of plastic wrap. This works best if the bowl or other container has raised sides. You can also put one plate on top of another plate. And yes, the food keeps just as long in the fridge as it would in a container with an air tight lid.

* Invest in some casserole dishes with glass lids. Use these instead of Tupperware. Bonus: You can cook with them, too.
Casserole dishes with glass lids are excellent for storing leftovers.
* Keep foods in non-plastic bowls, and use homemade fabric covers. Here's a nice example of using cotton covered in beeswax. You could also add elastic to the edges, to make round, shower cap style coverings, like this. If you're not the crafty type, similar items are available on Etsy.

* Notice I didn't mention glass refrigerator containers? They have plastic lids. Plus, they tend to be pricey. And as you can see, they aren't necessary.


In the Freezer:

Liquids store exceptionally well in glass jars.
 * Use canning jars for storing liquids or partial liquid foods. However, ONLY use canning lids without shoulders; they should be straight from the opening all the way to the bottom. Be sure to leave room for the contents to expand during freezing, also. (If you leave about 1 inch of space from the opening of the jar to the food, you should be fine.)

* Use cleaned milk or juice cartons for freezing liquids. You'll need freezer tape to seal the containers. (Yes, there is some plastic in these containers, but they are lined so the plastic doesn't come into contact with contents of the carton.)

* Wrap foods in heavy duty foil. A double layer works best. Or first wrap in foil, then in butcher paper.

* Use butcher paper. In the old days, butcher paper wrapped items weren't first wrapped in plastic or foil. This method works best, however, if the food is already frozen, so consider placing whatever you're freezing on a rimmed baking sheet in the freezer; when it's hard, wrap it in the paper.
When freezing food in glass jars, be sure to choose jars without a shoulder.

Mar 2, 2015

Thank You, God, for Dirt to Vacuum

The house was an utter mess. Toys everywhere. Dishes piled in the sink. And a filthy kitchen floor. Try as I might to teach my children to always remove their shoes before they come into the house, they rarely do, and end up tracking dirt, mud, and debris over our light-colored floors. It doesn't help that their daddy refuses to remove his shoes before he comes into the house.

So maybe you can imagine my grumpiness as I, tired from a long morning of homeschool and disobedient children, pulled out the vacuum and began sucking up the mess on the kitchen floor. I found my thoughts were grumbling, resentful, even angry. "Why can't the kids learn to remove their shoes at the door? They aren't new here - and this isn't a new rule. I'm so tired of constantly cleaning up their messes. They need to learn to clean up after themselves!" And so I became grumpier. And more resentful. And more angry.

Then POP! My thought bubble burst. God busted in and I literally stopped vacuuming, stood up straight, and thought, "Why am I grumpy and complaining? Why am I resentful and angry?"

And I began to pray: "Lord, please forgive me for my wrong thoughts and attitudes. Instead, I thank you for the dirt and mud on the kitchen floor. Because that dirt means you've blessed me with young children. Children I prayed earnestly for. One child who is a miracle, escaping death on several occasions. Another who is a miracle because he was born full term. And I am thankful because I have a husband - a man I prayed years for. I am thankful he doesn't take off his shoes! Because the dirt he tracks in reminds me he lives here with me, every day. And that he's an answered prayer.

"Thank you, God! Thank you for dirt to vacuum!"



Feb 26, 2015

Grow the Dirty Dozen Ebook

Did you know that according to the CDC  90% of Americans test positive for pesticides? Including pesticides that have been banned for home use due to serious side effects? Ugh.

This is why each year The Environmental Working Group releases their famous list of "The Dirty Dozen" - the 12 types of produce that test highest for pesticide residue. Looking at this list, published heavily in newspapers and magazines, can be pretty depressing. A lot of kid favorites are on it.

Theoretically, you can stop your family's exposure to pesticides by buying organic only produce. But not only is this expensive (double ugh!), it may not offer 100% protection. In recent years, there have been several cases where produce labeled "organic" was illegally sprayed with chemicals. (Here is just one example.) And, as I've written about before, even government guidelines for certified organic produce allow the use of chemicals if farmers feel their crop may fail without them. I also recently read that organic produce can legally be sprayed with chemicals as long as they have natural ingredients - but that some of those natural chemicals may be harmful to humans. (Triple ugh!)

So what's a mom to do? One option is to plan your garden according to what foods are the worst offenders. That's where my new book Grow the Dirty Dozen: Stop Buying Produce with Pesticides and Start Growing Your Own Organic Fruits & Vegetables comes in. And by growing the most pesticide-laced foods, you not only know exactly what is in your food, but you'll feel better and save a ton of money.

Grow the Dirty Dozen offers step by step advice for novice and expert gardeners alike. You'll learn which produce is most pesticide-laden, and exactly how to grow it yourself, organically.

You'll also find the best tips for preserving your harvest through freezing, canning, drying, and cold storage. There's even a special section on genetically modified (GMO) produce, how to avoid it, and how to grow it organically.

As our food supply becomes more and more contaminated, growing our own food becomes ever more important. It isn't hard. And it doesn't require acreage. Your kids can even help. And learning how to do it doesn't cost much, either - Grow the Dirty Dozen is only $2.99 at Amazon.

Feb 25, 2015

Making Farmer's Cheese in a Crock Pot - a From Scratch Recipe

In 2013, I posted about how I was going to learn to make cheese. I bought a bunch of specialized
ingredients and a few tools, and attempted to make mozzarella - supposedly a good choice for beginning cheesemakers. Well, it was awful. Terribly grainy and rubbery. I figured it was probably the milk I chose to use (which I think was ultra-high temperature pasteurized, even though it wasn't labeled as such), and planned to make another attempt with a different brand of milk. It never happened.

But it's always been in the back of my mind that I need to give it another go...even though I thought that meant buying all new rennet and other specialized cheesemaking ingredients. Then I saw the March/April '15 issue of Backwoods Home magazine. In it, Leah Leach writes about making a type of cheese I'd never heard of before: Farmer's Cheese. The recipe was instantly appealing to me because it required only ordinary, everyday ingredients: milk, butter, and lemon juice.

Why Make Your Own Cheese?

It's fun, for one. And it's always satisfying to make something from scratch. But my main motivation is the high cost of cheese, and avoiding preservatives used in grocery store cheeses.

What Does Farmer's Cheese Taste Like?

I Googled this question before I attempted to make Farmer's Cheese. Most people seem to think it tastes something like cottage cheese or ricotta or a mixture of both. I think it's a bit more like mozzarella. When made with lemon juice, there is certainly a mild lemony flavor. (Fresh lemon juice has a milder flavor than bottled.)

 How to Use Farmer's Cheese
Farmer's Cheese on pizza.

* As a substitute for mozzarella cheese
* On pizza
* In casseroles or other dishes where you want a nicely melting cheese
* Crumbled over salads
* On crackers
* Added to omelets or scrambled eggs as they cook
* Added to mashed or baked potatoes
* In place of cream cheese in dishes like jalapeno poppers
* In macaroni and cheese (use along with other cheeses)
* Sliced (and perhaps pan fried) and put on toast or bread
* In this amazing-looking Farmer's Cheese Chocolate Cake (oh my!)

The Versatility of Farmer's Milk

There are a lot of variations that change the way this cheese comes out. (But don't worry! That doesn't mean this cheese is tough to make! It's SO easy, and once the milk is heated, takes just minutes to complete.)

Ingredients for Farmer's Cheese. (I prefer to use vinegar instead of lemons.)
Type of Milk

Nor surprisingly, the type of milk you use will change the flavor and texture of this cheese. Goat, sheep, or cow's milk are most commonly used for Farmer's Cheese, but assuming you don't have a source for farm fresh milk, it's fine to use ordinary, grocery store, pasteurized cow's milk. But you do not want ultra high temperature pasteurized (UHT) milk! This is milk that's pasteurized at a very high temperature, killing all the good stuff that helps you make cheese (or yogurt). Unfortunately, as I learned back when I tried to make mozzarella, not all UHT is marked as such. All shelf stable milk is UHT, and some refrigerated milk is, too. A hint that it's UHT? It has an expiration date that's considerably farther out than other brands, or it lasts an extra long time in your refrigerator.

Type of Acid

The Backwoods Home recipe calls for fresh lemons. You could also use bottled lemon juice. White vinegar is also a common choice. Some recipes call for part buttermilk (often leaving out the butter); others call for rennet. Each of these choices will affect the flavor of the cheese. (Personally, I lean toward simple, inexpensive ingredients that I can easily find locally. For me, that means lemons or white vinegar.)

Other Factors

How much whey (liquid) you squeeze from the cheese affects the texture of the cheese greatly. Squeeze every drop out, and you'll have a dry, crumbly cheese (but it will still taste good). Squeeze too little out, and your cheese will be very soft and spread-able (and still yummy). Most Farmer's Cheese is somewhere in between.

In addition, how long you leave the curds (bumpy parts) and whey on the stove before you drain the whey affects the cheese texture and flavor. Some people insist on leaving the curds and whey undisturbed for at least 20 minutes; others don't wait at all. Some recipes also call for heating the cheese extremely slowly over low heat; this is mostly about flavor.
Farmer's Cheese on a salad.

Finally, Farmer's Cheese is sometimes seasoned with herbs, citrus zest, or garlic. These can be stirred into the cheese before it's shaped into a loaf, or you can roll the loaf in them before chilling the cheese.

How to Make Farmer's Cheese

So knowing these things, I decided to try the Farmer's Cheese as exactly laid out in Backwoods Home. I used store bought, pasteurized whole milk, fresh lemons, and a minimum of seasonings. When I got to the stage where the curds and whey separate, I thought I'd failed. I couldn't really see that the milk had separated. I continued with the process of cheesemaking, however, and ended up with a tasty - though quite soft - cheese.

The next time, I took a slightly different route. I used white vinegar in place of the lemon juice, and remembering how well my crock pot made yogurt came out, decided to use the crock pot for heating the milk. Success! The curds and whey almost instantly separated, and I had yummy cheese - and more of it than when I used the Backwoods recipe. So, here's my method. (If you don't have a crock pot, that's fine. Just heat the milk in a heavy, stainless steel saucepan.)

1 quart (4 cups) whole milk
1/4 cup white vinegar (or 2 - 4 lemons, juiced; put the juice from 2 lemons into 1 bowl; put the remaining juice in another bowl)
1 tablespoon butter
Salt
Pepper

Crock pot
Stainless steel spoon
Cheesecloth or flour sack dish cloth
Colander
Large bowl
Small bowls
Plastic wrap or air tight container

1. Pour the milk into the crock pot. Cover and place over high heat. Heat the milk until almost boiling, 180 degrees F. How long this takes depends upon your crock pot. Mine took about half an hour. (Incidentally, I didn't use a thermometer and that's fine for this type of cheese. Just keep checking the milk without lifting the lid of your crock pot. When it just barely begins to have bubbles, it's ready.)

2. Turn off the crock pot and remove the lid. Lift the crock out of the metal shell of the crock pot. Stir the milk.

3. Add about half the vinegar (or the lemon juice from two lemons - which you have in one bowl). Stir. If the curds (the white, lumpy parts that look like cottage cheese) and the whey (the liquid) don't separate, add the rest of the vinegar or lemon juice.

Curds.
4. Line a colander with four layers of cheesecloth (unless you have the high quality stuff that's woven very tightly, in which case you can use two layers) or a flour sack dishcloth. Place the colander over a large bowl. Carefully pour the curds and whey into the lined colander. Take up the edges of the cloth, turning it into a sort of bag. Use a large spoon to press down on the cheesecloth bag, making the whey stream out and into the bowl beneath the colander. Be careful; the curds and whey are hot!
Taking up the edges of the cheesecloth.
5. When you're satisfied that most of the whey is separated from the curds, empty the curds into a small bowl. Add the butter, and, using the back of a spoon, press and mix the butter into the warm curds until the butter is melted and well blended. At first, the mixture will probably feel rubbery, but just keep mixing and soon the cheese will soften.

The whey is now strained from the curds.
6. Season with salt and pepper, then shape into a loaf. Cover with plastic wrap or place in an air tight container in the fridge.

The cheese will last at least one week - perhaps two. It is fine to double this recipe.


What to Do With The Whey

Whey.
They whey from Farmer's Cheese is called "sour whey" or "acid whey" because you've added acid to it. Whey is packed with protein, vitamins C, B, E, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, phosphorous, copper, selenium, and manganese.

Whatever you do, please don't dump it down the drain. Whey changes the acidity of water, which can be a huge issue for nature. Whey can also cause problems with septic and sewage disposal systems. Instead, do one of the following:

* Give it to your chickens or pigs (the traditional thing to do)
* Add it to soup
* Use it as a substitute for milk or water when baking (I hear it makes fluffier pancakes!)
* Use it to fertilize acid-loving plants, like tomatoes and blueberries (Use sparingly and don't place in the soil before seeds have sprouted or it may prevent germination)
* Add it to smoothies
* Use it in place of water to reconstitute fruit juices
* Use it, along with spices, as a meat marinade
* Add a few tablespoons to the water you soak beans in
* Use some in place of water when making stock
* Use it to make lemonade
* Use it for fermenting
* Freeze it for later use

Related Posts:

Failproof Yogurt in the Crock Pot (Slow Cooker)
The Easy Way to Make Butter
Butter in a Jar

Feb 23, 2015

Update on Our Tiny House Motor Home and New Homestead

Let me begin by saying we are so anxious to get moved to our new homestead, we can hardly stand ourselves. Our hearts are 100% there...but our bodies have to stay in the suburbs for a while. We've had a series of frustrations and events that sometimes make us feel like we'll never get to move - but we're working hard on waiting patiently for God's timing.

Here's what's happening:

* We are waiting on a shipping container. We will not be getting rid of nearly everything we own in order to move into our tiny house motor home.We'll be getting rid of a lot, to be sure. But since we eventually plan on building a home - not a huge home, mind you, but also not a tiny house - we think it would be foolish to get rid of things like beds and dressers, only to have to buy them again later. However, we don't want to pay to store our stuff, either. Our solution is to store our things ourselves in an insulated shipping container - which can later be made into a shop for my husband. But, contrary to what you hear in the media, shipping containers aren't super cheap (even when they aren't insulated) and they aren't all that easy to find, either. So, we continue looking....

* I can't start packing until we have a place to put things (i.e., a shipping container). We literally have no storage at our house and because my time is already so limited (homeschool, working from home, etc.), I really only want to go through the rooms once. So while we have given a lot away already, I haven't done any major decluttering, packing, or cleaning.

* Although I really wanted to clean and make pretty the entire motor home before we moved, our local  government got in the way of that. It seems it's against city ordinance to have any vehicles parked in your front yard, except in driveways. Our motor home does not fit in our driveway. The city planner drove by our house and told us we had to move our motor home; since there was no other legal place to park it on our property, that means we had to put it in RV storage.

Yes, I do think this ordinance wrong. My neighbors all think it's wrong, too. But what's really inappropriate is that our city, our neighborhood, our very street, is full of people parking vehicles in ways the city says is illegal. Most of them have not been cited or asked to move their vehicles. Heck, I have a neighbor who not only has two vehicles parked on his lawn, but he has three vehicles parked in the mow strip - the piece of land between the street and sidewalk - partially blocking the sidewalk. The vehicles in his driveway also mostly block the sidewalk. And while this is illegal in our city - and actually a safety issue since it forces pedestrians into the street, the city planner doesn't care about it. In fact, she informed my husband she was making a stink about our motor home because "things get back to her." She's been told my husband has criticized her.

So we have city employees wielding power inappropriately - showing favoritism to some citizens and applying the law inequally. Nice, eh? Can't imagine why we want to leave this place...

Long story short, I will be unable to finish making the motor home a home until we actually move into it. And now we have another monthly bill.

But it's okay. We're just trying to focus on one step at a time, and enjoying walks on our gorgeous, forested property. It's going to be an amazing place to live.

 All photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
(Nope, that's not a photo of our forest, but it sure reminds me of it!)

Feb 20, 2015

Farmer Boy Activities

My children and I took a little break from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series last summer and fall, but as soon as we picked up Farmer Boy, I remembered why it's my favorite in the series. My children and I can really identify with Almanzo and the things he learns working on his father's farm.

Here are some activities I came up with to go along with our reading:

* Do a popcorn and milk experiment

* Try an ice insulation experiment.

* Dye some clothing or fabric using natural dyes. 

* Look at the cost of things in Farmer Boy. Can you compare them with prices today? How much would Almanzo's $200 be in today's money? 

* Eat some apples 'n onions.

* Grow a milk fed pumpkin.

* Make some apple turnovers.

* Do some molasses candy pulling.

* What could you enter into your area's fair? Start now on that project. 

* Set up a rain barrel.

* Make some simple headcheese.

* Make a whistle from a blade of grass. (Also.)

* Whip up some watermelon rind preserves.

* Tap some trees and make syrup. (More tips for tapping non-Maple trees here.)

* Eat some birds' nest pudding.

* Make some easy apple vinegar. (Instead of chopping up whole apples, you may use apple peels and scraps.)

* Color some boy farmer pictures.

* Make some watermelon rind pickles or green tomato pickles.

* Watch a video of the Wilder farm.

* Eat some blueberry pudding.

* Make some Farmer Boy inspired doughnuts.

* Read and learn about the Declaration of Independence.

*  Consider using this free Farmer Boy unit study, including crafts. (Here's another.)

* Make a Farmer Boy lap book. (Or, try this one.)

 More:

Little House in the Big Woods Activities
Pancake Men (from Little House in the Big Woods)
Little House on the Prairie Activities
Little House on the Prairie Birthday Party
On the Banks of Plum Creek Activities 
Little Town on the Prairie Activities
Activities for The First Four Years
These Happy Golden Years Activities 
Farmer Boy Activities


Feb 18, 2015

Cauliflower Chowder Recipe - low carb, gluten free

I'm always looking for ways to lower my higher glucose carb intake because, well - they make me fat. Plus, I feel better when I don't eat them. But balancing this need with the need to keep our food budget small and find food everyone in the family - including a picky, low weight kid - will eat, is tough. But with this cauliflower chowder recipe, I have the best of all worlds! It's very much like a potato chowder - only much lower in carbs. It's inexpensive to make. AND it's totally delish and everyone in the family loves to eat it!


Cauliflower Chowder Recipe

4 bacon slices, cooked and chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, diced
1/4 cup flour (any type, including gluten free varieties)
4 cups beef stock (I've also used ham stock)
1 cup milk
1 cauliflower head, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
Salt
Pepper

1. Place a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium high heat. Add the butter and let it melt. Add the onion, garlic, celery, and carrots. Saute, stirring often, until the vegetables are tender.



2. Add the cauliflower and bay leaf. Saute, stirring often, for about 4 minutes.


3. Add the flour, stirring until you cannot see it any more. A little at a time, stir in stock and milk. Stir constantly until thickened.
4. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until cauliflower is fork tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If you feel the mixture is too thick, add a little milk. Stir in bacon and serve immediately.

Other good toppings for this chowder include grated cheddar cheese and chopped green onions.

Adapted from a recipe at The Miniature Moose.



Feb 16, 2015

Backyard Winter Gardening: A Book Review

Over the years, I've read a number of books on winter gardening, but Caleb Warnock's Backyard Winter Gardening is by far the best - for the simple reason that it gives easy to follow advice on the simplest ways to grow and harvest food in the winter.

Warnock is best known for his "Forgotten Skills" books, which look at the way pioneers sustained themselves and how we can recreate these skills for modern life. So it's no surprise that the methods included in Backyard Winter Gardening are old standbys easily duplicated today. Specifically, Warnock focuses on cold frames and hot beds.

A cold frame is just a low, bottomless box with a glass lid that's set over vegetables. Warnock explains he's used many types of cold frames, including the store bought variety and cold frames made with straw bales and a piece of glass. But, he writes, his simple, inexpensive, homemade two by four cold frames work best. Happily, they are extremely simple to make and even someone without building experience should be able to create one.

The author also uses hot beds; they have the same construction as his cold frames, but before planting vegetables in them, the author puts fresh manure or green clippings beneath the soil; as these decay, they keep the temperature in the box quite warm.

Using one of these two devices, Warnock grows an abundance of vegetables in winter, including beans, cabbage, lettuce, peas, spinach, and even melons. Between these fruits and veggies and the produce he keeps in his cellar, he easily feeds his family all winter.

In addition, Warnock offers details about his geothermal greenhouse - an underground greenhouse that requires no electricity and gets quite hot (100 degrees F. or more), even in Utah's coldest, snowiest winters. Here, the author grows tomatoes year round and keeps tropical fruit trees.

Warnock also mentions overwintering some veggies. This produce isn't really growing during winter; it's just staying fresh by staying in the soil. He includes carrots, beets, and other vegetables in this list, and also shows readers how to harvest them pre-winter and store them in a cool location, like a cellar or garage. I was especially excited to see that if stored correctly in a box in a cool place, many vegetable tops will continue growing, giving fresh greens all winter.

Throughout, Warmock stresses that choosing the right seed for growing food in winter is essential. Not all varieties do well in the cold, dark months. To help readers find the right type of seed, he includes the names of some of his favorite varieties and gives advice on the best places to find winter vegetable seeds.

The only thing I feel this book is missing is some information about using tunnels for winter gardening. I do realize the author is trying to focus on the most old fashioned and easy ways to winter garden, and tunnels are more of a modern invention. But at the back of the book, the author excerpts some of his gardening journal, mentioning tunnels briefly, but never explaining why he doesn't recommend them. (Elsewhere in the book, he mentions the high winds his area receives, so I assume this is why tunnels don't work well for him. Still, it would be helpful to read what he feels the pros and cons of tunnels vs. cold frames and hot beds are.)

In addition, it's important to remember that Warnock is somewhat selective in the foods he mentions in the book. For example, he neglects to mention parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, or collards, all of which are good winter vegetables. On the other hand, he talks about his amazing trials growing cantaloupe in hot beds (!) and has a chapter dedicated to mangels, an excellent through little-known crop for livestock.

Finally, several times in the book, Warnock refers readers to his website or blog. For example, he suggests checking his blog for an update about growing cantaloupe in winter. But when I arrived at his site, the search feature wasn't working. In fact, his blog looks a little neglected, with loading problems and infrequent posts.

All in all, however, Backyard Winter Gardening is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to those who want to grow more of their family's food.