Aug 31, 2011

Recipe of the week: You say tomato, I say salsa

Last Saturday, I had Mr. Official swing by a nearby produce stand and I picked up a half-bushel box of canning tomatoes, plus onions and jalapenos and bell peppers.

I then stood for a long couple of hours and skinned and diced two gallons of maters, along with a the other ingredients to make my one-and-only batch of salsa for the year - 16 pints plus a half-pint left over.

I've had this recipe for several years now, and I've adapted it slightly to suit our tastes. If you like a chunky, "picante" (spicy, you choose the heat) salsa, this is a good one to fill in for store-bought salsa. It isn't expensive to make (not counting jars and lids, my guesstimate is around $1 per pint), but it is time-consuming to make. Give yourself at least 4-5 hours, more if skinning and seeding tomatoes isn't second-nature to you (there's a bit of a learning curve involved.) And be prepared for a major kitchen wipedown when you're done, because those tomato seeds and the juice will squirt everywhere. It is a necessary step to avoid watery salsa, though.  

Chunky Salsa Recipe

2 gallons (40-50 large) ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and diced
10-12 peppers (you can use any combination of bell, banana, habanero, or jalapeno), diced (remove seeds from bells; seeding any other peppers is optional; seeds typically equal more heat)
4-6 onions, diced
4 stalks celery, diced (optional - I left it out this year, but it is good)
6 cloves garlic, minced or 6 tablespoons prepared garlic; more if you like a stronger garlic flavor)
3/4 cup lemon or lime juice
3/4 cup plain white vinegar
2 tablespoons canning or Kosher salt
24 ounces tomato paste
diced fresh cilantro (at least a handful)

If you have paste or Roma tomatoes, you can use up to 1/3 of them for the tomatoes in this recipe. For other tomatoes, be sure to squeeze each skinned and cored tomato to remove as much of the juice and seeds as you can. Having a large deep bowl or bucket for the skins and seeds makes cleanup easier (you definitely don't want tomato skins in your garbage disposal, and you probably don't want all those seeds down there, either.)

Dice the vegetables and place all ingredients except cilantro in a large non-reactive stockpot or kettle (note the size of mine in the photo to the left - this is not a job for a 3-quart saucepan or 6-quart pot.)  Bring to a boil and let boil for 5-10 minutes; skim off any scum or foam. Add cilantro and remove from heat. Stir through.

Have at least 16* hot, sterilized pint jars ready (I run mine through the sanitizing cycle of my dishwasher, then dip each in a large kettle of boiling water just before using.)  Have clean hot lids (flats and rings the same size as your jar openings) ready, along with jar tongs, a ladle, funnel** and a roll of paper towels for wiping the rims.

Using the ladle and funnel, fill each jar, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Wipe rim with a clean moist paper towel, place flat lid on top and screw down the ring firmly.

When all the salsa is in jars, place jars in canning kettle or other large kettle (you can place a tea towel on the bottom of a large stockpot to cushion the bottom of the jars if you don't have a kettle or you want to augment yours - you can get 7 jars in a typical kettle.

Cover by an inch of water and bring to a boil. When it begins to boil, set timer for 30 minutes and turn down slightly but maintain a rolling boil. Remove jars from kettle after processing and place on a clean dry towel in a draft-free locations. Make sure they are completely cool and all the lids have sucked down before storing. (You will hear them "pop" as they vacuum seal themselves during the gradual cooling process.)

Use within one year.  Makes 14-16 pints

*If possible, always have a few extra clean, sterilized jars and lids on hand. Sometimes the recipe will make a little more because the tomatoes were a little meatier or plumper than other years. If you are buying new jars just for this recipe, and don't have any extras, be sure to have a plastic container at the ready for any leftovers that won't fit in a jar.

Promptly refrigerate and use within a week or so - it won't last as long as commercial salsa.  That holds true for when you open a jar later on:  always try to use an open jar within a few days.  You can throw the extra in some creamy refried bean dip or use it instead of diced tomatoes in your next batch of spaghetti.  It'll add a little unexpected zip!

**If you're buying a canning funnel for the first time, choose the one for the smaller jars.  It will work with the wide-mouth jars, too.  If you buy the bigger size, it won't slide in jars with the smaller opening.  Having both is nice, but you really only need the smaller one.

Happy canning!

Aug 30, 2011

Dismantling the mantel

I'm a little puzzled as to why dismantle is a fairly common verb, but mantle is only a noun in modern times; as a verb it is obscure - some might say arcane.   Or why remantling isn't a word at all. But setting aside the weird vagaries of the English language, it's time for some seasonal adjustments to our mantel.

When we moved into this house, it was early summer and so the mantel was mantled with summery objects: sepia prints from South Carolina, along with sand and seashells.

Now it is late summer (almost fall y'all!) and time to gently transition us into autumn hues without making it look like Hobby Lobby has taken over my house.

Speaking of which.

Oh. my. goodness.  Have you been lately?  They have a giant Thanksgiving-bedecked Christmas tree to greet you when you walk in the door. Swimmer girl calls it a Thristmas Tree.  And every shade of orange can be found in the waves and waves of pumpkins, turkeys and pilgrims, along with Halloween black cats and scarecrows. And of course, the Christmas stuff is oozing out all over the place - every time I walk in, it's taken over a few more aisles with ornaments and stocking hangers and decorations.  It's like "The Blob" and almost as scary.

Okay, so here was the mantel before I dis-mantled it; crisp black-and-white:

And here it is now, with some yellows and a hint of orange:

Before I plunged in, I considered my options.  I have a tub (or two) of fall stuff in the attic.  And Mr. Official will be happy to know the floral stuff was recycled, and the candles and candlesticks are also re-used.

But I wasn't quite ready for ALL the fall stuff, so I went through our old photos until I found some of our children's fall pics I liked, then had them blown up and tucked them in frames.

It's definitely a departure from the mantles we've sported over the last few seasons.  The other pictures will undoubtedly reappear at some point, either back on the mantel or elsewhere.  And like Hobby Lobby with a delayed reaction, I'm sure the mantel will slowly taken on more and more orange, then red. And green.

Happy decorating!

Aug 29, 2011

It's time

The Fantasticks musical debuted in 1960, three years before I made my own debut into this world. But the opening song, "Try to Remember" was a piece of music I had to learn for something in my childhood and the song has always stuck with me.
"Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow..."
It seemed fitting this plaintive, sentimental song came to mind as I looked through our old photos for some fall images to decorate the mantel last week.  It's hard to believe these photos were taken so many Septembers ago but they were.  Eleven years ago, swimmer girl was a cute kindergartener and middle son was just a boy and his dogs, aptly named Duke and Daisy.  Just a few years before that, oldest son was a proud middle school football player back in Oklahoma.

Whether it's just the inevitable progression of the season, or Hurricane Irene pushing around the pressure systems, the first hint of cool breezes hovers just under the radiating heat of July and August.  It's time.

It is time to do a few things.

Things like...
  • Change the flag to show the world our orange on September 12 (just not before 9/11.)
  • Update the mantel (watch for photos this week...)
  • Plan our fall break getaway (I am SO looking forward to heading somewhere warm and southern and sunny for a week with swimmer girl and a group of friends!)
  • Purchase some spring bulbs to plant in the next few weeks.
  • Finish up the canning and preserving season (figs and tomatoes are almost done; pears and roasting peppers are next.)
    Yes, it's still plenty warm -- downright hot most days. Indian summer will not put in appearance for a while, but it's time to do these things. Because as sure as I breathe, autumn is on its way. The days are getting shorter and everywhere I turn, there's a whisper on the wind, letting me know that fall is not afar off.
    We've now experienced a full season - the entire summer - in our new home. I have loved every minute of it, even the heat.  And now when I stand at my kitchen sink in the evenings, the western sky hints at what is to come. If I close my eyes, I can envision the cool rainy days that so often follow the tropical storms and hurricanes. Mornings will soon be wrapped in a cool fog.  Impossibly blue fall skies will be punctuated by days of gray and the cold rains of late fall and early winter. If our summer is any indication of Mother Nature's temperament, winter is already isn't likely to wait demurely in the wings this year.

    For once, instead of dreading the approaching colder weather, I can hardly wait. I look at our home and I already see it bedecked with the trappings of the holidays. It is a house meant for gathering family and friends, and it's been heartwarming to see family and friends gathering together frequently here.  Baking bread, bubbling soups and stews and hearty meals and fellowship await. They will buoy and sustain us through the gray months of winter.

    But for now, it is time to feel the warmth of summer tamed by the faintest hint of fall breeze, and all that comes with it. Welcome, fall and all it holds in store for family, friends and football.

    Happy Monday,

    Aug 27, 2011

    A bad time of year to be a bad dog.

    I love our grandpuppy. But the key word here is "puppy" - she's got a full grown dog's body and a puppy's lack of impulse control.

    Which explains some carpet stains.

    And this.

    As bad as this looks, it looked much worse when we first discovered the carnage.

    So what do you do when a container goes kaput in late summer?  It's too late to buy duplicate replacements, especially if they were part of a set, like this one was.

    This late in the year, the pickins are slim indeed.  If we lived farther north, I'd just call the planter done for the season and put some pansies in it to enjoy through the weeks of fall.  But we live in an area that won't see 30-degree temperatures for another 6-8 weeks.  Pansies won't even be available for another month around here, and my motto is "leave no container unplanted," especially since we don't have much in the way of borders or vegetable garden this year.

    Fortunately one of our garden centers still had a decent selection of annuals, including some coleus and begonias, making it easy to make do.  Since the begonias were in a four-pack, I inserted the others in a few other blank spots in the deck containers to try to tie the whole thing together, gave some remaining plants a haircut and fertilized and watered everything.

    Now I'm just hoping the dog will leave this one alone and let it grow until the first frost does it in, sometime late in October.  Be good, sweet Sadie.

    Happy planting,

    Aug 26, 2011

    Where's the beef?

    I was working away the other day when there was a knock on the door. I was expecting a USPS delivery, so I figured it was the mailman.


    It wasn't Clara Peller, either.  (She died 24 years ago this month.)
    (If you remember this 1984 commercial, you may be older than you realize!)
    It was a guy with a local frozen meat delivery route.

    He was in luck.  We are most definitely omnivores in our family - voracious ones, and we love meat along with our vegetables.

    He was down to the end of his freezer, and he was willing to cut a deal to move his remaining inventory of steaks and burgers from his freezer to mine.  We've had good success with frozen steaks before, so I was willing to deal, too.

    So where's the beef?

    It's now in our freezer! Some nice-looking sirloin strips, T-bones, filets, and 1/2-pound patties. Thank goodness we have at least three more months of grilling weather before we'll park the grill for a few months, and set our sights on cold-weather beef cuts, like briskets, stews and roasts.

    By then, I hope we'll have cleared out enough room for me to do an overdue freezer cleanout and make room for some venison.  A broad hint to all our hunting friends:  we would be happy to take your excess ground deer meat for soups and stews this winter.  And some venison sausage sounds pretty tasty, especially on a cold winter morning.

    Happy dealing and grilling!

    Aug 24, 2011

    Recipe of the Week: Let's Do Brunch (Beverages)!

    Last Saturday was my second year to host a late summer Saturday brunch for our "Secret Sisters" group. After enjoying our favorite brunch dishes potluck style, we assembled care packages for our recent high school grads, so we can send them off to college with a surprise box full of goodies packed with love and care.

    I'm not a huge fan of fruit punches, but a brunch just calls out for something special and fun to drink, and there are many mocktails and non-alcoholic drinks that are fun and refreshing.  Last year, I tried out two new beverages on the group: June Bugs and Green Grape Glaciers.   I made grenadine for the June Bugs when I saw how easy it was to make your own.

    This year I created my own concoction, which I dubbed Peach-Orange Fizz.  It's reminiscent of Fuzzy Navels and Mimosas, minus the alcohol.

    Here are the recipes for all three, including directions for making your own grenadine.  Each recipe makes 8 servings and can be scaled up or down depending on the number of guests.

    June Bugs
     6 cups (48 ounces) ginger ale
    8 tablespoons grenadine*
    8 tablespoons orange juice
    6 scoops orange sherbet

    Mix together and serve.  (To make in advance, mix all ingredients except sherbet and add it just before serving.) 

    Homemade Grenadine
    Grenadine comes from the French word "grenade" which means pomegranate.  Most of the commercial grenadines no longer contain pomegranate juice, despite its rise in popularity and healthful qualities.  The commercial syrups also typically contain a lot of high fructose corn syrup.  Try making your own - it's quick, easy and arguably healthier.

    1 8-ounce bottle pomegranate (I've also used POM's pomegranate and cherry juice - yum!)
    1/2 cup sugar

    In a heavy saucepan, bring juice to a boil and let it reduce to half (about 10-15 minutes; keep an eye on it while it boils.)  Add sugar; stir to dissolve. Cool before using; refrigerate.

    Green Grape Glaciers
    4 dozen seedless green grapes
    32 ounces white grape juice
    32 ounces cold sparkling water

    In advance, wash, dry and layer grapes on a wax-paper lined cookie sheet and freeze for several hours or overnight.  To mix, combine all but a dozen of the grapes and other ingredients in a blender and pulse until blended.  Pour into glasses, divide remaining grapes among glasses.  Can also add a mint sprig if desired.

    Terry's Peach-Orange Fizz
    1 large container frozen orange juice concentrate
    1 liter peach-flavored sparkling water*
    1 liter lemon-lime flavored sparkling water*

    Mix together and serve immediately.  

    *You'll find flavored sparkling waters in your grocery's beverage section, usually near the seltzer water and club soda and drink mixers.  They are artificially sweetened, so if you'd prefer, you can substitute a lemon-lime soft drink (Sprite, 7-Up) for half the sparkling water and add a few ounces of peach nectar.

    Happy brunching,

    Aug 23, 2011

    The pasta lineup

    Many of my formative years were spent immersed in a melting pot of Italian and Mexican culture and cuisine.  And I've always been a macaroni girl (it's as patriotic as Yankee Doodle, right?  I mean he stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni...)


    Apparently the pasta thing really stuck.   It's why low-carb diets and I are star-crossed and doomed to fail.

    In my pantry at any given time, you will find - without fail - several basic dry pastas, including elbow macaroni (big and/or small), spaghetti, fettuccine, lasagna and penne pasta. These days, the last three are whole wheat or tri-colored as we try to eat a little healthier. With those staples (plus a few cans and jars of tomato products) at hand, I know I can throw SOMETHING for dinner no matter what.

    Then there are the seasonal pastas: ditalini in the colder months (for pasta e fagioli) and rotini or fusili in the summer, for pasta salad. The other day I found squiggly radiatori for BLT pasta salad since true fusili (spiral not corkscrew) is rare in these parts.

    Occasional guest stars include bowtie, shells (big and small), linguini, mezze penne, mostaccioli which means "little moustache" and is a little hard to get these days); gnocchi, large egg noodles and Amish noodles (small and big), orzo and manicotti.

    For whatever reason, wagon wheel pasta has never been on my list of go-to pastas.  Maybe because most of my encounters with it have been mushy.  But I hear Barilla has a miniature version of rotelle or ruot, so maybe I'll have to give it a try one of these days.

    In case you're wondering if I skipped it, no - ravioli is not  found on my pantry shelves, ever.  Not since my kids outgrew canned pasta, and they sometimes ate it despite my groans.  I'm a snob when it comes to ravioli - it must be fresh (or frozen) and preferably homemade.  Occasionally I'll pick up a package of fresh tortellini.  Most of the fillings aren't quite what I'd put in my own, but I'm too lazy to make it myself.

    I guess you can tell, we love our pasta, in pretty much all shapes and sizes.

    While typing this post, I took a peek in my pantry.  And this is what my pasta shelf (yes, I have a shelf of pasta - doesn't everyone?) looked like.

    The "just-moved-in" look
    Oh dear.

    I confess, I can get a little gung-ho about pantry organization. Surely it didn't look like that when we moved in a few months ago, did it?

    But daily use does tend to wear off that just-moved-in, everything-in-its-place look.  A box or container comes out, then goes back in; new boxes come home and get tucked in wherever they'll fit.

    Before you know it, it's a jumble.

    After I got a look at it through the objective eye of the camera lens, I did a quick assessment of what I had already, determined the number of various sizes I would need, and made a dash to the store to pick up 6 or 7 canisters to put everything in its own matching stackable storage container.

    Now it looks like this.

    Having everything matchy-matchy isn't particularly frugal or necessary.  But before you dismiss it as frivolous (and a little OCD), consider these reasons for using a set of mix-and-match modular storage containers:
    • This is front-and-center when you open my pantry.  It needs to stay tidy, regardless of how I do it.  Otherwise, I can't find what I'm looking for and wind up buying a second or third box of this-or-that.  Been there, done it.
    • These stacking modules by Rubbermaid are designed to create tidy and accessible pantry storage.  Everything is the width of the shelf and can be stacked.  No more peeking and peering around the front row to see what lurks back behind.
    • Aesthetics and accessibility aside, with everything out of boxes and sealed up, if critters should appear in one tub of pasta, they can't easily migrate to the others.  (Unless you cook your pasta almost as soon as you bring it home, you are bound to encounter some hibernating stowaways at some point.  Gross, but true.)
    • I can even argue for cost-effectiveness.  A box of pasta can run anywhere from $1 to $6, depending on brand, type and size.  The containers were a one-time investment of about $4 each.  Cutting down on accidental over-buying and eliminating the risk of having to clear out all the pasta if it gets buggy can pay for the containers over time.  (That's my rationale, and I'm sticking to it.)
    So now that you've seen mine, do tell:  what are your must-have pasta shapes? And what do you store them in?

    Happy cooking!

    Aug 22, 2011

    Do old habits always die hard?

    "They" (you know, that anonymous group of people who say and do a lot of things), say it takes 21 days to make or break a habit.

    I disagree.

    Yes, it may take several weeks to develop a new habit. And some things will take a while to work out of our system. But some habits are altogether too easy to break.

    I have been working out several times a week for more than two years. A few muscle pulls have sidelined me temporarily, but I fought my way back to 3-5 weekly workouts as soon as I could.

    And then this summer hit. Moving into a new house and everything that went with it consumed most of May. Daily workouts became a question instead of a statement. Then school let out and mornings became unstructured and un-regimented. My five-morning-a-week workout routine became hit-or-miss (and that's a charitable description.)

    So I'm not sure "they" are right. It didn't take 21 days to break me of daily workouts. In fact, it was really easy to let my routine slip away.

    I'm determined to get back to working out several days a week, and get my running distances back to a respectable length. But I'm not sure this will ever become a true habit that I would have to work hard to break.

    Happy habits,

    Aug 19, 2011

    How do you approach a new recipe?

    Cooking is not difficult.

    Seriously, it isn't.  If you can read and follow directions, you can cook a lot of stuff.  Unless you're eating a steady diet of junk food - or at the opposite end of the spectrum - gourmet meals prepared by top chefs every night, it's probably a safe bet that more than half the foods you enjoy eating are easily cooked by anyone willing to take a stab at the task.

    But choosing how to approach cooking...there's where people tend to divide into camps.

    Camp A:  Recipe followers.

    Before Martha Stewart,
    there was Marion Powers
    You know who you are.

    We know who you are.

    Ever since you mastered the basic motor skills, you've always colored inside the lines and you were the kid that actually read test directions in school before lifting a pencil.

    You probably heed speed limit signs, too.  No white shoes or handbags for you, unless it's between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

    Precision, order, logic and organization are  your guideposts, yes?

    Domestic perfection
    Before you cook, the recipe is reviewed, ingredients are lined up and measured, equipment is at the ready.  No surprises, no substitutions, no scrambling.

    Your dishes turn out according to plan, every time.

    Sometimes I am in your camp.  If I try (and like!) a food and the cook shares the recipe, I know what to expect, and I tend to follow it faithfully (at least the first time through.)

    I tend to follow my own tried-and-true recipes, too.  Why mess with success?

    However, even the most precise execution of a recipe can fall flat if the recipe is faulty.  And cookbooks and internet sites are full of recipes that do not live up to their billing.

    Which brings me to the second camp.

    Camp B:  Culinary renegades.

    Oh snap.  Can I make it without eggs?
    Your byline is "we don't need no stinkin' recipes."  Impromptu cooking is your forte.  (Which is pronounced "fort," not "for-tay, just in case you care about those things.)  You are committed to creativity and the pursuit of excellence, even if it means you wind up with some epic failures, too.

    I confess I often fall in this camp, but I hedge my bets. When I want to cook a food I've eaten but don't have a recipe for, Google becomes my BFF.  A little cooking experience helps out here - you kind of know what ingredients will yield a certain texture or flavor, so you can narrow your search down to recipes that are likely to give you the desired results.

    No use crying over spilled milk!
    Since recipes are like opinions (nearly everyone has one), I try to narrow my results down to two or three variations and take a little from this recipe and a little from that. I ain't skeered - that's part of the cooking adventure.

    And never forget, you can't spell misadventure without adventure.  Risk-taking means sometimes you achieve greatness. Other times it can be summed up in a single-word tweet:  fail.

    Between the two camps lies a neutral DMZ. Sometimes the results aren't spectacular but they aren't inedible.  A learning curve just needed to be scaled and a second attempt will yield much better results.

    A lot of my cooking falls into this zone: the first time through is passable, but it leaves room for improvement.  Thankfully my family overlooks the disasters, grins-and-bears-it when I test-drive a new 'un on them, and they celebrate the triumphs with accolades.

    Take my last week's squash casserole attempt, for example.  One recipe sounded promising, but used only yellow squash and was heavy on the mayonnaise.  Other recipes used a combination of yellow squash and zucchini (which is what I had on hand), and sour cream, hold the mayo.

    My experience has been that sour cream and mayonnaise work pretty well together in this genre of food (think poppy seed chicken, hot chicken salad, etc.)

    And another recipe had a tip for cooking the squash and squeezing out the excess moisture, which sounded good to me.  My one and only objection to a lot of otherwise good squash casseroles is encountering watery, warm squash.  Blech.

    So I picked and chose from all three recipes, creating my own amalgamation (now there's another fun word to use on your friends.)

    It was mostly successful.  Next time I will probably dice them a little finer and cook them a tad bit longer before mixing them together.  And add a little more cheese and dairy to the whole shebang.   If I can get it perfected, I'll post it for you to try.  And tinker with to suit you.  Because that's what makes cooking fun, and why there are a gazillion recipes out there - everybody adds their own little somethin' somethin' to make it their own.

    Happy creating!

    Aug 17, 2011

    Recipe of the Week: Creamy Refried Bean Dip

    I heart my Kindle. It's one of the best gifts Mr. Official has ever gotten for me, and he's given me some pretty awesome presents over the years.

    Not only do I have couple Bible versions, some insightful self-help type books, scads of novels old and new (reading Jules Verne and Rudyard Kipling for the first time as an adult was an absolute delight), but I also have several cookbooks in my carry-everywhere gadget.

    And not too long ago, swimmer girl and I were doing a little sunbathing at the local pool and when she glanced over, she exclaimed, "Seriously? You're reading a COOKBOOK? REALLY????"

    To which I smiled sagely and said that indeed I was. Doesn't everyone READ cookbooks like they do novels? If not, you should.

    Anyway, this was "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker: Recipes for Entertaining" and I bookmarked a few of the most-promising sounding recipes to try. One good one is this one, even though I haven't actually used my crockpot to make it. Irony, I know.

    If you have purchased bean dip in the chip aisle, you know how expensive those precious little jars and cans are. And while I think the Tostitos Zesty Bean & Cheese Dip is pretty awesome, a jar can get slurped up in a hurry around here.

    This recipe makes a dip that tastes a lot like the Tostitos dip, and with just a few inexpensive ingredients, you have enough dip for a crowd.  Or refrigerated and doled out into ramekins for warming up a serving at a time, it can last several days. Well, theoretically maybe it can last that long. We can go through it in a hurry.

    Since discovering this recipe, I've made three batches, including one last night for Bunco as a side dish/dip (I doubled up on the beans in order to lighten it up and make it more side-dish appropriate.   Each time I've made this recipe, the results disappear pretty quick.  That, plus the fact it's easy to make clinches its spot as a go-to recipe in my book!  (Whether that proverbial book is an eBook or my notebook of clipped recipes, which is now much neater than it's been in years.   Speaking of which, I'll show off some before-and-afters soon.)

    Creamy Refried Bean Dip

    1 16-ounce can refried beans*
    1 cup picante salsa (we like homemade or medium-hot Pace Picante best)
    1/2 cup sour cream
    1 tablespoon chili powder
    1/2 teaspoon cumin
    4 ounces cream cheese, slightly softened
    2 cups shredded cheese (any combination of cheddar, Monterey jack or pepper jack)

    Mix all ingredients together. Place in small crockpot to heat up (or microwave for 3-4 minutes, stirring every minute.) Serve with corn or tortilla chips.  Makes approximately 3 cups of dip.

    *To make some jazzed-up refried beans to serve as a side dish, just double the beans for a big batch, or cut everything else in half.   It still has some zippiness without being too heavy on the cheese.

    Happy dipping!

    Aug 16, 2011

    The great laundry detergent mystery

    A couple weeks ago, swimmer girl and I were making a tactical strike on my favorite-place-to-loathe-shopping: WalMart. (To all my friends and family who work at WM: I love y'all. But as a rule, the stores are just too big, and our local one has...well...declined in quality. Friendly folks work there, which makes it tolerable once I get my items rounded up.)


    On my list was laundry detergent. Swimmer girl and middle son have eczema, so our laundry detergent must be free of dyes and other allergens. The front-loading washer means it must be marked with that little HE symbol. The list of choices is narrow. It's usually All Free & Clear or Tide.
    Have you seen me?

    I picked up a jug of All. I'm sure I did. Swimmer girl backs me up - we got the jug.

    When we got home, I was pressed for time so I unloaded only the perishables and left the rest in the car overnight.

    When I finally got around to bringing the other stuff in, you guessed it:  no detergent.  I didn't even miss it at first.  A few days passed and someone mentioned we were running low.  I asked if there was a new jug in the laundry room - nope.  So I chalked it up to absent-mindedness. I thought I bought some, but apparently not. No mystery there, right?

    But a few days ago, as I was pulling onto the road that leads to our house, a jug of detergent was sitting on the edge of our property. Same brand, same size as what I thought I purchased.

    A little worse for wear...and about 1/4 gone. Middle son said he found it on the bank of the pond when he mowed that day; he set it out on the road in case someone came by for it. He didn't know I was missing an identical jug of the stuff.

    Aside from the laundry fairy, there are two possible explanations - one is a little disappointing and the other is highly implausible.

    1) Someone "borrowed" it out of my car, had a crisis of conscience and returned it.
    2) By some weird stroke of epic coincidence, a jug of the same brand and size fell out of someone's vehicle going around the curve and it toppled down the slope toward the pond.

    Shrug. At least I have detergent again. And I guess I'll start locking my car at night.

    Happy laundering,

    Aug 15, 2011

    Hanging up my hack license

    Swimmer girl turns 16 today. We are very excited for her - but not as excited as she is, of course. Among all the other things that come with turning 16, she will soon have her driver's license.

    And for me, that means my taxi-driver days will finally draw to a close after more than a quarter-century of commission.   In those years, I have hauled my babies and toddlers and children and adolescents (and their friends) to every place they needed and wanted to go. I have put over 250,000 miles on four cars in the process.  We've eaten, spilled, upchucked; changed diapers and clothes; laughed, cried and argued and fussed in my mom-taxis.  We've had a few roadside breakdowns and a couple chats with policemen and troopers,  but thankfully no accidents with a baby or child on board.

    If you're a young mom reading this, I can promise you this:  the years and miles will fly by. Your taste in music will adapt to theirs, and vice-versa.   We have explored the full extent of the radio dial, tuning in and out of country, jazz, hip-hop, Christian and dabbled in rap and alternative.  Classic rock is our shared language.  We've belted out southern rock together, argued over who-sang-that-song, and deciphered lyrics more times than I can count.   Looking back, I think we were blessed to not have built-in DVD players and portable DS players at our disposal.  Yes, we had our share of backseat territory disputes and petty squabbles borne out of boredom.  But in the close confines of the car, you have a captive audience - just unplug them from the electronics occasionally and you might be surprised by what they confide in you on an otherwise silent ride.

    I have cemented my relationship with my adolescent children just by sitting in the driver's seat - many deep, heart- and soul-searching conversations with each child have taken place in the car, and most of them started out as nothing more than a ride home from school or church, or a quick jaunt to town, just mom and kid. 

    So enjoy your taxi driver status while it lasts - because it doesn't last forever.

    Happy -and safe - travels,

    P.S. - Happy birthday, baby girl.  One pink velvet cake coming up!

    Aug 12, 2011

    Hot DAWG!

    According to the Old Farmers Almanac, July 3 marked the start of the 40 dog days of summer and if my math is correct, that means they end today.  (Somebody tell the weatherman, please?)

    Until recently I didn't really know why we call these hot, steamy days "dog days" - I just know the dogs seem to spend most of their indoor time these days moving from one cool spot to another on our wood and tile floors.   (Little dog spends a couple days a week over here, where she can romp and stomp and aggravate big dog and the cat until she finally sprawls out and naps along with them.)

    Little dog and big dog snoozed while I steamed up the kitchen making pepper relish
    Turns out, the term goes back to ancient Romans and astronomy. Sirius (the star) rose around sunrise around this time of year. The Romans thought they could appease his rage with sacrifices and offerings. Bad dog.

    Knowing why we call them the dog days won't make them any cooler, so I'll just keep watering the plants and fanning myself and hoping my water and electric bills aren't too outrageous this month.

    Stay cool!

    Aug 11, 2011

    This is for the birds

    While I admire the tenacity, fortitude and strength of ants, I don't appreciate them when they march nonstop to our hummingbird feeder. I have no idea how much nectar they consume, but they're a nuisance I'd like to avoid if possible.

    A few years ago I bought this thingamajigger that suspends between the feeder and the hook; it holds water and since ants can't swim, they can't cross it and get to the feeder.

    My old one broke down from overexposure to sunlight, so I went back to buy another one. Over a two-week period I visited our local hardware store three times. Each time, the spot on the wall where these whodiwhatzits should be was empty. Their staff was sympathetic and encouraged me to order it site-to-store from their hardware supplier, but  when I searched the website, it appears the supplier is out, too.

    But their website did give me a helpful tidbit of information.

    These whatchamacallits have a name.

    And the name makes sense, if you think about it.

    They are called "ant moats."

    Shut my mouth and call me silly - I had no idea these things had a name until now.

    Armed with that bit of information, I went shopping and found several places with the plastic cup like I had before.

    But then I found this super-cute little upside down metal umbrella. (Some people have a genius for taking an idea to a whole-new level. This is one of them.)

    And so once again, my hummingbird feeder is free from the ant brigade, and it looks cute to boot. Let's just hope the ants don't figure out how to build a bridge or a raft.

    If you want to make your own ant moat (I was tempted until I found the metal umbrella), here's a quick and frugal idea to MacGyver your own with a cast-off spray paint cap, a piece of wire and a hot glue gun.

    Or if you want your own umbrella, they're available from a few places, but I purchased mine from the really nice folks at CreekTree USA, down in Red Oak, Texas. They had it to me in less than a week, for far less shipping and handling than most other places.

    It's almost time or the hummers to head south.  But rumor has it we may have bluebirds setting up residence in the cedar nestbox I bought on my first trip to Lowes after we closed on this house.  (The way to Mr. Official's heart can take a few routes, including appealing to his songbird-lover heart.) Maybe we'll have some sweet little baby bluebirds showing up before first frost.

    Happy birding!

    Aug 10, 2011

    Recipe of the Week: Our Favorite Waffles

    Pancakes are a mainstay for weekend breakfasts.  I have a favorite from-scratch recipe and occasionally I'll even use packaged mixes.

    But homemade cinnamon rolls or waffles make a leisurely breakfast extra-special.  One of the first recipes I tried from Mary Gubser's Quick Breads, Soups & Stews cookbook was this yeast-raised waffle recipe.

    It requires planning ahead - you either need to allow an hour for the batter to rise in the morning, or mix it up the night before and refrigerate it.  (I usually do the latter.) I modified Mary's original proportions a bit to suit us, and nothing compares to the texture I can get with this recipe.  I've tried several other waffle recipes over the years, from scratch and mixes, and always come back to this one - it's worth the extra effort.

    I have two stove-top Belgian waffle irons.  They demand close attention to maintain the proper temperature, but when I have bacon in the oven and both irons going on the stove top, I can get breakfast on the table in good time.

    Our family's favorite syrup is hard to find here;  Griffin Foods is an Oklahoma-based company and not many Tennessee stores carry their syrup or other products.  (Too bad - their corn syrup and preserves are pretty tasty and economical, too.)

     When our boys were growing up (and had ravenous appetites as only pre-teen and teenage boys can have), I bought Griffin's pancake syrup by the gallon.  Now we snag a few smaller bottles anytime we can get our hands on some. In between we make-do with other brands.  If you get the chance to try some Griffin's, you should.

    Our Favorite Belgian Waffles

    1 package (1 tablespoon) active dry yeast
    1/4 cup warm water
    2 cups milk
    1/2 cup melted butter
    2 tablespoons sugar
    1 teaspoon salt
    2 eggs
    2 eggs, separated
    3 cups all-purpose flour
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

    Sprinkle yeast on water in small bowl and mix well.  Set aside to proof (I usually add a bit of the recipe's sugar to speed things along.)  In a large bowl, combine milk with the butter, sugar and salt, mixing well.  Add the 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks (place the whites in a separate dish); stir until well-blended.  Stir in the yeast mixture.  With a wire whip, beat in flour and vanilla.  Cover bowl and let proof for 45 minutes or refrigerate overnight.  (Be sure the bowl is large enough to accommodate the raised mixture - refrigerator disasters are no fun to face in the morning!)  Refrigerate egg whites separately.

    When ready to bake, beat reserved egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter.  Bake according to your waffle iron's directions.  Makes 7 waffles.

    Serve hot with butter and syrup, or your favorite waffle toppings.  Leftover waffles can be frozen and reheated if you have a toaster or toaster oven with an extra-wide slot.

    Happy brunching!

    Aug 8, 2011

    Packing heat (and other fun canning terms)

    For years, I've attempted to make fiery hot salsa.  I graduated from jalapenos to serranos to habaneros, but somewhere in the cooking process, the heat dissipates.  I've gotten mildly hot but never tongue-searing, sweat-beads-on-forehead salsa.

    This year might be the year.  The jalapenos are hot, and they stay hot through processing. Good thing I have a stash of disposable gloves to don when I'm chopping and seeding, or getting out my contacts at night would be extremely hazardous and painful.

    It may be the incessant heat we've endured this summer - it also seems to have encouraged the  local figs to produce in greater abundance than I have ever seen.

    My latest peppery concoction is pepper-onion relish, which I made last week.
    A little background on pepper-onion relish.  Harry & David's made this stuff and - as a good friend showed me - if you mix it with cream cheese (1 part relish to two parts cream cheese) you have an incredibly easy and tasty dip.  Unfortunately, the company filed for bankruptcy last March and all the local stores have shut down.  Their website doesn't offer much hope for ordering this product online.  (Not to mention, it was about $4 or $5 a jar in the store; if you had to add shipping & handling....youch!)

    I've also tried Robert Rothschild's brand:

    and Dickinson's:

    and they are passably similar in taste (hey, you mix enough cream cheese into anything and it will taste good, right?)

    But I had my heart and tastebuds set on H&D's version and it was just not to be.  After sulking a bit, I decided when life tosses you a curve ball, you should take a swing.  So I plucked myself up and went looking for a recipe online.  I found a popular one and adapted it slightly to create my own version of this hot-sweet concoction.  Even better, when I realized I was running low on 8-ounce jars, I found some cute little 4-ounce jelly jars, which is the perfect size for opening and mixing with an 8-ounce block of cream cheese for a quick appetizer for us.  (The commercial jars range from 8.75 to 11.5 ounces. That's fine if you're mixing a double or triple batch for a party, but otherwise, I found myself worrying about using the remainder up before it spoiled.)

    Since I failed to deliver a recipe-of-the-week last Wednesday, I'll tee up two this week, starting with this one, because the early taste tests say it's a keeper.

    Sweet-Hot Pepper-Onion Relish

    6 tomatoes, seeded and diced (I stick my fingers in and squish most of the juice out. If you have paste or Roma tomatoes, you may not need to do that.  Peel if the skins are tough; I didn't)
    1 large Vidalia, chopped fine
    12 medium red bell peppers, seeded cored and diced fine
    10 jalapenos, half seeded and diced
    5 Anaheim and frying peppers, seeded (you could substitute other hot peppers such as serranos, or add a few more bells depending on your heat tolerance), diced
    1 tablespoon canning or Kosher salt
    2 cups white vinegar
    3 cups sugar
    2 (1.75 ounce) packages pectin (I used low-sugar but you could use regular, too)

    Place tomatoes and onions in large (5 quart or larger) stainless or glass bowl. Do not use aluminum; plastic or Tupperware may discolor or pick up odors from the onion.

    Finely dice and layer all other peppers on top of the onion and tomatoes. (The recipe recommended a food processor to chop everything, but it only took me about half an hour to dice the peppers once they were washed and seeded. Sprinkle with salt and turn to mix and coat (you will be glad you used a bigger bowl for this part :-)

    Let stand for one hour. Drain in a fine sieve or colander (I have a 2-quart mesh colander that worked perfect.)

    Place in large heavy kettle or stockpot.  Add vinegar and sugar; stir to mix and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to medium and boil for 40 minutes, stirring every few minutes.

    Add pectin, stirring well and let boil another 20 minutes or until mixture begins to thicken.  Spoon into hot clean jars and place in water bath. Bring to boil and process for 20 minutes.  Remove to draft-free spot to slowly cool and store in dark closet until use.

    Makes 7 pints (or in my case, 8 half-pints and 12 quarter-pints). Estimated cost?  We have a super little produce stand nearby and their red bell peppers were $0.75 each., so all-told, the tab was around $12 for ingredients.  (The new jars set me back more than what I put in them.)  So whether or not Harry & David's recovers (and I hope they do), I might not need them for this item.

    Happy packing!

    Aug 5, 2011

    What really happens before a school supply giveaway

    I have always been inspired by those who undertake giveaway events like school supplies, Christmas gifts, coats, shoes, and of course, food. I believe it is putting into practice the idea of "As we do to the least of them, we also do to Him."

    If you have ever helped serve in a soup kitchen, food pantry or a one-day giveaway activity, you've  felt the adrenaline rush of greeting visitors, helping them select their item(s) and the incredible good feeling from knowing you've helped make someone's life just a tiny bit easier.

    It is more blessed to give than receive.  If you don't think so, just hand a sack of new school supplies to a kid and watch him peer inside.  Watch his eyes light up when he realizes it's all there, and it's all new, and it's all his.

    If you haven't done any of these things, you really, really should. But be forewarned it can be addictive, contagious and infectious. You'll get hooked and you'll be pressuring your friends to try it too.

    Throughout the year, our congregation helps people in our community who need food, clothing and shelter. And for the third year in a row, last Saturday we provided free school supplies to local school children, so they are all set to head back to school. The first year we helped 150 children; the next year it was 225. This year, we helped over 350 children.

    But this isn't about the giveaway day itself.  Have you ever wonder what happens before the big day?

    Here's a peek behind the scenes along with my heartfelt thanks to all who do so much to make it look so effortless on the big day.  For 5 or 6 weeks before we open our doors and give it all away, we have dozens of "worker bees" out scouting the sales and buying supplies, others counting and organizing the incoming supplies repeatedly for several weeks. Aside from the thrill of bargain hunting, it is work, plain and simple. But these men and women love this project, and they undertake the necessary tasks willingly and cheerfully.  As one of the coordinators, I am indebted to them - we could not do what we do without all of them.

    In the final few days, that beehive becomes a swarm of activity, with people doing a final count of every item, budgeting our donations to get any fill-in items, then labeling, packing and preparing everything for a smooth giveaway event.

    In addition to the giveaway, we also do something a little unusual.  At the same time we are taking in school supplies, we stuff apple baskets with "wish list" items requested by our own schoolteachers.  Our "Apples for Teachers" program is also in its third year.  We have around a dozen public and private school teachers from kindergarten to high school, who are saddling up and heading back to their classrooms, prepared to teach, counsel, mentor and lead by example.

    So we ask them to let us honor them by providing supplies they purchase out of pocket. In early July we put each requested item on a paper apple and hang it on a bulletin board and stand back. The apples literally FLY off the board as members latch on to the opportunity to do a little something for these men and women.

    Our giveaway weekend wraps up with a Sunday evening ice cream social and presentation of these overflowing baskets to each teacher, along with prayers and best wishes for a safe and productive school year.

    It doesn't seem like it can be time to be undertaking all these activities again, but the calendar says otherwise.

    And after the event is over, it still ain't over.  Many stores continue to offer specials on supplies, and in a few weeks, those same retailers will mark down their overstocked items to almost nothing just to get it out the door.  We have some indefatigable shoppers who scavenge those markdown racks week after week, continuing to buy notebooks and folders and rulers and crayons to have a starter pile for the following year.  They make veteran post-holiday shoppers look like bush-leaguers when it comes to bargain hunting, and their efforts have made it possible for us to expand and grow our giveaway every year and help more children.  God bless them, every one.

    I hope that peek into the pre-giveaway activities will inspire you to get involved with something in your area.  Or do as I did three years ago, and send out an innocent email to a few friends, asking them, "What if we tried to help some schoolkids this year?"  and see where it leads you.  It can be a very rewarding journey!

    Happy volunteering,

    P.S. If the apple basket idea is triggering some plans in your mind, I can heartily recommend Shipley Baskets for genuine bushel baskets. They are a Tennessee company with terrific products and superb customer service. And no, they had no idea I was going to say something kind about them, and they didn't offer me anything in return for an endorsement.

    Aug 1, 2011

    The dollars and sense (?) of canning

    If you didn't grow up in a home where summer fruits and vegetables were canned or preserved, you're missing a slice of life and history that is worth getting to know.  (For a free peek, scout out the food exhibits at your local county fair.  You'll see pickled and preserved foods of all kinds.  I bet you'll do two things:  1) eat some fair food and 2) come away tempted to try your hand at canning...both things are bound to happen.)

    If you have children, a family canning session is a great opportunity for everyone to learn some life lessons on self-reliance, economics and food safety.  (And most kids are more willing to try new foods if they had a hand in putting them on the table.)  That's a combination of incentives that's hard to beat, and every time you pop open a can of something you created, the lessons are remembered without anyone saying a word.

    Canning as food thrift?  Not these days.
    But I find myself questioning if I (or anyone else) comes out ahead financially by canning our own produce these days, rather than buying fresh, frozen or canned foodstuffs at the grocery store as we need them.

    If our grandparents canned out of necessity, our parents continued to can foods out of habit and frugality.

    Do we have a good reason to can food today?   Maybe, but it won't be because it's cheaper than a trip down the canned vegetable aisle.

    If you have to buy fresh produce to preserve it, brace yourself for sticker shock. And then shop and ask around; if you're at a roadside stand or farmers market, ask them if they've got a box of produce that's a bit too bruised to display. You can often snag a better deal that way, even if you have to cut out a few bad spots.

    If it's your own produce, it may be cheap, but don't kid yourself - it wasn't free.  You had to buy plants or seeds, spend time growing them, applying water, fertilizer, etc., along the way.

    The act of preserving your food will cost you something, and not just your time and a few extra dollars on the electric bill to heat the water and cool your kitchen.

    The first year of canning is an investment in jars, lids, a kettle and lifters. (Look for used jars at estate sales or Goodwill and borrow a kettle and lifters if you aren't ready to fork over the cash for all new stuff, but don't try to can without the proper equipment.)

    For those of us with jars and a kettle sitting around, we still have to buy new lids (don't ever re-use the flat lids, and be cautious of using older ones - even if they're unused, the rubber seal may be dried out and separate from the metal lid.)  At the risk of sounding whiny, buying new lids isn't even cheap these days - a box of 10 lids runs about $2 most places.  Even if everything else was bought and paid for in years past, that's $0.20 per jar before you put one drop of food or liquid in it.

    I just don't think canning can be justified based on the cost savings these days.   Can you rationalize that your food is all-natural, contains fewer preservatives and is better tasting?  Sure.   And those are good reasons to forge ahead if you want to try canning food.

    My advice?

    1. Identify exactly what foods you know you'll use, and draw a bulls-eye on items that are pricier to buy in the store. That's your target zone.

    2. For your first year, underestimate what you'll use up. If you run out in March and wish you had more, make a mental note to double up next year.  Don't overdo it the first year - you'll spend too much on produce, jars and equipment, waste more time than you should have spent, and emptying jars of uneaten food leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

    3. Stick with things that can be preserved without a pressure canner.  Pickles, along with naturally acidic foods like tomatoes and fruit can be safely preserved in a "water bath" (where you boil the jarred food for a length of time to kill any bacteria and create a vacuum seal in each jar.)  You can safely freeze low-acid foods like sweet corn, peas and beans if that's what you're determined to preserve. 

    The oven or a dehydrator can be used to make dried jerky, fruit, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.  (Borrow one, or look for a used model on Craigslist or Goodwill.)  If you're ready to buy a new one, go mid-range and fork over at least $50 or $60 for a model with a decent wattage.  Really nice Excalibur and American Harvester models go for a few hundred; personally, I can deal with a lower-end model for now, and maybe forever.

    4. If you want to go all Martha Stewart-ish and make gourmet gift jellies, sauces, etc., just be sure to give them away as planned.  (I've done that and then forgotten about them when the holidays rolled around.)

    As for me?

    The figs were an unexpected gift, and I took full advantage of them.  I'll do it again, if I can.

    Last weekend, I used the new dehydrator to dry peach slices.  Mr. Official wants to carry out his grandparents' Christmas tradition of making homemade fried pies.  Later on this fall, I'll get the meat department guys to thin-slice a roast or two and make jerky.  I'l probably dry some herbs as well.

    This past weekend, I also filled the roasting pans a few times with tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic for pizza sauce. (You simply let it cook it at 450 until it's a little charred on top and puree it; the result is way more delicious than the process makes it sound.  I don't do it because I can't buy pizza sauce cheaply, but because this yields WAY better sauce than I can buy at any price.  I'm freezing the thick, concentrated sauce in little 8-ounce containers - just the right amount to thaw and spread over a couple nice large pizza crusts. A dearth of homemade tomato sauce is one of the reasons I made very few pizzas last year.  No more excuses - a couple dozen containers are now in the freezer.

    I also plan to roast, peel and freeze Anaheim peppers we are growing.  At $1 for a small can, I can justify the time and effort it takes to "pick a peck of peppers" pop them on the grill or under the broiler, slip the skins off and and stash them in my freezer.  We will use them all winter in vegetarian chili, green chili, chiles rellenos, chile cheese dip...well, you get the picture, right?

    The remainder of my half-bushel of tomatoes is destined for pepper-onion relish today.  If I find a good deal on another half-bushel later on, I will probably put up some tomatoes with green chiles (like Rotel) and a batch of homemade salsa - as fiery hot as I can make it.  These probably come out about equal to what I'd spend if I bought them in the store, and my family prefers my homemade salsa and Rotel tomatoes if they have a choice.

    That's probably all I will "put up" this year unless I get my hands on some pears for pear honey, or okra for pickles. (I adore hot, spicy pickled okra and it's an expensive indulgence, not to mention getting harder to find on grocery shelves. But my efforts have never quite panned out in the past.)

    I'll take pictures and give recipes for each of these when the time comes and maybe pass along the canning "bug" to others.

    Happy canning,