Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Canning... Canning... Canning!

For the past several years, I have really wanted to can jam.  I grew up eating homemade grape jelly and I loved it.  My favorite kind of jam was Fig 'n Walnut.  I've never found any since, but it is a food that reminds me of the foods I loved best as a child.  

Having little kids in our home for the past 7 years has precluded me from attempting much in the way of canning. I have been so afraid of having them near a boiling pot of water or hot jam cooking.  But, they are getting older and I've been thinking that it is time to journey into the world of canning.

I have started, of course, with a book.  I am one of those people that has so many questions that I want a book to remind me of what I've learned from other people.  Here's the book I'm reading this summer:  

There's all sorts of recipes in this book.  Everything from chili hot sauce to berry leather to dried herbs.  I loved the illustrations and introduction at the front of the book. The author, Sherri Vinton, is very thorough about explaining each step.  It reminds me a lot of an America's Test Kitchen Cookbook.  The recipes cover a very wide range of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.  There's even a recipe for summer squash pickles.  

One thing the author does specify in the front of the cookbook is that all recipes must be made exactly as they are written because they were written to comply with USDA Food Safety Standards.  

Some of the jam recipes do not require pectin, while others do.  Ms. Vinton uses Pomona's Universal Pectin. On the website, it says that one 1 oz. box will make 2-4 batches of jam.  Pomona's is known for giving a bit of a citrus flavor to jelly or jam so that would be good to keep in mind.  

Surprisingly, jams and jellies are a much smaller portion of the recipes in this book than I expected.  There are so many recipes I look forward to trying.  Last summer, I let all of our tiny peppers go to waste because I had no idea what to do with them!  This book gives directions on how to dry them as well as several recipes on how to can them or make hot sauce.  Squash is another ingredient that is very inexpensive around here during the summer.  There is a yummy sounding squash pickle recipe that I intend on trying soon.

I'll keep you updated on how my cooking and canning turns out!

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this cookbook for review from Storey Publishing.

Unexpected Magazine

A few days ago, the mailman delivered an issue of People Magazine to my mailbox.  It was a surprise since I don't subscribe to People.  The name on the magazine was not mine, but it was my exact address.  It wasn't a misdelivery.  So, I called People.  The customer service agent found the subscription order (which of course was not prepaid) and cancelled it.  She said I would receive a bill under the false name, but to disregard it.  There would be a 0 balance on their end.  

Whew.  It was strange.  But, it made me realize that I need to pay attention to all mail that comes to my house--even if I think it might be a mistake.  Identity Theft comes many forms, I guess...  I think this is a case of address theft?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Composting...A Beginning

This summer, we decided to expand our garden and begin composting.  I sent my husband to Home Depot to get some materials to build a bin.  He came back with a square black plastic frame.  We put it together and began dumping composting materials into it.  Simple, right?  Well, no...

One day... my husband decided to dump a huge load of grass into it from our yard and it quickly became too heavy for me to turn.  I had been turning it with a small tool and that wouldn't work anymore.  So, I went to the store and bought a small pitchfork (about half the size of a a normal one).  I came home and I tried and tried and tried to turn it.  Unsuccessfully.  

My conclusion is that if you have the space for an open bin or a pile somewhere in your yard where you can compost, then it's easier to use a pitchfork.  If you have a small space, it takes more strength and control.  I wish we had purchased a compost bin that will turn with a crank.  (This may be what I ask for for my birthday next year.)  I can carry my 33 lb. son while walking for a mile, but it was hard for me to turn the compost.

Here is a picture of my bin...

This picture is of our bin and the package of peat moss that I haven't found time yet to work into the soil.  I am learning that there is always something that could be done in the garden or is yet to be done.  I took this picture through the screen of our homeschool room, so please forgive the haziness of the picture.  Around the bin is forsythia.  I was so frustrated with how dead the forsythia looked so I chopped it back--entirely.  What I discovered, though, is that forsythia needs that.  The yellow flowers grow on the previous year's growth.  So, in order to have healthy forsythia, you need to prune it each year (though probably not as drastically as I did).  I am thankful that it came back because it has provided a natural shrub to surround the compost bin and I didn't have to spend any money to buy a new one.  

But, back to my composting attempts...  Composting sounds simple, and it can be simple.  It can also be complex.  It all depends on how much you do and what you decide to compost.  It's a bit like recycling.  You can just recycle your newspapers, or you can pay attention and recycle a lot more paper and cardboard instead of being lazy and throwing it in the trash can.  (The lazy comment is for me because I find myself in this predicament daily.)

I have started reading a book called The Complete Compost Gardening guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deboarh L. Martin

This book will open your eyes about what composting is, how to do it, and how much you can compost.  The book starts off with the basics of composting--why, what, and how to do it.  The next chapter is about what you'll need.  This chapter is about the other tools you need (not just the bin).  Then the book's authors cover what you can compost (and what you shouldn't).  The rest of the book covers in more detail how and where to compost.  I had no idea there were so many ways to compost!  I have puzzled a bit realizing the quantity of grass clippings we get as well as leaves in the fall.  As I've picked up and set down this book multiple times in the last month, I've come to realize that I can expand my composting attempts and methods each year.  There's so much one can do that it's wise to take it on bit by bit rather than all at once.  

Starting small with composting is a good place to start.  The beginning part of this book will give you the whats and how.  If you end up enjoying composting, the second part of the book will give you lots of ideas of how you can compost creatively and how you can use the results of your efforts in your gardening.

So, I'm starting small.  I haven't mastered my little compost heap yet.  But, I hope to.  I know that that there's ideas in this book that will keep me busy for many years to come!

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of The Complete Compost Gardening Guide from Storey Books for review.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Mom Planner

When my husband and I first got married, I made a set of excel spreadsheets for our budget that I have been using for 10 years.  They're basic and they get the job done.  I've modified them over the years and added a few more as I've needed to, but the set is basically the same.

I realized before this past school year began that I wanted to find a set of forms to do the same for my week and all the things I need to keep track of.  I'd been putting our menu on the calendar on the wall, but I often had to take it up and down off the wall.  I wanted a binder with my monthly, yearly, and weekly calendars.  I wanted it to have my emergency information, food menus, and book reviewing lists--all in one spot.  

Of course in the interest of trying to save money, I began looking around on the internet.  I found all sorts of free forms, but as I was looking I remembered a piece of advice I read a few years ago in a money saving book--consider the cost/benefit of your time.  The example given was ironing clothes or using the drycleaners.  I wash all of my husband's clothes on the "hand wash" setting.  I iron them and it takes me about 2 hrs every other week to do the ironing.  But, all of the dry cleaners around me are very expensive, so I save a lot (at least $30 per week) by doing this.  I could spend that same 2 hours looking for free forms or I could purchase a membership to an already premade set.  

I found a set that I have really enjoyed and that was pretty affordable when I compared it to other options.  Here's the site:  Mom's Tool Belt 
This is pretty much what my notebook looks like (this is their sample picture from the website).  I did choose to print the pages in black and white because it's cheaper.  Many of the forms are in color, but you can set your preferences setting when you print to black and white--I even use the lower quality grayscale and all of the forms print out perfectly.

I have several tabs in my notebook that have come in very handy.  I have a set of yearly calendars.  One I used as a list for family and friend's birthdays.  Another I mark every month with different symbols for when I've given our dog her Heartgard / Flea and Tick Medicine and have replaced the A/C filter.  I have another section for emergency info. with phone numbers we need.  Another section contains weekly and monthly calendars.  I keep 2-3 months in the notebook at a time.  The next section includes our travel checklists and my book review lists.  The last section is my menu for the month.  I keep my past menus for ideas and a list of possible meals.  I chose to put it all in a 1" binder made for 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of paper.  

Since I'm a stay at home, homeschooling mom, my home is my base.  We go out for activities and errands, but the bulk of our time is spent at home.  If I go out, I know what I'm going for and I don't need to take my planner with me.   I like this binder because it's big enough to write on and it has worked so well for me!  The cost of the planner membership has definitely been worth it for me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Garden is Progressing

I have always been intimidated to grow lettuce, but for some reason it is doing quite well.  The other side of the bed will be zinnias and black eyed susans.  I have enjoyed watching the lettuce grow.  When I plant something, I always wonder if it will take root and grow.  One of the strawberry plants I planted in another bed was uprooted when one of the kids accidentally picked a strawberry from it with a little too much force.  It has been interesting watch the strawberry plants struggle to take root.  What's on top is deceptive.  Sometimes the roots are not as deep or strong as they might seem.  But, they're surviving.

This is my azalea that is not doing so well.  It is not the heat of the sun that matters most but the length of the sun.  I fear that this poor azalea needs more shade and less sun than it is getting.  I have been faithfully watering it daily.  I knew I was taking a chance in this spot.  This hosta typically dies later on in the summer.  I think I need to look for some different plants for this area, don't you?

These are my tomatoes.  I'm curious to see how they do.  I planted marigolds around them and garlic.  Basil is nearby, too.  All of these are supposed to be helpful to one another.  We'll see...  

This is the old laundry sink from our basement.  Really, it is.  It's made of cement.  It is the heaviest thing I've ever tried to move.  When we took it out of the basement, I didn't think we could persuade any trash man to haul it away.  So, my husband drilled a few holes in the bottom of it and I've turned it into a planter.  It turns out that it misses the shadows from the roof and the deck for quite a long time during the day.  So, it is one of the spots in the garden with the best sunlight.  My husband did explain to me that I need to water it more thoroughly and often because the container heats up and the moisture evaporates more quickly.  I know there also can be issues with drainage.  Last year I planted a cucumber plant in here and it produced a few, but it didn't thrive.  I'm hoping my parsley and tomato will be a better fit for this container.  I have been told by many friends that gardening is a lot of trial and error.  

Which reminds me of an interesting thing I read in a fiction book this morning for young girls.  In the context of the story, the girls were planting two peas, two squash, and then three corn seeds.  The squash run along the ground and prevent too many weeds from growing.  The peas bush out and support the corn.  The Corn seeds sprout to give the other plants shade when they need it.  It was simply part of the story, but I think it is a very interesting idea.  Gardening is really rather complex.  I grew up with a large garden.  So, when I look at my garden it makes me feel like it's so small.  But, I know that it was a lot of work to put in!  I am reminded that how we see things often depends on what we are comparing those things to.  I have bad memories of the garden I grew up with.  I don't want to feel that way about my garden now--I want it to be a joy, not a heavy burden.  For me, this garden is just the right size.  I have enjoyed going out to water and lightly weed each day now that the bulk of the work has been done.  

One last note, I discovered that a remnant of my peppermint survived last summer in a hanging pot I had put it in.  We'll see what becomes of it in the months ahead!  I am told Peppermint is like a weed.  Once it's in the ground, it's very difficult to get it out.  So, it's wise to plant it in a pot rather than in the ground.  I discovered that Lemon Balm is the same.  though I didn't take a picture, my lemon balm looks like a bush.  It's 2 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet.  And I have no idea what to do with it!  I wish I did.  

Please forgive my random gardening notes.  I'm afraid they are quite disjointed tonight!  Soon I will post about our composting efforts...

Trash and Treasures

Sometimes when I garage sale I find treasures and sometimes trash and sometimes a mixture of the two.  This past Saturday I set out to find a 5 disc cd changer for my husband.  

We made our way through the morning but hadn't seen any stereo components.  I finally found a cd changer at a garage sale.  Usually, I look closely at things, but for some reason I didn't this time.  Honestly, I simply forgot to inspect it closely.  I paid the gal for it and set off for home.

When I got it home, my husband discovered that it was missing the two pads for the front of the unit and had some scratches on top of the unit.  I realized my error and felt badly for it.  I set off to the garage to find something to use in place of the missing pads.  In the garage I found something I had placed in a box a few weeks ago when I replaced the toilet seat in our upstairs bathroom.  For some reason, I had decided to keep the two plastic pieces that go under the seat and hold it in place.  They happened to be the perfect size for the 5 disc changer.

  It turns out that though the cd changer was not in mint condition, it plays wonderfully.  My husband now has a five-disc changer for our receiver upstairs for which I paid $5.  But, I was reminded of one lesson that I need to remember--Always inspect before purchasing. 

How Marketing Changed Orange Juice

I suppose there is probably an indepth book somewhere that digs into this subject.  But, I realized something when I was in Shoprite earlier today.  Marketing changed how we shop for orange juice and what we think is good and bad juice.

When I was growing up, juice was a treat in our house.  We primarily drank milk and water--from the tap.  Periodically, my mom purchased juice.  She bought the frozen cans of concentrate and reconstituted them in a Tupperware pitcher.

You might have thought that those Tupperware pitchers and frozen cans of concentrate have become extinct.   Thankfully, they haven't.

A while back I read this article in the Baltimore Sun about Orange Juice:  It was eye opening for my husband and me.

When we married, my husband was adamant that we needed to purchase not from concentrate orange juice.  I did not feel as strongly, though I was concerned about the cost.  I worked it into our food budget and watched for it to go on sale.  He felt that it tasted differently and I had to admit, I found that it did.

About three years ago, I started seeing a sharp increase in the price of juice and so we cut back as a family on our intake of apple juice, but I still purchased orange juice weekly.

After we read the article, I wasn't sure what to think.  The article says basically that "Not from concentrate" juice really isn't much different than "from concentrate".  We have been sold on the idea of "not from concentrate" by the orange juice marketers.

A month ago, I went back to the freezer aisle at Aldis and purchased some frozen orange juice concentrate.  It cost $1.09 for a can.  Reconstituted it equals 48 oz.  The equivalent price for a 64 oz. portion would be $1.36.  That is far less than even the from concentrate half gallons at the store.  My husband accidentally tasted it one morning before heading off to a brunch.  He was required to take some orange juice to the brunch so he went to the store and bought a half gallon of "not from concentrate" for about $3.50.  He came home and told me that it didn't taste any better.

This morning he looked at me with the orange juice I'd made in his hand and asked if I was planning on continuing to purchase it.  I responded tentatively with a "yes".  He said "Good.  It takes up less space and tastes just as good."  Yay!

So, the moral of the story is you might think about giving frozen juice another chance...

But, if you do, look for the generics at Target or Aldis or Walmart.  Today I was at Shoprite and their generic frozen orange juice concentrate was $2.09!  Hmmm... what do you think they want to sell?  And what do you think their shoppers are sold on?  I had to stop by Target on my way home and found that their Orange Juice cans (the same size) were $1.14 and apple juice was $.92.

We've really been sold on the way we drink orange juice.  I think my family's going to go back to the what we bought when I was a kid.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Rod and Staff

I have heard about Rod and Staff's curriculum over the past few years.  I had never seen any of it though.  I happen to purchase almost all of my curriculum online and that is why.

Rod and Staff is a mennonite publisher of homeschool curriculum.  You cannot order directly from them online.  You can order through various other homeschool suppliers (who act as a middleman) or you can contact Rod and Staff directly.  

Rod and Staff is a very simple, straight forward curriculum.  It is largely black and white.  It sticks close to the Anabaptist value of simplicity.  If you are interested in this curriculum, you can send them a letter at this address: PO Box 3, 14193 Hwy. 172, Crockett, KY 41413 or phone them at 606/522-4348 to request a sample of their curriculum and a scope and sequence.  

I am glad to have received and looked at their samples.  I am realizing that my daughters and I tend to be very visual.  The formatting and color of the pages I'm reading affect my enjoyment of them and my tendency to want to read them or not!  Rod and Staff's curriculum is also written for folks who are Anabaptist.  The Anabaptists lead very different lives than we do and are preparing for a very different future than my children are.  So, I don't think Rod and Staff is for us.  But, it is a very affordable choice for curriculum ($191 for all subjects for 3rd grade).  I have heard good things from friends who've used the curriculum for various subjects.