Monday, October 3, 2011

Non-toxic Microwave Popcorn

What?!  Non-toxic microwave popcorn?  Am I saying that microwave popcorn might be bad for you?  Yup.

Microwave popcorn contains a Teflon-like chemical in the lining of the bag to keep it dry and non-stick.  This chemical, PFOA (which the EPA classified as a likely carcinogen), has been shown to cause cancer in lab mice. And it has been found in small amounts in the blood of nearly 95 percent of humans.  I don't know how much evidence links it to cancer in humans, but I don't want to find out in thirty years that there is a connection.

Many of the companies who make microwave popcorn have plans to remove PFOAs by 2015, but I'm not sure that the chemical with which they will replace it will be any better.  It's best to avoid as many chemicals as you can.

Luckily, you can still use the microwave to cook up a quick, healthy, and non-toxic snack. Just buy a container or bag of plain popcorn at the grocery store.

Place 1/4 cup of the popcorn into a plain paper bag, and fold it over twice. Make a nice, strong fold, so your snack doesn't start popping out all over the microwave. Press the popcorn button on your microwave (or pop for three to four minutes).




Top as you like: butter, salt, nutritional yeast, Old Bay, or cinnamon and sugar.  Easy, and no unwanted chemicals.

I wanted to take a picture of the popped popcorn so you could see how pretty and fluffy it was, but I ate it all before I thought of it.  Oops.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Natural Soultion to Ants (And Other Bugs)

Every spring (yes, I've been meaning to post this for a while), we get inundated with ants in the kitchen. Blech. I've tried just about ever imaginable natural solution: tea tree oil, peppermint, orange and lemon, cinnamon, etc, etc, etc. I spent all of last spring trying to defeat the ants with no success. They would continue coming in--Ants are easily squished, but they soon come back--and in greater numbers. (hee hee. anyone get that mangled allusion? anyone? anyone?)

This ant is not one that invaded my house. I invited this one in!
He lives in our AntFarm.
Well, this year, I found a miraculous, all-natural, non-toxic bug destroyer! Diatomaceous earth. Wha? That is a mouthful, but read on--it's worth it.

Diatomaceous earth (not dirt) is a rock that contains fossilized diatoms, one celled algae that have a hard cell wall, like a shell. The rock has been ground to a fine powder and you can sprinkle it where ever you have ants (or any bug with an exoskeleton, like roaches, stink bugs, or bedbugs). The bugs walk across the powder, which contains microscopic shards of the diatom's shell, and it makes tiny cuts in their exoskeleton, and they dehydrate and die. Yes! Triumph!

I sprinkled it across my door frame and window sill, and I sprinkled some on the anthills in my backyard. And within two days, there were no more ants in my house. I sprinkled more on the anthills a week or two later just to make sure that any new ants would die! Die! Die!

I bought diatomaceous earth at a local garden center, but it is also available online and at some home improvement centers. I have tons left over for future springs and in case of other insect invasion.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Increasing Garlic's Health Benefits

I love garlic. It is yummy and really healthy, too. And recently I read that waiting 10 minutes between chopping your garlic and cooking it preserves the anti-cancer properties (and anti-inflamatory, anti-fungal, and anti-atherosclerotic properties)!

Mostly, that's all you need to know. But if you quest for more nerd knowledge, like I do, there are two compounds in garlic that are separated from each other by the cell walls. When the cell walls are cut, the two compounds combine, do some enzymatic magic, and form allicin. (Allicin is the anti-cancer, anti-everything-bad compound.)

This is why you need to wait to eat the garlic, even if you're eating it raw. It needs time for the enzymatic action to create allicin.

Awesome! And research shows (this is one of my favorite phrases, by the way. I use it frequently. [I'm a nerd.]) that rats fed garlic that was cooked (but didn't sit for 10 minutes) showed no health benefits and rats fed garlic that was chopped, sat, and then cooked DID show health benefits.

So mince, wait, and enjoy the health benefits.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer Fun: Almost Instant Strawberry Ice Cream

Strawberry Ice Cream!
Before strawberry season ended in our area, we picked a large amount of strawberries, and ate them with whipped cream until our bellies were stuffed. 

I make my whipped cream from scratch because it's natural and because I like to show my children where foods come from and how they're made. And, really, it's cool.

Whipped Cream:  All you need is a container of heavy whipping cream (we buy organic), some sugar, and a mixer. Pour the container of cream into the mixing bowl and whip at a high speed until fluffy and firm. Add 1 - 2 Tablespoons powdered sugar (I've used granulated and it's fine, powdered just works a little better.) to taste. Just don't eat it all at this stage.

My only recommendation: DO NOT WHIP THE CREAM TOO LONG or it will turn into butter. I have actually done this because I have a habit of starting a cooking project then getting distracted. Squirrel! (Sugared butter is yummy, but not really what you want on your jello.)

Anyway, on to the ice cream. The whole process was a lot of fun! 

Plastic Bag Ice Cream

1 cup whole milk (or a mixture of milk and cream).
1/4 cup of sugar
1/2 tsp of vanilla extract
diced strawberries (about 1/2 cup)

Into a quart sized zip-lock bag, pour all the ingredients. Zip to seal, and add a length of tape over the zipped edge just to make sure the bag doesn't open while you're jostling* it around.

Place the quart-sized bag into a gallon-sized bag and add some ice. (I used about 4 or 5 cups.) Pour about a cup of rock salt over the ice, seal the bag and shake the bag back and forth for about 5 - 10 minutes, turn it, knead it, jostle it. Whatever. A pair of winter gloves helps because the bag is very cold.

I never buy strawberry ice cream at the store, but our homemade ice cream was so fantastic! The local strawberries were so fresh and sweet, it really made a difference.

Obviously, you can make any flavor of ice cream with this recipe. Eliminate the strawberries and add chocolate chips, cocoa powder, mint extract, etc. Many thanks the the leader of our local Children's Garden for sharing this recipe.

* I actually talk like that.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Summer Fun: Old-Fashioned Tree Swing

There are few things that can evoke images of summers long past like a tree swing. The super-long ropes give tree swings a long, smooth arc that gives you the sensation of flying.

My kids decided they wanted a tree swing and we made it in one day! (That's quite a feat for us--my husband and I can stretch a home-improvement project out for months, years even. We're pros at that.)

My husband cut a 1x8 plank of wood we had in the basement into two 2-foot lengths. I glued the two pieces together (using clamps to hold them tight) and drilled holes at either end. I painted the wood a bright yellow using leftover paint.

While that dried, we got the lengths of rope into the tree. We tied twine to a sock with a tennis ball inside and threw the sock-ball over a somewhat horizontal branch.

Then we tied the rope to the twine and pulled the rope over the branch. We kept pulling until we brought the rope all the way back to ourselves and untied the twine.

We only wanted a single length of rope on each side of the swing, so I tied the rope onto a steel ring that we had gotten at the hardware store (get one that holds more than 100 pounds). I used some crazy knot I know by heart, but don't know the name of (bowline? double sheet bend?). I cut the other end of the rope and threaded it through the ring and pulled the rope to fasten it around the branch.

I'm hoping that this doesn't "choke" the branch. If no weight is on the swing, there is almost no pressure on the branch, so as it grows, the ring/rope-loop will simply widen with the branch.

Then we threaded the rope through the hole drilled into seat and did the crazy knot again. We did this whole routine to the other side, and within a few hours, we had a fabulous tree swing. My kids LOVE this swing and have played on it almost every day so far this summer.

A closeup of the ring-loop

Summer Fun: Cherry Pickin' and Pie

I'm a little behind on my posts because I'm having so much fun this summer! Yay! But I will do my best to  catch up while still having fun!

Early in June, some friends said we could pick their sour cherries. Who could resist? Free food and a fun summertime activity all in one. Plus the hope of pie.

Peanut and Butter help pick cherries.
We picked as many cherries as we could reach--and some that I really shouldn't have reached.

Imagine me on tip toes on the top step of the ladder, balacing myself with a taut branch pulled close, reaching ... reaching ... for the bright red cherry just out of reach. As I was teetering there, I thought of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indiana is reaching for the grail just beyond his fingertips. I let the cherries go. (See? Movies can be good for you.)

Out-of-reach cherries notwithstanding, we still picked a huge box of cherries and took them home for pie.

Pie!

Jelly pits cherries
Butter makes pie. (And I do use butter in my pies.)



PIE!


Butter and I decided to try a beautiful lattice pie, and it was easier than we thought!  I followed instructions online at Simply Recipes.com. We were very happy with the results, but the best part was the eating.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Fruit!

BLUEBERRIES!
I never cease to be amazed by nature. I get really excited to see things blossom and fruit. Yes, I've done this before, and yes, it is still amazing. The miracle of life. When I first see the signs of fruit, I usually throw my hands in the air and shout, "Blueberries!" or "Cucumbers!" like Tom Hanks shouting "Fire!" in the movie Castaway. I do this every year.

Last spring, I planted two blueberry bushes (of different varieties) at the base of my porch, which is partly shaded, so I wasn't sure how they would fare this year. One of my plants has done just fine--there are plump berries all over it. Yay!

The other bush only produced a few berries, which dried up right away. I don't know why. Does one get more sun than the other? Is one variety more resilient than the other? It would've made sense to label them, but I never got around to it, so I don't know which is which. But I read that the two varieties I have (Bluecrop and Bluejay) have different colors of leaves in the fall, so I'll get back to you on that.

Patio cucumbers growing ... on my patio! Yay! I may not need to self-polinate this year. I mean hand-polinate.


CUCUMBERS!
And strawberries! I'm not expecting much from this everbearing crop. (Shady yard.) I grew them in containers on my porch last year, and they grew pretty well, but chipmunks and squirrels and slugs and who knows what else ate them. I tried putting chickenwire fencing (*chicken* fencing, not chipmunk fencing--that was my mistake!) around them, but it didn't keep out the little critters.

In the fall, I planted them in the ground so the roots wouldn't freeze over the winter. They came back nicely, and are producing fruit. I'm sure we're in for another battle with the critters.

STRAWBERRIES!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dandelion Gardening

My front garden needed some attention. There were tremendous weeds growing in it and little else. I was pulling out dandelions larger than I had ever seen! And I was struck with an idea. I have paid good money to *buy* dandelion greens; why not add these to my salad?!?

The garden bed was close to the house, and not near the street, so I wasn't concerned with contamination from car exhaust. With gusto, I began pulling up the big weeds in my dandelion farm, and asked my daughter to wash them so we could eat them. It was almost as exciting as actual gardening! After they were washed, I dried them with towels and kept them in the fridge until dinner.

Dandelion greens are peppery, and they can overwhelm the salad, so I mixed just a few of the leaves in with romaine lettuce. We were really excited that we got some very healthy produce *free* that we almost threw in the compost bin.

Jelly (my greens-eater) was eating them right out of the ground. I had to remind her to save some weeds for dinner!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Homemade Marshmallow Peeps



Peep, peep!
Easter baskets don't seem the same without some marshmallow peeps. We make our own to avoid the artificial dyes that are on the store-bought ones. And YUM, they are tastier. (Hello, candy manufacturers, if you are listening, mass produce some natural peeps. I'd do it, but I'm kinda busy.)

All you need to do is follow the recipe for marshmallows from my previous post. I used four envelopes of gelatin instead of two--I wanted to make sure the marshmallow would hold it's shape when I made the peep shape. Also, I let it whip a little longer than usual to the point that the marshamallow didn't flow off the whisk like it usually does, but is thicker.


This is how you want it: thick and slow. That sounds very weird.


If it's not thick enough, this is what happens to your peeps:

Lazy peeps couldn't even hold their shape!

They turn into slugs. You don't want Easter slugs. So keep your marshmallow in the mixer until it's thick, thick, thick.

Now, for the piping. If you have a piping bag, you can use that. I prefer sacificing a plastic ziplock for this job (this from the mom who washes and reuses her ziplock bags) because it is very sticky and it is larger than my piping bag. Spoon the marshmallow into the bag, zip it closed and cut one of the lower corners off. I make about a half-inch wide hole so the peeps come out full (you don't want skinny worms either).

Pipe onto a baking sheet sprinkled with powdered sugar. Make a body by starting from the back and move forward. Go back about 1/4 of the way to make the head and stop squeezing the bag. Slowly pull foward to make the beak. We made a badly produced video for all you visual peeps (people, in this case. I don't think marshmallow peeps are reading this blog. Or are they?)





video



Here are my peeps:

They look like they're up to something.
Le them dry for about an hour, use a fork to unstick them from the baking pan, and roll in colored sugar. I bought some naturally colored sugar at Whole Foods a few years ago, and I still have it. I used a mortar and pestle to make it a little finer.

As a finishing touch, use a tooth pick and melted chocolate to give them eyes. 

And don't let your good-looking peeps ostracize the slugs. They're all the same, deep down.




Monday, April 25, 2011

Naturally-dyed Easter eggs

My kids made these naturally-colored eggs with blueberries and coffee!
Even though we have avoided food coloring for almost 6 years, we've never made naturally-colored Easter eggs. (I usually have the kids soak their eggs in the store-bought dye for only a few seconds to avoid dye migrating through the shell.) But this year, we made dyes from fruits and veggies.

I chose only a few colors to make it easier on myself. I followed the instructions here for making the dyes; I picked purple grape juice for lavender, red cabbage for blue, beet juice for pink, and turmeric for yellow. I also followed the suggestion to boil the raw eggs in the dye bath (rather than cook them beforehand) to get a more vivid color.

Grape Juice: FAIL!  The eggs cooked in purple grape juice were a complete failure--they turned out gray! And I was ticked that I wasted a half bottle of grape juice.  See my used tea bag in the background? Hee hee.

Eggs cooking in grape juice. Do not try this at home: a complete waste.

Red Cabbage: Success!  I didn't believe it that red cabbage would produce a blue egg, but it did--and a beautiful blue egg, at that. 

Cookin' the cabbage. Cabbage-inator. Cabbage-orama.

I boiled a head of purple (aka red) cabbage in enough water to cover, and cooked for about 15 - 20 minutes, until the cabbage looked pale and gross--the water was a fantastic bright purple (the color I want my hair to be). I strained out the cabbage, added the vinegar, and let the eggs simmer for 15 minutes in the dye bath. I wasn't happy with the color, which was a very pale blue, so I soaked them for another 20 minutes or so in a measuring cup (I needed my pot back). They looked great.

Turmeric: Success! Turmeric is one potent coloring agent. After just a few minutes in the turmeric water (about 1/2 Tablespoon in probably 4 cups water) the eggs were yellow. I left them in the water for 15 minutes because they had to cook. The eggs were bright yellow (and so were my fingers)!

There are eggs in that turmeric, honest.

Beets: failure. I am sad to report that my beet-colored eggs were a failure, because beets are usually my Champion of Natural Colors, and it has never let me down before. :-( At this point, I am blaming the cheap generic canned beets I bought.

Beet juice looks all nice and red, but don't let it fool you.
Surprise special guest: Green.  I dipped some of my blue eggs into the turmeric for a few minutes, with lackluster results, but I was happy, since I didn't really have a plan for green at all. The green was pale, but okay.
Beet-colored (thumbs down), turmeric yellow (wow!), red cabbage blue, and spur of the moment green.
The eggs at the top of the page were made by my kids at a local farm, so I'm not exactly sure how they did it, but the blue colored eggs were made with dye made from crushed blueberries and the creamy tan one was from coffee. I think those turned out really well!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hello, Spring!

 Wow! I love spring! I love seeing all the green leaves and sprouts poking out of the ground--abounding life!


Lily of the Valley
Blueberry Blossom
Hosta


Mourning dove fledgling

Azalea
I am not much of a gardener (see my previous attempts at gardening), but every spring, I love to plant, dig, and watch things grow. The miracle of life right before our eyes! Food from the earth! (I'm easily pleased and easily amazed. And that's a good thing.)


Last year we grew blueberries


 and pole beans (I was totally amazed at the tiny, twisting vines ... reaching, climbing) ;


and oregano and strawberries. My harvest was modest, since I have a shady yard, and my plants don't really get enough sun, and most of my "bounty" (I say that with a full-on smirk) was stolen by squirrels, birds, and other varmints.

I do mostly container gardening, since that allows me to move the plants around to where the sun is. Last fall, I transplanted the oregano and strawberries to the ground so they would survive the winter. I'm looking forward to seeing if they survive shade and creatures this summer.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Floor Cleaner

My hardwood floors are shiny and clean. Funny how something like that can make me happy.

I made a cleaner/polish out of 50 percent white vinegar and 50 percent canola oil. The oil conditions the wood, and the vinegar cuts grease and dirt. I "waxed on" with a rag dipped in the mixture and "waxed off" with a clean rag. If you are imagining me toiling and sweating and scrubbing in a frumpy old house dress, it wasn't like that at all.  (Especially the old house dress part. Do they still make those?)


Dare I say it was kinda fun? Okay, maybe not fun, but it was very satisfying seeing the dry scratched wood look warm and conditioned. And I got my six year old to help. Little kids love to do housework (for some crazy reason). If you have young children, give them the polish cloth!

So now I have shiny, healthy-looking hair--I mean floors--and no chemical headache from cleaners. And if you have extra vinegar-oil solution, you can even put it on your salad.  :-)  How healthy is that?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sugar Petal Cake

photo by C. Scheper
My youngest had a Fairy Tale Princess theme for her 6th birthday party. There were dragons, knights, sugar cube castles, and a cake fit for a princess.

Jelly asked specifically for a cake with lemon icing and real flowers on it. I have no idea where a 6 year old would get an idea like that--she doesn't watch Martha Stewart--but I loved the idea.

I knew you could eat rose petals after watching the movie Like Water for Chocolate (which is a beautiful movie, by the way) so I decided to sugar rose petals.

I pulled the whole flower head off the stem and separated out the petals.  I used large pink and cream roses and smaller red ones.  Martha Stewart said to brush them with egg whites and sprinkle them with superfine granulated sugar.  I used pasteurized egg whites since I would be serving this to children, and I ground some regular sugar with a mortar and pestle. You can buy superfine sugar or grind your own with a food processor or coffee grinder, but why waste electricity when you can burn calories?  :-)

The result was beautiful, and the petals were delicious!

photo by C. Scheper

Saturday, March 5, 2011

MARSHMALLOWS!

When I first saw a recipe for marshmallows, my first thought was, "You can make marshmallows?" As if they grew on a plant or were made by fairies.  Yes, you can make them, but why would you?

First, most marshmallows have artificial coloring in them. It just boggles my mind--I mean, they're white! And second, store-bought marshmallows just can't compare to homemade.

(I can't remember where I got this recipe--I've had it for years. Thanks to whomever gave it to me.)

Marshmallows

powdered sugar for dusting
2 envelopes of boxed gelatin (4 envelopes if you want to roast your marshmallows)
8 Tbsp cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup cold water
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla

- Dust a 9" square pan (or a medium-sized rectangular pan) with powdered sugar and set aside.

- In a small bowl, soak gelatin and 8 Tbsp cold water and set aside.

- Combine granulated sugar and 1/2 cup water in a large saucepan.  Boil sugar water until it reaches 240 degrees.  If you don't have a candy thermometer, you can eyeball it.  Sometimes, I just cook it until it starts to look thick, but it's safer to use the thermometer. (Besides, you'll need one for maple taffy on snow.)

- Pour the sugar syrup into a mixing bowl and let it partially cool. Add the gelatin mixture, salt, and vanilla.

- Beat until double in volume and white, fluffy, and thick.  Remove the wire wisk or beater from your mixer and lick all the marshmallow fluff off.


- Pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan.

- Lick the spatula. Lick the bowl, too. Stick your whole head in there, I won't tell.

- Set to cool several hours.

- Cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces and roll in powdered sugar. I use a knife dipped in warm water. It cuts through the marshmallow very easily. Eat.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Natural Red Velvet Cake

All Natural Red Velvet Cake
I'm not a very good cake icer.
Valentine's Day can present a challenge to those sensitive to food coloring (Red #40 is everywhere), but I look at it as an opportunity to try something new! This year, I decided to try to make a natural Red Velvet cake for Valentine's Day.

So what can you use (other than a bottle of red food coloring) to get that bright red color?  Beets!  God certainly didn't put them on earth for us to eat!  Ha ha!  No offense to those who like beets--I'm just kidding!  (not really.*)

And don't worry, you can't taste the beets at all after you add butter and sugar!

I usually color my red things with beet juice, but while googling, I discovered that beet juice in baked goods often fades (a problem with natural colors) and turns brownish.  Brown red velvet cake is not what I'm looking for.

Most of the natural recipes online had a lot of chocolate, so the red coloring is subtle, but I found one recipe for a very red Red Velvet cake using beet-root powder.  I've never used beet powder before, but I bought a bottle at the health food store**, and I am really pleased with the result!

My kids were so surprised by the red cake, they hesitated.  "Can we eat this," they all asked.  :-)  Yes!

Final verdict:  This was an unusual cake, with 6 eggs and only 3/4 cup flour.  It was very moist, but I'm going to try a white cake with the beet powder added. Then, I'm going to try a cake using beet juice to see how that compares.  I'm sure my kids will be disappointed at how much cake I'm making them eat.

_____

* I'm joking. I really am.

** I just about fell over when I saw how much the beet root powder was.  I almost didn't buy it, but my husband convinced me it would be worth it when the kids saw the RED cake.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Finger Knitting

 My kids are pretty quiet children--they like reading and drawing and legos, but sometimes winter days involve them climbing on each other, screaming loudly, and scaring the tar out of each other. So it is nice every so often to pull out the yarn and quiet them down with finger knitting.

We started finger knitting with just one finger.  It's super easy, and from there we can progress to 4-finger knitting.





Start with a slip knot on one finger 


and bring the long piece of yarn (the one attached to the ball of yarn) 
and the loop it--front to back--over your finger.



Pull the original loop (the slip knot) over the string closest to your finger tip 


and let it fall off your finger. 



Tighten by pulling the loose "tail" of yarn.    That's it!


Add another loop of yarn and pull the first loop over the second again.


Look:  a video!



Make your knitted cord as long as you like.  When you're done, cut the tail and feed it through the loop and tighten.  Then you can trim the ends.

This is a really nice quieting activity.  It is easy and doesn't require a lot of time. We like to use our "play cords" (as we call them) for dress up, stuffed animal leashes, pretending to be animals with leashes, and lots of things.
Butter models her red cord.
Jelly's play cord is made out of really thick chenille yarn.  Nice!