Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Worth a Hill of Beans: Blanching and Freezing Green Beans

A week or so ago, as I walked to the compost pile to dump my canning scraps, I stopped by my garden to check on my pumpkins and to see if there were any strawberries ready to eat. The pumpkins were looking great and there was a strawberry that nearly filled my palm. Sweet. And then I noticed my green bean plants. They were covered in plump, long green beans. Before long, I needed to use the apron I was wearing to carry them all.

Green beans are really a must for any parsimonious person's garden - the seeds are inexpensive (this year, I bought them in bulk at the local farmer's supply store), they're easy to grow (and they grow quickly - pole beans take about 55-60 days until harvest), and the little plants yield so much. All you need is a spot in your garden that gets lots of sun and something for them to climb (unless you grow the bush variety, then you only need the sunny, warm spot). I think next year, I'm going to build a green bean teepee.

In years past, I've grown the green beans and picked them, but often they went to waste. I usually had more than I knew what to do with - and they would shrivel up and get tough before I used them up. But, while I had them, they were delicious. I'd thought about canning them, but that would require a pressure canner I didn't have. Plus, I just prefer the taste of fresh green beans over canned, cooked ones. Well, earlier this year, I went to a class on container gardening and the instructor mentioned blanching and freezing peas and green beans. I wanted to smack my forehead right there in class and say, "Duh! Why hadn't I thought of that?"

So, without further ado, here are the simple steps to prolonging your green bean harvest through the coming months:

After you've washed and trimmed your green beans (line them up side by side and cut off the stems), you'll need to blanch them. Get a large pot, fill with water, and bring to a rolling boil. You can either put the green beans in a wire basket or dump them in like I did. Put the lid on the pot and leave the beans in the water for three minutes.

As the beans are cooking, prepare another pot or bowl by filling it with water and ice. Once the three minutes are up, put the green beans into the ice water immediately. Immersing them in the very cold water will stop the cooking process, thus ensuring you have beautiful, bright green beans (few things are yuckier to eat than overcooked vegetables, in my opinion). Leave them in the ice water for about 8-10 minutes before draining.

After you've taken them from the cold water, put them in some freezer bags. Don't pack the bags too tightly (according to an article I read, you should leave about 1/2 inch of headroom). Seal the bags, label them (with the contents and date), and stick them in the freezer. They should last in the freezer (by that I mean they'll keep their color and taste) for about nine months.

One last thing -- just for kicks, check out this old commercial. I kind of wish they still made commercials like this...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Baking Soda & Vinegar: Not Just for Science Projects

My friend (I've mentioned her before - she's my canning buddy) told me that in her home country of Japan they say that a woman who cleans the bathroom will become a beautiful-looking woman. She went on to tell me that her grandmother said it was because a 'bathroom fairy' puts a spell on you and beauty is the reward. If only it were true - I'd be a lot more motivated.

I don't mind cleaning, really. It's nice to get one's living space clean and orderly. I don't mind doing the dishes or the laundry or vacuuming. But I hate hate hate cleaning the bathroom. But, it has to be done and the longer you go without deep cleaning it, the worse it gets. So I just suck it up, gather my cleaning supplies and scrub brushes, roll up my sleeves, and get it over with.

One thing I always hated about cleaning the bathroom, especially when it came to cleaning the bathtub and shower, was using the chemicals. I've used sprays and cleansers, but they always left either a residue on the tub or they just made me itchy. And then I learned about natural cleansers (book review coming soon - it'll change the way you think about cleaning) and my eyes were opened. Now, I'm a big believer that the less toxic chemicals in the home, the better. I read once on the label of a bottle of Method bathroom spray something that stuck with me: the bathroom is a naked kind of place - and you don't want weird chemical stuff on all your glorious nakedness.

And that's why I use baking soda and vinegar to clean my bathroom. I know, I know. It sounds kind of weird, but they work like a charm! Plus, they cost less than any bathroom-specific spray (which you usually run out of after a few bathtub cleanings anyway) or any special toilet bowl cleaner. I buy baking soda in bulk at Costco (I can get the big bag pictured for around five dollars) and I can get a gallon jug of vinegar for a couple dollars. And I use these products for things other than cleaning. Laundry, baking, health - so many uses!

For my counters and mirrors, I use an all-purpose spray. I buy it in concentrated form so it's inexpensive, but still hard-working. After that is done, I move to my bathtub. I get an old cup (or sometimes I'll just grab handfuls) and generously sprinkle baking soda all over the tub: on the bottom, on the sides, all over the faucet, on the soapdish, and the walls. Next, I get another big cup full of water and splash the baking soda with it - not so much that it washes it away, but enough that it makes the baking soda into a type of paste. Then I get some more baking soda, spread it on my scrub brush, get it a little wet (again, make a paste), and then I start scrubbing.

Granted, this method takes a little extra elbow grease, but not much more. The nice thing about baking soda is that it is an abrasive, but it's very gentle and doesn't scratch anything. And since it's just baking soda, it doesn't irritate your skin (in fact, it makes my hands pretty soft afterward). Once any and all stains and dirt are lifted, simply rinse it out with the shower, faucet, and a cup. That's it. Nothing I've tried works better. Nothing.

From what I've read and learned, vinegar is as good at removing germs as just about any special, anti-bacterial cleaner. It can be used for a variety of things (which I plan to mention frequently on this blog in the future) - and one of those uses is cleaning the toilet. It disinfects and cleans the toilet, and, since vinegar is an acid, it's also good for removing lime deposits. And like I said earlier, it's so cheap!

To clean your toilet, pour about a cup or so into the bowl and let it sit for a while. I'll usually pour the vinegar in before I clean the counters and bathtub. That's the key with using vinegar in the toilet - it has to soak for a while. Once it's been in there for a while, proceed with the toilet brush and clean it. Like with the baking soda, it may need a little extra scrubbing, but not much. And it works really well. I've used vinegar for toilet cleaning exclusively for at least a year.

Ditch the blue disc for your toilet tank. Forget the bubbles that scrub for you. With a little extra effort (and for much cheaper) you can get your bathroom sparkling. And then run yourself a nice, hot bath - you've earned it.

Note: If you're interested in yet another use for baking soda and vinegar in the bathroom, check out this article on Simple Mom. I just read it last week - really interesting.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Homemade vs. Pre-made: Homemade Pancake Mix

Tomorrow is no ordinary Saturday. It happens to be National Pancake Day (not to be confused with National Pancake Week, which is in February.). I don't know of any parades or festivals being held in the pancake's honor, but, really, is there any better way to celebrate than with a stack of pancakes? The answer is, simply, no.

But there's one caveat to this: you really should make them from scratch. I know, I know, using a mix seems easier. A couple cups of mix, maybe an egg, and some water. But those mix-made pancakes just don't taste as good. Plus, you can make your own from-scratch recipe for less money. Enter my new feature: Homemade vs. Pre-made.
Every so often, I'm going to feature a comparison between the store-bought mix or frozen food (we will refer to it as the product-that-shall-not-be-named) and my from-scratch recipe. Call me biased, but I think my version is always better. So, I thought it would be appropriate to start the feature with the mother of all mixes.

I don't in any way mean to come down on this generations-old product. Many of you may have grown up with it. And that's totally fine. For a mix, it's pretty good. It's convenient and doesn't have have any super weird ingredients (you know, the unpronounceable ones with a few x's and y's in the word), but it does have one villain ingredient: Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and/Or Cottonseed Oil. Everyone should be aware of this ingredient because it equals trans fat (the nutrition label says it has 1.5 grams trans fat per serving). Plus, cottonseed oil is a red flag to me. I avoid anything with these ingredients (which is why I haven't used shortening at all in 2009 - that's one one new year's resolution kept!).

You can make your own mix for very little money and at very little effort. It is so easy, so versatile, and, most importantly, so delicious. I always make a big batch of this pancake mix so whenever the urge for pancakes arises (Saturday is always pancake day at my house), I can whip up a pile of pancakes a few minutes. It's definitely a staple in my kitchen.

Here's the pancake mix recipe (I have to give credit where it's due: I got this from Everyday Food magazine. Here's the link for the basic recipe, some variations, and further instruction.):
3 cups of flour
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Whisk together and store in an airtight container.
According to the recipe, this is enough mix to make 12 servings of 3-4 pancakes per person. I don't know about you, but whenever I make a recipe, the yield is always off. So, just use these numbers as a guideline. Also, I always at least double this recipe. As long as your container is airtight and is kept in a cool, dry place, it'll last for a while. I've even made a huge batch of this stuff and have taken it camping.

On top of my storage container, I've taped a piece of paper. This has the rest of the ingredients and amounts needed to make a batch of pancakes. This way, I don't have to search through my files and cookbooks to find the recipe.

To make the pancakes with the mix (this supposedly makes four servings worth - again, whenever I make things, the yield is always a little less. I guess it depends on the pancake size):
Place 1 1/4 cups mix in a bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk together:
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter or oil (Use the butter.)
1 large egg
Add wet mixture to dry mix and whisk just to combine. Do not overmix - the batter should be lumpy. On a hot skillet or griddle, spoon 2-3 tablespoons of batter and use the spoon to make a nice circle shape. Cook for a couple minutes, until you see some bubbles appear, and then flip. Let the other side brown for a couple minutes more.
Just say no to the store-bought mix. You'll be surprised at how easy this is. You won't go back. And then you can use the money you'll save and splurge for some real maple syrup.

Enjoy your National Pancake Day festivities!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spring Seeds in Autumn

When I was a child, my mom always had our flowerbeds full of marigolds. I always figured they were one of her favorite flowers (which I didn't totally understand because they didn't smell particularly nice) and that's why we always had them. Little did I know of my mom's real reason behind planting these: she could have a bed full of them for next to nothing. Twenty-odd years ago when my brothers and I were little, things were really tight financially in our family (my brothers and I were totally oblivious to this fact, however - we never felt deprived) and my parents did all sorts of things to cut costs and went without a lot of the time.

Despite this, my mom was determined to have flowers in her yard. She saved up some money and bought marigold plants. During the summer and fall, she would regularly deadhead her marigolds and keep the spent blooms. The deadheads would eventually dry out, allowing her to open them and gather the seeds. The following spring, she had tons of marigold seeds to scatter in her flowerbeds. Weeks later, the front of our house would be blooming with red, orange, and yellow marigolds. Even in a time of scarcity for my family, my mom found a simple way to create abundance. To this day, even though those days of black-belt frugality have passed, my mom collects the spent blooms of many of her annuals and saves them for the spring.

Yesterday, my mom and I headed to a gorgeous garden - the kind people pay admission to enter. She also happens to work there. As a result, we got special permission to go through the gardens and deadhead spent zinnias (since they were just going to throw them out when they were pulled in a week or so). We walked through the gardens, scissors and plastic bags in hand, snipping the browning flowers, imagining how beautiful these flowers will look in our yards.

Now you don't have to have special connections to do something like this. You can do it in your own garden's flowerbeds. Or, you could go to a local business area and ask for permission. Or maybe just at a public park (Is anyone going to be mad at you deadheading a couple flowers at a public park? I can't imagine so. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.). If annuals aren't deadheaded, they'll fall to the ground and sometimes reseed. I figure by saving the seeds and doing it yourself, you have a better chance of getting blooms in the spring. And you save yourself some money by skipping the seed packets. This method works for lots of annual flowers - I've only done it with marigolds, zinnias, and hollyhocks, but there are many others I want to try.

Once you've got your deadheaded blooms, let them dry out. You don't have to do anything complicated - just find a place to lay them flat, then let the air do its work. For further reading and information, here's a link I found (I know it's geared toward teaching this to kids, but it works. I like keeping things as simple as possible.).

Once they're dried out, open the blooms and you'll see the seeds. I've pointed out, as you can see through my amazing Photoshop technique, where the seeds are located (the uppermost arrow) and what the seeds look like (rest of the arrows). Store the seeds until the spring in a dry place - I like to keep mine in Mason jars or paper lunch sacks. After all danger of frost is past, plant the seeds under a little bit of dirt and water thoroughly for the next few weeks. Sure enough, your thrifty efforts will bloom beautifully.

"I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders." -Henry David Thoreau

Monday, September 21, 2009

Paperback Swapper

A few years ago, I worked as a manager at a bookstore. It was dangerous. I spent waaaay too much of my paycheck there. But I couldn't help myself. I mean, I've been a bookworm all my life, before I could even read. Over my 20-something years of reading, I've amassed quite a collection of books. Problem is, I don't like all of them. Some were disappointing, others were required reading (I majored in English - so, as you can imagine, I bought a lot of novels during my four years of college), a few were surprisingly vulgar/profane, several were impulse buys, and a couple were the results peer pressure (it was on the best-seller list for so long, it just had to be good, right? Nope.). And then there's the books that I did like, but that I won't ever read again.

So what do I do with them? They were taking up precious room on my bookshelves. There's always eBay, but they probably wouldn't sell for much. Maybe a buck - and did that really merit a trip to the post office? I could donate them to the thrift store. That's the altruistic choice, but whenever I do, I always think of how much money I wasted. Ouch. And then I was introduced by a family member to a new option for my old, unwanted books: And now I'm addicted.

PaperBackSwap is a free online book club where you can swap books with thousands of other members. Once you've set up an account, all you have to do is list the books you don't want anymore on your account's bookshelf. If you list at least ten books, you get two book credits. Now here's the great part: for each credit you have, you can request a book from someone else's list and get it sent to you, to keep, for free! The only cost in the whole program is when someone requests the books on your shelf - you mail them at your own expense (if you send them media mail, it only costs a couple dollars, in most cases). But, like I said, when you want a book, they come to you for free. If you want further explanation of the program, check out this link.

Sometimes there aren't enough books to meet all the requests. That's when you put them on your wish list. I have some books on my wish list that I'm number 4 out of 5 on the list to get it once it becomes available. There's another book on the list where I'm number 881 out of 915 (according to the site's estimate, I'll get it in 222 weeks) - luckily it's just a book I'm casually interested in; one I'd like to get for free, but that I wouldn't buy. Once they're available, you'll be notified by email to check if you still want it, or you can have it automatically sent once it's available without the notification. I like the wish list because I can keep track of all the books I want to read - there's one I just removed from the wish list because I checked it out at the library.

I've already sent out five books to other swappers. I received my first books last week (pictured above -hooray!). Even though I spent probably $8-10 total in postage for the books I sent, the two books I got for free would have cost even more than that if I'd purchased them new (it would have easily cost over $20 for the two). So check out PaperBackSwap - you may have a book I want. Or, who knows, you may get one of mine...

(Note: I've been playing Beatles Rockband with my husband and son, so imagine the title of this post in the tune of the Beatles' song "Paperback Writer". It's just more fun that way.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Button, Button - Who Wants a Button?

For anyone interested in helping me get the word out about my new blog, I've made a sidebar button. Okay, full disclosure: my husband, the awesome Photoshop expert, made it. But I did figure out how to get the HTML code and stuff. That deserves credit, right?

Help me the spread the frugal love!

Copy and paste this code to your HTML/Java Script:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More Canning Fun: We're Jammin'

I am a jam snob. I freely admit it. I haven't bought jam at the supermarket in over five years. I'll never be able to go back after eating the homemade stuff. There's just no comparison. But here's the good news: you can be a jam snob, too. Making your own jam is really, really easy. Honest.

This past Saturday, my friend and I spent many hours making pluot jam. For those who don't know what a pluot is (which is just about everyone I've ever met), a pluot is a cross between a plum and apricot. And lucky for me - my in-laws have a tree (no one quite knows how it became a pluot tree) that puts out a ridiculous amount of fruit each year. So, like last year, my husband and I picked way too much (like 50 lbs.) and my friend and I started jamming like crazy. Nearly six hours (and about 35 lbs. of sugar) later, we had over 100 cups of jam to split between us. Your jam adventure, though, needn't take nearly as long, nor do you need to make even close to that much. It's all about how much you want, how much fruit you have, and what your family will actually eat. Even now, I'm wondering what I'll do with all this jam....

But enough about what I've been doing. Making jam is a simple way to preserve all the delicious berries and fruit of the summer months. There's just something so lovely about taking something that has been ripening in the sun and preserving it for the cold months of winter. To make it, you really only need three ingredients: fruit, sugar, and pectin. Sometimes you need some lemon juice (some fruits need the extra acid) and a couple teaspoons of butter (to prevent foaming). Note: for a much more in-depth introduction on jamming, check out this article from one of my favorite websites, Simple Mom. It's got a lot of great info. The only problem I found with it was that she said that processing isn't necessary as long as the jars and jam are hot. Personally, I wouldn't risk it. Either process your jam or freeze it, I say.

With each box of pectin (I always buy the powdered kind of pectin), comes an insert complete with recipes and instructions on how to make the jam. The insert has a chart with every fruit you could possibly want to make jam out of (well, except pluot - I just used the plum recipe), how much of that fruit you'll need, along with the amount of sugar you'll need (every time I make jam, I feel a little sick at how much sugar is needed - jam certainly is not health food). It gives instructions on how to prepare the fruit (either chop or mash) and then how to cook it.

The method is quite simple - cook the prepared fruit and pectin until it comes to boil, add the sugar, bring it back to a rolling boil, and cook for a minute longer (this is when it gets scary and splattery - be sure to use a tall pot and a long spoon to avoid burns.). Once the minute is up, put the jam into sterilized jars, secure the lids, and process in either a water-bath or steam canner. Always adjust your processing time for altitude if you live a 1000 or more feet above sea level (for example, the recipe on the insert says to process for ten minutes and then I add another ten since I live between 3,000 and 6,000 feet elevation. You will find the helpful altitude adjustment chart on the insert, too). You can also skip the processing and make freezer jam. I've never made the freezer jam myself, but I've heard it's also easy to do.

I feel kind of like a slacker giving semi-vague instructions and just telling you to check out the pectin insert, but, seriously, all the info you could possibly want is on that little piece of paper. Let it guide you. You can't go wrong. Plus, if, for some reason, some of your jam doesn't set quite right and is a little too liquidy (this happened with one of our batches), you can always go back and fix it (yes, yes, the instructions to do that are also on the insert). Homemade jam is delicious and forgiving. What more could you want in a condiment?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Canning Week Begins: Apples to Apples

One of my favorite things about fall is going down to the orchard by my in-laws' house and buying a bushel of perfect, delicious apples. Seriously, these apples are always crisp and wonderful. I love getting them and preserving all their amazing goodness for the rest of the year - and one of my favorite ways to do so is to make a few quarts of apple pie filling.

Making apple pie filling is a beautiful thing for so many reasons. Not only do you get to enjoy the taste of straight-from-the-farm apples any time during the year, but it's also crazy-convenient. Feeling like having an apple pie? Whip up a pie crust (easier said than done - for some reason, making pie crust unnerves me. Things can get pretty ugly when I get frustrated with a pie crust - I even broke my favorite pie dish on Thanksgiving because I was so angry. Okay, moving on...), open a jar of filling, pour it in the crust, top with a crust (or you can skip the crusts altogether and make apple crisp), and bake. So easy - maybe a little too easy....

To get started, you'll need:
Six quart-size Mason jars
Lids and bands
4 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup cornstarch
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. cinnamon
5 1/2 - 6 lbs. of tart apples (I used Honeycrisp, but other good varieties include Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Jonagold - click here for a complete list)
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
15 drops of yellow food coloring (not a huge fan of fake food coloring, but it does make it pretty. Plus, 15 drops is hardly anything.)
The first step is to peel, core, and slice all the apples. This is the most time-consuming part. I like to put the sliced apples into a big bowl of water (with some lemon juice) just so they don't turn all brown.

Next, make the syrup. In a large saucepan (I like to use a really big pot - it makes getting splashed with boiling sugar water less likely. I have many a canning scar, so take my advice), mix sugar, cornstarch, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Add 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir in 10 cups of water. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly. Add lemon juice and food coloring.

The next step is to pack the apples into hot jars. You can either run your jars through the dishwasher or wash them in really hot water right before you pack the apples. Since my dishwasher was full, I chose the sink.

Fill the jars with the sliced apples. You want to pack them so you leave an inch of headspace (click here for helpful visual). You also want to pack them so they're full, but not too tight.

Using a ladle or spatula, distribute the sugar mixture among the jars. This is where a canning funnel is really, really useful. I always like doing this part of the process and watching the syrup fill in all the empty space. It has a sort of lava lamp effect on me.

The next step is to top the jars with lids and adjust the bands. This part is really important. I'm a little obsessive about it, but it saves time in the long run (almost all of my jars seal the first time). You want to heat your lids in some very hot (but not boiling) water - this gets the sealing compound around the edges ready. While you're waiting for your lids to heat through, wipe the mouth of the jar (this is where I get obsessive) so that there's no syrup on the edges. Since you'll be using a wet rag to do this, also make sure that you don't leave any water on the edge of the jar either. It should be nice and dry when you put the lid on - you don't want anything getting in the way of that seal. Once the lid is in place, secure it with a band (not too tightly).

Process the jars in water-bath or steam canner for 20 minutes. For complete instructions on how to use your canner, read the instructions that come with it carefully (I would give them all in detail here, but I'm only experienced with the steam canner. Plus, it would take a while. Just read the instructions - they'll explain it best). After 20 minutes, move the canner from heat, let it cool for a few minutes, and then remove jars. If you can press down on the center of the lid and it doesn't give, the jar is sealed. Be sure to label the jars (you can get all creative and make fun, personalized labels - or you can just write on it with Sharpie, like I do, uncrafty as I am.) with the contents and date. Then enjoy the satisfaction of putting up your jars of apple pie filling (which are quite pretty, in my humble opinion) on your pantry or cupboard shelves until you feel the craving for delicious, homemade apple pie.

Next up: All about jam -- and a sweet giveaway.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

All You Really Need...

If you've never canned before, just starting can seem pretty overwhelming. So much to learn, so much to buy. Wide mouth or standard? Boiling-water canner, steam canner, pressure canner - what to get? It's all a personal choice really, but I thought I'd let you know what I use. Rest assured, I only bring you the best products that have withstood the test of time (well, I can only speak for myself - but they've been used a bunch in the last five or so years...). Here's the rundown:

1. The most important item is the canner for processing. Granted, you can always skip the canner and use your freezer, but if you're like me, my freezer is pretty jam-packed (no pun intended, ha ha. I crack myself up.) as it is. To be honest, I've never tried doing freezer jam. Anyway, you really need a canner, in my opinion. In the Ball Blue Book of Preserving the two canners they mention are the boiling-water canner and the pressure canner. However, I use neither. My mother-in-law taught me using a steam canner.

I actually just learned that there is some controversy about the steam canner method (please read the link in the previous paragraph for more info) because the USDA says that the processing times haven't been completely researched. However, the rest of the article basically concludes they're just fine (one researcher from the University of California concluded in 2005 the processing times for four different foods were the same whether you used the water bath or steam method). I've never had a problem with mine. No poisonings, no botulism deaths. And I figure, if it were that dangerous (or dangerous at all), my husband probably wouldn't have survived years and years of eating his mother's canned food. Everything seals (when done properly) and we've eaten plenty of stuff canned by it. I always process my jars a little longer anyway because of our altitude. So, it's up to you, really. I like the steam canner because it uses less water, it's lightweight (especially when full of water), and it doesn't take very long to heat up. Just be careful lifting the lid on it - steam really burns (I know from experience)!

Keep in mind that boiling-water and steam canners are meant only for high-acid foods, like fruit, jams/jellies, pickles and tomatoes (with added acid); most vegetables and meats (low-acid foods) have to be processed with a pressure canner. I've never attempted using a pressure-canner. I guess that's an adventure for the future. Anyway, sorry for the digression from the actual suggestion - I just thought you might want the info, seeing as there is a 'controversy' (seriously, you should see the three reviews for my canner on Amazon -link is in following sentence- that are negative. However, the rest of the reviews are very contented and have used steam for many years). The canner I use is made by Back to Basics - it has served me very well.

2. Having a canner is all nice and dandy, but if you're going to do anything you need some good glass canning jars, also called Mason jars. These are quite inexpensive (I just bought a case of 12 pint-size ones for a little over six dollars) and can be used over and over again (as long as the tops of the jars aren't chipped or anything). As you can see in my photo at the top, there are quite a variety of sizes, shapes, textures, and openings (standard or wide mouth). I prefer the wide mouth jars myself - they're less messy to fill and it's easier to scrape every bit of jam out of them. Again, it's up you.

Two things to keep in mind: 1) only use canning jars for canning (no re-using glass jars from store-bought jam, spaghetti sauce, baby food, or anything like that. They can't withstand the heat of processing); and 2) be sure always follow the processing time indicated for the specific jar size. For example, pint-size jars don't process as long as quart-size.

3. The key to preserving food is in the lids and bands. While the bands can be reused (so long as they're not rusty or damaged in any other way), but you need to buy new lids every time. The lids have a sealing compound on them and when you take them off after they've been sealed, some of that compound comes off. So, as a result, the jars won't seal properly.

And this next point may seem like an obvious reminder, but be sure to buy the right size of lids and bands, depending on what size of opening your jars have. Nothing's quite so irritating as realizing, once you're home from the store, that you didn't read the label and that you bought the wrong ones. Not that I speak from personal experience or anything...*cough cough*

4. There are other utensils you can use while canning like jar lifters and lid wands (to remove the lids from the hot water), but I don't really think they're necessary (well, maybe the jar lifter is good for water-bath and pressure steamers); you can just as easily use hot pads and kitchen tongs. One specific canning utensil that I really like is my canning funnel. This saves so much time and prevents a lot of mess. Totally worth the dollar or two I spent for it.

5. While not necessarily required for canning,I highly suggest a food mill. This is a great tool for making applesauce and other pureed foods (like baby food or tomato sauce). The cool thing about it is that you don't have to peel anything. I just chop up the apples (skin and everything) and stick them in the food mill. It peels the apple and purees it at once. My mom and I tried this with her gooseberries - they have tiny stems that are super-tedious to take off, so we just put them through the food mill. Just as we hoped, the stems were taken off and we were ready to make gooseberry jam with the puree. Love it.

Next week, I'll be posting how I make and can apple pie filling, jam, applesauce (and maybe peaches). I'll also be giving away some of the fruits of my labor, so be sure to check it out when all the canning fun begins...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Yes You Can!

Before I get started on this post, I just want to point out that for the next couple weeks, I'm going to smile inwardly every time I use the word 'can' because I'll feel like I'm making a pun or something. So, yes, read the title of this post and imagine me feeling all clever.

That said, I'm announcing that the next couple weeks of posts will be devoted to all things canning (now you get the whole canning pun from the previous paragraph. Okay, really, I'm moving on...). I first learned how to can from my mother-in-law when I was very newly married and ever since, I've been trying to spread the word and get people interested in this generations-old practice. It's really rewarding and, believe it or not, I think it's kind of fun.

Once upon a time, canning was a way of life. It was a way of making it through the cold winter months and making the fall harvest stretch until the next one. Now, it's not nearly the necessity it once was, but I maintain that it still has its place in our modern-day households. Here's my reasons why you should can (if you don't already):

1. I wouldn't really be writing about it on this blog if it weren't economical. There is some expense at first when you have to get the equipment - jars, lids, rings, and a canner (plus anything extra, like a food mill for applesauce). Even so, your investment is still under $100 (even under $50 if you shop around). My next post will be all about buying these things and what I use. After your initial investment, each year you do canning, all you need is the ingredients (hopefully, some of the produce is home-grown!) and new lids (these cost like $1.50 for 12 lids - or less if you shop for sales).
The key to making canning economical is to either grow your own produce or to find a good price on produce by shopping locally. I suggest farmers' markets, roadside stands, u-pick berry farms, and visiting the actual farms/orchards. Not only can you get a great price this way, but it tastes better than the supermarket stuff and it supports the local economy.

This year, for example, I'm making salsa from tomatoes and tomatillos I grew (I didn't get on top of growing my own jalapenos, cilantro, and onions this year, but I have done it in the past). I'm also making apple pie filling and applesauce from apples I bought at an orchard near my husband's hometown. I can buy a huge box of apples (easily twenty-something pounds) for $18 - then I split it with my mom (she uses them for juicing). That's another tip: find someone to split the cost of produce with so you can buy in bulk. I'm also considering doing peaches (I can buy a bushel for $16 from that same orchard) - I've never done peaches before. I'm making pluot jam from pluots we picked in my in-laws' backyard (by the way, keep an eye out for a giveaway on this blog next week...). I may also be making raspberry jam from the raspberries I picked back in June-July and froze. Note: everyone should have at least a couple berry bushes if you have the room; they are huge money-savers!

One more nugget of how economical growing your own produce can be: according to Burpee Seed Company, $50 worth of seeds can yield $1250 worth of produce. How's that for food for thought?

2. Canning is a great way to regulate what goes into your food (and what doesn't). More and more I've become very conscious of all the additives and preservatives that go into processed, store-bought food. I read a really interesting book called In Defense of Food that is all about how much of the food in the stores isn't really food at all - it's all weird chemicals and concoctions put together to resemble food. When you preserve your own food, you know exactly what is going in. Sure, jam and apple pie filling aren't health food (I'm astonished every year how much sugar I use making jam), but this way you don't get the processed high-fructose corn syrup goo in it.

3. There is an awesome feeling of self-reliance and industriousness that comes along with canning. I can't really explain it, but there's something so rewarding about seeing the final product of all your labor lining your pantry shelves. Plus, it can look really nice. Sometimes, I'll just open my pantry for the self-esteem boost.

4. It's surprisingly easy. Time consuming, yes, but easy. Lots of people are nervous about it, especially about doing it wrong, worrying about killing their whole family with a case of botulism. But really, it's hard to do wrong. Let me rephrase that: if you do it wrong, you'll know. A bulging, stinky jar of fruit isn't so appetizing. Anyway, once you've learned how to can, you'll be surprised at how easy it really is. Last year, I taught my friend from Japan how to do it (according to her, no one in Japan cans food) and when we were finished, she said, "That's it?"

. This is both a reason and a warning: it just tastes better when you do it yourself. How is this a warning? As one friend put it on her blog, I have become a "jam snob". I haven't used store-bought jam in over five years. When I do have it at other people's houses or on vacation, it just doesn't come close to how good homemade jam is. And homemade salsa - well, let's just say jars of that don't last long.

6. I don't know if my final reason will resonate with everyone, but one of the reasons I simply enjoy canning is for the feeling of connectedness with women of generations past. Really, canning is a dying art. I can still remember going to the county fair in my small hometown and seeing women's entries of canned peaches and pickles with big blue ribbons attached to the prettiest ones. Whenever I can a bottle of apples or jam, I can't help but feel like the women of the 40s with their victory gardens or like one of the early pioneers on the frontier. What can I say? I'm a sentimental history geek.
So now that you've been introduced (and hopefully convinced) to the canning process, what next? Everyone interested in canning needs to buy the Ball Blue Book of Preserving. It's a great, comprehensive guide to canning, along with a bunch of recipes. I use it all the time. The best part - you can buy it for like five bucks at a grocery store. I've included the link to so you can read about it (I always like to read reviews of books before I buy them), but, seriously, you can find it really cheap elsewhere. Get it. Read it. We'll be starting soon.

Have you done any canning? If so, what are you planning to can this season? If not, what's your biggest obstacle when it comes to canning?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Crazy-Simple Dinner (and cheap, too!)

It's the tomato time of year - that time in the season when tomato plants are just bursting. there anything tastier than a homegrown tomato? Hardly. This year, I grew all of my tomatoes and tomatillos in containers - they never fared well in my square-foot garden. I'm happy to report that my container gardening experiment has been a big success and I've had an abundance of tomatoes, leaving me to find ways to use all of them.

One of my containers has cherry tomatoes growing in it and I've been a little stumped on how to use them. They're yummy to just wash and eat out of hand, but I've got a ton of them! Then I came across a recipe today that uses cherry tomatoes exclusively. I was so excited and had to try it tonight. Not only was it really delicious (it just tasted fresh and light) but it is a perfect frugal recipe -- particularly if you've grown some of the ingredients.

Fridays feature my "short and simple" posts and this recipe couldn't be any simpler.

Boil some water. Add spaghetti. Cook. Meanwhile...

Get a couple cups or so of cherry tomatoes. Over a large bowl, squish the tomatoes so they split. This is also good for stress relief.

Grab a couple handfuls of basil (this is a frugal gourmet garden staple. Fresh basil can be expensive at the store - you can buy a single plant that will produce all season for the same price as a few ounces at the store). Tear the basil up. Add to tomatoes.

Drizzle basil and tomatoes with some olive oil (like six glugs of it), with an added splash of balsamic vinegar. Mince (I like to use a hand-held grater) a couple cloves of garlic and add to the mixture. Season with salt and pepper.

Once pasta is cooked, transfer it from the pot to the tomato-basil concoction. Don't worry about draining the pasta - simply grab it with some tongs; the water still on the pasta helps everything mix better. Toss the pasta with the tomato-basil mixture. That's it. Short and simple - and completely delicious.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Failed Foray with Dry Milk

I've tried many things over the years in an attempt to be frugal - and some of those things have failed miserably. So, I thought it would be funny - and educational, of course - to share the "D'oh!" moments (love those old Simpsons episodes) of my tightwad travels. So, here's the first of (most likely) many such moments...

A little over a month ago, my husband came home from church with a sudden urge to make cinnamon rolls. Not one to argue with cinnamon rolls (or my husband baking for a change), I encouraged the endeavor. However, as he was well into the process, he realized that we were out of milk. Seeing as it was Sunday, going to the store for a dessert emergency wasn't really an option. So, I suggested we get out the can of dried milk from our food storage. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right? After Kevin turned the powder into liquid, I tried it. It wasn't bad at all! I'd bought the particular brand of dry milk because I'd heard it was actually pretty good, so it didn't come as a complete surprise. Then the little wheels in my head began to turn.

Over and over in The Tightwad Gazette (see review below), the author talks about the virtues of using dry milk regularly. Every time I'd read that part before, I'd think, "That's nice and all, but I'm not drinking that disgusting stuff" and move on. But now I'd found a dry milk that tasted pretty good, so I finally felt like I could, like the book said, mix a half-gallon of dry milk with a half-gallon of regular milk. I did it and couldn't really tell the difference! I felt pretty awesome and patted myself on the back.

I did this for a few weeks. I was so happy at the thought of not only saving money, but also that I wasn't buying a new gallon of milk as frequently as usual. However, a couple weeks ago we started running low on the dry milk, so I bought some more. While on that grocery trip, I also bought some more regular milk. Later that week, as I was mixing up a new batch of dry milk (you have to mix it with hot water, then cold water), I got thinking. The prices of each were fresh in my mind - $6.99 for a 4 lb. can at Walmart and $1.50 for the gallon of milk at Costco. That's when I recognized the folly in my dry milk endeavor.

After I did the math (which, for someone who credits passing college algebra as divine intervention, is no small feat) and calculated the cost of a cup of dry milk and each cup of regular milk, I realized, to my dismay, that using the tasty dry milk ending up costing more than just the regular stuff straight. So, really, I was using up my food storage and wasting money. Nice. Lesson learned: do the math ahead of time. My problem was that I'd forgotten how much the dried milk had cost when I bought it because the can had been collecting dust on our food storage shelf for a while. Other lesson learned: if you're going to do the dry milk thing, you have to use the cheaper (less tasty) stuff. Looks like I'll be keeping the dry milk in the pantry only for baking emergencies after all...
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