Friday, May 28, 2010

One Berry, Two Berry: An Introduction to Growing Raspberries and Strawberries

I love summer partly because of my crop of berries.  Growing your own berries has one drawback:  you run the risk of getting horribly spoiled.  For a few glorious weeks, there are berries to be picked just about every day. And not just a few - bowlfuls of them.  Once you've had homegrown berries, it's hard to buy them at the store.  Kind of like how it's hard to buy tomatoes once you've tasted a homegrown one.

The great thing about growing berries is that they are easy to grow.  All you need is the right location, enough water, and a little (and not even that much) TLC.  There are all sorts of berries to grow (I'm planting blackberries this year), but you need to check what grows in your area.  For example, as much I wish and as hard as I could try, I can't grow blueberries in my yard because the soil in my state is too alkaline.  Do your research and ask someone helpful at a local nursery (and not a big-box store nursery - I've seen a bunch of plants at my local big-box store that can't grow in my area, including blueberries).  In this post, I will discuss the two berries I grow: strawberries and raspberries.

Last year was my first year growing strawberries and I got lots of berries like the one above.  Amazing, huge, ridiculously delicious strawberries.  I didn't really know what I was doing - I just bought a few everbearing ones (more on varieties later), and planted them. However, I've learned a few things since then:
  • There are two types of strawberries:  June-bearing and everbearing.  There are pros and cons to each.  June-bearing strawberries produce only one crop a year, usually in the early summer (hence the name) or in the late summer.  From what I've read, June-bearing strawberries are the highest quality ones you can grow. The nice thing about June-bearing strawberries is that you get a lot all at once, ideal for making jam. Drawback: they're only around for a little while. Everbearing strawberries have a much longer season. They start to produce fruit in early summer and then continue through the fall. That's a big pro: throughout the season last year, we always had strawberries from the garden to enjoy. Not a ton, mind you, but those big strawberries were better than any at the store. Anyway, while I loved my everbearing strawberries, I think I might plant a box of June-bearing ones solely for jam. 
  • Strawberries only produce for a few seasons.  The strawberry plants you buy this year at the nursery will only produce fruit for about three seasons.  But, like other berries, strawberries reproduce by sending out runners.  Get rid of the older plants every few years so your boxes/beds don't get too crowded. Crowding leads to disease, less fruit, and lower-quality strawberries.
  • As mentioned above, most varieties of strawberries reproduce by sending out runners. That's why it's good to keep them contained in a separate box from the rest of your garden. Everbearing strawberries put out fewer runners than June-bearers.  If you pinch off the runners, your plants will be bigger and you'll have smaller yields of big berries; let the offsets grow 7-10 inches apart, you'll get heavy yields of smaller strawberries.  I think my strawberries were so big last year because the plants were new and there weren't lots of runners.  It's all about preference really.  Also, runners can be transplanted to other parts of your garden or to new boxes; see this link for a detailed how-to.
  • Pinching off early blossoms on your strawberries is good for your plants. My mom told me to this and I didn't understand why, but my plants produced great strawberries. It's hard to pick off those little flowers in the spring (look back a couple posts - remember, "kill your darlings"), but your strawberries will be better for it.
  • I grow my strawberries in a 4 ft. x 4 in. box (Square Foot Gardening style), but you can grow strawberries anywhere. A sunny spot in a vegetable garden or flowerbed works.  Or you can put them in pots or boxes on a sunny patio.  They key is to have a place that is sunny, with good drainage, and where it can get watered frequently. 

I love my strawberry plants, but I loooove my raspberry bushes. What started as two plants in the back corner of my yard has grown into many, many plants stretching across the fence.  Every year, my raspberry section of the yard gets bigger and bigger.  And it produces so much.  Like I mentioned earlier in the post, for a few weeks, me and my little guy head out and pick at least a cereal bowl-ful of them.  Half of them usually don't get back to the house, but there's still plenty to spare for oatmeal, smoothies, and even jam (raspberry jam is my absolute favorite). 

I don't have a ton of information on raspberries except my own testimonial that they're super easy to grow.  Like with strawberries, you just need a place with full sun and regular water.  According to my trusty Sunset Western Garden Book (highly recommended if you live in the western half of the States), raspberries grow from perennial roots and send out biennial canes.  Raspberry canes grow to full size in their first year and produce berries in the second year. Like strawberries, there are everbearing and June-bearing types. I believe mine are the one-crop kind and I love them. Whatever berries I don't use, I freeze. 

I honestly haven't done a lot with my raspberry shrubs.  When the canes are dead, I cut them back.  That's about it. I wish I could even tell you the type I have, but I can't remember. I just sort of bought them on a whim and planted them in a corner. I've had fruit from them for about three years, so I must be doing something right!

Berries are so tasty and so good for you, but they're expensive.  A tiny container of them can get pretty pricey - for the cost of a container or two of berries, you could get yourself a plant that will produce and produce. Personally, I think they're a must for any garden. You don't have to have a green thumb. Just find a spot in your yard or on your patio.  Pretty soon, you'll be spoiled just like me.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Easy Does It: Greek Salad-Turned-Sandwich

My mom has a knack for recreating things she's had at a restaurant. Her latest restaurant-dish recreation: this delicious Greek salad-turned-sandwich.  The thing I love about this recipe (besides being really, really, really easy to make and fairly inexpensive) is that it actually does taste like something you'd order at a restaurant. It's like a step away, a break from my usual repertoire.  I don't know why, maybe it's the feta cheese.

In any case, this recipe is a go-to one for me when I don't feel like cooking dinner.  Those moments are dangerous in my household.  They're budget-killers.  They're the weak spot in my parsimonious princess armor. They're moments when I just say, "Whatever.  Let's just go get a cheap pizza somewhere."  Or I just serve my family cold cereal. It's food, right? 

The recipe-in-pictures below doesn't cost too much to make.  We usually always have the vegetables on hand.  The dressing is just a basic Italian dressing (I use bottled Italian dressing for this one. This could be homemade dressing of course, but remember? I'm feeling really tired/lazy when I'm making this dinner. That would take my prep time from five minutes to ten. No go.).  Then there's the flatbread and feta cheese - but even then you're looking at maybe five bucks or so for the package of flatbread and the feta. (This week, on  a non-lazy day, I'm going to use my artisan bread cookbook to make my own flatbread for this recipe.).  You can adapt the recipe for however many you're making for, so the cost varies.  In any case, it's a much cheaper version compared to the restaurant price. I figure you can make a few of these babies for the price of just one at the restaurant.  

First, chop up some tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions (Mom uses red onion for these - I would have, but I only had white on hand. Not much difference.).  Again, no specific amounts - whatever will feed you and anyone else.  Add some spinach and you're done with the step

Note: one thing that brings down the cost for me with this meal is that I don't add meat. The recipe my mom copied has beef or chicken in it. I've had the restaurant version with the meat, but I skip it when I make it myself. I don't miss it at all. In fact, I may like it better this way.  Going meatless is better for your budget anyway.

Give the salad a hit of dressing. I used Italian dressing (And I call this a Greek salad. An affront to all the people of Greece...).  You could use any kind of vinaigrette with a distinctly herbal flavor (skip anything fruity like a raspberry vinaigrette. Same goes for some of the gingery, Asian ones.). I'll probably do a post on homemade vinaigrette in the future, but not for this one.  Remember...lazy recipe.  I don't have a specific measurement.  You basically want a nice coating on all the veggies. A couple glugs should do ya.  Toss it all together with some tongs.

Warm your flatbread in a dry pan over low heat for just a minute or so.  My mom is all fancy and uses a grill pan.  Or, now that it's grilling season again (btw, it snowed at my house yesterday morning. Luckily, my tomatoes survived the ordeal), you could toss your flatbread on the grill. Ooooh....I'm doing that this week with my homemade flatbread....   You only need to get them warm (or until you get some nice grill marks), so it shouldn't take long.

Pile the salad high on your warm flatbread. Top with some feta cheese (I love the seasoned kind - lemon and oregano, in particular. Yum.).  Depending on how high you piled the salad on, you may need to use a fork at first. I say, fold in it half and enjoy the messy deliciousness of this.  My husband and I are addicted to this salad/sandwich.  It's filling. It's healthy. It's easy. It's so good.  Make it anytime.  Maybe just for yourself, for your lunch. Waaaaay better than PB & J.  Or a cold cereal dinner, for that matter.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gardening Advice from Stephen King (sort of.)

This is just a glimpse of my carrot crop from last year. Just a bunch of stubby, sorry excuses for carrots. There were a couple big enough to eat, but the majority weren't worth the trouble digging up. They didn't even taste that good.  Very disappointing, as you can only imagine. All season long, I watched watching those green tops of the carrots getting taller and taller, excited to have delicious, homegrown carrots once again.  But, I was greedy. Or maybe too tender-hearted.  Either way, I made one big gardening mistake: I didn't thin out my crop.

I just finished reading an awesome nonfiction book today: On Writing by Stephen King. In one part of the book, he gives the advice to "kill your darlings."  Sounds violent, I know (I mean, it is a book by Stephen King, though I believe the quote is from someone else). The basis of the advice is that sometimes you have to get rid of characters and certain aspects of a book you're writing for the sake of the story. There may be some part of your story you just love or a character you think is perfect, but sometimes you just have to get rid of them to make the book work.  Enter the gardening analogy.  Sometimes, if you want a good garden and healthy harvest of vegetables, you just have to "kill your darlings". 

If you planted your garden this spring, you've probably noticed all the cute little sprouts. Finally! Your seeds have germinated and they're becoming food!  Little tufts of lettuce. Feathery wisps of carrot tops.  Tiny patches of spinach.  It's exciting, I know.  But you're going to have to get rid of some of them. You have to. Do it.  Pull the ones too close together.  Leave the sturdiest, biggest ones to grow. Give them space to flourish. Kill some of your darling little sprouting plants. You won't feel a bit of remorse, I promise.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Like a Natural Woman

Yesterday, I spent a good part of my morning cleaning the bathroom attached to my bedroom. Cleaning is putting it lightly; I scrubbed that room. It needed it more than I'd like to admit. Of course, I was armed with the world's best bathroom-cleaning weapons: baking soda and vinegar (with a little bit of elbow grease). And then I did something that made my sparkling bathroom exquisite. I cut some of my lilacs from my yard, stuck them in a glass jar with some water, and put them next to the sink. Suddenly, my bathroom felt like a day spa.

Lately, I've been thinking a bit about the importance of taking care of oneself.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets so caught up in the routines of life (as wonderful as they can be) that she can forget about taking care of herself. Sure, I take the time to cultivate my interests and hobbies, but I still neglect the need to take care of myself on a very personal level, in a way that relaxes and rejuvenates not only my body, but my mind and spirit. I'd call it an attention to wellness. More and more I'm realizing that I need to take better care of myself in this way, to pay attention to the simple things that make me feel relaxed and content.  Like lilacs in the bathroom.

There are a ton of ways to do this simply and frugally. Don't get me wrong here - last year for my birthday, my husband totally splurged on a day spa package for me so I understand the merits of spending a good sum of money when taking care of yourself; sometimes it's worth the splurge to have a massage expert rub salt from the Dead Sea into your skin. BUT, it's not really an option all the time.  Most of the time, you have to get creative and come up with inexpensive ways to soothe your body, mind, and soul.  It's totally doable, not to mention usually all-natural (which goes along way in my book!). Here's a few things you can do to get started on quest toward wellness...
  • Take a bath.  Yes, this is the super-obvious idea, but there are lots of things you can do to make it awesome. 
    • Tonight, I added a couple handfuls of sea salt to the water.  From what I've read, the minerals in sea salt nourish your skin and help to draw out toxins in your body. I buy my sea salt in the bulk section of the health food store (it only cost 65 cents a pound).  Epsom salt is also nice for a tired body.
    • Make your own bath salts!  Read here for the how-to. Super easy and inexpensive.
    • Add a few drops of essential oils to your bathwater. Tonight, I used lavender oil.  Choose the right kind of oil for the kind of effect you want your bath to have. For example, lavender is famous for its relaxing effect; citrus and mint scents are great for energizing and invigorating; rose is uplifting.  For a good overview of essential oils, check out this article.
  • Turn your bathroom into a sauna. Run a really hot bath with doors and windows shut to trap in all the steam. You can either soak in it (to really create the sauna effect, drape a towel over yourself) or just hang out in the bathroom's steamy air.  Then just sweat it out.  I went to an acupuncturist once (interesting experience, let me tell you) who told me the benefits of heat and sweating.
  • Try a homemade facial mask.
    • One simple one: Grind up about a cup of oatmeal in a food processor or blender.  In a bowl, mix the oat flour with some lukewarm water (or milk, if you have dry skin) to make a paste.  Apply to your face, let it dry, and then rinse it off with warm water. 
    • Or, you could try an egg white mask. I used to do this one all the time when I was in college. Spread egg white all over your face, let it dry, and then rinse off with warm water. It sounds weird, I don't know exactly why it works or what it does, but all I know that it always made my skin look all glowy and soft.  I think I'll do one of those tomorrow...
    • You can find tons of recipes and concoctions for facial masks, using ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen. This link was one of the most comprehensive lists of recipes I found. I'm going to have fun testing them all out!
  • Try the oil-cleansing method (OCM) for your face. It takes only a couple minutes, but it feels like a mini-facial. This method for cleaning your face only requires olive oil and castor oil, mixed to a certain ratio depending on your skin type. I know it sounds like a horrible idea to clean your face with oils, but it works better than anything I've tried.  Seriously. Trust me on this one. Click here and here for my experience with OCM; click here for a more in-depth discussion of the reasons behind the method.
  • Use your homemade warmer pack! One great way to use it that I just read about: rub castor oil (you'll have some since you're going to try the OCM, right?) on spots of your body that are always tight.  Lay your warmer pack on that area for 15 minutes. Apparently, castor oil is amazing for aches because it pulls the lactic acid from your body.  (If you missed the post on how to make one a warmer, click here. It's crazy-easy.)
I don't profess to be a beauty or wellness guru. In fact, I feel a little hypocritical typing all of these ideas because I don't do them regularly. But I know how I do.  When I take care of myself, it's a lot easier to take care of everyone else.

Do you have any simple, homemade, inexpensive beauty/wellness things you do for yourself?  Do you do these types of things regularly?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

DIY Gift Idea: Soothing Warmer Pack

Does that seem redundant?  I'll explain.

It's another sewing project. I hope I'm not being exclusive by doing two sewing posts in a row. The last project was fairly easy; this project is really easy.  It takes me about ten to fifteen minutes, start to finish, to make it.  I've made twelve this week (my mom wanted me to help her make some for her friends), with one more left to make (pending material decision).  I think it's a great, inexpensive homemade gift (*cough*Mother'sDay*cough*) PLUS I'm going to give one away to one of you lovely readers.

So what is it, you ask?  My sister-in-law gave one of these to me as a gift and she called it a "werewolf warmer pack" with instructions to heat it up to 108 degrees.  For those who don't get the funny Twilight allusion (or want to pretend they don't), you can just call it a warmer pack, or you can take it a step further to make it sound more fancy and call it an aromatherapeutic heat pack.

Basically, it's a soft pouch filled with rice (scented with essential oils) that you heat in the microwave. After a minute or so, the pack is ready to put on any sore, tired, or sick part of your body.  A couple months ago when I was really sick with a nasty bug, this thing was such a relief!  It totally helped my head and body aches. I made one yesterday for my grandpa who just got out of the hospital (I made him one in a manly plaid print - can't give him any of this girly material). I would have also loved this when I was a huge, uncomfortable pregnant lady (guess there's always next time).

You don't have to be sick or hurt or pregnant to enjoy it, though. Sometimes I just use mine to relax and wind down at the end of the day. Or you could heat it up, stick it under the covers of your bed before you get in, and warm up your bedding. Basically, I can't think of anyone couldn't find some way to enjoy and use this thing! 

To make a warmer pack, you'll need:
  • a 12"x"12" piece of flannel (you can make it any size you want)
  • coordinating thread
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups white rice
  • essential oil (optional)
  • bias tape or ribbon
I bought new material for my warmer packs since I'm giving them as gifts, but if this is just something for you or your family to use, I was thinking you could easily use an old pair of flannel pajamas to make yours (Random Reuse!). Just a thought.

First, prep all your materials.  I know I've expressed my dislike for the cutting phase, but it's actually not that bad with this project. I measured my square and cut it out. Then I used that square as a guide to cut the squares for the other eleven I made (no mat or rotary cutter - just my regular sewing scissors). Worked like a charm. The edges for this project don't need to be perfectly straight (not that you shouldn't try, of course). 

Next, cut a piece of ribbon or bias tape - about 4 or 5 inches long.

After you finish cutting your fabric, get your white rice ready.  When my sister-in-law made my pack, she scented the rice with some lavender essential oil. You can use any essential oil, but I think lavender is a good choice because of its calming and relaxing properties.  You don't need a lot of oil, just a few drops. I put my rice in a bowl, gave it a few drops of oil, and then mixed it around with my hand.  Now, you don't have to do the essential oil part, but I think it's a nice touch.

Fold your fabric in half so the right sides are facing in.  Stitch along the entire long side of the rectangle.  Now you have a fabric tube.

 Move the seam you just sewed to the middle of the rectangle (like in the picture above).

 Sew one of the short ends, about 1/4" in.

Turn the bag right-side out.  I use a chopstick to push out the corners completely.  On the same end that you sewed shut, topstitch along the seam about 1/4" in. This is for decorative purposes.

Fill the bag with rice. The directions I followed called for 1 1/2 cups, but the one that I was given had closer to two cups in it.  I made all mine with 2 cups.  You don't want to fill it too much because you want the pack to conform to your body. 

Once it's filled, fold the edges of the fabric of the open side in and pin together. With your strip of ribbon or bias tape, fold it in half, and stick in the corner (pin it in place if you need to). This loop will make it easier to handle the pack when it's hot. Sew along the edge, making sure to sew through the folded fabric and the bias tape/ribbon.  The seams on each end should look similar   

Your heat pack is finished! See, I told you it was easy!  When you're ready to use it, stick it in the microwave for 1-2 minutes. Handle carefully - it can get really hot (hence the little corner loop).

If you're awesome at paper crafts (like the sister-in-law I keep mentioning in this post) and you're giving it as a gift, you could add a ribbon and cute tag with the heating instructions on it. Like I've been saying, it's a great gift for Mother's Day, Father's Day, birthdays, pregnant women, and for anyone feeling under the weather.

 Now for the giveaway!  I'm going to make you one of these warmer packs, but I have to find out what material you want first.  To enter the giveaway...

Leave a comment and tell me if you want the red or the pink material. I guess I could also make it out of the manly flannel I used for my grandpa (it's a navy blue, forest green, white, and yellow plaid pattern), if you're interested.  Also, since it is Mothers Day weekend, you could also mention something about your mom that you loved when you were a kid. Or something you love to do as a mom, if applicable. This isn't a requirement, per se. Basically, I'm fishing for comments that aren't just "Pink." or "Red."  Plus, I'm always looking for ideas on how to be a better mother.

For extra entries:
1. Mention this giveaway on your own blog.
2. Post a button on your blog (see my sidebar and click on the button).
3. Post a link to this giveaway on Facebook.
4. Become a follower of this blog (see sidebar for that, too).

If you do all four, you get four extra entries. So really, you could have five chances to win. If you do any of the extra things, leave a separate comment telling me about them. It'll help me keep track. The winner will be chosen randomly. I will ship this anywhere in the U.S.
The deadline to enter is Mother's Day, May 9, at midnight. I'll announce the winner on Monday. Good luck! 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How to Sew a Crayon Roll

That's what this sewing project I picked up said - some experience necessary.  I say, if you know how to work a sewing machine, you can do this.  It's like when I tell people about skiing, if I can do it, anyone canI love sewing now that I'm not afraid of my machine. It actually de-stresses me because it clears my mind; I have to focus completely on what I'm doing.

My mother-in-law actually picked up this free project handout for a crayon roll at a fabric store and I thought it looked fairly doable. All it is is a padded piece of fabric with slots on one side for crayon; simply tuck in the crayons, roll the thing up like a sleeping bag, and secure it with the ribbons in the end. My little guy needed something exactly like this since the cardboard box that his crayons came in deteriorated from overuse. I made this a little over a month ago, before I got my new sewing area (yay!), late one night. It took me a few hours because I had to redo a part (gotta love seam-rippers!), but it shouldn't take you too long. Give yourself a couple hours.

I love this crayon roll because it's so convenient (I just pop into my bag before we go anywhere - church, the store, any waiting room, the car, it's always with us) and it keeps everything together nicely. I might add, this doesn't have to be a kid-themed thing.  You could alter this to hold your own art supplies (like colored pencils, pastels, etc.) if you're one of those lucky people who can actually draw well. Sigh...I wish I were.

One other great thing about this project is that it doesn't cost much to make. In fact, you might even have some remnants that would work. Here are the supplies you need:

1/2 yard main fabric
1/2 yard fleece (this can be any color - you won't see the fleece)
1/3 yard accent fabric (this will be used for the pocket part of the roll)
2 yards of ribbon

Now here's the how-to:

First, cut all your fabric.  Cut two 18"x11" rectangles from the main fabric.  Cut one 18"x11" rectangle from the fleece. Cut two 18"x7" rectangles from the accent fabric. Cutting fabric is my least favorite part of sewing because it takes me so long.  The rest of the project goes by fairly quickly after you've cut everything.

Now you're ready to sew it all together!

The first thing you're going to sew is the pocket. Place the two 18"x7" rectangles together, right sides together. Sew 1/4" seam on top and bottom (along the long sides of the rectangle). Turn right side out and iron.  Once it's all nice and flat, top stitch 1/4" in from the top and bottom (this is mostly for decorative purposes), leaving the short sides open.  Turn. Press.

Next, cut two 36" lengths of your ribbon and fold each in half.

To assemble the roll:
  1. Begin with the fleece on the bottom (this will be the roll's padding).
  2. Place the main fabric next, right side up.
  3. Next, place the pocket piece you just made 2" down from the top of the fabric (so it's in the middle). Pin in place (unless you're more experience than me - I have to pin everything).
  4. Place fold of one ribbon 3" down from the top and the fold of the other ribbon 3" from the bottom.
  5. On top of all that, place the remaining fabric (your 18"x11" rectangle of main fabric), right side down.
  6. Pin everything together and then sew around the outside of the roll with a 1/4" seam, leaving an opening (I'd leave at least a couple inches) for turning. 
  7. Turn right-side out (I use a chopstick to push out the corners.
  8.  Press.
Still with me here? 

Now that your roll is all assembled (no fleece showing, main fabric on both sides, with pocket in middle of one side), the next step is to make the slots for the crayons.  First, mark the center of the pocket with a pencil or washable marker.  Measure 1-1/4" outward from center line for each slot.

The instructions I followed said to lightly mark lines with a pencil.  I just made a little dot at the edge at each increment and sewed it all freestyle.  I probably should have used a ruler and drawn the whole line. I was really tired by the time I got to this step and wasn't really thinking that through. So basically, there are a few crayon slots bigger than others, but it still works, so no complaints. I tell myself that those few not-so-straight lines give it character. That's how I keep sewing from driving me crazy. It doesn't have to be always perfect. This is why I'll probably never make clothes. Okay, moving on...

Sew on each marked line (or from your starting dot if your going just going to eye it like I did), starting and stopping at the top and bottom of the pocket. You should have twelve slots. Next, sew through the center of the pocket, dividing the slots in half.  Ta-da! Now you have 24 slots.

Easiest step of the project: fill with crayons, roll up, and tie with the ribbons.  My son loves his crayon roll and I'm sure the recipient of yours will also love theirs. And nothing says "I love you" like something homemade, no matter what it is.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Homemade Refried Beans - Part Two

Right off the bat, I've just got to say that I'm feeling pretty frustrated with this post. We got a new computer and the last installation disc for our Photoshop program is missing. Hence, no Photoshop.  This means pictures that are too dark or look too greenish/bluish from my kitchen lighting (I hate trying to take pictures with overhead lighting) because I can't adjust them. It's driving me nuts so I had to give this disclaimer for my not-so-hot picture quality.  Phew. Feeling a little better already.

Anyway, now that you have your refried beans (you made them, right?), I've got a super-easy and tasty recipe for them:  Empanadas! It never fails, every time I make these I can't help but think of the Mexican restaurant where I waitressed all through college. The whole time I worked there, the menu said they served "emapanadas."  I would point it out to the managers (along with the other spelling and grammatical errors. Did I mention I was an English major during those years?), but they never fixed it. I got to the point that a lot of the serving staff just called them "emapandas" for the heck of it - not good though when you accidentally call it that when you're describing the menu to customers. Anyway...

I found this recipe in an issue of Real Simple magazine back in 2005, which called for canned beans, a tube of pizza dough, some cheese, and a jar of salsa. I used to make these all the time, but the husband and I got a little burned out on them, so I stopped for a while. Then, about a year ago or so, I came across the ripped-out magazine page in my recipe file and decided to try making empanadas again, but with homemade pizza dough instead. Even with the extra step of making the dough, this recipe only takes about 45 minutes from start to finish.

My neighbor, Lisa, has THE easiest pizza dough recipe and it's not only easy, but it's also really good. And it works perfectly when used for empanadas. I shared it a few months ago on my homemade pizza post (please tell me you tried it - it's soooo good), but I'll post it again, just for kicks.

In a medium bowl, mix together 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Add 1 cup lukewarm water. After much practice and trial and error, I've learned that it is really important that the water not be too hot. Think a little cooler than bathwater. This will improve the stretchiness and consistency of the dough - whenever I use too-hot water, my dough is crappy and breaks when I stretch it out. Next, mix in 1 tablespoon of yeast. Let it sit for ten minutes.  Once it has bubbled and soaked for ten minutes, add three cups of flour.  Knead the ball of dough for five minutes, then let it rest for 15 minutes.

This is about when you should preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Once the dough has rested for 15 minutes, break the dough into six balls. Depending on the size of the empanadas you want to make, this can be altered (as in, more small balls of dough for smaller empanadas, big chunks of dough for big empanadas). 

Flatten each ball of dough and roll out. The recipe I follow says to roll it so it's an 8-inch round, but I usually just eyeball it. You want it to be big enough so it holds the filling and has enough extra space to allow you to fold it in half.

Once all your dough is all rolled out and ready, the next step is to fill the empanadas. You can really fill these with whatever you want, but the recipe I follow calls for refried beans, cheese, and salsa.  Enter the awesome homemade refried beans.  You can use any type of salsa, either jarred (I had some leftover chile verde salsa and I opened a jar of the salsa I canned last fall) or a fresh salsa (looooove homemade pico de gallo). Same goes for the cheese - I used cheddar this time, but I've also used monterey jack and pepper jack cheese.

I love this recipe because of its versatility. You could put anything you want in these, really. In fact, I'm currently trying to figure out what to fill this with so that it's a calzone instead of an empanada. I'll report my findings when I decide (I'll also take any suggestions, too).

On each flattened piece of dough, on one half of the round, put a spoonful or two of refried beans, a spoonful of salsa, and a good helping of cheese. Again, I don't really follow specific measurements - I just kind of eyeball it and hope that it will fit when I fold the dough over.  If you want some guidelines, the recipe I clipped said to "spread some of the beans, then top with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the salsa, and 2 tablespoons of the cheese." Take it for what it's worth. I say just eyeball it.

Now here's where it can get kind of messy. I can't even blame my lack of Photoshop for these pictures. My empanadas just didn't look all that pretty. They've looked better in the past, but we were all really hungry and I was just whipping these babies out.  Plus, I thought the pictures would've turned out better than they did. Stupid overhead lighting...

Fold over the other half of each round of dough, covering the filling completely, and press the edges together with your finger to seal it (I might add, feel free to stuff back in any of the filling that leaked out). 

On a rimmed baking sheet, spread a tablespoon of olive oil. Transfer the empanadas to the baking sheet. Using another tablespoon of oil, brush the tops of each empanada.  Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden. 

Sure, they're not much to look at. Kind of looks like a clam sticking out a yellow cheese tongue.  But let me tell you, these things are always a hit.  This was the first time I used homemade refried beans and they made the empanadas even better. Noticeably better.  Serve with a nice dollop of sour cream, maybe some guacamole. Another plus: these reheat really well, so they're great the next day for lunch. Buen provecho!
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