Friday, October 29, 2010

My Favorite Part of Halloween: The Homemade Costume

My favorite Halloween costume from my childhood was, hands down, Batgirl. I have no pictures to document this costume, but I'm actually kind of glad because it remains as epic in my memory as it felt to wear it when I was seven years old. When I was a little girl, I raced home everyday after school to catch reruns of the old Batman series from the 1960s and I would watch the opening credits with baited breath, hoping that Batgirl would zoom by on her motorcyle at the end of them.  I think I loved Batgirl so much because she made both the tomboy and the girly-girl in me totally happy.

 So, as you can imagine, I didn't want to be anything but Batgirl for Halloween. Unbeknownst to me, times were really tight for my family in those days and we couldn't afford the storebought costumes. Plus, Batgirl was pretty obscure (imagine my horror when the kids at school asked if I made Batgirl up!), so the costume had to be homemade.

Now my mom will be the first to admit that she's no seamstress, but she used her imagination and limited sewing skills and made the Batgirl costume of my dreams. She made the cap out of an old pair of black bike shorts (she even sewed the corners to look like little bat ears), she bought some shiny yellow fabric for my cape and utility belt (she lined the outside of one of her own belts to make mine), and she made a fabric-covered cardboard cutout of the bat symbol for my belt buckle and chest. The rest of the costume was a black shirt and stretchy pants and she curled my hair to look like Batgirl's. I was certain that I looked just like the original. Best costume ever. And I still have the cape.

I mention all of this because homemade costumes can be a big money-saver and, in my humble opinion, can be even better than the storebought ones.  They can also be put together in a pinch if you're resourceful and creative. And even if you think you're neither resourceful nor creative (which, you're wrong by the way), you'd be surprised what you can come up with. Plus, have you seen the storebought costumes for women? Why do we all have to sexy nurses or scantily clad witches? Lame.

Ever since my husband and I got married, we've coordinated our costumes to match and every year they've been homemade (well, except for the year he was King Kong and I was Fay Wray. We had to buy the monkey suit). Today, I'm going to share a few things I've learned along the way.  I realize that this advice may come a little late for some of you, but I'm sure there are others who have procrastinated. Plus, there's always next year.

1. The thrift store is your best friend for costume-making.
Let me walk you through one of my favorite thrifted costumes...

A couple years ago, it was my turn to pick out our costume theme so I thought it would be fun to dress up as the characters from my favorite movie (as a child and now), Mary Poppins. These costumes came together really well and inexpensively. All it took was some searching through the thrift store racks and a little improvisation.

My shirt, jacket, dress, and hat were all thrift store finds. I picked up some flowers for the hat, some white gloves at one of those teeny-bopper accessory stores, and a length of ribbon for the bow around the collar. If I remember right, my costume came in close to $15. The Mary Poppins umbrella was a gift, so that came at no extra expense. As for my husband (aka Bert), he bought a faded pair of pants and an old t-shirt for a $1 so he could use the fabric for patches. He wore an old collar shirt and jacket he already had. The only extra expense was finding an English cap ($10 at Target), some cheap fabric for the scarf (no more than a dollar or two's worth of fabric), and the materials for his brush (more on that later). We did the same thing for my son's costume (who was two at the time) - we put him in similar clothes, bought him a cap at the store, made a scarf out of the same cut of fabric, and made him a smaller broom. To top it all off, we used real soot for the guys' make-up -- we just burned up some paper in a container and used the ashes for make-up. The costumes were not only great, but they cost hardly anything to put together and didn't require a stitch of sewing.

There are lots of options for thrifted costumes. When I was Fay Wray (who plays the damsel in distress in King Kong) for Halloween, I just found an old trenchcoat, a simple skirt, and a blouse. Add an old-fashioned hairdo, bright red lipstick, and some of those nylons with the seam up the back and I was done. Using thrift store finds, I've also been a hippie, a gypsy, Rita Skeeter from Harry Potter, a trailer trash lady (it was my husband's idea for our first costume as a married couple. How romantic.) and a Pink Lady (as seen in Grease), just to name a few. If you have the patience to search through all the racks, you can put together a great costume!

One other tidbit: eBay can be a great source for items, too. I found the perfect shirt for my son's Woody costume from a lady selling her kid's outgrown clothes. 

2. Raid your own closet -- or someone else's.
Often, you can make costumes out of clothes you already have or maybe something from your parents' or friend's closet. A couple years ago my parents dressed up as hippies and we joked about how their entire costumes came from my brother's closet! Then there's my brother-in-law's costume this year: Tobias Funke from Arrested Development. All he wore was cut-off jeans and a bathrobe {he's very, very brave}.

For our annual Halloween party this past Saturday, my husband and I were "the grim, grinning ghosts" who came "out to socialize" (It's our favorite Disneyland ride, what can I say?).  I just wore a white skirt and white, long sleeved shirt under my cape (made out of tulle and a little yarn - the materials cost less than $20.).  Kevin dug up his old tuxedo from his days in high school choir - he only had to buy the top hat (which only cost around $10 at a Halloween store). Made me just a little jealous/mad that he could fit something from high school...

3. Go to the fabric & craft store, even if you can't sew.
You'd be surprised what you can make without sewing a stitch. Take my cape pictured above -- it didn't require any real sewing. I found the directions in Martha Stewart's Halloween special (you can find a link to it here). It took me maybe 20 minutes or so to make. There are lots of no-sew options online - here's a link to a bunch of great no-sew costumes (also from Martha Stewart). I have on more than one occasion made a costume out of some pieces of fabric and a few (okay, a lot) safety pins.

4. Check out the other aisles of your local discount, craft, or hardware store for costume supplies.
I recently read a post on Simple Mom about making a knight costume out of duct tape, bucket lids, and cardboard. Totally fun and it looks really easy. When my husband made the brooms for the chimney sweep costumes pictured above, he only used some cheap wooden dowels, pipe cleaners, and black electrical tape. One of my favorite parts about my son's costume this year came from the bathroom fixture aisle at Walmart:

For my son's Woody costume, we attached a towel ring for this "pull string" on the back of his vest (homemade, of course).  It only cost a dollar and it adds so much to his costume. 

5.  A beard, a wig, set of horns, or a hat can change even plain clothes into a costume.
This month's issue of Family Fun is full of simple costumes that are practically made with just a simple beard, wig, horns, or hat. You don't have to buy any of these, either; check out these links for a simple, homemade beard, horns, and wig.  My favorite of costumes featured in Family Fun: the Abraham Lincoln costume. I may have to try that one on someone in the family...

6. Use other people's ideas.
If inspiration just isn't coming your way, there are tons of great homemade costume ideas on the Internet (like this one I just found). Parenting magazines have lots of ideas in their October issues; I also love Martha Stewart's October and Halloween special issues for ideas.

7.  Set your expectations accordingly and just have fun.
Unless you're an expert seamstress or tailor, your costumes won't look perfect. Chances are, they'll look homemade. I'm certain my Batgirl costume looked pretty homemade. But it didn't matter at all. And that's the key, especially when it comes to kids' costumes: using your imagination and playing the part is what Halloween costumes are all about. If you spend a huge amount of money on costume and you don't have fun with it, it will fall flat. While there's nothing wrong with store-bought costumes (one of my other favorites as a child was a fairy one my mom bought at the mall), there is something fun and extra-personal about the homemde ones. Use your imagination. Get creative. You'll make some fun memories along the way, I promise.

Have a safe, spooky, and happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Classic Minestrone: Possibly the Easiest & Cheapest Soup You Can Make

When I was a kid, my mom would always make a nice, hot dinner -- usually soup -- on Halloween night before we headed out for trick-or-treating.  As I made soup last night, I couldn't help but think that I should have postponed making it and continue the tradition.  Looks like I'll just have to make a different recipe. Even though it wasn't Halloween night, last night was a perfect soup night since got a few inches of snow. If that doesn't call for a hot bowl of soup, I don't know what does.

Anyway, I made, as the title suggests, one of the easiest and cheapest soups you can make: minestrone. All you need are a few vegetables you probably already have in your refrigerator's crisper and a couple items from your pantry. This recipe is delicious and so healthy since the broth is so light and it's bursting with vegetables and beans.

 Here's the recipe I follow, based on the recipe I got from Everyday Food magazine.

Simple, Delicious, Classic Minestrone
serves 6

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 large celery stalk, diced
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. minced fresh rosemary or 1/4 tsp. dried
(Note: I didn't have any rosemary on hand last night, so I subbed it with a 1/4 tsp. of Italian seasoning. Did the trick nicely.)
coarse salt and ground pepper
1 can (14.5 oz.) of diced tomatoes, drained (I used a can of fire-roasted tomatoes and it added a nice flavor.)
1 large potato, peeled and diced
1/4 head of green cabbage (about 1/2 pound), cored and thinly sliced
1 can of cannelini beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths (I used my frozen ones from my garden!)
1 garlic clove, minced (optional)
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil (optional)

In a large pot, heat oil over medium.  Add onion, carrots, celery, red pepper flakes, rosemary (or Italian seasoning), 1 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to turn golden (about 5-ish minutes). If you want to feel extra cultured, you can call the onion, carrots, and celery soffritto, the Italian culinary term for onions, carrots, and celery cooked in olive oil. Makes the soup seem more fancy, if you ask me.

Next, add the tomatoes and cook for about a minute.  Add potato, cabbage, beans, and 7 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Stir in green beans. Reduce to a simmer and cook until all the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Taste and add extra seasoning, if necessary. If you're using the basil and garlic, add it now.

And that's it. In about 45 minutes or so, you can have a delicious, homemade pot of soup. I forgot to add it last night, but you can sprinkle it with some parmesan cheese when you serve the soup. I didn't, however, forget to make some popovers to go with the soup -- an easy, cheap, and yummy accompaniment.  Another great thing about this soup is that it freezes well. This is important because my husband and I and our 4-year-old definitely can't eat an entire pot of this soup, no matter how good it is.  Last night, as I was cleaning up, I put the extra soup we had in some quart-sized Mason jars and now they're in the freezer, ready to be reheated and enjoyed on another cold, snowy evening.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Going Old School: Birthday on a Budget

This past Sunday, my baby turned four. I swear he was just born a few months ago. Weird. 

Anyway, we celebrated on Saturday with his first friends-over birthday party.  I thought I would post about it because I just came across this article from WalletPop (I found it via Dave Ramsey on Facebook) called "9 Top Ways We Waste Money 2010".  Sure enough, one of those ways was children's birthday parties.  Here's what the article said:
"Reader MRSpoodledoodle says: 'What happened to everyone coming over for cake and ice cream? Why must we spend hundreds of dollars on 'Build a Bear' (Because we don't have enough plush toys??) and other nonsense like inflatable jumping rentals! To heck with what the 'Joneses' say. They will be bankrupt if the main breadwinner ever loses his or her job.'

WalletPop says: We too mourn the loss of the home birthday party -- the one with a homemade cake, some backyard games and no flashy goodie bags. Flash forward to the present, when a two-hour party for 10 kids at the local "bounce house" will cost you $200 (before cake and parting-gifts), and you know it's time to put on the brakes. We say: Go old school. This is especially true with the under-8-set, who enjoy pretty much anything that involves sugar and running around with their pals."
I'm proud to say we went old school...

...and I'm even happier to say that it was a success!

My little guy requested a Thomas the Tank Engine birthday party. I could have kept this party even cheaper if I'd kept it generic, but I sprang for the Thomas plates, cups and napkins.  It cost me about $6 for all of that. I also bought the "Pin the Number on Thomas" game for a couple bucks and the Thomas gift bags for another $4-5.  The party favor gift bags we gave to the kids were nothing fancy -- just a few candies, some stickers, some stretchy bracelets, and a couple inexpensive toys and whistles. I realize I could have used my own plates, cups and napkins (cloth ones, even), I could have saved some money by skipping the little gift bags, but the little touches made it special for my train-loving birthday boy. 

I won't give you all the details about who came, what they gave him, nor will I give the play-by-play of the party. We'll save that for the family blog. Instead, I'll just share a couple money-saving highlights: the cake and one of the games.

The Cake

One of my favorite food bloggers, Deb from Smitten Kitchen, is passionate about homemade cakes (check out this super-cute one she made for her son's first birthday). As she puts it,
"I’m pretty serious about birthday cakes. When I think of someone being presented with some shortening spackled quarter sheet cake from a discount grocery chain on their birthday — a day they only get to celebrate once a year! Which is like forever if you’re a kid or perhaps the sort of grownup who didn’t get the memo that at the age of 34, birthdays are really not supposed to be a big deal anymore — it makes me sad. Not judgmental-sad, because lord knows I could barely eke out this cake on Saturday, and it’s supposed to be, like, my calling, but empathetic-sad because I totally blame lousy, intimidating recipes for making the two-layer + frosting task seem not worth it to go it at home. I hope to make it as easy as possible for everyone to get the fluffy, towering, butter-laden imperfectly frosted, slightly crooked homemade cake they deserve for making it through another year. Or, perhaps, one’s entire life to date, for the first birthday set."
I tried a new recipe for birthday cake this year -- it turned out pretty good actually. Plus the recipe is really easy. I whipped it out in the frenzied hours before the boy's party with little trouble (that trouble being the scary moment I thought the baked cake wouldn't come out of the pan).

I got the recipe for this cake from the book, Homemade Fun: 101 Crafts and Activities to Do with Kids by Rae Grant {I looove the way all of her books just look, not to mention all the fun stuff in them}.  The recipe is called "Sunshine Cake" and Ms. Grant even suggests this recipe as a go-to recipe for birthday cake.  If the idea of making a cake from scratch intimidates you, this recipe is great place to start. It makes a single, round layer. If I'd had more time, I would have doubled it and make it a double-layer cake.

Sunshine Cake  from Homemade Fun by Rae Grant

1/2 cup (one stick) butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons rainbow sprinkles (optional)

Set the rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease well an 8-inch round cake pan (you could also turn this recipe into cupcakes and line 24 muffin cups with paper liners). 

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla then beat until smooth. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Add half the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until combined. Pour in milk slowly until mixed. Beat in the remaining flour mixture until the batter is smooth. Fold in rainbow sprinkles at this time, if you wish.

Pour batter into a cake pan or use a small measuring cup to fill each muffin cup half full. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely. Remove the cake or cupcakes from the pan and frost.

Homemade frosting is also easy to make. I used white buttercream frosting for mine.  To make buttercream frosting, you just need some butter, powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla (you can find a good, basic recipe here) or a recipe might just be on the back of your bag of powdered sugar. I'm not so great at actually frosting the cake (hence no close-up picture), but I figured a bunch of 3 & 4-year-olds wouldn't care, plus I covered the thing in rainbow sprinkles.  Everyone wins. And it was yummy.

The Game

We played two games, but the one I'm going to mention was a huge hit with the kids.  I got the idea from an article in the the October issue of Martha Stewart Living (I only get that magazine for the gardening and the Halloween issue -- the rest of the year it makes me feel like a slob. But I get my subscription for free every year when I buy my mom's for Christmas) and changed it up a little. It doesn't look as nice and professional as Martha's (big surprise) but it worked really well. 

I don't know what to call this game (I'll take any suggestions). Basically, all of the ballons are filled with confetti -- which is fun in itself -- but some of them also have treats and prizes in them. The key is to pick the right balloon to pop so you get a prize. Does this make sense? Note: this game is best played outside because it can get kind of messy. That said, there's nothing that some extra vacuuming can't fix.

I bought a couple dozen uninflated balloons at a local party store -- this way each of the kids who came got at least three turns at popping the balloons. I also picked up some confetti, some inexpensive prizes (like bouncy balls, whistles, and toy paratroopers), and some long, narrow candies.  Make sure the balloons are opaque or the game isn't nearly as fun.

Anyway, I brought all the balloons home and filled them with confetti using a funnel. I filled a good portion of them with candy and little toys (the little toy paratroopers were awesome for this -- they're long and narrow!).  It's fun to keep some of them empty -- keeps up the suspense.

Now in the Martha Stewart article, she uses a burlap-covered foam board hung by hooks for the backdrop of the balloons. Since we were having unseasonably warm weather, we kept the game outside and just hung the balloons on the side of our shed with masking tape. Worked like charm.

You can use pins (or for older kids, darts) to pop the balloons, but I used long bamboo skewers (like the ones you use for kebabs) since I had some on hand.  This was great for the young kids because it didn't get  lost like a pin inevitably would and it let the more nervous/reserved kids pop from a little more distance. The kids loved popping the balloons and watching the confetti fly.  In all, it cost me under $10.

Ahhhh, I love cheap entertainment.

What's your opinion about children's birthday parties these days? What do you do for your kids' birthday parties -- or better yet, what "old school" things did you do at birthday parties when you were a kid?

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Lesson from the Butcher's Daughter: How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken

That title makes me sound super-experienced, like I worked in my dad's butcher shop as I was growing up or something.  Not even close.  My dad was actually in the army for most of my childhood and all of my adolescent years. He's been retired from the army for about ten years now and works at a market up in Park City as a butcher for extra income. As for me, this post documents my very first attempt at cutting up a whole chicken a la butcher-style. Sorry if my lack of butcher training or experience comes as a disappointment.

In any case, cutting up a whole chicken is not only easy, but it's a really great way to save money.  For example, I bought this all-natural, whole chicken at $1.29/lb. In the end it cost me somewhere between $4-5 total. Compare this to buying the chicken in separate pieces (I used the pricing from the same store): 

A whole fryer chicken, cut into pieces by the butcher, costs 1.69/lb. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs cost 2.79/lb; 1.89/lb for bone-in with the skin. Bone-in chicken breasts cost 2.79/lb; for boneless, skinless chicken breast, it cost 4.99/lb. I'm no math genius, but even I can see that you can save money by cutting the chicken up yourself. Especially when it comes to the breasts -- I cut the skin off and removed the bones myself. I'm willing to bet I got at least a pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast  and I know for much, much cheaper than $4.99.   Plus, going about getting your chicken this way saves even more money because you use the back of the chicken, along with the bones and neck, to make homemade stock. I don't know why I never did this before...

Oh wait, I do know why.  Because it seemed intimidating. I was afraid I was going to mangle the thing instead of getting clean, nice cuts like the butcher does for the meat department.  It seemed like too much trouble anyway. In all honesty, it's no trouble at all. Sure, it's a little extra work, but even for my first time, it didn't take that long (and that's with me checking my instructions carefully and taking pictures, not to mention washing my hands every time before I picked up my camera).

One note: all these pictures and instructions seem kind of gruesome. At least they do to me. It's to put this...hands on with your food. But, you know what? I think that's important.  I think people are a little too removed from their food and where it comes from. Instead of being an actual chicken, the meat just comes nicely packaged and available without much thought to the animal. Getting up close and personal with you food helps with gratitude, I think.

Okay, I'm done waxing philosophical.  Here's the how-to for cutting up a whole chicken...

Before you get started, be sure you have: 1) a nice, sharp knife (a good pair of kitchen shears help a lot, too); 2) a good-sized cutting board, one that is used exclusively for meat and easy to clean; 3) a baking sheet or plate for the cut-up pieces; 4) a stock pot for bones and extra skin.  {I think it's worth noting that I got my instructions on how to do this from Everyday Food magazine. I love that publication!}

Step 1

With the breast side facing up, pull the legs away from the body. Slice through the skin between the breast and drumstick. I used both the knife and shears here.

Note: when you first unwrap your chicken, you'll notice that inside of the cavity is the neck, along with some of the giblets. I threw out the giblets, but I saved the neck. Put that in a pot -- you'll use it, along with all the rest of the carcass (as pictured in step #9), for homemade stock.

Step 2

Turn chicken on its side and bed each leg back until the thigh bone pops out of its socket (ewwww...). This isn't for the faint of heart -- give that leg a good tug. The leg should be able to lie flat on the cutting board if you've done it right. Cut through the joint and skin to detach each leg completely.

Step 3

Next, lay the chicken on its side again, pull the wing away from the body, and cut through the joint to remove the wing. This is easier to cut than the leg.

Step 4

These next two pictures are the grossest. I guess it is the Halloween season...

Lift up the chicken and cut downward through the rib cage and then through the shoulder joints. This was the worst part, in my opinion. Anyway, this separates the breast from the back. Put the back into the stock pot.

Step 5

With the breast skin side down, split the center bone using a chopping motion. This takes a little muscle.  Then slice through the meat and the skin to separate it into two pieces. Once I finished cutting down the center, I removed the bones from the breast meat. You can leave the bone, if you'd like, since some recipes call for the bone-in meat. If you remove the bones, put them in the stock pot, too.

Step 6

I flipped the breasts over and removed the skin and fat. The shears are great for this. If you want, you can cut the breast diagonally for smaller pieces. You could also cut them into strips for chicken tenders.

Step 7

Next, you're going to divide the legs so you have the thighs and the drumsticks separated. If you cut in the right area, right through the joint, it's really easy.  As illustrated by my awesome Photoshop skills, there is a line of white fat on the legs. Just follow that line and cut through.

Step 8

Ta-da! When you're finished, you'll have 6-10  (this all depends if you divide the breasts and legs) nicely divided parts.  From there, you can either use the pieces in a recipe immediately like I did (thank you, Pioneer Woman) or you can put them in freezer bags for later. 

Step 9

This step is optional, but you should totally do it. That's just my humble opinion. Take it for what it's worth. Homemade stock is so, so easy to make. You barely have to do anything. Plus, it's nice to really use up everything of the chicken. Nothing goes to waste. All you have to do is boil the carcass in some water with some vegetables and herbs. Let it simmer and reduce for an hour or so and you've got delicious, homemade chicken stock (for a more detailed how-to, go my post about it here). I got 7 1/2 cups of stock - that's almost two of those boxes of stock you buy at the store. Those boxes of stock usually go for about $2 each, so this extra step saved me about $4.  Totally worth the time.

So be brave. Whip out that butcher knife and do the work yourself.  It's not so bad and it'll save you a lot of money in the process.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Pepper Surplus

I'm just going to go on the record now and say that my garden was mostly a disappointment this year. I don't know exactly what happened. Granted, my peas, my raspberries, green beans, tomatillos, and some of my early spinach and lettuce weren't too shabby, but the rest was . . . well . . . crappy.  My pumpkins didn't nearly produce like they did last year (just two measly pumpkins!), my strawberries were hit and miss, and I only got a handful of carrots. Worst of all, my tomatoes weren't nearly as awesome as they were last year.  I wait all year for the homegrown tomatoes and, although I got some, my harvest wasn't nearly what I've been used to.  Last year was awesome, this year was...meh. What did I do wrong? Did I lose my touch? It's all causing a lot of introspection and soul-searching, as you can imagine.

However, my mom's garden (surprise, surprise) was amazing and productive, as always (though her pumpkins bombed, too, this year. We used the same packet of seeds -- we're blaming that for the poor crop).  And more than anything else, my mom got a HUGE harvest of peppers, ranging from mild ones to the spicy jalapeños.  Mom's been trying to use them all up, but we finally decided that we needed to can them. So, I thought I'd share a couple of the things we did with Mom's pepper surplus.

Surplus Solution #1 -- Salsa
No doubt you probably guessed that I made salsa from the first picture. Making salsa is always messy, but so, so worth it. Garden tomatoes and peppers in the winter months? Heaven. I seem to use a different recipe for salsa every year. This year, since we had so many peppers, we used a recipe that called for a fairly high pepper to tomato ratio. It's called "Zesty Salsa" and it's definitely zesty. Yum!

Zesty Salsa from The Ball Blue Book of Preserving
10 cups chopped, seeded, peeled, cored tomatoes (about six pounds)
5 cups chopped and seeded long green peppers, (about two pounds) {My mom's were red and yellow ones - both mild varieties. Worked very well and made it really colorful.}
5 cups of chopped onions (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 1/2 cups of chopped and seeded hot peppers (about 1 pound)
3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons cilantro (I added more. Loooove cilantro.)
1 1/4 cup of cider vinegar
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce -- optional (We skipped it.)

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepot. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Adjust lids and bands. Process 15 minutes in boiling-water or steam canner (Don't forget to adjust the time, according to your altitude). 

Now, the recipe I followed says that the yield is 6 pints. Both times I've done it, I've gotten 8 pints. Go figure. Maybe it'll be different for you.  We kept eating this salsa as it cooked over the stove -- it's really, really good.

Surplus Solution #2 - Jalapeño Jelly
After all that salsa, my mom still had a bunch of jalapeños left, so she wanted to make jalapeño jelly. I've never even tasted jalapeño jelly, let alone made it, so it was definitely a new endeavor. My mom didn't have time to make it, so I took it upon myself to make it solo since she'd shared all of her garden's bounty with me for the salsa (enter the crappy garden-induced depression).  Even though it was my first time, making this jelly was a cinch.

One note worth mentioning -- see those rubber gloves in the background? You should definitely wear gloves when you cut up hot peppers like jalapeños. Take it from someone who didn't wear them one time, who thought she had washed her hands thoroughly, and who, later that night, removed her contacts with those same hands. Yeowch!

Jalapeño Jelly from The Ball Blue Book of Preserving {again!}
3/4 pound of jalapeño peppers (This is a kind of confusing measurement. The recipe that came with the pectin, that had all the same ingredients and amounts, called for 12 peppers. That seems about what I used. Once I removed the stems, seeded them, and cut them into strips, it measured about 2 1/2 cups) 
2 cups of cider vinegar
6 cups of sugar (Mmmm....healthy.)
2 pouches liquid pectin
Green food coloring (optional)

Wash peppers. Remove stems and seeds (I also cut them into strips. Not necessary, but it made for easier measuring.). Purée peppers and one cup of the vinegar in a food processor or blender. In a large saucepot, combine the purée, the remaining cup of vinegar, and the sugar.  Bring to a boil; boil for 10 minutes, stirring constantly (clears the sinuses, for sure!). Stir in the liquid pectin. Return to a rolling boil (as in, a boil that can't be stirred down) and boil hard for a minute, still stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam, if necessary. Stir in a few drops of food coloring. (Note: As much as I try to avoid artificial coloring, there are some cases where I give in. This is one. If you don't add the coloring, the jelly looks like a brownish-green swamp sludge. I only added about five drops. This made it nicely, not neon, green.)

Ladle hot jelly into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Adjust lids and bands. Process 10 minutes in a boiling-water or steam canner. Again, don't forget to adjust your processing time according to your altitude.  The recipe says that the yield is about five half-pints. That's exactly what I got.

So how do you use jalapeño jelly? My mom puts it in a bowl with some cream cheese and serves it as a dip with crackers or sliced bell peppers. I also found this recipe for cheese coins with jalapeño jelly on Martha Stewart's site. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Guess what. After all of that, after the salsa and the jelly....we still have extra! We're considering pickling them (again, a totally new endeavor).  I'll let you know how it plays out.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lovely Links: "It's finally feeling like fall!" Edition

{The scenery by my parents' house. I miss living in that valley.}

Autumn is my favorite season, hands down. The colors of the leaves, the smells, the food (pumpkin bread, anyone?), the chill in the air, Halloween, everything. And since it's finally starting to feel like fall in my neck of the woods, I thought I'd share a few fall-related links I've come across lately. 

Corn Chowder with Chilies -- The Pioneer Woman
One of the things I absolutely love about the change to the cooler seasons is that my soup and chowder recipes come out of hibernation and back into my dinner repertoire.  Pioneer Woman just posted this recipe today and I have to try it. If she says it's really good, then it must be ridiculous. Everything I've made of hers rocks.

The Sights, Sounds, Semlls, and Tastes of Autumn -- Simple Kids
Nothing really parsimonious here, but just a bunch great (and free) ways to enjoy the simple pleasures of the season.

Fall Projects for Your Home, Yard, Body & Mind -- Simple Mom
Just some good reminders. Is it weird that all of this makes me feel kind of giddy?

Cinnamon: The Greatest Hits -- Joy the Baker
Here, Joy the Baker shares some of her favorite recipes that feature cinnamon.  Ohhhhh...I love the stuff. I'm going to make her brown rice pudding soon. Very soon.

"Of Things That Matter Most"  by Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Wise and beautiful counsel for our busy lives. This talk, given by one of my favorite speakers, is all about returning to the basics and slowing down. It was the inspiration for the quote of the week at the top of the right column: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." 

Enjoy the autumn weekend!
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