Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wrapping Up 2011: The Year's Most Popular Parsimonious Posts

I can hardly believe it's New Year's Eve already. What a year it has been! I don't know about you, but it has flown by for me.

It's been an adjustment for us at our house having a new baby. Little Jonah is a dream come true, a perfect and happy little baby (all 22 pounds of him), busy crawling all around the house. Our other son, Max, has really stepped up and become an amazing big brother (though he was already an awesome kid to begin with). We met a big financial goal in 2011 -- we just refinanced to a 15-year mortgage (with our payment only going up $150/month. Hooray for low interest rates!). All in all, we feel really blessed and hope that 2012 will be good to us, too.

I thought it would be fun (at least for me), to look back at the year, glance through the blog statistics, and see what posts were most popular in 2011. You never know what people will find helpful and/or interesting. So, without further ado, here are the top 10 posts on The Parsimonious Princess:

10. The Easiest {and Best} Roast Chicken Recipe
Chicken, lemons, salt, and pepper. Seriously, that's all you need. It's is ridiculous how good this chicken is. Thank you, Marcella Hazan!

9. 8 Sure-Fire Ways to Get Frugally Fatigued
I remember writing this and thinking that I've experienced all eight of those ways. It's easy to get burned-out on living frugally if you don't have the right frame of mind and specific goals.

8. The Latest Concoction: Homemade Bathtub Scrub
A mixture of castile soap, baking soda, water, and vinegar. Makes your bathtub practically sparkle!

7. This Cold House: How to Sew a Draft Stopper
Draft stopper, draft dodger, draft snake. Whatever you want to call it, this easy sewing project can help you save on your utility bills. Now if only I could find mine...

6. Squeaky Clean for Pennies: How to Make Foaming Hand Soap
Just water and a little bit of liquid castile soap. The only bad thing about this experiment for me was realizing how much money I'd wasted buying the stuff before.

5. Meatless Monday: Noodles with Thai Peanut-Chili Sauce
Yum. My favorite go-to meal from the pantry. I make this when I'm feeling too lazy to plan and/or cook anything for dinner.

4. Canned Heat: How to Make an Emergency Heater
Peace of mind for five bucks. I love having one of these in our car in the wintertime, just in case.

3. Functional, Not Fancy: Homemade Nursing Pads
So simple to make and they work really well. I used them all the time during my first few weeks postpartum.

2. DIY Plumbing Project: The Cloth Diaper Sprayer
I will spare you the gross details and just say that this sprayer is a must if you're going to cloth diaper. MUST.

1. How to Make Cloth Wipes & Solution
I'll admit, I was a little surprised that this is the most popular post of the year.  We're still using the same cloth wipes I made back in March and they work great (I personally think they work better than the disposable wipes). The wipes couldn't be easier to make. The wipe solution is also simple: water, baby shampoo/soap, and olive oil.


I am excited to start the new year (Well, mostly excited. I do turn 30 next year...). I love the fresh start that January 1st brings. In terms of this blog, I've got all sorts of posts planned: more cloth diapering (since those were the most popular posts, after all), Meatless Monday recipes, cleaning concoctions, product reviews (a company actually sent me a sample to review!), Random Reuses, fun stuff for the kids, plenty of canning, and miscellaneous craftiness. As always, if you have any questions, things you would like to see more of, ideas you'd like to share, don't hesitate to shoot an email to parsimoniousprincess(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thank you so much for reading my blog and best wishes for 2012!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Counting the Days: A Fun, Easy, and Thrifty Advent Calendar

The anticipation of Christmas Day is part of what makes the season so magical, I think. That's why I love advent calendars. When I was a kid, I loved those European-looking advent calendars with the perforated windows that held a chocolate behind each one. My mom has a wooden advent calendar with 25 little doors and she puts treats in each for the grandkids to enjoy (my son and his cousin started asking about it a month ago). My sister-in-law makes long chains of candy, sectioned off 25 times. And, of course, there are the classic paper chains we all made in school. I remember how fun it was to tear off a paper ring each day as Christmas got a little closer. Ah, the simple joys of childhood.

There are a TON of ideas and tutorials for making advent calendars. I've seen so many advent ideas on Pinterest (You're on Pinterest, right? Love it.) and I've been planning on making one. There are a lot cute fabric ones I want to make (like this one), but sewing has been kind of difficult for me ever since I had my baby, especially since he's crawling and getting into everything now (He's eight months old today! Time goes by way too fast). So, this year, I decided to opt for a variation on the classic paper chain. In addition, I added some extra features to each link on the chain to help my family fully enjoy all the holiday festivities.

I got the idea for the tree-shaped paper chain on Pinterest, pinned from the blog, Make and Takes. Not only was it cute, but it also looked easy to make (hooray!). The supplies to make it are minimal (read: super cheap) and it doesn't take long at all. Today would be a perfect day to get yours made in time for December.

Materials Needed:
  • Construction paper -- a few sheets of green (I used four), one sheet of red, and one sheet of yellow
  • A ruler
  • Pen/pencil
  • Scissors
  • Tape
I'd also suggest printing off the page from the Make and Takes post for reference when you assemble the chain.

Once I had all my supplies, I started measuring and drawing lines on the construction paper so I would cut strips that were the same size. I started with 2-inch wide strips, but scaled down to 1 1/2-inch wide strips. As for length, I did the entire length the paper. If you want to follow the tree chain on the Make and Takes blog, you'll need 19 green strips, 5 red strips, and 1 yellow strip.

Here's where I added my own features to the paper-chain tree.

The other day, I saw a post on Simple Mom about doing a simple advent countdown with Christmas activities attached to each day. I thought that was a great idea and I wanted to incorporate it with my paper-chain advent. Then, I saw a list on Pinterest, pinned from Tip Junkie, of scriptures to read each day of December. I thought that was a great way to keep the true meaning of Christmas in our thoughts, so I incorporated that into the paper chain, too. I wrote both the scripture of the day and the activity of the day (the scripture and the activity have nothing to do with each other) on each strip of paper before assembling the chain, as you can see below.

The activities are nothing grandiose, by any  means. Just the fun, simple things that go along with the holiday: classic movies (A Christmas Story, anyone?), making cookies (Try my gingerbread recipe. It is THE best.), making popcorn chains, building a snowman, driving around and looking at lights on houses, reading Christmas books, making ornaments, visiting Santa, and more. I kept mine really simple and realistic -- before I wrote any activity down, I made sure it was something I could do, even when the days are busy (as they inevitably are during this time of year).

I also took the activity aspect a little further and kept our calendar in mind. Early in the month, for example, one of our activities is to make ornaments. It wouldn't make much sense to make them a few days before the tree comes down. Closer to Christmas, I want to take the kids to see Santa one night and watch A Nativity Story just a couple nights before Christmas. Also, my husband's birthday is in December, so I wanted one of the links on the chain to be centered around celebrating his birthday.

Anyway, to help me not get all mixed up since the links aren't in a straight line, I kept them as in order as possible (the month starts at the bottom, of course) and wrote the date on the outside of each link so I'd know when to tear off each link. Plus, it helps with the scripture list since that follows a specific order, too.

Once all the scriptures and activities were written on each strip, my son and I taped them into loops and assembled the link as shown in the Make and Takes post. I was glad that I didn't have to figure out that part -- I just checked and double-checked the picture I was following. I tied a little ribbon on the yellow loop on top and hung it from a hook that was already in the door.  Really easy. Each day, we'll tear off a link and hang it on the fridge to remind us of the activity and scripture of the day. I can't wait for December to start!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

'Frugalizing' the Swiffer, Part 2: How to Make a Cloth Wet Jet Pad

Yeah, I'm back. I took break for a while there. I could chalk it up to October being a busy month for us (my firstborn's fifth birthday, hosting the annual Halloween party, making costumes at all hours of the night, etc.), but, really, I just needed to take a break. When life gets crazy and overwhelming, it's best to just cut back, I think.

I apologize if you've been waiting on the edge of your seats (ha ha) for Part 2 of my attempts to 'frugalize' the Swiffer Wet Jet.  The wait is over!

When we purchased the Wet Jet, a few of the disposable cloths were included. They work really well. I understand the appeal of the Swiffer. I'll be completely honest, my homemade cloth ones aren't quite as nice as the Swiffer cloths, but they do the job. And really, the Swiffer cloths, as handy as they may be, aren't good enough to make me want to spend over $10 for a package of them -- especially since they end up in the trash. This homemade alternative (inspired by a post I found on Pinterest) helps me keep my floor clean and saves money. Plus, they're really easy to make.

What You'll Need
  • 1 package of cloth diapers -- You can get the Gerber padded prefolds at just about any store. The ones I used were flat cloth diapers that were on sale (understandably so -- as I was using them, I couldn't help but think over and over how terrible these particular diapers would be for actually diapering a baby!). The prefolds are easier for this project because you don't have to fold them as much, but if you find some cheap flat diapers, go with those --  I'll show you how I folded them later.
  • Sew-on velcro -- two 10-inch strips (fuzzy side only) for each pad.
  • Thread, pins, scissors, a ruler, and a sewing machine.

The How-To

1. Fold and Pin
If you're using prefolded diapers, lay the diaper out flat. Fold the top 1/3 down to the middle (if you're not familiar with prefolds, the diapers are divided by seams into thirds). Do the same with the bottom third.  If you're using a flat diaper, I've outlined the steps to folding it into thirds in the photos below. 

It's a little hard to explain (I hope the pictures help) -- you basically just fold the edges to the middle so they meet (step 2) and then repeat it again (step 3). You don't have to do it this way exactly, but it worked for me.

Your goal is to have a rectangle that is around 5 inches wide. Pin in place, if desired.

2. Measure and Cut

Once the diaper is folded, you'll have a long strip. Fold it in half and cut on the fold.

Each diaper makes two cloth pads.

3. Pin the Velcro

Cut two 10-inch strips of Velcro. You'll only be using the soft, fuzzy side. With the help of a ruler or measuring tape, pin the Velcro on the diaper about an inch from each edge. It's a good idea to place one of the Velcro strips on top of the folded-over edge of the diaper so you don't have a flap that catches as you mop.

4. Sew the Velcro and Edges

Using a zig-zag stitch, sew down each side of the strips of Velcro. Use the same stitch along each short end of the pad. 

5. Mop Away!
Stick the pad onto the Wet Jet and mop. When finished, peel it off and throw it in the wash. Enjoy your clean floors and revel in the self-satisfaction of your 'frugalizing' efforts.

Note: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have disclosed.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

'Frugalizing' the Swiffer, Part 1: How to Refill the Wet Jet

I hate mopping. At least, I used to.

There's always been two options when it came to mopping for me: using a soapy, wet rag (done with the classic push-it-around-with-your-foot method) or with a drippy (and, might I add, gross) sponge mop. So, yeah, it didn't get done as often as maybe it should. Problem is, I'm married to a guy who's a little obsessive about having really clean floors. Sigh.

Now add into the mix a six-month-old baby. He's not crawling yet, but it's not too far off. With that comes extra vacuuming and, you guessed it, more vigilant floor mopping. Double sigh.

A few weeks ago, we were shopping at the local Walmart and we passed a display of Swiffer Wet Jet starter kits. My husband, the aforementioned clean floor fanatic, grabbed one of them. "This would be so much better than what we've got!" (Enter the gross sponge mop.) My instant reaction to it, although I could see how much better it really would be, was, "No way. It seems great now, but then you have to buy the special cleaning pads and their cleaner, which is full of chemicals..." 

Yeah, we got it anyway. As expected, it made cleaning the floors so much easier. Yet part of me, the part that swore off paper towels and that uses vinegar to clean just about everything, still wasn't a fan. That is, until I did some research and found that there are a bunch of Swiffer Wet Jet hacks out there, using all types of methods to make this handy dandy mop more budget-friendly. 

I looked through a few of the ideas, watched a video or two, and I am happy to report that I have found the easiest ways to, as my husband put it, "frugalize" the Swiffer.

Today's post is about refilling the Wet Jet bottle...

Before I even looked anything up, I tried to unscrew the lid so I could refill it. No way. That lid is sealed on tight. Some of the methods I came across involved making holes in the plastic lids, using tiny funnels to fill it, and so on. I get not wanting to pay $8 for cleaning solution, but it seemed like a pain. Then I found this super-easy method:

Fill a small saucepan with enough water to submerge the cap of the bottle and bring the water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, dip the cap into the water (as pictured above) and hold it there for 90 seconds. Heating the cap makes the plastic soft enough that a good, hard twist gets it off. I'd suggest doing this with a dishtowel since the cap will be kind of hot.

Once you get the cap off, you'll see that all along the edge are some little notches/prongs (aka, the things that keep you from getting the lid off in the first place).  You can clip the prongs off easily with a nail clipper. Once the prongs are off, the lids screws on and off without any trouble at all. Refill the bottle with your usual cleaner of choice (hooray for vinegar!). 

Coming soon: Part 2 -- Making Your Own Swiffer Cloth Pads. Seriously easy.

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Canning Cucumbers, Part Two: Dill Pickle Spears

I may not be too fond of sweet pickles, but I love a good dill pickle. There are a variety of ways to make dill pickles -- fresh pack, brined, cooked, canned, refrigerated, lacto-fermented. For my foray into pickle making, I decided to try a simple fresh pack recipe.

Although this recipe doesn't produce the crisp dill pickles I like most (I'm determined to make this recipe next year), they are still delicious and work well in a variety of recipes and on a hamburger or in a sandwich.

Fresh Pack Dill Pickles - from The Ball Blue Book of Preserving

Yield: about 7 pints or 3 quarts

8 lbs. 4- to 6-inch cucumbers, cut lengthwise into halves (we cut ours into quarters)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup canning salt (can be found in the canning section in your local grocery store)
1 quart vinegar
1 quart water
3 tablespoons mixed pickling spices (also can be found in the canning section)
Green or dry dill (1 head per jar)
Cheesecloth and kitchen string or a store bought spice bag (For instructions on how to make a spice bag, check out this link -- it's really easy.)

Wash cucumbers; drain. Combine sugar, salt, vinegar, and water in a large saucepot. Tie spices in a spice bag; add spice bag to vinegar mixture. Simmer for 15 minutes. Pack cucumbers into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Put one head of dill in each jar.

For those who are wondering what a head of dill looks like, there it is. The head is made of up the flower at the top of the plant, the part with several stems and little buds at the ends. These heads of dill came from my mom's garden, but you can also buy it in the produce section, by the packaged fresh herbs). You can also use dried heads of dill. (After a little research, I've learned that you can can substitute 1 Tablespoon of dried dill seed for 1 head of fresh dill.)

Ladle hot liquid over cucumbers, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles by running a rubber spatula around the inside of the jar, between the cucumbers and the glass. Adjust two-piece caps. Process pints and quarts 15 minutes (be sure to adjust for altitude, if necessary) in a boiling-water canner. 

Allow 4-6 weeks for these pickles to cure and develop the best flavor.

Have you ever made pickles? What's your favorite kind -- to eat and/or make?  Any recipes/links I should know about?

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Canning Cucumbers, Part 1: Sweet Pickle Chips

Yet another reason why I love this time of year: people sharing the bounty from their gardens. I mean, isn't that such a nice gesture? We joke about people unloading all their extra zucchinis on neighbors, but I think it's nice.  Like the lady in my mom's neighborhood who gave her eight pounds (eight!) of pickling cucumbers a few days ago. Free homegrown produce? Sweet!

Until this latest endeavor, Mom and I had never canned pickles. Never. But seeing as we had to do something with all those cucumbers, we decided to give it a go. Hooray for learning and trying new things, right? So, I took the kids up to my parents' house (hence the different setting for all the photos in the pickle posts -- I even used my dad's camera) for the day and we canned a bunch of cucumbers  I'm happy to report that pickle-making isn't too difficult. So, for the next couple posts, I'm going to share the recipes and techniques we used to make pickles.

Pickle Post #1: Sweet Pickle Chips

I'll be totally honest: I'm not a huge fan of sweet pickles. I don't hate them, but I definitely don't seek them out. But my mom likes them. Plus, she has this childhood memory of eating homemade sweet pickles with a neighborhood friend when she was a kid and she's always wanted to try making her own. My motivation for me to make these: they are an ingredient in my grandma's potato salad recipe (ridiculously good).

This recipe we used was one of the simplest we found (we found it on Many recipes for sweet pickles call for a ton of spices and seasonings. While this one had only a few ingredients, the results were quite tasty.  Mom says they're as good as the ones her neighbor made all those years ago.

Sweet Pickle Chips
- yield: 6 pint-sized jars -

4 lbs. pickling cucumbers - washed, blemishes removed, stems and blossom ends removed

Brining solution:
1 quart distilled white vinegar
3 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. mustard seed
1/2 cup sugar

Canning Syrup
1 2/3 cup of distilled white vinegar
3 cups sugar
1 tbsp. whole allspice
2 1/4 tsp. celery seed

{Note:  I don't know if we reduced ours too much during the cooking process or what, but we ended up having to make extra canning syrup. This may or may not be the case for you, but I think it'd be a good idea to have enough of the ingredients on hand to make another batch, if necessary.}

Once your cucumbers are washed and the ends have been trimmed off, cut the cucumbers across into 1/4 inch slices.

In a large pot, mix together the ingredients of the brining solution. Add the cucumbers and stir.  Cover the pot and let the cucumbers simmer in the brining mixture for about 5-7 minutes, until the cucumbers lose their bright color and look more dull. 

While the cucumbers are cooking, make the canning syrup by combining the vinegar, sugar, whole allspice, and celery seed. Heat mixture in a saucepot until the syrup comes to a boil.

Once the cucumbers are done cooking, drain. Pack the cucumbers into the hot pint-size canning jars (again, we ended up using 6 pint-size jars).  Cover the cucumbers with the hot syrup, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove the air bubbles by running a rubber spatula around the inside of the jar, between the cucumbers and the jar, moving the spatula up and down. Adjust lids and bands and process for 15 minutes (be sure to adjust for altitude and add on extra minutes, if necessary).

Monday, September 19, 2011

Product Review: Tattler Resuable Canning Lids

I first learned about Tattler reusable lids last fall, right after I finished canning numerous quarts of pears, apple pie filling, salsa, and peaches. I remember reading about the lids on a blog and thinking, "Now you tell me!"

In all my years of canning, I only knew about the metal ones that came with the jars. I had no idea there even was an alternative. That said, I always wondered why lids could only be used once. Wasn't there any way around that? That's where Tattler reusable lids come into play.

Tattler reusuable lids are just that -- reusable. The lids are made of a washable, heat-resistant plastic. When used with a rubber ring (which come with the plastic lids) and the regular metal canning rings, Tattler lids can help you preserve your food year after year.  The best part is that once you buy them, you never have to buy canning lids again. Even the rubber rings are reusable, so long as there are no signs of damage or wear on them (you can buy replacement rubber rings for a couple bucks). The company says that if the lids ever wear out, they'll replace them for free -- and according to the website and the pamphlet that came with the lids I bought, they've never had to replace a single lid. That's pretty awesome.

These lids are a guaranteed money saver. There is some initial investment (three dozen wide mouth lids for $23.95; $20.95 for three dozen regular mouth lids), but even that isn't much. It usually costs about $4-5 for a box of 12 of the one-use metal dome lids. If you do a lot of canning, the price for lids can really add up. Plus, once they're used, they're trash. With the reusable lids, you get years of use and they eventually pay for themselves. It goes almost without saying that Tattler lids are a much smarter choice. Plus, the lids contain no BPA like the metal dome lids do. Even more reason to use them!

So this is my first canning season with Tattler lids -- I ordered mine about a month ago and couldn't wait to try them out. I only bought the wide mouth ones, but I'm going to place an order for some the regular size ones soon. I've used them with both salsa and jam so far and I can definitely say I won't go back to the old lids for the majority of my canning (I'll still buy a few of the metal lids now and then so I can share jars of my canned foods. No way am I giving away my reusable lids!).

The lids took a little getting used to for me since I've learned with and have been using the metal dome lids for so long. You can't fill the jars as much as you would with the metal lids -- you need about an inch headspace in each jar so that the lids can seal. After a few jars, though, I got the hang of the Tattler lids. You heat the lids and rubber rings like you would with the metal ones. Once heated, you put rubber ring and lid combination on the jar, screw the metal rings (as I said previously, you reuse your metal rings with the Tattler lids) on loosely to keep the lid in place, and then process the jars as you normally would. Once the jars are done processing, you have to tighten the rings on the jars immediately.

My only complaint: I like the way you can tell that the metal dome lids are sealed. When the jars cool, you just have to tap the metal lids to make sure they're sealed. Plus, I love that popping sound of the metal lid sealing into place. With the Tattler lids, you have to unscrew the metal rings (once the jars have cooled, of course) and lift gently on each lid to see if they sealed. It's not a huge bother, but it takes more time. Still, that's not enough to make me even consider going to back to the dome lids.

I definitely recommend Tattler reusable lids. To me, they're one of those frugal no-brainers.

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Return of Canning Season: Some Recipes, Reasons, and How Canning is Sexy

I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the main reasons I love late summer-early autumn is canning. I love canning. It's not easy and it can make a big mess, but I love it. It's just so satisfying to rows of beautiful glass jars full of delicious summer produce in the pantry. And opening a jar of some of that in the winter? Lovely. 

For the next couple weeks or so, it's all about canning here. Before we get started, though, I thought I'd share a few links to past posts of mine, along with other blog posts about canning that I've enjoyed.

To Get You Started:

Yes You Can! -- My motivations for canning and why I love it.

All You Really Need -- A list of supplies to get you started.

The Fruits of My Labor:
Apples -- Applesauce and Pie Filling
Jam (Pluot jam!)

Other Helpful Sources and Inspiration:

Roasted Tomato Salsa -- Doris and Jilly Cook {Mom and I just canned a batch of this. It is the BEST!}

9 Good Reasons to Can Your Own Food -- Simple Bites

Preserving Summer: A Round-Up of Inspiration -- Simple Bites

Preserve! - SouleMama {My favorite blog}

And if you still haven't caught the canning bug, watch the video below. If you're a big canning geek like me, watch the video below. It made me kind of giddy. Classie Parker tells you why you should can. After all, as she says in the video, "Canning is sexy, baby!"

The Canning Queen of the Desert from Etsy on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Misto, Misto: Why I Stopped Using Cooking Spray

I'll just get this out of the way right now: from the first time I heard of the Misto to just about every time I use it now, I can't help but think of one part from Happy Gilmore. It's the part where Happy (Adam Sandler) is at the nursing home with his grandmother and there's this lady who says, "Mista! Mista! Get this offa me!" Yeah, just about every time I get my Misto out of the pantry, I think, in that lady's voice, "Misto! Misto!" My husband does the same thing, too.

Now that I've got that out of the way, let me tell you about my latest frugal find, the Misto.

I first heard about the Misto from Betsy at Eco-Novice -- she mentioned it in a comment on one of my posts and I was intrigued. The Misto is basically a replacement for those aerosol cans of cooking spray. You simply fill the Misto halfway with any kind of vegetable oil, pump the lid a few times, and the oil sprays out in a fine mist.

The Misto costs around $10. Even if that seems like a lot for a sprayer, buying cooking spray in an aerosol can is much more expensive. In fact, you might even say canned cooking spray is a rip-off. Let me explain with a little bit of math. (Those who know me may have just gasped at the idea of me doing math. Don't worry -- it wasn't too complicated.)

The cheapest I've been able to find cooking spray is at Walmart -- you can get a can of the store brand for around $2. Buy the name-brand stuff and your price goes up. For the $2 can, you're getting about about 185 grams of oil. I figured this by checking the nutrition label's serving size. A serving size (according to the label) is .25 grams. I multiplied that number by 741 (the amount of servings in a can).  Once that number was calculated, I found a conversion table to help figure out how many grams are in a cup. Turns out, the conversion varies from food to food. For oil, there are 224 grams in a cup. (I checked another label for a name brand can of cooking spray and there's less in it -- around 158 grams). So, really there's less than a cup of spray in your typical can of cooking spray. 

Take it a step further: that's not all oil in the cooking spray. While they all contain some kind of oil (canola, soybean, olive, etc.), you will also find a bunch of other ingredients in a can of cooking spray. Some of these extra ingredients include things like grain alcohol (added for clarity), soy lecithin (an emulsifier), dimethyl silicone (for anti-foaming), dimethylpolysiloxane (another anti-foaming agent), natural and artificial flavor, and propellant. I'm not necessarily saying that these are all bad (though, what is 'propellant' anyway?), but it is a bunch of extra stuff.

With the Misto, you can use the oil you already have on hand, which is a much more economical choice. You can get a 48 oz. bottle of canola oil for $3-5. Considering you get less than 8 oz. (a cup) of oil (plus all that other stuff) in a single can of aerosol spray for almost (if not the) same price, using the Misto is definitely more frugal.

I also like the Misto because I can use whatever oil I want -- I usually have extra virgin olive oil or canola oil in mine. I've been using the Misto for almost six months with little problem (there are some complaints if you read the reviews on Amazon, but I haven't experienced any trouble). I'm not going to tell you it works just as well as an aerosol cooking spray -- I have experienced some minor problems with sticking while baking. That said, the problems haven't made me want to go back to the aerosol spray. The Misto works well for me. Plus, I giggle a little when I use it. "Misto! Misto! Spray my pan!"  Yes, I'm easily entertained.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Meatless Monday: Sour Cream & Cheese Enchiladas

I love Mexican food. LOVE it. I especially love Mexican cuisine because the recipes are made of basics -- rice, beans, cheese, and the like -- which translates to a frugal dish. And because many delicious Mexican recipes feature things like beans, rice, and cheese, it's not too difficult to make a meal meatless.  Another reason I love Mexican food? It's soooo good, making it something the entire family will eat.

A few months ago, I came across a recipe for sour cream enchiladas on the Pioneer Woman's blog (love her.) and I knew I had to try them. As with every PW recipe I've tried (seriously, every recipe), it was absolutely delicious. These enchiladas have since become part of my repertoire of recipes. When I plan my dinners for the week and ask my husband what he'd like me to make, he'll almost always suggest these enchiladas.

I would just send you straight to PW's blog (really, if you haven't gone there, you must. MUST.) for the recipe and end this post right now, but I have tweaked it a bit to fit my family's tastes and preferences. The big difference is that I use flour tortillas, which may make them less authentic, but we just like them better. This also eliminates the need to fry the tortillas in oil as in the PW recipe.

That all said, here's our version:

Sour Cream & Cheese Enchiladas

Serves 6

6-8 flour tortillas (This number varies because of the size of the tortilla you're using, how much filling you put in them, and how many your pan can hold. I don't mean to be vague, but it varies for me every time. I say, start with six and go from there).
1 can (20 oz.) enchilada sauce
2 cups sour cream (I've used both regular and light with equally delicious results)
3 cups of colby jack cheese, shredded (I prefer this over cheddar. You can use any kind of cheese you want, though. One time I added a little shredded pepper jack and gave it a good little kick.)
1/2 cup chopped chives (If you don't have chives growing somewhere, you can use 1 cup of chopped green onions instead)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cayenne pepper
Pico de gallo (optional but highly recommended)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a bowl, combine the sour cream, 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese, chives, cumin, and cayenne.

To soften the flour tortillas, wrap a few (2-3 at a time) in a slightly damp paper towel or cloth napkin. Microwave for a just a few seconds until they become flexible. You don't want the tortillas to crack as you're rolling them. Sidenote: Lately, I've been using uncooked flour tortillas since so many of the other flour tortillas have preservatives and hydrogenated oils; the uncooked ones only have flour, canola oil, salt, and sugar in them. When I use these tortillas, I'll just quickly cook them up and keep them in a tortilla warmer until I'm ready to roll them into enchiladas.

In a medium saucepan, heat the enchilada sauce. Using tongs, dip the tortilla in the enchilada sauce, coating the entire tortilla well, and then lay it on a plate. Put a dollop (about a couple tablespoons or so) of the sour cream mixture on the tortilla. Roll and place facing down in a 9x13 baking dish. Repeat with other tortillas until sour cream mixture is used up. Pour any leftover sauce over the enchiladas. Top with the remaining 1 1/2 cups of cheese.

Bake for 15-20 until bubbly.  Serve topped with pico de gallo. You don't have to do this, but it is so good. For a great recipe for pico de gallo, go to this link from (who else?) The Pioneer Woman. Trust me, when it comes to cooking just about anything, she knows what she's talking about! Plus, with garden tomatoes ripening now, there are few things better than some fresh pico de gallo.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

5 Reasons Why You Should Have an Aloe Vera Plant

I swear I put sunblock on my shoulders. I mean, I'm the one always reminding (okay, nagging) everyone in the family about sunblock. How, then, did I manage to get the most painful sunburn I've had since the blistery awfulness I experienced back in the summer of 2001?  Luckily, this most recent sunburn was only on my left shoulder. Still, it was pretty painful. So, of course, I turned to my reliable aloe vera plant.

Since I was slathering on the aloe vera goo on my shoulder for days, I couldn't help but think that I should write a post about this amazing, dare I say magical, plant. It is so beneficial and so useful. As my husband put it, it's one of those things from nature where God comes close to giving Himself away, a big hint that He exists -- a plant that awesome couldn't happen by accident. (Kevin also maintains that ripe watermelon is also one of those kinds of creations. Mmmmm...watermelon...) 

Aloe vera has been used for thousands of years, the earliest mention of it from a Sumerian tablet dating back to 2100 BC.  References to the plant have been found in the early writings of various cultures -- from India and China to Greece and the Roman Empire. It's a plant full of vitamins and minerals, making it not only useful but great for your health.

But why mention aloe vera plants on this blog? Because this ever-useful plant doesn't cost much. And since it's a living thing, your plant justs keeps on giving and giving.

Here are a few of the reasons I love having aloe vera plants around the house:

{Note: While I may be explaining some health benefits of this amazing plant, I have to just say up front that I'm no doctor (surprise!) and that all of these remedies are things I've found that work for me or that I've learned through my own research. Basically, follow all of this at your own discretion, with your own needs and history in mind.}

1.  Sunburn relief
There are a bunch of different kinds of creams, gels, and sprays on the market for sunburn relief. They work  well (Solarcaine got me through the infamous, aforementioned sunburn from my college days) and do their jobs, but I've found that using the gel from an aloe vera leaf works just as well -- in some cases, even better. You simply clip off a piece of the leaf (I usually just snap a section off with my hands), open it up, and rub the gel over the affected area. Instant relief.

From the limited research I did for this post, I learned that aloe has over 200 naturally occurring nutritional substances, along with seven of the eight essential amino acids the body needs but can't produce. In terms of skin repair, it hydrates the skin and actually accelerates the repair due the vitamins, zinc, and polysaccharides (full disclosure: I have no idea what polysaccharides are) that reduce inflammation and stimulate epidermal growth. In fact, I even read that aloe vera has been used on skin cancer patients with pretty impressive results.

One great tip for using aloe vera on sunburns: clip off a big section of the leaf and stick it in the fridge. When you're ready to use it, it's delightfully cold on your skin. Ahhhhh. Sweet relief.

2. First-aid in the kitchen
Just yesterday I burned myself making lo mein.  The second I put the onions into the hot canola oil, a few drops splattered up. Burns in the kitchen are common enough for me that I keep one of my aloe vera plants in the kitchen. So, whenever I burn myself, I just snap off the tip off a leaf, squish out the gel onto the burn, and feel better in seconds.

3.  Enhance your natural beauty
It's said that the beautiful Egyptian queen Cleopatra used aloe vera on her skin daily. Aloe vera can be used in a variety of ways in your personal hygiene and beauty regimen. It's a great skin refresher and moisturizer. You can use the gel straight from the plant onto your skin or you mix up a homemade moisturizer with it.

To make an aloe vera moisturizer, mix 1/2 tsp or so of the gel with 1 Tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil. Spread an even layer on your face in the morning and/or at night. Leftover moisturizer can be stored in a covered container in the fridge for about five days.

For more beautiful ways to use aloe vera in your personal hygiene routine, check out this helpful link that I found.

4. It's edible!
I've seen bottles and even jugs of aloe vera juice sold at the health food store and I've wondered how it's used. Turns out, taking aloe vera internally is really beneficial. It's said to help with a whole host of health issues, ranging from arthritis to gastrointestinal problems to kidney stone prevention to hair loss and dandruff to diabetes to even cancer (some believe it actually stops tumor growth). I read that Ghandi credited aloe vera juice as one of the main reasons his body could withstand long periods of fasting. I've never tried taking aloe vera as a health supplement, but I'm intrigued. You can find lots of information about the benefits of taking this herb internally here and here.

5. Purify the air in your home
A while back I came across an interesting book called How to Grow Fresh Air. Using the research found by NASA scientists (in their efforts to figure out how to keep air clean on moon bases in the future), the author compiled a list of fifty houseplants that are ideal for air purification. As you can probably guess, aloe vera is one of those plants. One of the reasons it's such a good air purifying plant is that, unlike most plants, it actually releases oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide at night. For this reason, the author of the book recommends keeping an aloe vera plant in every bedroom (which we do).  So not only does it clean the air while we sleep, but we have plenty of aloe vera on hand whenever the need for it arises.

One other note about aloe vera: it's a really easy plant to grow. While I'm a pretty good gardener, I'm a notorious houseplant killer. I haven't killed an aloe vera plant yet. All three of our plants have survived numerous clippings and long periods of neglect (read: me forgetting to water them). To take care of your aloe vera plant, keep it in a sunny (or even semi-sunny) area, watering moderately in the spring, summer, and fall; water sparingly in the winter.

So buy an aloe vera plant of your own -- you can find them at nurseries, health food stores, and even the supermarket.  I get mine at Ikea for three bucks. With a little bit of water and hardly any work, you can reap the benefits from one of nature's amazing botanical gifts.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meatless Monday: Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

Sometimes, my husband's lunches catch the attention of his co-workers. As you can imagine, I enjoy this sort of validation, so whenever Kevin gets any sort of comment about his lunch, he passes it on to me. Anyway, one day my husband was eating leftovers for lunch and someone saw him and said, "Is that homemade macaroni and cheese? I haven't had that since I was a kid!" Then someone else dropped by his office for a minute, noticed his lunch, and said, "Is that homemade mac and cheese? I'm going to make that tonight!"  Another co-worker, "Homemade macaroni and cheese! Wow!" Those leftovers got more attention than they deserved. Sure, it was yummy, but even when mac and cheese is made from scratch, it doesn't make much time or effort to make.

I love homemade macaroni and cheese for lots of reasons besides it being one of those tasty comfort foods.  I initially got the recipe from a Rachael Ray cookbook years ago (incidentally, I'm almost certain this one was the only recipe I made from it) and have since tweaked it a little. I always have the ingredients on hand so it is one of my go-to recipes when I'm low on energy and/or ideas for dinner. If I can't think of anything to make, I'll just whip up this recipe, throw in some frozen vegetables, call it a meal, and everyone's happy and fed. Not only does this make it a convenient and delicious dinner, but a frugal one, too.

As I mentioned before it's really easy to make -- I can whip it up in about 15 minutes (that is, if you don't count the time waiting for the water to boil).  And, in my humble opinion, the homemade macaroni and cheese is way better than the neon orange stuff that comes in a blue box. Just sayin'.

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese -- adapted from Rachael Ray's recipe in 30-Minute Meals 2

16 oz. macaroni (I buy it 1 lb. boxes so I don't have to worry about measuring), cooked and drained
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (I don't really measure this one -- just a couple swirls around the pan)
3 tbsp. flour
1 1/2 cups milk (see below for more detail on what kind of milk to use)
3 cups of shredded cheese (If you want to be traditional, go with cheddar. But I say, use whatever you think would work. We really like it with colby jack cheese. )
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
fresh or frozen vegetables (optional)

To start, in a dutch oven, bring about 6-8 cups of water to a boil (just fill up the pot about 3/4 of the way). Once boiling, add macaroni and some salt. Cook according to directions on box. One variation: since I usually just serve this as the main course, I like to mix in some vegetables. In the past I've used broccoli, peas, cauliflower, and green beans. {The picture above features our dinosaur variation -- I told Max once that the broccoli are little trees and now he always pretends to be a very hungry, plant-eating dinosaur.} Whenever I add vegetables, I'll throw them in the pot with the pasta just a couple minutes before the cooking time is up (meaning I'll add the veggies at the 9 minute mark since it takes 11 minutes for the macaroni to be al dente). Drain.

Meanwhile, as the pasta is boiling...

Over medium-high heat, add the butter and olive oil to a deep skillet. Once the the butter has melted into the oil, add the flour. Whisk this together and cook for just a minute or so. FYI, this mixture is called a roux. Just thought I'd mention it. Don't you feel all culinary and fancy now?

Gradually add the milk and stir constantly until mixture becomes bubbly and starts to thicken.

Note: The recipe I first followed called for whole milk, but I've used 1% and even skim milk before. The lower fat content makes it take longer to thicken and it's not as creamy, but it works. When I made it most recently, I mixed 1 cup of 1% milk with 1/2 cup of cream. It gave it a nice consistency and it thickened pretty quickly.

Once the sauce has thickened, add the cheese. You can measure out the 3 cups of cheese, but I usually just measure by handfuls -- two to three big handfuls works well. As you can see above, my little sous chef went a bit crazy with the cheese. Oh well. Who has ever said, "Hmmmm. This macaroni and cheese is just a bit too cheesy."?  In any case, stir the cheese until it combines and melts into the sauce. Add the nutmeg (sounds weird but add it) and cayenne. Salt and pepper to taste.

Mix in the cooked pasta (and vegetables, if using) and stir until the noodles are evenly coated in sauce.

There you have it -- homemade macaroni and cheese. Not only is it easy, but just about everyone loves it...

...especially hungry little boys..I mean, plant-eating dinosaurs.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Squeaky Clean for Pennies: How to Make Foaming Hand Soap

Have I mentioned my love for Dr. Bronner's castile soap on this blog yet?  I'm sure I have. In any case, it bears repeating: I'm a big fan of castile soap, both in bar and liquid form. It is useful in so many ways - for personal hygiene, cleaning, laundry, and more (newest discovery: it got rid of the cradle cap on my baby's head. Hooray!).

A few months ago, I came across a blog post about using castile soap to make foaming hand soap. My interest was instantly piqued, especially when I read that a bottle of the homemade stuff costs about 20 cents. Before I read that post, I routinely bought the more expensive all-natural hand soaps. Just following this simple soap solution was going to save me a bunch of money!

To make your own foaming hand soap, you'll need a foaming soap dispenser (I just reused one once it was empty), some liquid castile soap (I used the almond scented kind), and water. To make it, fill the dispenser almost all the way with water. Add 1 tablespoon of the castile soap. (You may need more or less soap, depending on the type of water you have and/or how big your dispenser is. According to the post I read, if it seems hard to spread around your hands, you need to use more soap. If it seems too slippery and hard to rinse off, you need to use less.) Put the pump back on the top and give the bottle a good shake to mix it up. Sure enough, you get a nice, foamy dollop of lather with each pump!

I made our last batch of this about a month ago, so I can attest to it lasting a while. Not only is this soap all-natural (no triclosan in this soap), but it's also kid-friendly, easy to make, and it has a nice, subtle smell. Plus, you just can't beat the price. Ah, yet another reason to love that castile soap...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Back Again

It's been a couple weeks since I posted. If you haven't made the hummus recipe that's been at the top of my blog for that time, well, you're missing out.

Anyway, it's been a stressful few weeks at my house as we all passed around some variation of strep throat. First my four-year-old got it, but we caught it early, got him on an antibiotic, and heaved a sigh of relief that no one else caught it. Ha ha.  A week later, I came down with it and got it worse than I ever remembered getting strep throat before. I was sleeping under four blankets in July because of the crazy chills I got. My tonsils are the worst (Seriously, the doctor looked at them and said, no joking, "Eww. These look awful." It's pretty bad when a doctor says, "Eww."). To top it off, I still had to nurse the baby when I could barely move AND my husband had to go out of town for a few days. Thank goodness for my mom -- I don't know what I would have done without her. And just when I thought I was out of the woods, my husband and baby got sick on the same day last week.  Sigh.  The second half of July was absolutely no fun at my house.  That's what I get for tempting fate -- I made the mistake of pointing out how many months it'd been since anyone in our house was sick.

So, yeah, I'm still here. I'm glad you've checked back even though I haven't had anything new on here for a while. More posts to come, I promise.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Meatless Monday: Homemade Hummus

About a week ago, I was out shopping with my boys at the local health food store and at the cash register was a container of hummus and some chips for customers to sample.  My four-year-old (who, I'm proud to say, is usually pretty willing to try anything new) dug in. He loved it! I eventually had to tell him to stop, as he kept stuffing his mouth with the hummus-laden chips (I also had to keep him from doing a double dip).   I almost added a container of the pre-made hummus to my grocery bill, but I realized that I already had almost all the ingredients to make a batch of it at home. All I needed was some tahini and we'd have homemade hummus in no time.

Although hummus alone doesn't exactly constitute a meatless meal, it's great in a meatless diet/meal because it serves as a complete protein, as well as a good source of iron.  Granted, it is high in fat (as in, the good kind of fats) and calories, so eat it in moderation. We love to snack on it with tortilla or pita chips. It's also a great dip for vegetables. It also serves well as a spread on sandwiches -- you can bypass the meat and use hummus instead. Or just eat it plain with some pita bread. Yum!

Here's the recipe I use for hummus -- I think I may have gotten it from an issue of Everyday Food or Martha Stewart Living. I like it because it's a good, basic recipe -- you can take it as it is or adapt it to your tastes with various spices and mix-ins (peppers, different beans, extra garlic, etc.).

Homemade Hummus -- makes about 3 cups

2 cans (15.5 oz.) of chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans)  {Note: when I was buying the tahini, the lady at the register suggested using Great Northern beans. She also said that she's used black beans in the past. Feel free to experiment!}
1/3 cup lemon juice (it took two fairly large lemons for me to get that much)
1/4 cup tahini (stirred well)
2 cloves of garlic
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt

When you open one of the cans of chickpeas, save 1/4 cup of the liquid. Then, empty both cans into a colander; rinse and drain, shaking off excess water.

Some thoughts on tahini: For those not familiar with tahini, it's similar to peanut butter except that it's made from sesame seeds. A jar or can of tahini can run anywhere from $5-10, depending on what brand and size you buy and where you get it. I got mine at Whole Foods for about $6. That may seem kind of pricey, but a container of this stuff goes a long way, especially if you're only using 1/4 cup of it at a time. An opened container of tahini stores really well -- either on the shelf or in the refrigerator. The general consensus on storage is, if you're going to use it up fairly soon (like in a few months), store it at room temperature; otherwise, keep it in the fridge (where it can last a year -- some say even longer!).  Before you use the tahini in your hummus, be sure to stir it really well since the oil and paste separate.

Put the chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini, garlic, reserved liquid, cayenne, and salt into a food processor. Pulse and process until the consistency is nice and smooth.

And that's it -- fresh, homemade hummus in mere minutes. If you like, you can garnish it with some extra virgin olive oil and a dash of paprika. Store in an airtight container (mine's in a glass canning jar) in the refrigerator for about a week or so.

Note: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have disclosed.
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