Monday, January 23, 2012

6 Reasons to Stop Buying Microwave Popcorn

Ah, popcorn. A movie staple, a campfire favorite, even a Christmas decoration. We're big fans of the stuff here at our house. The way we enjoy it, though, is the semi-old fashioned way: we make ours with the air popper (the truly old-fashioned way is in a skillet, over a fire, just in case you were wondering).  Back in our pre-microwave days in the 1980s, my mom always made popcorn with the air popper. She'd salt it a little and mix in some melted butter. Mmmmm...

Then the microwave relegated the air popper to the back of the cupboards, taking up space alongside the other hardly used appliances. It just seemed so much more convenient to just pop the bag in the microwave. Sure, sometimes a good portion of the bag's contents were either charred or completely unpopped, but that was the trade-off for a pre-seasoned and effortless bag of popcorn. That's the way it was for us, at least.

For Christmas in 2008, my parents gave us an air popper (we're still using the same one) and some fun serving containers. We stopped buying the microwave stuff and have only used our air popper ever since. Though this is our preferred way to pop, there are other methods, like cooking it on the stovetop or microwaving popcorn kernels in a brown paper bag. Each way works well and is better than the stuff sold pre-packaged at the store.  Here are six reasons why you should take the boxes of microwave popcorn off your shopping list...

1. Homemade popcorn is frugal.
Hence the mention on here, right?  There is no denying that buying the popcorn kernels is much cheaper, especially if you can find it in the bulk food bins at the grocery store (most common in health/natural food stores).  With microwave popcorn, you're paying for the bags, the brand, the oils and seasonings, and plastic packaging. For the same price of a few bags of microwave popcorn, you could get pounds of the kernels. It only takes a half cup of kernels in our air popper to yield a big bowl of popcorn. A pound of popcorn goes a long way. Even if you buy the popper (which run around $15-25), it's still the more frugal way to enjoy popcorn. Just by skipping microwave popcorn and getting the kernels in bulk, the popper soon pays for itself in savings.

2. Homemade popcorn is less wasteful.
Whenever I make popcorn, there's maybe two or three kernels left unpopped, maximum. And I've never had burned popcorn making it with the air popper. All those burnt/unpopped kernels at the bottom of the microwave is waste. Unless you've gotten microwaving popcorn down to a science or the popcorn setting on your microwave actually works, waste is practically inevitable.

3. Microwave popcorn takes as long to pop as homemade.
To prove this, I timed how long it took to pop half a cup of kernels (which equals a big bowl of popcorn). Barely over two minutes (plus the 30 or so seconds it took to get the popper out of the pantry, get a bowl out of the cupboard, and plug it in). That's just about as long as it takes to do the microwave stuff. I can't say how long it takes to do it the other ways I mentioned -- on the stovetop or in the paper bag -- but I'm willing to bet it's pretty close. So, really, what are you paying for with microwave popcorn? Is it really that much more convenient?

4.  Microwave popcorn is unhealthy. Like, really unhealthy.
I recently read an article entitled, "7 Seven Foods That Should Never Cross Your Lips" and microwave popcorn is on the list. Here's why, quoting the article:
"Chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), in the lining of the bag, are part of a class of compounds that may be linked to infertility in humans, according to a recent study from UCLA. In animal testing, the chemicals cause liver, testicular, and pancreatic cancer. Studies show that microwaving causes the chemicals to vaporize—and migrate into your popcorn. 'They stay in your body for years and accumulate there,' says Dr. Naidenko, which is why researchers worry that levels in humans could approach the amounts causing cancers in laboratory animals. DuPont and other manufacturers have promised to phase out PFOA by 2015 under a voluntary EPA plan, but millions of bags of popcorn will be sold between now and then."

5. Cheap entertainment.
My older son has been entertained by the popcorn popper since the first time we used it, back when was barely two years old. Even now as a big five-year-old, he still likes watching the kernels spin and then pop like crazy. It's a great way to dispell a grouchy mood. Even though the baby doesn't eat popcorn yet (choking hazard and all), he giggles and squeals as we make it.  Homemade popcorn is also better for crafts like popcorn chains (can you imagine stringing greasy microwave popcorn?).

6. Homemade popcorn tastes better.
Microwave popcorn in "butter flavor" doesn't come close to popcorn with real butter. It just doesn't. It might take you a little adjustment at first if you're used to the intensely flavored and super-salty stuff, but once you're used to the wholesome taste of popcorn seasoned with some salt and real butter, you'll think the microwave stuff is gross. Plus, there are other options for seasoning air popped popcorn: cocoa popcorn (my son literally licked the bowl clean), basil popcorn (yum), toffee popcorn (this recipe looks amazing), and more. The best part about homemade popcorn is that you control what goes (and doesn't go) in it. You can make it as healthy or as decadent as you want.

All this is making me hungry. I'm going to go make some now. So should you.

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. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Recipe for Relief: Homemade Teething Biscuits

Teething. It's one of those things parents dread, right up there with sleepless nights and potty training. My baby is 9 1/2 months old right now and already has a bunch of teeth.  Besides Hyland's Teething Tablets (just discovered these -- they're awesome), having something to gnaw on seems to bring my sweet little guy some relief. 

A few years ago, I came across a recipe for teething biscuits in my favorite (but now defunct) magazine, Wondertime. Even though my firstborn was well past the teething stage and my second child wasn't even a twinkle in my eye yet, I clipped the recipe because I knew it would come in handy some day.  The recipe is super-simple and the biscuits are the perfect size and shape for chubby (and, might I add, impossibly cute) baby hands to hold.

Teething Biscuits (from the February 2009 issue of Wondertime)

1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup maple syrup  (The real stuff, people. Don't even think of using imitation pancake syrup.)
3 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Mix all ingredients in a bowl and stir until dough begins to hold together.  Dust countertop with flour and transfer the dough to the floured surface.

Knead the dough lightly until it is smooth -- this will take around three minutes. If the dough gets sticky and difficult to handle, dust with a little more flour.

Roll out the dough until it's somewhere between a 1/4 - 1/2 inch thick. Cut out the biscuits. You can use a doughnut cutter if you have one or you can use the top of a kids cup like I did, then cutting out the hole in the center with soda-bottle cap. You could also do different shapes and use a cookie cutter, but I prefer the circles because they seem easier for babies to grip.

Transfer biscuits to a greased cookie sheet (or you could use a Silpat. I looove my Silpat.). Bake until they're just barely browned, about 35 minutes. Let them cool completely on the cookie sheet. If you'd like them to harden even more, leave them out overnight (this didn't seem necessary to me since they're pretty hard once they've cooled).  Store in an airtight container (they fit perfectly in a wide-mouth canning jar) for up to 2 weeks. 

Sometimes my baby loves these, sometimes he just plays with one like it's a hockey puck (seriously, he sends it flying all around his highchair tray like he's playing a round of air hockey). But when he loves them, he gnaws and gnaws on them until they get all gooey and sticky. Which is fine.  It seems like babies are often happiest when they're in that sticky-gooey state anyway.

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. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How I Learned to Knit

I actually kept one of my resolutions from 2011. Please, please...hold your applause...

In a post I wrote at the beginning of 2011, I mentioned that I wanted to learn new and resourceful skills and at that top of that list was knitting. I know exactly why I wanted to learn so badly: SouleMama. As I've mentioned before, Amanda Soule's blog, SouleMama, is one of my favorite blogs out there. Many of her posts are about her various knitting projects (like making twelve sweaters in one year. Twelve!) and after reading knitting posts like this one, I just had to learn. It seemed so cozy, so rewarding, a resourceful skill (hence the mention on this blog), and I'd heard that it was a great way to relax (sidenote: check out this fascinating article about how knitting is better than Prozac. Wow.). It was Amanda Soule's book, The Handmade Home, that helped me overcome my sewing machine phobia and it only makes sense that she would inspire me to take up this newest craft.

My sister-in-law, Kristal (the same one who gave me sewing lessons), got a friend of hers to try to teach us how to knit. Of course, Kristal picked it up without a problem. Me? Yeah, as she was on her tenth row, I was like, " this how you cast on?" (Nope).  I'll admit, it takes me a little time to figure new things out. I left the lesson feeling confused and decided to forgo knitting for a time. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

But then I saw those amazing posts from SouleMama and I still wanted to learn. I consulted, read a bunch of reviews,  and ordered a couple knitting books (more on those later). After perusing the books, I got casting on down really well, but knitting and purling? Not so much. The hard thing about learning from a book is that you can't ask a book a question.

So I turned to YouTube videos since there are a bazillion videos about knitting. I sat in front of the computer with my cheap aluminum needles from Walmart and a ball of old yarn, eager and ready to learn. It didn't work for me. Either the angles of the videos were awkward, the person doing the video was talking/moving too quickly (or making weird spitty sounds with their mouths. It's a strange pet peeve of mine), or the person teaching used too much knitting jargon and I couldn't follow. Sigh.

Then a friend of mine suggested taking a class at a knitting store nearby. In a cozy cabin/store (if you're a local, check it out) last November, I finally figured out how to knit. It was so great to have a person there that could look over my shoulder, make sure I was doing the stitches right, and who could answer all of my questions. I'd say that all my attempts before weren't a complete waste because I picked it up pretty quickly once I had someone teaching me one-on-one.

I am now addicted to knitting. I look forward to places where I have to wait when I have my knitting bag with me. I even find myself happy when I get a long stoplight! I love finding all sorts of fun knitting projects on Pinterest (you can find my knitting board here), The Purl Bee (gorgeous), and Ravelry. It feels strange to not have something to work on after the kids are asleep, when the husband and I stream episodes of Psych off Netflix.  And I'm currently trying to figure out how much money to send with my in-laws when they visit Peru this summer (all that alpaca yarn straight from the source!!). 

For those of you inspired to give knitting thing a try, I highly suggest taking a class (check out yarn stores, ask around, or use helpful site called Betterfly). I like paying for a class from someone I don't know -- they have to be patient with me because I'm paying them! Plus, if I don't know the person who's teaching me, I don't feel dumb asking all sorts of newbie questions. Everyone learns differently -- it took me trying every way before it all clicked with me.

I'll be the first to say that I'm no expert. Not even close. You should see the first hat I ever made. Yikes. But I love it and I'm still learning. It's a process. Here are a few resources that are helping me get better...

1. Those knitting books I ordered a couple years ago.
The two knitting books I ordered were Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book and Teach Yourself Visually: Knitting. There are things about each book that I really like and each has its own strengths. 

Vogue Knitting is a great reference book because it's so comprehensive. I love it for the pages like the one pictured above -- if I can't remember what a certain stitch pattern looks like or if I need a refresher about how to do something, I almost always can find it in this book. It covers everything from beginner stuff to advanced information.  There are so many detailed instructions, diagrams, and photographs in this book. It truly is, as the full title says, the ultimate knitting book.

The second book I got, Teach Yourself Visually: Knitting, is a good companion to the first. I think the step-by-step photos in it are more helpful than some of the illustrated instructions in Vogue Knitting. This book is great as a quick reference when I'm trying something new, like when I first tried knitting in the round. There's something that helps my brain when I can see what my hands should be doing when I compare them with the pictures (though mine don't even come close to looking as smooth and manicured as theirs...).

2.  Internet Videos
Last night, I was searching through the various videos on YouTube, trying to figure out how to do a technique called the magic loop. There were a bunch to choose from. Unfortunately, I wasn't impressed with the ones I watched. Again, they were either filmed from bad angles or they moved too quickly for me (even occasionally pausing the video didn't help much). Annoyed, I went to bed and decided to try again in the morning. I went to Pinterest this morning because I remembered a pin on my knitting board about best knitting tutorial site. I check it out and what a difference! The site is called Very Pink and the tutorials are awesome! I highly recommend her videos and I can't wait to check out more.

3. Ravelry
When I took my knitting class, the instructor told me that I had to set up a Ravelry account when I got home. I'd heard of Ravelry before from, you guessed it, SouleMama, but never created an account. Ravelry is a fantastic site, an entire knitting and crocheting community online. You can find all sorts of patterns, forums, yarn suggestions, online help, search engines, everything a knitter could possibly want. Best of all -- it's free to join and a lot of the patterns on there are free, too. It is such a great resource and I've only scratched the surface of it!

Knitting works so well for where I am in my life right now. I still love sewing, but it's so hard to get much sewing done with a crawling baby who is into everything (and putting everything into his mouth). With knitting, I can take it and do it anywhere. Even though I'm just a couple months into my new hobby, I am absolutely loving it. I'm even going to start a new feature on here soon about my current projects. Give knitting a try -- you might find yourself addicted like I am.

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. 
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