Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Homemade Dulce de Leche ( + End-of-the-Year Teacher Gratitude)

These last few weeks of school are taking a toll on me. I thought I was an emotional, sentimental mess in the weeks leading up to my son's first day of kindergarten, but I think I'm worse now that the school year is coming to a close. Between adorable kindergarten graduation programs and field days and the bringing home of all the folders/writing journals/papers/desk name tags, I'm really struggling. It was all I could do to not start bawling during the post-graduation slideshow of photos taken of my son's class throughout the school year.

It's not that I don't love summer or the idea of having Max home all day (hooray!), but I'm just sad that he isn't going to be a kindergartener anymore. There's just something so sweet and innocent about kindergarten -- it's this lovely combination between school and play. And the thought of Max being a first grader seems...well...so big. I'm hoping that this is just the typical emotions of a mother dealing with her firstborn in school; by the time my other boy goes to school, I'll be a pro and not take things so hard.

One other reason I'm sad to see the school year end: Max had an amazing teacher this year. I remember meeting Mrs. A and thinking, "She is how you'd imagine a perfect kindergarten teacher to be." She's young, smiles easily, is nice but firm, calls the students "friends", and sings songs to the kids to get them to clean up or sit down or stop what they're doing. Her room is bright and happy, with paper flowers hanging from the ceiling, shelves of full of fun little toys and activities, a reading corner with a full book rack and comfy cushions, framed photos from when she taught school in Africa, a mailbox for the kids to "mail" letters to classmates, darling artwork all over the walls, and a hundred other sweet little touches. Every time I went to volunteer in that class, I loved how simply walking into the room just made me happy; I can only imagine the effect it has on a class of five and six-year-olds. Mrs. A has set the bar pretty darn high.

Anyway, to express my family's appreciation to this wonderful teacher, we got her a card with an Amazon gift card. To personalize things just a bit, I decided to make her a jar of homemade dulce de leche. Sweets for the sweet, right?

I got this idea from one of my favorite blogs, Dinner: A Love Story, from a post about teacher gifts. (click this link for the post - it has some really great ideas. I wanted to get the alphabet tote but, sadly, didn't have enough time for shipping.)  I thought I would expound on what was written in the post -- give you some more pictures, a sort of play-by-play of how my homemade dulce de leche endeavor went.

There are various ways to make homemade dulce de leche; here's what worked for me. It takes around 1-2 hours to make, but there's hardly any effort.

To make dulce de leche, all you need is a can of sweetened condensed milk and a double boiler.

Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Once it's boiling, reduce the heat to low so that the water is simmering. Place the double boiler over the pan. Pour the entire can of sweetened condensed milk into the double boiler.

Cover the double boiler. I used a plate. I didn't do this to begin with and I was wondering why the milk wasn't turning the color I wanted. Covering it made it things move along more quickly.

Once you've covered the double boiler, you only need to check on the milk occasionally to give it a stir. Also, check periodically to make sure your water level in the pan below hasn't gotten too low.

The milk will be begin to get thicker and darker in color as it cooks over the simmering water. You're going for a light brown caramel color. This does take a while, anywhere from 1-2 hours.

Try your best to not lick the spatula between stirs because you'll want to eat it all up. It's hard not to, believe me. My two-year-old kept sampling the milk that dripped from the spatula, eating it and saying, "Mmm. Nummy, nummy!"

While the milk is thickening and getting more delicious by the minute, you can make a cute chalkboard label for the jar. I also got this idea from that Dinner: A Love Story post.  I just think it's such a fun thing to do for a teacher gift.

I bought these chalkboard labels off Amazon (I only needed one for this gift, but I figured I could easily use these around the house -- they're cute and they're reusable since the chalk washes off). A lot of the reviews I read for these labels suggested using a liquid chalk marker, so I ordered one of those, too.

I wrote on the labels with both the marker and regular chalk to see if I'd wasted my money on the marker. I liked the look of the regular chalk on the label (the one on the right) better than the marker. It just looked more classic, you know?   What were all those reviewers complaining about? Chalk works just fine! I was a little annoyed that I wasted five dollars on the pen until I picked up the jar with the regular chalk label on it. You barely have to touch the label and the chalk comes off. It took hardly any handling before the the regular chalk had been totally smudged and practically erased. Moral of the story: use the liquid chalk marker. It stays on perfectly (and it washes right off if you mess up or want to change the label).

Also, while your dulce is cooking, you can make an instruction label between stirs.

I'm not crafty at all when it comes to paper and scrapbooking and the like. I do have a stash of scrapbooking paper (I tried scrapbooking...really I did. Kinda.), so I cut out a little square with some kiddie serrated scissors. I wrote some serving suggestions on there, along with how to store it and for how long. Then I punched a hole in the corner, found some extra ribbon with my sewing supplies, and tied it around the jar. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. (Yes, I wrote that in honor of Mrs. A. It's one of her class catchphrases.)

Your dulce de leche is done once it's a nice light brown color. Let me just tell you: this stuff is gooood. It's not quite like regular caramel -- it's creamier and milkier and tastier. I've now become kind of addicted to the stuff. I want to dip apples in it. Today's all dark and cold and rainy -- maybe it'd be good in hot chocolate. Oooh, and brownies...it'd be so good on a brownie!

Who wouldn't love to get a jar of this stuff?

Many thanks to Mrs. A and all the wonderful teachers out there. The work you do is certainly among the most important and life-changing.

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. 

{This post is linked up to Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, From the Farm Blog Hop, and Little House Friday.}

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Homemade Weed Killer: The Experiment and the Results

I've read in numerous places about using vinegar as a weed killer. Oh, vinegar. Is there anything you can't do?  {sigh}

Okay, so there are a lot of things vinegar can't do, including killing weeds -- at least, by itself.  I've tried before. I was going to post the results on here. I poured a bunch of vinegar onto the weeds in my driveway. Nothing. So I gave up on at least that use of vinegar.

But I have this weed problem along the strip of cement that is adjacent to our driveway and alongside the side of our house, along the fence we share with our neighbors on the east. Our previous neighbor (she has since moved away) let the weeds go kind of wild on that part of her yard so they crept under the fence and went wild on our side, too.

In years past, I've either pulled all the weeds by hand or I've hit it with some Round-Up. This year, I decided to skip the chemicals. I won't go into all the reasons, but some of the main reasons are that I'm not a fan of having poisons around the kids (especially with the latest findings about health issues with Round-Up), don't want to support Monsanto, and I'm too cheap to buy the stuff.

So I tried a different approach to killing my weeds with vinegar -- I added a couple more ingredients to the mix.

To make this homemade weed killer, mix:

  • 1 quart vinegar (I used white vinegar but I've heard that apple cider vinegar works -- it has a slightly higher acidity level, so it probably will work even better)
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 2 tsp. dish soap (I used the Dawn soap I use for my homemade laundry detergent, but any kind will work)
The vinegar's acetic acid is what kills the plant. The salt assists by pulling the moisture out of the weeds.  The dish soap helps the weed killer stay on the plant once you spray it. Word to the wise: this weed killer will kill any plant it comes into contact with; it's not selective at all. 

Once you've mixed up your weed killer, pour it in a spray bottle. It's best to wait for a day that is going to be dry, hot and sunny.

I sprayed all of those weeds along the fence on a Saturday morning, enjoying myself maybe a little more than I should have ("Ha ha! How do you like that?" Kind of how I was when I was trapping snails with beer).

Here's one of the before pictures again:

The next day, after letting the chickens out and feeding them, I decided to check on the weeds.

As you can see, they're not entirely dead and completely withered, but they're on their way. One or two more applications and those weeds will be history. {insert maniacal laugh}

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.

{This post is linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, Little House Friday, Farmgirl Friday, From the Farm Blog Hop, Creative HomeAcre Hopand Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways.}  

Friday, May 17, 2013

In the Backyard: My May 2013 Garden Report; or, Why I Haven't Posted Anything in a Couple Weeks

The weather is warm, the trees have leaves on them again, and gardening season is in full swing!  As a result, it's a lot harder to sit at the computer and work on a blog post. Don't get me wrong: I love blogging, but it just feels so good to get my fingernails dirty again. And even if I didn't want to go and work in the yard and I did want to sit here and type, my boys wouldn't let me. If they had their way, they'd both want to be outside all day.  Ahhh...it's nice to have the warm weather back.

Anyway, I thought I'd show you what's been going on and what I've been doing in my backyard.

I came. I saw. I mulched.

Confession: I've never mulched my garden before. I had a lot of straw left over from the winter (it's what I used in the chicken tractor this past winter. I bought way more than I needed to last fall.), so I thought I'd give mulching a try this year. Now that I have, I want to kick myself for not doing it in seasons past. Mulch makes gardening easier, period. I don't have have to water the garden nearly as much as I usually do. There are less weeds, too. It's awesome. If you're a newbie to mulching like myself, check out this helpful introduction to the why's and how's of mulching here and here.

Like last year, my milk jug mini-greenhouses are sort of stressing me out. I know for a fact that this method of seed starting works, but the seeds took longer to get sprouting this spring, due to some unseasonably cold temperatures this spring (it snowed here on May 1st!). Almost all of the milk jugs have growth in them (except the cherry tomatoes -- again), but they're still not as big as I would've liked them to be by now. I've got a variety of tomatoes (slicing and paste), broccoli, and herbs (parsley, oregano, and thyme) starting in the milk jugs this year. Keeping my fingers crossed that they'll start growing faster as the days get warmer and warmer.

On Wednesday, I opened our last jar of homemade jam. Since I've become a jam snob and can't bring myself to buy the jam at the store, I've been pretty excited to see the raspberry and blackberry bushes start coming to life. My raspberries even have the beginnings of little flowers on them. They can't come soon enough!

My first planting of greens didn't result in..well...anything. I don't quite know what happened there. But I planted again (lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach, kale, mesclun) and it's coming up this time around. Gardening can be kind of weird like that.

Speaking of greens, I'm trying to grow all my kale in a pallet. This one isn't leaning up against my shed like my other one; this one is flat on the ground. I just laid some newspaper down, filled it with grow-box mix, and planted. So far, so good.

I'm also experimenting in that pallet with growing stuff from the ends of vegetables. I've seen ideas for re-growing with the ends of vegetables on Pinterest and figured I'd give it a go with some romaine lettuce. It's not growing super-fast, but it's not dead, either (as you can see in the picture above, there is new growth). I also want to try this with other vegetables, like celery and cabbage. I'll let you know how it works out.

This season I've planted a few vegetables I've never tried growing before. Take beets, as pictured above, for example. I didn't even know I liked beets until last Halloween, when my mom put raw beets on a vegetable tray for our Halloween party. They were surprisingly delicious. I've since juiced them with some carrots and oranges and found that they're awesome! When I make green juice with my boys (they love green juice), I've been adding beet greens to it. How awesome is a vegetable when you can eat the entire thing, leaves and roots? Anyway, I'm hoping that my beet crop pans out.

Another new plant to my garden is cabbage. I bought some seeds to start but forgot to plant them in a milk jug (duh), so I picked up these cute little starts at a nearby nursery for 50 cents each. I have dreams of making coleslaw and sauerkraut (haven't tried that one yet but really really want to) with homegrown cabbage. I'm also giving cauliflower and broccoli a try in my garden for the first time, too.

One thing in my garden I'm feeling particularly excited about is my garlic. It's going nuts! A few years ago, I tried growing garlic but I didn't go about it the right way. I just planted some garlic cloves I had in the pantry and hoped they'd work. They did sprout leaves but when I dug them up, the bulbs were about the size of a walnut; the cloves of garlic were teeny-tiny. This past fall, I ordered bulbs from my favorite seed company, planted in late October and covered them with straw. In late February, I saw little leaves poking out from the straw. Since then, they just keep getting taller and taller. I've heard that homegrown garlic is stronger and more flavorful than the garlic at the store. I keep wanting to dig around them a little and peek to see how big the bulbs are, but I am trying to resist; I'm doing my best to wait another month or two before I do.

No backyard report would be complete without some mention of the ladies.  The three girls are doing fine and laying regularly. Even though I've been collecting eggs from them for almost a year, I'm still not over the happy novelty of getting eggs from the nesting box -- especially when there are three eggs at once in there. The girls seem glad to be able to peck in the green grass again, eat all the dandelion leaves my two-year-old can give them, and enjoy all the snails (grrr) I find in my flowerbeds. I just love having chickens in the backyard, even when they look like they're gossiping about me (as they seem to be doing in this picture).

My garden is looking pretty good and I feel really excited about it. It's a lot of fun.

That said, it's not perfect. And being all about honesty here, I thought I'd post pictures of some other projects and/or frustrations in the backyard.

This flower bed is making me crazy. I took this picture a couple weeks ago and it doesn't look much better since then. What do you do with grass in the flower bed? I'd spray it with weed killer (of the homemade and storebought varieties) but I don't want to kill all my perennials. I've tried digging, hoeing, even pulling the grass out by hand. What would you do?

Another flowerbed frustration: mint. I like mint, but there's no way I could use as much as I get in my yard. The people who lived here before planted mint in the flowerbed. As nice as the people seemed when we bought the house eight years ago, I can't help but curse them every spring when the mint starts coming back. It takes everything over -- the flowerbed, the plants, my grass, anything remotely near it. I can't tell you how often I'll be hunched over it in my yard, pulling at it, and wanting to shake my fist and yell toward the sky, "MIIIIIINT!!!!" (a la William Shatner in The Wrath of Khan). Please, reader, take this as a public service announcement and never plant mint anywhere except in a pot.

I've mentioned on here before that my lawn is a frequent source of frustration for me. Right now, an entire area is covered in dandelions. See how the grass in the top-left is clear? Yeah, that's kind of shows how my lawn looks, dandelion-free then -- BAM! -- dandelions. It's like a dandelion island. It's crazy. You know, every time I go to the store, I see in the produce section bunches of long, fat dandelion leaves and I can't help but think, "Who was the brilliant person who decided to go into dandelion farming?"  Judging from my dandelion patch, I think I'd be a fantastic dandelion farmer.

At least the ladies in the backyard love them. I wonder if they'd like mint...

Even with the weeds, the rampant mint, the dandelions galore, and the slow-starting seeds, May is one of my favorite months. I mean, how can you not be happy when there are lilacs blooming? {The lilacs always remind me of my parents and grandparents' yards and of this song.}

Even our kitty can't help but smile a little now that it's May.

Happy gardening, everyone! What's growing where you live?  

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.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Humble Ice Cube Tray -- Your Money-Saving Secret Weapon

I haven't used an ice cube tray for ice in years. My fridge makes all the ice we need so I don't bother. That said, if you took a peek into my freezer (watch out for falling frozen chicken -- sometimes my freezer is sort of like a booby trap), you'd most likely see at least one ice cube tray in there.

Ice cube trays are a great money-saving tool. I use them all the time for saving leftovers. Here are a few ways I use an ice cube tray to save money:

Homemade baby food. When my second baby was new to solid foods, I made his baby food (nothing fancy, just steam and puree. Seriously. It's that easy.) and froze it in ice cube trays. I would just store the cubes of baby food in a plastic freezer bag.When he was ready to eat, I would just warm up the frozen cubes of baby food -- I did this by either by a quick zap in the microwave, by mixing it into hot oatmeal (that cooled it to the perfect temperature) or I would thaw it in a glass bowl over a boiling water. (If you'd like to try making baby food but feel a little wary about doing it yourself, this book helped me feel a lot more confident about the process.)

Tomato paste. I hardly ever use the whole can (even if it is one of those tiny ones) of tomato paste, so I put the leftovers in an ice cube tray. Each square in the ice cube tray equals about 1-2 tablespoons. (Word to the wise: tomato paste in a tube is awesome, then you don't even need to bother with the ice cube trays.)

- Herbs. Herbs can be preserved in a number of different ways, but when you're dealing with moisture-dense herbs like mint, chives, tarragon, or basil, freezing is the best method. One way I've preserved basil with an ice cube tray is to pulse about a half-cup of basil leaves with a 1/4 cup of olive oil in a food processor; once it forms a paste, I pour it into the ice cube trays, freeze it, and then store the cubes in a plastic freezer bag. When you're ready to use them, simply pop the cubes into whatever soup, sauce, or dish you're making.  I've also seen this method of freezing cut-up herbs in olive oil, but I haven't tried it yet.

- Applesauce. I canned a bunch of applesauce this past fall. We don't really eat applesauce by the dish at our house, but I often use it in recipes as a sweetener (like in this waffle recipe - yum!). As a result, most of the time I'm only using a few tablespoons here and there. If I'm not careful, a jar of applesauce can sit in the fridge too long and get moldy. Totally depressing -- especially with all the work that went into picking the apples, cutting them up, cooking them, mashing them, and processing it in jars (whew!).  To remedy this, I put a tablespoon of applesauce into each square of the ice cube tray and freeze it. Once they're frozen, I pop them out and put them in a plastic freezer bag. Whenever I need applesauce for a recipe, I just get the amount of tablespoon-sized cubes I need, thaw them in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds, and they're good to go.

-Pumpkin puree. I've been experimenting with paleo pancake recipes and some of them call for just a couple tablespoons of pumpkin puree. I just freeze the rest in the ice cube tray and store it in a plastic freezer bag (see a pattern yet?).

- Chicken stock. I freeze my homemade stock in glass jars (totally safe -- just leave room for the liquid to expand when it freezes). When I've made a batch of stock and poured it all into jars, there's often a little bit left in the bottom of the pot. Instead of only partially filling a jar (and having it take up more space in my freezer), I pour the rest into an ice cube tray. This is great for quick batches of soup or for de-glazing pans.

- Chicken treats. Sometime during October, after we'd gutted a bunch of pumpkins, I made chicken treats. I put the mixture (pumpkin guts and seeds, oatmeal, some molasses) into a couple trays and froze them. I fed these treats to the ladies all winter and they got so excited whenever I tossed them into the coop.   I also love this idea of making mint ice cubes for keeping chickens cool in the summer.

- Leftover smoothies.  Sometimes I can go kind of nuts when making a smoothie (especially since I got a Vitamix blender recently). I'll just get carried away while acting like a gourmet chef, throwing all kinds of fruit in there, pouring in various milks and/or juices, adding pinches of spices, nuts, coconut, or flaxmeal to the mix. I'm not really that good at making smoothies yet (recipes are welcome) and I'm definitely not good at eyeing portions. So if I've made a huge smoothie and I've drank all I can possibly can, I just freeze the rest in an ice cube tray. Next time I make a smoothie, I just pop a few of those cubes into the mix.

- Disposal freshener. From time to time, when my sink is getting smelly, I'll freeze some vinegar in an ice cube tray. Once it's frozen, I toss a few cubes into the disposal and turn it on. Works like a charm.

There are so many other ways to use the ice cube tray to curb food waste. Out of curiosity, I did a quick search for ice cube tray uses and was surprised by the uses I hadn't tried (like freezing egg whites in an ice cube tray -- who knew? This link has a lot of great ideas).

I'm sure there are some of you out there who are thinking, "Why go to all that trouble to just save a few tablespoons here and there. Does it really make a difference?"  It makes me think of my other favorite money-saving kitchen tool: the rubber spatula. Sure, scraping the last bits of food from the jar with a rubber spatula or pouring the last bit of stock into a ice cube tray doesn't seem like a big deal, but it does make a difference. Doing these seemingly small actions cultivates a certain mindset, an attitude about how you use approach food and your resources. Frugality is about stretching things just a little further -- and the little things eventually add up.

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. 

{This post is linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, Little House Fridayand Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways.}
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