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Birds have begun to build their nests and the green begins to break through the cold soil as the days lengthen. The changing season sprouts new life from the barren winter ground as we shift into warmer, spring days that awaken the newfound life.

When it comes to gardening, I prefer to keep things simple, quick, and affordable—I don’t want to spend more time or money on something I could just buy from the market. To start seedlings in the past, I’ve thriftily used egg cartons, plastic cups and full-sized milk jugs to sprout seeds. This year, I’ve reused various containers readily available to most households that would normally be thrown out or recycled. These containers include:

  • Reuse containers for seed startingPlastic containers from fast food restaurants
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Yogurt cups
  • Single-serve pop and milk bottles
  • Strawberry fruit containers

Check around with friends, family and neighbors to see if they will save them for you.

IMG_2864v2Fast food containers

I have a tendency to avoid fast food as much as I can, but every once in a while I need something quick and cheap. Many of the plastic containers—from salad containers to milkshake cups—are great for starting seeds. The only effort required is to poke holes in the bottom of the containers as well as the clear top if it came with one. This top will act as a miniature greenhouse for the seedlings to get a good start in.

Reuse toilet paper rolls to start seeds

Toilet paper rolls

Found in every household and one of the most common household wastes, I first heard about using toilet paper rolls to start seeds from Laura Rittenhouse’s Gardening Journal.

Toiler paper rolls for seedlings

She didn’t have much luck, but I decided to give them a try anyways. So far, they have been a success and are functioning similar to the peat pots bought in a store—they dry out about as often too. I’ve chosen this as my go-to option for additional seedlings this year.

To make them useable, I cut four slots in the bottom of the toilet paper rolls and folded them underneath. Place several of the rolls in an unused planter or container to hold them upright. To make my job easier, I did not put dirt around them as I do not want them to decompose faster. The idea is that the rolls can be replanted straight into the soil without disturbing the roots and where it will then decompose.

Yogurt cups

Incredibly popular, single serve yogurt cups make excellent seed starting containers.  Normally tossed into the trash or recycling bin, I’m sure it won’t take long to collect enough to start seeds in.

Individual serving yogurt cups, milk, and pop bottles make excellent seed starting containers.

Individual serving yogurt cups, milk, and pop bottles make excellent seed starting containers.

The only special attention required is to poke drainage holes in the bottom.

Pop bottles & milk bottles

Individual (16-20 oz.) pop and milk bottles will also make wonderful containers to start seeds in. Simply cut off the top and poke some holes in the bottom. Create a miniature greenhouse by reattaching the top and removing the cap.

Strawberry Fruit Containers

While it may be more difficult to collect mass quantities of strawberry fruit containers, they turn into seed starting containers with little work. Since they already have drainage holes, simply fill with soil and seeds of choice and they’ll be sprouting in no time! The lid even has vent holes so you can close it and let it act as a greenhouse to encourage quick germination.

Please remember to recycle all unused plastic containers after using. I usually try to save mine to reuse the next year because we don’t have easily accessible recycling.

 

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Old-fashioned FudgeOld-fashioned fudge (without marshmallows!) has a reputation for being finicky and tough. It will quickly tire arms out—my mom even has stories of sharing the efforts of fudge making with her siblings. Making fudge has been a bane in my baking existence for several years. I couldn’t get it to set no matter how cautious I was with measurements and temperature. Through my search for a good recipe, I have found one that has yet to fail me with resolutions to prevent and fix common mistakes.

I have had no problems with the following recipe. The fudge has always turned out completely smooth. I use a hand mixer with no ill effects and it does not get grainy if I overbeat. I was even able to fix it when I didn’t cook it enough due to a candy thermometer that wasn’t calibrated correctly (Correct calibration is essential). Testing for soft ball* stage does work as I have successfully made it this way as well. The most important thing is making sure to watch the fudge and the temperatures throughout the entire cooking process.

Ingredients (Recipe from – Better Homes & Garden: The New Cook Book yr.1965):

  • 2 c. sugar
  • ¾ c. milk
  • 2 1-ounce squares of unsweetened chocolate
  • Dash of salt
  • 1 tsp. corn syrup**
  • 2 Tbps. butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ c. chopped nuts (optional)***

Getting Started

Butter the sides of a heavy saucepan—this will prevent the sugar from sticking and crystalizing.Old-fashioned Fudge

Combine sugar, milk, unsweetened chocolate, salt and corn syrup.Old-fashioned Fudge

Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves and mixture is boiling.

Lower temperature to a simmer and do not stir unless necessary. Cook until it reaches 234F or soft ball stage***.Old-fashioned Fudge

Immediately remove from heat and cool in cold water (no ice) until it reaches 110F. While cooling, add butter on top of mixture—do not stir.

Once cool, add vanilla.Old-fashioned Fudge

Beat fudge—this will get tiring, so either find a few extra, willing arms; however, I always cheat and use a hand mixer. Once the fudge thickens and loses its gloss, pour into a buttered pan.

***Optionally, stir in nuts at the end of the beating time.Old-fashioned Fudge

Fixing Mistakes

  • Too thick: If fudge became too thick during beating (Oops! The hand mixer can be overzealous), knead with hands until it softens then press into buttered pan or roll and slice. Optionally, cut cute shapes with cookie cutters!
  • Too soft: If it doesn’t set, it was either poured too soon (Tired arms! Give me a break!) or wasn’t cooked enough. Fix by mixing in ¼ c. milk and recooking to 234F or soft ball stage. Cool to 110F. Beat until it loses gloss.Testing for soft ball stage

*Testing for Soft Ball Stage

Test for soft ball stage (234F-238F) by dropping mixture into a bowl of cold water (no ice). If ready, mixture will hold shape and can be formed into a soft ball between your fingers.

**Substitute Corn Syrup

If you do not have corn syrup, you may make a substitute sugar syrup by combining:

  • 2 c. sugar
  • 3/4 c. water
  • 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1 pinch salt

Heat until boiling. Lower heat to a simmer and put lid on for 3 minutes to soften any sugar crystals. Cook until it arrives at 234F, or soft ball stage. Syrup will keep for approximately two months. I have tried this and it does work—I never have corn syrup around.

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Whether off to college or going on vacation, leaving plants alone can mean death for the poor creatures. This can be complicated when there are many plants involved—or even an entire garden. Despite having a plant sitter, I have lost many plants this way and have since devise d a better plan to help the sitter succeed.

Casualties: Thyme almost died while I was away last.

Casualties: Thyme almost died while I was away last.

There are a pot load of factors to what sort of care is needed for the plants:

  • The number of plants.
  • Whether they’re indoors or outdoors.
  • If they’re growing in pots or plants in the ground.
  • The time of year and location.

I find summer to be the most difficult and stressful time for outdoor plants. While a week away from home may not sound long, during the summer heat, plants may need watering every day. Despite this, I am always tinkering and evolving the systemleft for the plant sitter.

Find that Special Somebody

Surprisingly, the most difficult challenge may be finding the right person to house sit the plants. This person must be somebody who is not only willing, but also enjoys caring for plants. Previous plant care knowledge is always beneficial. A close neighbor, friend or relative is often the best bet if caring for a garden or jungle of house plants! If only a few plants are involved, it may be easier for the caretaker to watch them in their own home.

Clearly label all plants!

Clearly label all plants!

Keep it Simple

Do whatever you can to make care as simple as possible. Using neat handwriting, clearly label all plants, the bigger the tag, the better—large popsicle sticks work great! Some people only see “plants with green leaves,” so leave labeled photographs of the plants—I’ve even emailed this last minute to the sitter. Make a list of all plants and their locations, don’t want one passed over! Include detailed care instructions that include a watering schedule; note any plants that have special or differing requirements. Make all care accessories easily accessible—nobody wants to hunt for a watering can. Will anything need fertilizing? To avoid overwhelming the caretaker, try to do this beforehand or use fertilizer stakes.

Watering can in an easy-to-find location

Watering can in an easy-to-find location

Outside Care

Outside plant care can be fairly basic during the cooler months, but may be complicated by the heat of summer as the ground and potted plants will dry out quickly with a lack of rain. Because of this, plants may need to be watered daily. Optionally, self-watering pots can help alleviate some of the work while mulching can help the soil retain moisture longer. Large vegetable gardens may even be mulched with grass clippings. While watering cans work great for a small amount of plants, choose a garden hose for a large number of plants–sprinklers, soaker hoses and sprinkler hoses work great for large areas.

Special care: this orchid is in a dormant period and must not be

Special care: this orchid is in a dormant period and must not be watered

Prioritize

Chances are, the designated plant sitter may be overwhelmed and unprepared for what some may call a jungle. It is important to make sure they know which plants are most important and irreplaceable or difficult to replace. This way, they can focus their attention on these plants, increasing their chances of survival. The plant sitter is only as good as the plant owner, at least while you’re out of town anyway, so proper cooperation is required.

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With autumn in our midst, many gardeners are focused on their fall gardens of leafy greens and roots. However, now is a wonderful time to create a winter garden of indoor herbs or tomatoes. Adding a little living green to a home during the chilliest of months can be simple.

One of the best ways to get indoor herbs started is to root a cutting—this way you don’t have to play the waiting game for a seed to sprout and develop into a mature plant. Cuttings may be rooted in water, moist soil, or even a damp paper towel wrapped in plastic. Rooting hormone will help speed the process along. Basil, sage, thyme, rosemary, mints and tomatoes have all been known to root and not let go!

Choose a Cutting

When choosing a stem to cut,  it is important to avoid new, immature growth. I prefer to use a woody or developed softwood side shoot. Take cuttings early morning before a warm sun has sapped their stored energy.

It is also a good idea to take several cuttings per chance one doesn’t develop roots.

Remove Leaves

Remove any leaves and side shoots 2”-4” from the bottom to prevent rot.

Dip cutting end into rooting hormone.

Rooting mediums:

  • Soil – make sure the soil mixture is light and retains moisture.
  • Water – root cuttings in a jar of water. Don’t forget to change the water every couple days.
  • Paper towel – dampen a paper towel and wrap around the base of the cutting, then wrap plastic around the paper towel.

Developing Roots

Until they begin to develop roots, cuttings need to remain moist and must not be allowed to dry out. Use a plastic bottle or plastic bag (like a miniature greenhouse) to help retain moisture. Stick the cuttings in a sunny location such as an east or south facing window. Do not fertilize until roots have developed.

Tug Tug Tug

Check weekly for root development. If using soil, gently tug on the cutting—any resistance means it has begun to develop roots. Generally it will take anywhere from 2-6 weeks for roots to develop. If rooting in a glass of water or a damp paper towel, wait until roots are at least 2” before replanting in soil.

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Growing up, buttermilk was the weird, thick milk beloved by my dad whom would trick me into taking drinks. Despite my father’s love for it, it’s something I would never normally keep in my fridge—until now. Too often, a recipe has required buttermilk and (unfortunately) a stick of butter in a glass of milk does not make a suitable substitute. Buttermilk comes in two forms—traditional and cultured. Traditional buttermilk is the liquid left after butter making and can be very pricey. Luckily, cultured buttermilk is incredibly cheap and simple to make.

You will need (could this be any simpler?):

  • Jar with lid
  • Milk
  • Cultured buttermilk

Let’s Get Started

Pour some buttermilk into an empty jar—I’m never specific with measurements, but a 1:3 ratio is safe to follow. I like to use mason jars because the lid won’t “pop” when pressed if the mixture is culturing correctly.

Fill the rest of the jar up with milk.

Shake, shake, shake.

Put the lid on the jar and shake to evenly distribute the buttermilk bacteria throughout the milk.

The waiting game.

Let the mixture sit on the counter for approximately 24 hours. After a day, the mixture will be cultured and should stick to the side of the jar. Take a whiff, it should smell slightly sour.

Cultured buttermilk sticks to the side of the jar.

Make some up ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator for the next time you have a hankerin’ for some fried chicken or buttermilk pancakes.

Buttermilk Pancakes – Delicious!

Interested in making traditional buttermilk? Try reading Alli Cobra’s Butter-making for the Adventurous.

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Highly aromatic, lemongrass grows in thick, cascading clumps that make an attractive indoor or outdoor plant. This plant isn’t just a beauty; it also has medicinal properties and can be made into a delicate tea. In addition to being healthy, this herb will also impart a citrus flavor into any cuisine. If you’ve been interested in experimenting with it, growing lemongrass couldn’t be easier.

Getting Started

Purchase lemongrass stalks that are fresh and still green; avoid stalks that are turning brown and drying out. The ones I purchased were beginning to yellow, but still rooted. Each stalk will multiply to create several new stalks by the end of the season. Fresh lemongrass may be difficult to find in some regions, so I suggest looking in specialty shops—I found mine in an international food market.

Watching Grass Take Root

I prefer to make a fresh slice on the end of the lemongrass to help it take in water until the new roots form. Now simply plop them into a jar of water, making sure the bottom bulb section is covered. After 2-4 weeks, roots and new growth should begin to appear.

Watching Grass Grow

Once 1-2” of roots develop, the lemongrass may be planted into soil. If unable to plant right away, don’t worry–lemongrass is patient. It was still chilly outside when the roots developed on mine, so I left mine in water until the roots were approximately 5-6” in length and the weather had warmed.

Choose a well-draining container to plant the stalks in. When planting, ensure that soil covers the root base. To prevent a risk of rot, do not bury into the soil any deeper than where the highest root nodule is. Water thoroughly. The stalks may feel loose at first, but will soon grow new roots to anchor them securely into the soil.

Lemongrass is not frost-hardy and must be brought inside if temperatures dip below 45°F/7°C.

Health benefits

According to The Herb Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing and Using Herbs (Harding, 2006), lemongrass has many medicinal benefits such as:

  • Lower fever, especially malarial
  • Treating stress-related symptoms
  • Aromatherapy
  • Aids digestion
  • Essential oil relieves muscle aches and pains, injuries, and poor circulation
  • Insect repellent

Making tea

Lemongrass tea is a delicate, citrus flavored tea. It can be made by either steeping the top leaves or the stalk of the plant. The top leaves make for a lighter citrus flavored tea. Simply cut up the leaves and steep as normal—approximately 5 minutes.

When using the stalk, peel off the outer leaves—these are bitter. It is necessary to bruise the stalk by either bending it several times or crushing it under the blade of a chef’s knife. Cut the stalk into pieces. Add to boiling water and steep until preferred strength is reached—approximately 5-10 minutes.

Cookery

Lemongrass is one of those mystery herbs you typically see sold as dried, brown stalks in a little glass bottle at the grocery store. Well-known in Thai cuisine and common in Southeast Asian dishes, lemongrass can be added to soups and curries or made into a tea. It pairs well with coconut milk and will provide a delicate and acidic lemon flavor to balance and compliment a dish.

Lime and Lemongrass Cooler

Servings: 4

  • 2 limes, peeled and each cut into 8 pieces
  • 1 small lemongrass stem, coarsely chopped
  • 3 Tbps. Sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 crushed ice cubes
  • ½ cup water
  • 4 slices of lime
  • Soda water, to top off

Place lime pieces, lemongrass, and crushed ice cubes in a food processor.

Add the water and sweetened condensed milk, process for a few seconds, but not until completely smooth. Strain the mixture into glasses. Add a slice of lime to each glass and top off to taste with soda water. Serve at once.

Enjoy!

After removing, the outer leaves of lemongrass make great cat toys!

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When I was a little girl, my dad would share stories of the yogurt his grandmother made in a jar without modern simplicities. Yogurt is still a refrigerator staple for my father, but the cost of buying it can quickly eat away at the thrifty shopper’s wallet. Making yogurt is not only a fraction of the cost, but is one of the few old traditions that can be made simple.

What is needed?

  • Milk
  • Yogurt or freeze dried yogurt starter
  • Pot
  • Candy thermometer
  • Containers or jars
  • Whisk
  • Spoon
  • Powdered milk (optional)

Heat the Milk

Heat the milk to 185ºF (85ºC). Stir frequently to prevent the milk from scorching on the bottom of pot. As the milk cools, powdered milk may be added (optional). The addition of powdered milk will create a richer, thicker yogurt.

Let milk cool to 100ºF-120ºF (38ºC-49ºC).

Add Yogurt Starter

Add the yogurt starter to the cooled milk. I typically add approximately 2 tablespoons per pint of milk. Whisk the yogurt starter into the milk to evenly distribute the bacteria. I am using a favorite yogurt brand; however, they do sell freeze-dried yogurt starters. If using premade yogurt for a starter, try to choose a brand you prefer as they all have different tastes. The yogurt must contain live active cultures and should not have any added flavors.

Distribute Mixture

Distribute mixture into containers—I prefer mason jars to keep water out.

Keep the Mixture Warm (100ºF-120ºF/38ºC-49ºC)

Place the containers into a cooler filled halfway with hot water (100ºF-120ºF/38ºC-49ºC). Don’t have a cooler? An electric yogurt maker, a preheated crock pot wrapped in towels, or sunny window sill work as well.

The Waiting Game

Let sit for 6-12 hours, or overnight. I prefer to leave mine overnight, but I recommend rechecking the temperature of the water-filled cooler to make sure the proper heat is being maintained.

Fresh cultured yogurt.

Prefer Greek Yogurt?

Strain the yogurt in cheesecloth until desired consistency is achieved. Alternatively, use a white kitchen rag or towel. Whey will drain from the yogurt as it thickens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to make Yogurt Cheese? 

Yogurt cheese is a healthier alternative to cream cheese and is very easy to make. Simply strain yogurt through cheesecloth overnight until the yogurt is thick and spreadable.

Tips

  • If yogurt doesn’t turn out and temperatures were correct throughout, try switching brands. I went through two brands before I found one that cultured correctly.
  • Save a little yogurt to use as a starter for the next batch.
  • Honey drizzled over Greek yogurt.

    Add any flavor to taste: jam, honey and maple syrup all work well.

  • Save leftover whey from strained yogurt to boost the health of tomato plants.
  • Whey is a healthy addition to any diet.

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