Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review and Random Reuses

I'm no pack-rat. Well, maybe a little.

While my husband was on a week-long business trip a few weeks ago, I received a new book from PaperBackSwap (have you tried it yet? I keep mentioning it. It's awesome) called Vinegar, Duct Tap, Milk Jugs & More by Earl Proulx. I'm not entirely certain how I came across this book and thought to request it, but I'm glad I did. It made me feel somewhat validated.

How so, you ask? I hesitate before I throw things away. I feel weird putting glass jars in the garbage. I hang on to scraps of fabric from projects, certain I can find some use for them when I learn to sew. I hold on to plastic grocery and produce sacks, though the amount of those has diminished since I started using reusable bags. Even that link to my homemade bags reminds me of how I have a hard time parting with clothes. That said, I don't want you to get the impression that I'm one of like one of those hoarder-types of people Oprah does shows about. I simply just give things a second thought before I chuck them into the trash.

So the book made me feel validated - other people do this! And the author goes even further than I do. I've never saved a milk jug for anything - it goes straight to the recycling bin. And I'm always a little skeptical of some reuses, especially when it comes to decorating - like reusing lids from juice cans to make decorations or using plastic six-pack rings to make a hammock. Really, I actually read about that in The Tightwad Gazette (I wrote about this in my review of that book a few months ago. A little too extreme for me). It's all about balance. I found this book much more practical than The Tightwad Gazette when it comes to thrifty reuses.

Why reuse? Well, I wouldn't mention it on this blog if it weren't a money-saving method. I reuse glass spaghetti jars in the kitchen, garage, for crafts, for cleaning, everything! I save sour cream, cottage cheese, and other big plastic containers to save and freeze leftovers. I also use them for holding things I don't want to use dishes for (like certain cleaning solutions, paint, stain, etc.). Yogurt cups work great for holding water for painting. I can totally remember my mom using cleaned out yogurt cups as drinking cups when we were little, since we went through so many (and I know from other people, that my mom isn't the only one who did this).

The other reason to reuse is because it's eco-friendly. No matter where you stand on the environmentally-conscious spectrum, you can't argue with sending just a little less trash to the landfills. Imagine the environmental impact if everyone paused just a moment before throwing something in the garbage.

According to the Mr. Proulx, there are five storage containers you should never throw away (and some of his suggestions on how to use them in the kitchen):
  1. Five-gallon ice cream containers. Use them to hold dry cereal, flour, and sugar to keep those foods fresh longer. Also use them to store partial bags of brown sugar, powdered sugar, coconut, and nuts.
  2. Whipped topping containers. Use these to solve those medium-size storage problems, such as how to freeze extra strawberries. One of these will hold two or three servings of leftovers, depending on your appetite.
  3. Glass jars. Some spaghetti sauces and other prepared food come in glass jars. Reuse these to carry soups and sauces to potluck. Also great for storing dry, shelf-stable food.
  4. Sixteen-ounce cottage cheese and sour cream containers. One of these will hold a large serving of soup or a generous serving of casserole.
  5. Baby food jars. They'll hold everything from vinaigrette for potluck salads to metal cake decorating tips for your pastry bags.
Anyway, this book is full of great ideas - too many to include on here in a single post. There were so many times as I was reading it, I would turn to my mom (since I was staying with her during that aforementioned business trip), tell her about some tip in the book, and we'd both say, "Why didn't we think of that?!" That's why I'm introducing a new feature for the blog called 'Random Reuses'. From time to time, I'll just post how I reuse certain things and how I've implemented some of Mr. Proulx's ideas. And I'd just love it if you tell me some of your ideas...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

When the Moon Hits Your Eye: Easy & Delicious Homemade Pizza

I know it's been a while since I've posted much of anything on here. That's why I'm pulling out the big guns. I'm finally doing the pizza post.

Homemade pizza can be kind of iffy. When I was a kid, money was tight and pizza was a rare treat. So, from time to time, my mom would try her hand at making it herself. It just wasn't the same. My husband's experiences with homemade pizza have been similar in that it was always disappointing. Homemade pizza just couldn't come close to the pizzeria variety. That is, until I gave it a go.

I take no credit for this (I got the recipes from others - the dough from my neighbor, Lisa, and the sauce from America's Test Kitchen). My husband and I were both dubious, but it actually worked! Now, he says that this is his favorite pizza. Period. And I just so happened to win a family pizza-off (my sister-in-law had a friendly competition) a couple weeks ago. In fact, one of my brothers-in-law asked me that night how much I would charge if he wanted to order a pizza from me. I know I may seem like I'm tooting my own horn and all, but I'm just including all this to convince you that making delicious, cheap, better-than-delivery pizza is totally possible for any home cook!

One of the best parts of this recipe (besides the yummy end result, of course): it hardly costs anything to make. The dough is a simple combination of sugar, salt, yeast, flour, and water - basically pennies to make. The sauce costs about $1.50 for me to make (and that's a double-batch, so really it's like 75 cents per pizza. I know, I'm getting down to the nitty-gritty). The cheese is the most expensive part, but I buy mozzarella in bulk at Costco, so the cheese I use for the pizza is about a dollar's worth. The toppings add another two or so dollars. So, really, this pizza is even cheaper to make than those $5 Little Caesar's ones. And I'm totally convinced that my homemade pizza is healthier. Much healthier.

And just in case you're not convinced: this whole recipe (including baking time) only takes about 40-45 minutes to make.

Okay, okay. Enough with all the reasons to make this pizza. Here's the recipe and my method...

First, I start making the dough. In a medium bowl, mix together 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Add 1 cup lukewarm water. After much practice and trial and error, I've learned that it is really important that the water not be too hot. Think a little cooler than bathwater. This will improve the stretchiness and consistency of the dough - whenever I use too-hot water, my dough is crappy and breaks when I stretch it out. Next, mix in 1 tablespoon of yeast. Let it sit for ten minutes.
While you're letting your yeast mixture get all bubbly, start making your pizza sauce. All you need is a 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes (I like the kind with basil), a few cloves of garlic (I always use at least three or four - I like my sauce garlicky!), extra-virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper. In a saucepan, heat a couple tablespoons or so of EVOO (I just eyeball it - just a few glugs around the pan) and add minced garlic. Cook until garlic sizzles (this will only take a minute). Add the entire can of crushed tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let it simmer and thicken for about 15 minutes. You'll only be using about half of this sauce - just freeze the rest for a future pizza.

Once the ten minute rest period is up, mix in three cups of all-purpose flour. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for five minutes, then let it sit for 15 minutes. While the dough is resting or rising or whatever it's doing, that's when I get my toppings ready. I shred the cheese in my food processor and I chop up my veggies. My favorite pizza toppings are from my garden in the summer - I make margherita pizzas with homegrown tomatoes and basil. Ridiculously good. When I don't have my garden produce, I usually stick with green bell pepper, onions, olives, and pepperoni (one thing I learned recently: buy your pepperoni fresh from the store deli instead of the prepackaged, shelf-stable bags. It's cheaper and there aren't all the nitrites and other preservatives). In the end, the best part is that you can do whatever you want! During this prep time, preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Once the dough has rested for fifteen minutes, stretch it out into the size you want your pizza to be. Grease a pizza pan with cooking spray and sprinkle with cornmeal. If you're going to make homemade pizza regularly, I highly recommend using a pizza stone instead of a metal pan. They're not expensive and they really improve your pizza crust - here's the one I use. Once your dough is all stretched out and ready, top with sauce, cheese, and other toppings. Bake for 15 minutes (or until crust is golden and cheese is bubbly). Let the pizza rest for five minutes or so before cutting. Che buono!

What is your favorite kind of pizza? Do you like any weird toppings?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lovely Links: Weekend Before Christmas Edition

--Just a snapshot of one of our Christmas outings - visiting Santa's reindeer!--

Maybe you're more on top of things than I am. Besides neglecting my blog this week, I also procrastinated my Christmas shopping until just a few days ago (seriously, why do I do this to myself every year?) and I am going to be baking up a storm today so I can give out cookies to the neighbors. And then my husband's birthday was yesterday, so it's been a little chaotic at my house lately. But, we've still had the time to stop and enjoy the season, too. I absolutely love this time of year.

Anyway, I can make no guarantees to the regularity of my postings on this blog for the next little while or so. I mean, I might have something new on Monday, but I make no promises. But, rest assured, starting the Monday after Christmas, I will be back into my regular blogging shape. So, until then, here are some great links I've come across and bookmarked...

The Smells of the Season - Make it Do
Just found this recipe for homemade, stovetop potpourri. I've been burning the same fragrant candle for the last few weeks and I've been wanting something new. And here it is! The thing I love about this is that you can put the ingredients together and give this mixture as a gift. Love those homemade gifts.

Made with Love from Gloves - Small Notebook
One of my resolutions for next year (yes, I'm already making them) is to be more experienced with sewing, knitting, etc. I feel like I'm pretty good at just about every domestic "art" except anything related to textiles, sewing machines, and the like. So I've found yet another book to add to my ever-expanding wish list on PaperBackSwap - it's called Sock and Glove and it's all about how to change socks and gloves into cute stuffed animals for kids. I know I've got a bunch of lonely socks and gloves that are missing their companions, so this would be perfect. The nice thing is that there is a link on the Small Notebook post to a couple of the projects and, really, they don't look that hard. Maybe this sewing resolution will be fruitful after all and I make some presents for next Christmas...

Eggnog (Without Eggnog) Pancakes - Joy the Baker
I love Joy the Baker. Her blog is so much fun to read, plus she has such interesting recipes. This past summer, she had a root beer float cake on her blog - it seemed like such a summery recipe. Not only was it delicious, but it was totally unlike anything I had ever baked before. So, when I saw this recipe for eggnog pancakes, my interest was piqued. It seems like such a great yet unique Christmastime breakfast. I think it's interesting how she doesn't actually use eggnog (which is one of my favorite parts of the season. Love that stuff.), but just recreates the flavor with certain ingredients. I'm going to try this recipe soon - I'll let you know how it turns out.

It's a Handmade Christmas - Little Starling Photography
I just wanted to share this link from the winner of the book giveaway from a couple weeks ago. She had some really great insights about Hundred Dollar Holiday.

The Spirit of the Season - by Thomas S. Monson
An inspiring message of how to keep the spirit of Christmas in everything we do. For the full program that this message was a part of (a devotional full of beautiful music and spoken word), check out this link.

"The way you spend Christmas is far more important than how much." - Henry David Thoreau

Monday, December 14, 2009

Take Me Away: How to Make Homemade Bath Salt

Homemade gifts are always nice. However, being the non-crafty person I am (I'm trying, I really am), the bulk of my homemade gifts are edible. While cookies are nice and all (I pride myself on making gingerbread cookies that are actually soft), there's something to be said about giving something that won't go bad or that will last a while. Enter my homemade bath salts.

I've never been much of a bath person - I prefer long, ridiculously hot showers. My mom, on the other hand, is an avid bath person. In all my 27 years, I don't think I can remember my mom taking a shower. Not even once. So you've got both ends of the spectrum reporting here - we both love these bath salts. For me, they're an occasional treat and de-stresser. For my mom, they've become a part of her end-of-the-day ritual. These salts are just lovely. They're simple, they smell great, and the baking soda and salts make your skin soft. What's not to love?

To make these bath salts, you just need to follow this simple recipe. In a non-porous bowl (glass or metal is best), mix:

1 part baking soda
3 parts Epsom salt
6 parts sea salt or kosher salt
10 drops of essential oil
a few drops of food coloring

Now, my friend told me that she only used ten drops of essential oil and just a few drops of food coloring. My mom and I use more than that. We start with ten drops of the essential oils and then add more until it smells as potent as we want it to be. Follow your nose on this one, I say. Same goes for the color - we keep adding little bit by little bit until it's at the color we want. I wouldn't recommend going completely nuts with the food coloring - you don't want an orange or red bathtub ring. The salts should be lightly colored (if you notice, the store-bought bath salts are usually just lightly colored).

The thing I love about these bath salts is that you can really personalize them for the intended recipient (or for yourself!). You can use their favorite color (or what matches their bathroom) or a scent that they particularly like. Or, you can take it a step further if you know the person well and use some kind of aroma that would be beneficial for them; lavender to help them sleep, an energizing citrus scent, a romantic rose, or a relaxing eucalyptus or mint, etc. You can even mix scents if you're feeling brave.

There's so much to learn about aromatherapy - I found a helpful introduction on Simple Mom a few months ago. Essential oils can be used in so many ways. Go to a natural/health food store and check out the essential oils you like best. Mom and I have used orange, rose, and cinnamon in our bath salts so far; others we want to try are grapefruit, sandalwood, peppermint, and eucalyptus, among others.

You can put these bath salts in any kind of container. I really like IKEA's 'Slom' jars. I get the 32-oz. one for just $2.99 (they come in various sizes at various prices). I like them because they're just the right size and I like the old-fashioned latch. If you want to take the presentation an extra step, you create some kind of tag or label for your bath salts, indicating what scent they are (or any other information, like the benefits of that scent) or directions (you just add however much you want to the running bathwater - I usually do about a 1/4 cup or so). You could also include it in a gift basket with some other bath-related items. Tie a bow around the jar and you've got yourself a nice, inexpensive gift - with all the good feelings that come with things homemade.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lovely Links: Winter Wonderland Edition

It snowed here on Monday. Of course, me and my little guy bundled up and went out to play the pristine inches of it. That was a lot of fun for a couple days. Then it got really cold. Really, really cold. Once the temperature gets above 20 degrees (for the high temperature of the day - we've been in the teens all week), we'll head back outside. But for now, we're going to do some fun stuff indoors - dare I say it? possibly some crafty stuff indoors. Anyway, what with winter arriving (though not officially winter) and the snow flying, I thought it would be fun to share some winter-related things I found for this week's edition of Lovely Links.

How to Make a Snowstorm - Craftstylish
This was a serendipitous find. I honestly don't remember what led me to this site, but I just love this idea. It's a really cute decoration that costs next to nothing. And it's really easy (my kind of craft), too. It's hard to explain succinctly, so just click on the link. If you look in the picture above, you'll see that I made one, only we used fishing line (we don't go fishing, but we always have fishing line on hand. Super-useful stuff) instead of dental floss.

Creamy Tomato Soup - Joy the Baker
I'm making this next week. I think I'll even splurge for the San Marzano tomatoes (if I can find them). Oooh and I'll make grilled cheese sandwiches with them....

DIY Door Draft Stopper - Not Martha
I'm not entirely sure this will work in my house, on the door I want it for, since it's really only works with hardwood floors. Oh well. I figure someone out there might benefit, so here you go.

Make it: A Snowman Kit - Make it Do
This is such an awesome idea. Making snowmen is one of those spontaneous things (at least for us) and once we've got the guy built, we start foraging around the yard for sticks and rocks and going through the coat closet for accessories. How great would it, instead, be to have a kit all ready, complete with rocks, buttons, a scarf, and even a cool top hat? No more searching in the cold! This link has the complete how-to, including how to make a the top hat. I just love this! Plus, it would make for a great homemade gift for a family you know. I'm going to buy the materials today. I'm even going to be brave (I'm working on getting over my sewing phobia) and make the hat. Who knows, I may even try to make the corncob pipe while I'm at it...

Homemade Hot Cocoa
This is the recipe I used this week. Making hot cocoa from scratch is so easy and so delicious. When I was a kid, my mom would make this recipe (it's the one on the box of cocoa powder) after we'd go sledding or if we'd been out in the yard for a while. So many memories. I just love the changing seasons.

"Maybe Christmas Doesn't Come from a Store" by Jeffrey R. Holland
A beautiful message for this beautiful time of year.

"Getting an inch of snow is like winning ten cents in the lottery."
Calvin & Hobbes

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Soup Weather: Delicious Creamy Cabbage Soup

As I type this, the temperature outside is -1. Yikes. It's been an extremely cold and snowy few days here and when the weather gets like this, nothing sounds quite as nice as a hot, filling soup dinner. So, today, I'm sharing the soup I made Monday night: creamy cabbage soup.

I know, I know: Cabbage soup? Isn't that some kind of diet thing? Yes, but this completely unrelated. Stay with me here...

When I was in high school, I worked as a watiress at a little Swiss-American restaurant in my hometown of Midway, Utah (the town is famous for its Swiss settlers), called Das Burgermeister Haus. It was a nice place with some yummy food - knockwurst sandwiches, ham & Swiss on homemade Swiss bread (delicious), rösti potatoes, beer bread (also delicious), apple strudel, along with some traditional American foods. It's been closed for a while now, but occasionally I'll think of that that place (especially when I watch Santa Claus is Coming to Town and they mention 'Burgermeister Meisterburger') and crave a knockwurst sandwich and a bowl of cabbage soup.

Anyway, when I worked there, there were three questions I was asked during just about every shift: 1) "What's with all the Swiss stuff in this town?"; 2)" Can you yodel?" (for the record: No. Sidenote: If I wore my hair in Heidi-style braids, I always made more in tips. Always. I have no explanation for this.); and 3) "Creamy cabbage soup? (they'd ask with their faces all scrunched up) Is that any good?" I would promise them it was and tell them that if they didn't like it, I would get them a salad or different soup. I never had to get someone something else. Once people had it, they were hooked. People always asked for the recipe but we never gave it out. Well, that's not true: once a NBA player came to the restaurant and his wife asked for the recipe. She wrote their home address down on a piece of paper and asked me to mail it to her if I could convince the main cook. That's when I finally got a look at the 'secret' recipe and wrote it down - for myself and for the basketball player's wife. I have the index card in front of me, in my high school handwriting. And now, I'm sharing it with you.

This is possibly one of the cheapest recipes to make. You probably already have most, if not all, of the ingredients in your fridge right now. I remember when I wrote down the recipe, I thought, "That's it?" Even if you were to go out and buy all the ingredients, you could keep your costs easily under five dollars. And it makes quite a bit - this pot of soup can feed 4-6 people.

Creamy Cabbage Soup
2 cans (14 1/2 oz. each) chicken stock. (Heather's note: Or better yet! Use your homemade stock from Thanksgiving! I used a little under 4 cups of my stock in this recipe)
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 medium head of cabbage, shredded
1 medium onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/4 cup of butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 cups light cream
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 cups cooked, cubed ham (optional - I didn't use this in mine. This may make it cost a little more than the five dollars I mentioned)

In a large soup pot, combine broth, celery, cabbage, onion, and carrot; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Meanwhile, melt butter in a medium saucepan. Add flour, salt, and pepper; stir to form a smooth paste. Combine cream and milk; gradually add to flour mixture, stirring constantly. Cook and stir until thickened; continue cooking one minute longer. Gradually stir into vegetable mixture. Add ham (if using) and thyme and heat through.
I tried to cheat and just use milk when I made it because I didn't have the cream. Use the cream. It took forever to thicken and I had to add more flour, which I think affected the consistency and taste a little. But don't get me wrong: it was still really good. I served it with some popovers. Perfect (and cheap!) dinner for a cold, winter evening.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Leggo that Eggo: Making and Freezing Waffles

Now that I'm back from my blog hiatus, I figure I should just start by dropping a bombshell. I'd tell you to sit down, but you're probably already doing that, seeing as you're at a computer. Here it is: there's an Eggo waffle shortage. Okay, so I'm not really panicking. I thought it was funny, though, how the article I read was entitled, "Kellogg warns: Brace for an Eggo shortage." Brace? One woman in the article was talking about how she was going to have to ration them in her household. Well, never fear, I am here to give a frugal solution to anyone's frozen waffle woes.

Can people have frozen waffle woes? Yes. A few months ago, the Costco by me stopping selling the huge boxes of Kashi waffles that my son loved. He seriously loved those waffles - he wanted them everyday. I liked them because they were healthier than the Eggo ones (my son didn't like those as much anyway) and they were a good deal at Costco (an amazing deal compared to how much the little boxes of them are at the regular grocery stores). As you can imagine, I was a little sad and a little annoyed that they stopped carrying them. As I left the store, pondering my breakfast options, I suddenly thought, "Why don't I just freeze my own waffles?"

I wasn't sure if he'd like them as much as the Kashi ones, but it was worth a shot. Long story short: I made a batch, froze them, and put them in the toaster like I did with the store-bought ones. He couldn't tell a difference between the two. So not only did I appease my toddler, but I was saving money in the process (I estimate that can make a batch of waffles - about 12 to 14 of them - for a couple bucks). Even as healthy as the Kashi ones are supposed to be, I also liked the fact that my waffles had less ingredients in them (I read a book once that said that you shouldn't eat any processed food that has more than five ingredients in it). So when I saw this week that Costco was, after a months-long absence, carrying them again, I wasn't even tempted to buy the big box of waffles. My homemade ones won.

The recipe I use is really simple - I got it from Everyday Food magazine. I make a batch of these every 7-10 days. I have the recipe practically memorized.

Buttermilk Waffles

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups low-fat buttermilk (if you don't have buttermilk, go here for a substitution. It's the last one on the list)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
Flaxseed meal (optional)

Heat waffle iron (brush with vegetable oil if yours isn't nonstick). In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk, butter, and eggs; add flour mixture. Mix until just combined - don't overmix. The batter will be thick and a little lumpy. Pour batter onto iron (no exact amount, since every waffle iron is different. Eyeball it. I usually use a couple tablespoons on each square on my waffle iron). Next, I sprinkle it with some flaxseed meal. It doesn't affect the taste and gives it a little nutritional boost. Close the iron and cook the waffles until they're golden brown and crisp (or, if your waffle iron is like mine, wait for the ready light to turn on).

Once you're done cooking them (and after you've eaten a couple fresh off the iron - yum!), pile them on a plate and let them cool for a little while. Once the waffles are cooled, put them in a gallon-size freezer bag and stick them in the freezer. Whenever you're ready to serve them again, stick a frozen waffle in the toaster. Every toaster is different so you'll have to watch them and adjust the light-dark control. I usually have my toaster set somewhere half-way. Top with some syrup and you've got a delicious, hot breakfast - perfect for any winter morning, or, as in my son's case, just about every morning.
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