Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Beans are neither fruit nor musical." : Homemade Refried Beans

I was conflicted on the title. Which quotation to use? It was either that or ", fat, juicy beans! Don't get me goin' on beans or I'll be jabberin' away until the sun comes up!"  By the way, fifty points to the first person who can tell me where either quote comes from. Not that you can redeem those points for anything, but I'll love you for knowing the answer. Maybe I'll give you an extra entry in the giveaway I'm thinking about doing soon. Okay, totally getting off track here -- on to the bean post!

Kind of like how I confessed to not making my own bread all the time, I have to confess that I've never used dried beans in any of my culinary endeavors. I feel a little ashamed. I mean, dried beans are part of the frugalista arsenal, right? Not to mention that my husband and I were vegetarians for a couple years and we ate a lot of beans during that period - I still didn't bother with dried beans. Any savings was just not worth the inconvenience in my mind. So, I had my stash of dried beans for food storage (you know, for the end-of-the-world earthquakes or the inevitable zombie apocalypse), but never really thought I'd use them. The canned ones didn't cost that much anyway.

But I've considered trying to use dried beans now and then. Usually when I come across an article about the money-saving side of using them. Compared to the canned kind, dried beans are a steal. For the price of a 16-oz. can of beans (around a $1), you could get a whole lot more if you buy them dried. Still, I was unmotivated and, admittedly, a little daunted by the idea of using dried beans.Then I came across a recipe in my new - you guessed it -Pioneer Woman cookbook that uses dried beans (the recipe is here).  I wasn't super-interested in just eating plain old cooked pinto beans, but when she mentioned making homemade refried beans my interest was piqued.  So, here's my adventure with dried beans....

I retrieved my big bag of pinto beans from the pantry, dusted it off, measured the four cups the recipe suggested, and rinsed them.  I dumped them into a pot, covered them with a couple inches of water, added some chopped up bacon, and turned on the heat.

Three hours later...

They didn't look like the plump, evenly colored beans in the cookbook's photo. They also tasted like dirt. Word to the wise:  don't use a bag of beans if it's coated in a layer of dust.  They're probably too old and they'll end up tasting all tough and dirty like mine. (Update: there is a suggestion in the comments on how to cook old beans. I haven't tried it myself, but it's worth a shot. Better than throwing them away, right?)

Attempt #2

On my next shopping trip, I bought a pound or so of pinto beans from the bulk bins at the health food store. I picked up some more bacon and headed home, determined to make an edible pot of beans.

Ta-da! It worked! And it only took a couple hours (instead of the three-plus hours from my first attempt). They all looked uniformly light brown and they were soft like my usual canned beans.  Now, I could give a whole tutorial on how to use dried beans, but being the newbie I am to this, I thought it would be better to find a really helpful link so we could learn together. Here the info about storing and soaking dried beans; here's the link on how to cook them. It's not rocket science, I know, but I didn't want to lead you astray. Best coming right from the bean source, you know?

After I seasoned the cooked beans with some salt and pepper, I transferred the beans to a bowl and started mashing them.  Pioneer Woman says to use a potato masher; I used my immersion blender thing. According to Pioneer Woman's refried beans recipe, while you're mashing you should add some kind of fat to improve the texture. She suggested shortening, lard, bacon grease, or butter.  Butter seemed the least scary of the choices (and the only one I had anyway) so I added a tablespoon like suggested.  Of course, she was right and it did help.

Anyway, you just smoosh them until you get them to the consistency you like. I don't mind mine kind of lumpy (plus my arm was getting my tired and my blender started smell a little smoky).  Next time, I'll use a potato masher.  Since I wasn't going to use my refried beans for a few days, I put them in some glass canning jars and stuck them into the fridge to wait until I was ready for them.

To be continued...

A recipe using your homemade refried beans coming soon (as in, tomorrow or Saturday).  So get soaking those beans and cook them tomorrow.  Don't worry - I'll wait.

Monday, April 26, 2010

For the Love of Carbs: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (Review)

I've confessed my love for cookbooks and just when I didn't think I needed another one for a while (my Pioneer Woman one has been keeping me busy - can I just tell you how much I love, love, love that cookbook? Everything I've made from it is amazing), I came across this one.  The book is called Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Herzberg and Zoe Francois.

Can it really be true?  Homemade baguettes, ciabatta, flatbread, and naan (among many others) in just five minutes?  Is it even possible to make anything like that in five minutes?  Yes and no. The title is just a teensy bit misleading.  There's some work to be done to get to the point where it takes five minutes, not to mention resting periods for the dough (usually about 20-40 minutes), and then the baking time.  BUT, once the dough is made, the hands-on time it takes to prep the bread for baking really takes about five minutes for every batch of bread you make.  Confused?  Let me explain...

The ingredients in the master recipe are really basic:  flour, water, salt, and yeast. The master recipe can be used to make a lot of different breads like baguettes, ciabatta, naan, flatbread, and for making calzones and stromboli.  There are other recipes in the book for things like rye bread, foccacia challah, bagels, brioche, beignets (I'll be making those soon - we've been wanting to try them since we got The Princess and the Frog), and more.  The ingredients and measurements vary, but the concept is the same.

One other necessity: a container big enough to not only hold all the dough but to also give it room to rise. When I bought my cookbook off Amazon (I love Amazon - lets me feed my book-buying addiction much more frugally), I bought one of the containers featured since I didn't have anything that would work. The containers I got are six-quart containers and worked perfectly - I wouldn't use anything smaller than that.

The great thing about the method for breadmaking in this book is that it requires absolutely no kneading.  You simply mix the ingredients in the same container you'll store the dough in. This step takes hardly any time at all. Just 3 cups of warm water, 1 1/2 teaspoons of yeast, 1 1/2 tablespoons of kosher salt, and 6 1/2 cups of flour. The dough is really wet and you couldn't knead it if you tried without making a crazy, sticky mess.

Once it's all mixed, all you have to do is let it rise at room temperature in the covered container.  You let it rise and rise until dough flattens at the top - about 2-3 hours.  After it has risen enough, you can either use it in any of the recipes in the book or stick it in the fridge.  It'll be less sticky if you refrigerate it first.

When you're ready to make the bread, you just cut off a chunk of it (for the specific bread I was making, I cut off a one-pound chunk) with a serrated knife. Every recipe requires a different amount from the master batch. 

For this recipe, I shaped the dough into a ball by stretching the surface around to the bottom around all sides.  This only took a minute to do.  Nothing fancy.  Then you just let it rest on a dusted pizza peel (mine came with my baking stone - see my pizza post from a few months ago to learn more about this awesome kitchen tool) for a certain amount of time. For this recipe, I let it rest on a cornmeal-dusted peel for 40 minutes and then scored the top with a knife before I put it in the oven. 

To get the crisp crust and soft inside typical of artisan bread, you have to bake with steam.  You slide the dough off the peel onto the baking stone in the preheated oven (450 degrees for this recipe).  In a pan on a rack below, you pour a cup of hot water and quickly close the oven.  Then I baked this bread for about 30 minutes, or until, as the book says, you can hear the bread "sing" when it is exposed to the cooler air. The picture above is the first loaf I ever made from the book - it worked out, no problem. And it was soooo good. You can store the rest of the dough in the fridge for two weeks.

This is just a quick overview of the process - you really should check out the book.  It's awesome - now if we want bread to go with dinner, I just grab a chunk of the dough, shape it, let it rest for a little while, and then pop it into the oven.  Like the title of the book says, it's really only five minutes hands-on time when you want it.  The ingredients are simple and inexpensive. The process couldn't be any easier. This book truly is, as the cover says, "the discovery that revolutionizes home baking." 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Random Reuses: Toilet Paper Rolls Turned Bird Feeders

One man's trash is little birdie's treasure.

About a month ago, my little boy went to a birthday party where all the kids made bird feeders.  I was impressed not only by the clever simplicity of the craft, but that my friend was able to wrangle a group of three- and four-year-olds into making them.  Yesterday, as I was thinking about what to do with my cub scout den (yep, I'm a den mother. Still makes me laugh.), I decided to have them work on their Naturalist badge and I remembered this simple, easy craft. Even the ten-year-old Webelos enjoyed it. So, without further ado, here's the super-easy, super-cheap bird feeder craft.

What you need:
  • an empty toilet paper roll (that's the random reuse, in case you were wondering)
  • a piece of colorful ribbon, yarn, or string (the more colorful, the better because it attracts the birds)
  • birdseed (I bought a 5 lb. bag of the multi-bird/songbird blend for under three dollars. You can get smaller, cheaper bags of it. I got this because I knew we'd use it - we love getting birds to come to our yard.)
  • a single-hole punch
  • peanut butter (smooth or chunky - doesn't matter) 
Simply spread a layer of peanut butter on the cardboard tube and then roll it in a plate full of birdseed.  Punch a hole or two through one end, thread the yarn/ribbon/string through the hole, and tie it so you have a loop.  And you're finished. Simple and kid-friendly. That's my kind of craft.

The final step is to hang it from a tree branch. Sure, it's not much to look at, but the birds won't care.  At least they didn't seem to mind when they devoured the last one.

Monday, April 12, 2010

High and Dry: Why I Use a Clothesline

Throughout my childhood, we had a clothesline. It was just out the back door and since the laundry room was right next to the door, the clothesline almost seemed like an extension of the house, like an outdoor adjacent room.  I can clearly remember my mom always hanging out the laundry and I loved to play in the damp rows of clean towels, cloth diapers, sheets, and shirts as they billowed in the breeze.  And, to this day, one of my all-time favorite smells is clean sheets that have been dried on a clothesline; when you lay down to sleep on them the smell is heavenly. If the sun has a smell, that has to be it.  As we got older and when we moved away from the house with the conveniently placed clothesline, my mom used the clothesline less and less for everyday laundry, though she still used it for sheets and pillowcases. 

Despite all my pleasant memories of having a clothesline, I'd never given much thought to having one of my own until about a year or so ago when I got really interested in cleaning naturally.  I read the book Greening Your Cleaning and was amazed by all the things in dryer sheets.  A ton of chemicals make your laundry static free.  The author mentioned using a clothesline and I thought about it for a while, but didn't do anything. Before that,I'd also read about the benefits, frugally speaking, of line drying in The Tightwad Gazette, but still didn't do anything about it (plus, I didn't like her attitude, as if anyone who didn't line-dry their clothes was an idiot, or a "spendthrift" as she puts it)

Where would I put a clothesline?  My parents had the perfect yard for a clothesline because it was so big. Same goes for my grandparents, whose yard was even bigger (we loved their rotating clothesline. Tons of fun to ride, we thought. Grandpa didn't really appreciate that.).  I didn't want to take up a whole area in my yard for laundry.  Then, I read a great post on Simple Mom about the various reasons to line dry your clothes. She makes a good case for doing it - more convincing than the other things I'd read.  So after reading that post, I was determined to at least try to make line drying my laundry part of my routine.

Now that it seems like spring is finally in my neck of the woods (*fingers crossed*- it was snowing on Easter morning), I ordered my clothesline off Amazon. It's a 20-ft retractable one (only $9) and it works perfectly with our patio frame. On Friday, armed with a ton of clothespins (I got over 200 of them for about $3) I hung almost all of my laundry (I still ran the my husband's jeans through the dryer since they're so heavy on the clothesline) and it worked so well. It dried really quickly and I remembered that awesome line-dried smell.  Even now, I'm wearing a shirt I hung on the clothesline that day and I'll occasionally catch a whiff of that nostalgic, sunny smell.  Ahhhhhh....

I could go through all the reasons to line dry: the savings on your electric bill (apparently, your dryer is one of the biggest energy users in your house), no chemicals from dryer sheets, how the sun can get just about any stain out (in high school, I made my brother's cream shorts pink when I did a load of laundry - they had a stupid red tag on them that dyed them.  Thankfully, the sun bleached them back), how it makes your clothes last longer (I remember an elderly lady in church commenting one Sunday how instead of wearing out our clothes nowadays, we wash them out. It's true - all that lint is in the trap for a reason), among others. But, if I did, I'd just be repeating everything on the Simple Mom post. She also has some suggestions for some of the issues or troubles one might face with line-drying. Check it out - maybe it'll have the same effect on you that it did on me.

One note:  while I love using the clothesline, I have one qualm about it: how stiff and rough everything feels. I'm used to having softened clothes.  The Simple Mom post has some suggestions and remedies for this, but I have one that worked pretty well. Add a 1/2 cup vinegar to the rinse cycle (I put mine in the center of my washer, in the softener dispenser) and it helps combat the roughness and stiffness of line-dried laundry. Don't worry about your clothes smelling like vinegar - the smell goes away once the clothes are dry. {UPDATE: I wrote a post all about how to keep your line-dried clothes soft. You can find it here. Works like a charm.}

Besides the money-saving and natural cleaning aspects of line-drying, one of my favorite parts is that it makes me feel this sense of...connectedness. I feel like my grandmothers, doing what they all did out of necessity to take care of their families. Kind of how I feel about canning - I don't have to do it, but it's kind of fun to feel all pioneery. I love technology (how else would I even have this blog? And I looove my little netbook and iPod), but it's fun to return to those simpler days occasionally.

Hanging clothes outside is a simple act, but I love it because it makes me slow down.  As I pinned the clothes on the line I couldn't help but think about my little family. It felt nurturing, almost therapeutic, to do this for them, just like my mom did for us.  And just like I did over twenty years ago, my little guy had a lot of fun running through the laundry as it waved in the wind.

Did your family have a clothesline when you were growing up? Do you use one now?  Why or why not?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Random Reuses: DIY Refrigerator Air Fresheners

I buy my baking soda in bulk. If you've read this blog for any extended period of time, this should come as no surprise. Baking soda can be used for so many things - cleaning kitchens and bathrooms, in the laundry, cooking, deodorizing. It's a frugalista's best friend. Okay, that might be taking it a little far, but, still, it's great stuff.

I got a book from PaperBack Swap not too long ago about 500 different uses for baking soda. It's a pretty good guide (though some of my experiments from it haven't worked well; some not at all) and I thought I'd share one of the things I've implemented from it.

You probably have a box of baking soda in your refrigerator right now. It works great at combating the inevitable odors and keep your food from tasting like fridge.  Like I said previously, I buy my baking soda in bulk, but I still would buy these special boxes of baking soda that are specifically made for keeping in the refrigerator.  They're not expensive at all - maybe a buck at the most.  But, it didn't make sense to keep buying these boxes when I get the bulk baking soda for a lot less.  Enter the random reuse for today.

Last week, while I was cleaning out the fridge, I noticed that the box of baking soda in my fridge was past the three-month date (I write the date when it should be changed on the box). I was going to put a note on my shopping list for to buy another box, but then I remembered the book's suggestion on how to make "baking soda sachets".  Some of you dear readers may think I'm dealing with minutiae here, but I think it's kind of fun to make do with what I have. Saving a buck here and there is how I get some of my kicks.  *cricket chirping*  I am a fun person, really I am.

*more cricket chirping*

Ahem...on to the random reuse...

So, I got one of my washed-out containers that had a lid and filled it with about a 3/4 cup of baking soda. Then I started stabbing the lid with a sharp knife. As you can see in the picture above, I may have gotten slightly carried away.  In any case, there it is: my ventilated container of baking soda to keep my fridge smelling fresh and food tasting it's supposed to.  The baking soda I used was probably only a few cents worth, and I reused something that I would have otherwise thrown away.  So instead of spending that dollar on a box of baking soda, I'll spend it on something more enjoyable or put it toward something else in my grocery budget.  And there's the lesson in frugality: all the little things you do add up. It may be unnoticeable at first, but they do add up, I promise!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Musings About Family Dinner + Homemade Placemats

Lately, I've been really thinking about how important family meals are, particularly dinner. I mean, I already knew, but I just can't help but think about how I can improve in this area. Time for the confession...

My kitchen table is often covered in a myriad of things: mail, magazines, notebooks, coloring books, receipts. In other words, clutter. I don't mean for this to happen, but I'll just toss something on the table, intending to get to it and put it in its place, but then I get distracted. Pretty soon, the clutter overtakes the table. It's not a big table -- just a round glass one -- but it's still too much clutter. When dinner rolls around, I'm either putting the clutter on empty chairs or on the floor (I'd put it on the counter, but it's covered with the remains of the dinner prep).  Sometimes, I'll just see it and decide we'll eat in the family room that night. Definitely not the ideal. And then there's the other things that get in the way of our family dinnertime.  Late hours at work. A toddler who doesn't like what I've made. A new episode of Lost.  Again, not the ideal, but it's reality sometimes, as ashamed as I am to admit.

A week ago, I came across this post on SouleMama about how her family does dinner every night. No matter what they eat, whether it's a made-from-scratch dinner or a box of pizza, they always eat at the table and use the time to not only eat, but to reconnect.  I read that post and I was inspired. If I was going to go to the trouble to make dinner, shouldn't my table be inviting? Shouldn't I strive to have my little family gathered around it every night?  Since I've read that post, I've had other moments of insight on this topic and decided to make a goal to have my table always clear and ready for meals.  I've been doing pretty well for the last few days, I'm proud to report.

But what does this have to do with frugality, you ask?   Not only did the post on SouleMama make me want to make family dinner a special time, but I was also inspired by the placemats she made for her family. My current placemats were looking quite worn and faded. Not so appealing - they had become almost utilitarian instead of decorative. So, I decided (as I have before) to try to be like SouleMama (Did I mention she's the author of Handmade Home - remember the rag bag and the bathrug I made? Both from that book.) and make some placemats. I figured it'd be further motivation to stick to my goal.

I had no book or guide on how to do this, but I figured it couldn't be hard to figure out. It wasn't. At all.

I bought a couple yards of fabric (one yard for each print) at Ikea for a total of about $14, which made six placemats. Their fabric is a little more pricey than what you'd buy at a place like JoAnn's, but I love Ikea fabric because it's not only kind of funky, but it's also fairly heavy material. And even though it was a little more expensive than other material I could have gotten, I rationalized that it's still cheaper than buying a set of placemats that I'd buy at other home decor stores that I've shopped at. Most can cost anywhere from $3-8 a mat; I made mine for just a little over $2 each.  Okay, moving on to the instructions...

To determine the size I wanted to make my placemats, I used the other store-bought ones I had as a gauge. I eventually settled on making my placemats 17" x 14".  So, I set off to cutting up all my fabric into rectangles to fit those dimensions. In my opinion, the worst part of sewing anything is cutting the material. I get so paranoid about cutting it wrong that it takes me forever. I mention this because cutting up the fabric is the hardest part. Once you've got your material cut, the rest is a breeze.

Next, pin two pieces of the cut fabric together with the right sides facing in.

Once you've got all your fabric coupled and pinned together, you're ready to start sewing!

Sew all around the edges, about 1/4" in.  Stop sewing a few inches short of where you started. You'll need a gap in the corner big enough for you to turn the placemat right-side out. I realize now that my staged picture of this step is totally inaccurate - according to this photo, I'm going to be stitching a couple inches in and right over a pin. Don't do that.

Turn the placemat right-side out.  I use a chopstick to help me push the corners out all the way.

Once you've got it all turned, press.  Good ol' trusty iron. Got it ten years ago when I moved away to college. Still works as good as new. Just thought I'd share that little aside.

Once it's pressed, stitch around the edge again, about 1/4" in. As you do this, you'll sew up the gap you used for turning. I'd suggest using some kind of fabric glue or adhesive if you want to really close up the seam at the gap so it matches the rest of the edges on the mat.

That's it. My first freestyle sewing project - and it actually worked!

So, even though we woke up to snow for our Easter morning yesterday, at least my (clutter-free) table will feel spring-like...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lovely Links: Easter Edition

I love Easter.  It's such a beautiful holiday, so full of meaning.  I love the way Easter makes me pause and reflect on how grateful I am for my Savior. I also love the time of year - it seems so appropriate to celebrate the resurrection of Christ in the spring, a time when when the whole world is reborn.  As Martin Luther once said, "Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime." 

While I think Easter is a more solemn kind of celebration (is solemn the right word? Maybe pensive? Quiet?) than Christmas, I think one can still have fun with it, too. So, I've collected an assortment of links for this weekend's edition of Lovely Links. A couple of them are spiritually focused, while the others are more about the playful celebration of spring. In any case, enjoy!

Hot Cross Buns -- The Pioneer Woman
It's no secret that I just love P.W.  I've mentioned her numerous times on my blogs.  Anyway, here's her recipe for this traditional pastry.  I had a recipe for these, but mine never turned out that well; I'm positive that P.W.'s (like all the other recipes of hers that I've tried) will be awesome. I may just keep with the Good Friday tradition and make a batch of these today, but with dried cranberries instead of raisins. Few things ruin baked goods like hot raisins. Ick.  Just sayin'.

Simple Ways to Celebrate Easter -- Simple Mom
Again, I make no secret of my love for Simple Mom (or any of Simple Living Media blogs).  This link is particularly awesome - it's a link to a bunch of links! Plus, she mentioned a few that I was going to mention anyway (like the egg carton crafts and the Easter egg bread). This is all sounding a little repetitive. Just go there. It's a treasure trove of ideas.

Easter Weekend at My House -- Me!
I feel a little weird putting my personal blog as a link. I mean, you guys hear from me all the time already - my weekend links about exposing you to people often more creative and talented than myself. But, I have this really cool recipe my mom gave me a couple years ago.  Each ingredient is accompanied by a scripture in the Bible that tells the story of Easter.  Plus, there's a neat little twist to the end result. The rest of the post is just some of my musings about the holiday and some random thoughts.  Check it out - if just for the recipe.

 -- One of my very favorite religious paintings: He is Not Here by Walter Rane

'None Were with Him' by Jeffrey R. Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a prominent leader of my church (we call him an Apostle), is truly an inspired man. When he speaks, I listen.  He has a way of telling a story that I've heard hundreds of times (in this case, the Easter story) and he makes me feel like I'm hearing it for the first time. I don't know if that makes sense, but I love him for it. This video captures just a few minutes of one of my favorite talks he's ever given. I think it's the perfect message for weekend, especially this Good Friday (for the full text of this talk, check out this link).

Happy Easter!
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