Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Turning an Old T-Shirt Into a Skirt

This is such a great idea from Sew Like My Mom that I had to share it!

 Want to try it yourself? Go here for directions.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Basic Gluten Free BBQ Sauce

Because I have Celiac Disease, which means I can't eat most grains, I have had to come up with some creative ways to cook in the kitchen. I have to make a lot of things from scratch because mainstream products aren't gluten free and specialty items are so expensive. So, I choose to make my own!

Here is my recipe for gluten-free BBQ Sauce.

1 can, 6 oz. tomato paste
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tbs. gluten free vinegar (nothing with malt, or that has had malt added after the distillation process)
1 tbs. mustard (I like Dijon)
1 tsp. chili powder
2 tbs. honey
2 tsp black pepper
2 tbs Worcestershire sauce (Lea and Perrins is GF in the United States, but not abroad- take note)

Mix tomato paste with about 3 ounces of water (half the can). When fully mixed then add the rest of the ingredients. You can add more or less water to achieve the proper consistency. Freezes well for up to 6 months and can be stored, opened,  in the fridge for up to a week.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Farmers Market 101

Farmer's Markets are increasing in popularity all over the country as awareness around the importance of locally grown and organic foods increases. They are a great way to feed your family healthful, local meals; are fun to attend; and can even save you money.

Since our CSA (community supported agriculture) program isn't yet producing yield, our family went into the farmer's market this morning to get our produce. This early in the season there isn't always a lot of harvested produce available, but the experience is one that we want to share with our children, and we needed to replace some plants which our chickens got ahold of in the garden!

Here are a few tips from our family to yours to help you navigate the waters of the market:

1. For the best selection, get there early; for the best deals, get there late
Our market opens at 7 am, and by 7:30 all of the really neat and unique stuff is likely to be gone. So if you're looking for a special variety of garlic or a particular type of lupine, your best bet is to get there early to beat the crowds. On the other hand, if you're there for the bargain, as I am, getting there late is advantageous. Often farmers will have leftovers that they'd rather unload then bring back to the farm. This is particularly true with perishables like cut flowers or lettuces. Today I bought a $4 bag of organic spinach for $2 because we were there as things were closing down.

2. Remember that this is still grocery shopping...
...so don't abandon your sense of a good deal.  Farmer's markets aren't designed to save you cash inherently- they are designed to support local business by funneling more profit directly to the farmer rather than through an intermediary. This is a very good thing for everyone concerned, but it's easy to get caught up in the experience and WAY overspend. So bring a grocery list that you've prepared and don't stray from it. If you see something great available at the market that you just have to try, then have your meal plan with you as well and make changes. For example, today I was able to get the last bunch of early asparagus. I hadn't included it in my meal plan, but because I brought it along I changed the side dish from one night of the week to be fresh asparagus and bought without reservations.

3. Go to the farmer's market before you go to the grocery store
Because you never know for sure what you're going to see at the market, you should go there first and buy what you can locally, and then head to your grocery store to fill in the gaps. There are some seasonal good bets- in early summer here I can count on seedlings, fiddleheads, spinach, arugula, broccoli, strawberries and carrots, but unless someone has a good greenhouse going I may still need to purchase fresh tomatoes at the grocery store. Going to the farmer's market first allows me to get what I can locally and organically before going to the next best thing.

4. Don't shop with the kiddos, or if you do, go with a plan!
OK, I didn't take my own advice during this morning's jaunt, but at least Daddy was there to help out. I have found that the millions of distractions and general lack of concrete walls to confine kids can be a real challenge (particularly when they know there's a playground just on the other side of the hill, or when one vendor is offering hula-hoops made from recycled materials!). So, I come prepared. I prepare grocery lists for the kids whenever possible, using downloaded pictures from the internet to represent vegetables for my non-readers. This way, they have a job and can keep an eye out for our target produce. I also always bring a wagon because wagons transport produce and children- whichever is the greater need. Snacks are a good bet as well, and cameras can even be great to keep kids entertained while they document their own experience. I also arm my little ones with their own bags to help carry the produce they pick out. Remember to do the little things together- count the plants, choose the bushel of parsnips, and make payments to vendors together. Kids will always stay closer to you the more invested they are in the process. Oh, and take breaks as necessary! (Here we are enjoying the benefits of the park our farmer's market is held in.)

5. Stay as "hands-free" as possible.
Go in streamlined- often markets are set up on narrow pathways in parks or in allies in the city, and you're fighting against crowds to both browse and buy. So only carry what you need to avoid being pushed out of carefully scrutinizing your products. Infant carriers and backpacks are a great option, if applicable!

6. This sounds silly to even mention, but don't forget to bring cash. 
Yes, we live in the new millennium and many vendors really do take debit and credit cards right in their booths, but it's still not smart to count on it. Bring the amount of cash you're likely to need so that you can buy the necessary products, but I don't recommend bringing your whole grocery budget unless you have serious willpower because it's all too easy to see a mint plant, for example, and to overspend in the name of saving money through it's yield all year long. Only buy what you need, with cash. 

7. Buy produce that's in season
Buying what's in season in your area is the best way to get great prices on fresh, local produce. You'll pay for the privilege if you don't. For a list of what's in season in your area, go here.

8. Be flexible. 
I went to the market today in hopes of buying strawberries because I'm having a canning party in two weeks during which time a bunch of friends and I are going to make strawberry jam. Because of the rain and cold weather we've been having though, the strawberry crop isn't ready yet. I'll have to hang on until next week- buying before the crop is really ready is going to cost me a lot more money, so I'm happy to wait.

9. If you're looking for a CSA or regular vendor, go for a couple of weeks before you commit
Not all farmers are at the market all weeks. For the best shopping and price comparing, you'll need to go for several weeks in a row to gather your data. Make a list of what you want to buy and how much it costs so that at the end of your information gathering period you'll be able to compare like products with accuracy. Today our family was looking for a new source of pastured, organic beef and not a single vendor was able to give us price quotes. Next week we may meet five vendors who can meet our needs, so it will pay dividends for us to shop around and be patient.

10. Ask your vendors about bulk options, CSAs or even Facebook!
Oh yes, technology has a place even in the farmer's market. Sometimes vendors want to develop a patronage and so they launch a Facebook page, have an email list, or will even offer Groupons to generate interest. Be sure to ask about ways that the farm is trying to communicate with people- by doing so you can help your local farmer to get the word out about her great products, but can also save yourself some money. Because I referred three friends to my vegetable CSA this year, I was able to get a discount on my share cost. These options can also alert you to upcoming produce deals for the next week, so by knowing in advance you'll be able to plan your meals around what's going to be available. Some vendors also offer bulk options for items they have a lot of, so it's worth the time to ask around. Check out this website to get started.

11. Before you commit to buying in large quantities from one vendor, do your homework!
We'd like to think that everyone at the market is there because they love healthy, whole food, and are dedicated to nourishing families and sustaining the environment. By and large that is certainly true, but occasionally the exception arises and you don't want to fall prey to someone who isn't going to honor a deal. One vendor's pastured pork isn't necessarily the same as another vendor's so to speak, so you want to research before you buy. Check out social media like Facebook or Twitter to see what current customers are saying about your vendor, and ask for references. Buying in bulk or signing up for a CSA is a huge investment, so make sure that you're comfortable with where your money is going before you spend a dime.

Happy shopping!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Making a Natural Bug Spray

Here's a great post from Jenae over at I Can Teach My Child! about making your own, all natural, bug spray.

For the instructions, go here.

I am excited to give this a try as here in Maine the joke is that mosquitoes are our state bird! My middle child has recently been dubbed "Madam Bugbite," so an alternative to slathering her with DEET while still offering protection is most welcome around here. Not to mention that a more pleasing aroma would be nice!

"Just Plain Family" Morning

Sometimes we need to just stop what we're doing and do what we should. The idea of "should" is of course subjective, but I'm talking about leaving behind all of the job worries and bills and car maintenace pressures- everyhtihng that makes us adults- and to just letting loose and experiencing life.

Garrett's on vacation this week so we've had a chance to spend some quality time together. This is a rare opporutnity in our household and one that we've embraced whole-heartedly.

Today, we went to our favorite local bakery, owned and operated by a woman who lives in our community, and we bought breakfast. We then proceeded to a community playground where we spent a couple of hours playing and giggling. We even had the chance to feed the ducks and Canada geese at the river!

As a teacher and homeschooling mom I can pinpoint the areas of development we touched upon with our kids today; I can expound upon the benefits of healthy excersise and developing an appreciation for animals in their natural habitats, among other experiences, and I wouldn't be wrong for doing so. It's important to track the learning we've done and to have goals related to our academic paths lest we loose our way and do our children a disservice.  On the other hand, today wasn't about that. Today was about wreckless abandon and good, old-fashioned, care-free fun. It was about trying the slides, heading across the monkey bars, pushing our kids on the swings, and feeding the ducks until we had no more stale bread to give. It was about racing back to the car and about singing "Puff, the Magic Dragon" all the way home, or at least until the kids fell asleep thanks to their fun-packed morning.

Education and learning outcomes have their place- don't get me wrong. On the other hand, so does fun for fun's sake. So does family time with no agenda. And so does loosing the reigns of adult life and taking time to play-really play- as if nothing in the world mattered but the moment. It's difficult to keep such competing priorities in place during a given day, so we remain thankful for days like today when we can revel in our children and their childish ways, and even allow ourselves permission to play with them.

Making our own beer

Garrett was introduced to the idea of brewing beer by a family member and got a kit for Christmas to help him begin his new hobby. While it has taken some months to address this new venture, it is none-the-less met with enthusiasm and anticipation. He began his first brew yesterday, as is chronicled here. There is no set date for completion, as all batches vary in the amount of time they take to properly ferment, we hope to be enjoying the fruits of his labor within the next couple of weeks.

 Garrett began this adventure with a kit designed for the novice brewer. Over time one can order fewer components from the company, but for starters we're ordering it all.
 First, one must steep the grains. This is the first step in making the wort, which is what will eventually go into the fermenter. This photo shows a mixture of wheat and other grain (purchased in a package) wrapped in a cheesecloth to allow the flavor of the grains to permeate the water. (This is the same process that one uses to make tea.)
 Next, the malt extract must be added. This can be made a home by the extreme brewer, but we've elected to purchase some as part of the kit.
 While this isn't the greatest picture, Garrett's adding the hops here. It comes in pellet form within the kit he chose, and he determined how much to add and when during the steeping process. More hops makes bitter beer, less hops makes sweeter, or lighter, beer.
 The mixture has to boil for an hour, but once it's done it must be transferred the fermentor. In this photo Garrett is running the mixture through a sieve to remove any chunks of hops or other grain.
The mixture stays in the first stage fermentor for a week (7 days exactly). Then it must be filtered into a glass carboy, which will serve as a secondary fermentor. This is where the beer will ferment until it's ready to bottle. We'll know that it's ready to bottle when we see three consecutive days of a consistent hydrometer reading.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The bees are in their new home!

After some careful planning we have installed the bees in their new home! As it turned out we didn't have sufficient southern exposure at our house (the only spot that we had outside of the backyard was in a very small clearing surrounded by trees). Bees need warm morning light (and a southern exposure) to signal them to wake up and get to work, and they need the warm morning sun to help them survive the winter. Without that sun there was some real concern as to whether or not "our girls" would survive the winter, so we were very thankful that Garrett's sister and her husband offered to have the bees at their house just a couple miles down the road. It will be convenient for Garrett to check on them regularly, but also convenient for us to have the bees in a place where our children won't be too curious! Our kids have been very interested in the bees, and rightly so, but I admit that I breathe a small sigh of relief that we won't have any mishaps with a certain young man trying to find out more on his own by opening a hive himself. Just yet, anyway. 

 This picture shows the hive in the background, and the shipping crate in the foreground. We got our bees online and delivered to our post office! (As a side note, I got a call at about 6:30 in the morning on the day they were delivered from a very nervous postmaster hoping that I would be in soon to pick up our buzzing package.) Garrett needed to transfer the bees from the shipping crate to the hive. He wore his bee veil, but did it without gloves! I was horrified, but he insists that they were calm and relaxed because they didn't have a hive to defend yet. Frankly, I'm just glad that he was the one to do the transfer!
 Garrett adding the sugar water which will help to sustain the bees while they begin construction on the honeycomb in their new hive.
 This box contains the queen, kept separate during shipping, but the bees will dig her out in the hive over the next couple of days. The right side is blocked with a piece of sugar hard candy, which the bees will eat to let their queen out. She releases a pheromone which lets the other bees know where she is so they can release her and get her to work laying eggs.
The frames are put into the hive. Each frame has the start of some honeycomb on it, called "foundation," and from here the bees will add to the honeycomb and will then fill it with brood, and eventually honey. We likely won't get a honey crop this year because our bees will be so busy building up their comb and numbers, but we were fortunate enough to receive some established, or "drawn out," comb from a friend, and maybe our bees will be able to increase production as a result. It's an amazing thing, but frames with comb from another hive (in this case, our friend's hive) can be substituted for our "empty" foundation frames to give our hive a jump start. Our friends' hive will simply make more honeycomb and honey on the new frame. What work ethic!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Preparing for the Bees

Our family, in the spirit of self-reliance and plain old curiosity, has decided to keep bees. Yes, bees. The ones that buzz, and make honey, and sting. What prompted this decision, particularly since we have young children and the two things don't ostensibly seem to mix? I honestly don't know that any of us can answer that- it simply was suggested by someone, at some point, and became reality almost on auto-pilot. Garrett read an article in Mother Earth News, one of our favorite publications, which detailed how to get started. That prompted him to take an online course several months ago about the basics of beekeeping, and he became involved with our local beekeeping society as an offshoot of that effort. He purchased a hive about a month ago, thinking that he would continue to apprentice with local beekeepers to better learn the trade before he tried his own hand at it, but when a package (of bees) became available at the end of last week, he shifted into gear and began to prep the hive for it's new inhabitants! Since our land doesn't have a southern exposure, which is necessary to keep bees warm enough through the winter months in such a northern locale, Garrett's sister has graciously offered to allow us to keep the bees at her house just a few miles down the road.

This is the new hive, prepped and ready for the apiary. It's painted white to deflect sunlight lest our hardworking ladies overheat in the summer months. (Did you know that all the worker bees in a hive are female?) The yellow cup shown here is an entrance feeder, designed to feed a new colony. Once they begin to make their own honey, we'll be able to take that off. 
 This view is looking into the hive. It's an 8-frame traditional English hive, meaning it's the historical standard for hive construction (more modern methods use 10 frames but we're old fashioned here). When the bees inhabit the hive, they will build honeycomb into the frames and will fill them with brood (baby bees) and eventually honey.
 Because we are getting our bees late this year (typically one would put up a new hive in May, depending on weather), we choose to set up a foundation of honeycomb to help the building along. You can see the wire lengths along each frame in the photo- these give the wax some rigidity and will allow the bees to build more honeycomb on top of the pattern.

We can't wait for our new residents!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Homemade Refried Beans

I don't know about yours, but my family loves refried beans, and I find that I use them a fair amount in my cooking. They're great to use particularly for a quick meal or for an addition of protein to an otherwise lacking entree. I recently discovered that I could make my own beans, without the preservatives and expense of the canned variety. And you know what? They were easy and quite tasty!

Here's the recipe:

Homemade Refried Beans
1 lb beans (any variety, but black beans are my family's favorite)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp chili powder

Soak beans overnight (by putting them into a bowl and covering them with water). Remember to leave room in your bowl for beans to expand as they absorb the water. If you forget the night before, just make sure the beans soak for a couple of hours in the morning.

Drain beans and place them in a pot and again cover with (new) water.  Cook with chopped onion for an hour or so, or until soft. Drain most of the liquid, but reserve some in case you need to change the consistency of your finished product. Add the seasonings listed above and mash them together. You can use a hand masher, but I prefer to use my immersion blender. Whatever method you choose, mash until you get the desired consistency, using the reserved water as/if needed.You know your family's preferences best!

When finished, your beans are ready to eat and are a healthful alternative to store bought brands. This recipe freezes well for up to six months, so I often double the recipe and save some for the nights that I don't want to cook. I also use this recipe a lot in conjunction with my homemade tortillas and enchilada sauce (coming soon) to make restaurant-quality burritos. Yum!

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