Monday, December 31

Menu Idea Monday - Saving Candle Jars

My Prince has returned, and I'm back to cooking again, so Menu Idea Mondays will resume!

Today's entry is not a recipe, but a great tutorial for getting wax out of old candle jars. These jars are a great size and typically seal neatly, making them a great option for various kitchen sundries - and a great alternative to buying jars to organize your kitchen with. 

I've never saved candle jars before, as I've never been able to get all the wax out. But this tutorial has the secret - go check it out, and then enjoy a free source of pretty jars for your kitchen!

PS - Don't waste the wax! Any lingering wax from dead candles can be saved and remelted. Use it to make new candles of your own, or mix with a generous handful of sawdust for top notch fire starters.

Saturday, December 29

Lemon Sugar Scrub

Thoughts of transitioning to natural, non-toxic personal care products have been often on my mind in recent months. Initially, it stemmed from reading about the debut of Mary Kay's latest skin care line. Although it took the company years to roll it out, neither consultants nor customers were happy when it arrived. They'd long been asking for something natural. Something completely free of questionable ingredients that would fit the rest of their healthy lifestyle choices. What they got was nothing of the sort.

It was enough to spark my curiosity - I blame the business major in me. Was this another case of bad management through obliviousness and arrogance? Could it really be that complicated to create quality personal care products at a reasonable cost? Surely with the centuries that people had been self-reliant before mega-industry took over production of every category of goods there had to have been simple, reliable recipes using safe and basic ingredients that could serve as models!

As it turns out, the interwebs are ablaze with creative and smart women who asked exactly that same question - and answered with a plethora of simple, healthy and fantastic products that fit the bill. I've been quite pleased with what I've discovered so far, and want to share one of my finds: Lemon Sugar Hand Scrub from Under the Table and Dreaming. It's simple, completely safe and natural, and (happily) cheap to make! It can be easily customized to a different scent if you'd like, as well.

I look forward to sharing what I learn as I continue to slowly transition our home off of as many toxic commercial products to homemade, customized, healthy options wherever I can.

(If you're a Pinterest fan, get a sneak peak at what's on my to-be-experimented-with list by following my Holistic Beauty board!)

Friday, December 28

Post Christmas Debrief

Anyone who's ever worked in events management will tell you that events don't end when you've washed the last dish and flicked off the lights for night. They aren't truly over until you've completed the post event debrief. Whether you had a smashing success, a train wreck or a run-of-the-mill affair, its essential to spend a few minutes in reflection and review, making notes for next time. 

In this respect, holidays at home are no different than commercial events. So make yourself a cup of a tea and carve out a couple minutes to do a little thinking.

Ask yourself a few basic questions.
  1. What went really well this Christmas? What did I enjoy/ appreciate most?
  2. What did not go well?  What was stressful?
  3. What did I learn that I want to remember for next year, and what's the best way to make sure I don't forget?
The key here is really question #3. Hindsight is exceptionally revealing, but memory is easily subsumed and blurred under the chaos of life throughout the rest of the year. It all seems vivid now, but if you don't do something to prompt your memory, you're going to forget. End of story.
Consider using one of these simple methods to ensure your valuable lessons from this holiday season don't get lost:

 1. Start a Pinterest Board (or three). I know Pinterest isn't for everyone, but it has been a tremendously helpful tool for me. Creating a "gifts" board and pinning ideas throughout the year greatly simplified holiday shopping (and hugely reduced the stress involved). You could do the same with anything - decorations or supplies you noticed you needed, menu ideas/suggestions, helpful hints/tips or even traditions to remember or start.

2. Write a bucket list. Right now is the perfect time to write next year's bucket list. Put the things you loved or regret not making time for at the top of the list! Write off the things that disappointed or proved to be a waste of time and energy. Give you post-season perspective a chance to temper the overly-enthusiastic and unrealistic expectations it's so easily to fall prey to at the start of the holiday season.

3. Deploy sticky notes.  Sticky notes are your friend. If you like giving homemade gifts, put a note on your calendar in July reminding you to get started so you aren't rushed and behind when Christmas arrives. Drop a note in September to update your address book and buy stamps, so that when it's time to write out Christmas cards you already have everything you need. A series of little steps taken well in advance will go a long way towards making next holiday season easier and happier.

What lessons did you learn this season?

Thursday, December 20

Skeletons at the Feast

Photo from Flickr
Audio books are expensive, and many of the books that make my wish list are not available in that format at all. As a result, I sometimes have to take my chances with audio books from the library's stock that I wouldn't otherwise have picked up.

Occasionally, this reading roulette brings me an unexpected gem; that was case with Skeletons at the Feast.

If you are unfamiliar with the phrase, as I was, it refers to reminders of troubling things amidst happy or pleasurable times/events. It was only at the end of the book that I could really appreciate the deep aptness of the title.

Told from the perspective of refugees fleeing the invading Russian army in the last days of World War II,  the book delves deeply into what it is to be a civilian - a single person - in the heart of a nation at war. The only other book I can think of that dealt with war from a non-soldier perspective at this deeply human and personal level was Across Five Aprils (which was written for a much younger crowd).

Skeletons is one of those books that you need to chew on and digest slowly. The plot is simple, following aristocratic, 18 year old Anna and her family as they leave their prosperous farm to become refugees, trudging literally across the country to escape the oncoming Russian army as it rapes, pillages and burns everything in its path. With the men away in the Army, Anna, her mother and her young brother Theo are joined by Scottish prisoner of war Callum, loaned from a Nazi work camp to help with their harvest before they fled. En route, they encounter Uri, a Jew masquerading as a series of German army officers while searching for his young sister. Meanwhile, Cecille, a young French woman, struggles to keep herself and her friends alive through the brutality of labor camps and forced marches.

The subtext, however, is anything but simple. Gradually, the sheltered women find their naivety stripped from them and replaced with horror, grief and confusion as they see and experience the atrocities of their own nation. Though the author handles them deftly, deep questions run through the book's undercurrent.

I can't begin to cover in a single blog post the complexities and deep considerations the book prompts, but if you're looking to stretch your brain (and your heart a bit), you might well consider this for your reading list.

Warning: This is a book about war, and it's extremely graphic. It contains rape, brutal violence, extensive death, and adult themes. It is absolutely not appropriate for children, and should be avoided by sensitive readers as well. If it sounds interesting but you tend to be troubled by the aforementioned caveats, please consider reading Across Five Aprils instead. It deals with many of the same themes less graphically.

Thursday, December 13

Proving the Wrong Point

Apparently, Newark New Jersey's Mayor, Cory Booker, joined a long line of politicians trying to make a statement about welfare and food stamps by living on $33 of food for a week. Although the goal was to convince people that there's no room to cut such social service supports, the result was something else entirely: to demonstrate how little even the influential really understand about food and nutrition.

According to the article, Booker spent his money on: "several cans of beans, a large bottle of olive oil, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and bags of salad".

First off, kudos to him for including veggies on the list and skipping the junk food entirely. That's diametrically opposite what studies show most people on food stamps are buying, but sets a healthy example.

Did you notice anything missing, though?  Starch? Protein?

Bagged salad may feel healthy, but it's extremely expensive relative to what you get, and does nothing to keep you feeling full or to trigger the satiation chemicals in your brain. For less than the cost of two bags of salad, Book could have purchased well over 5 lbs of either pasta or rice, and at least a dozen eggs. Either starch would have ensured that he had a full belly all week with plenty left over carry him into the next week. Combined with the eggs and vegetables, they could have provided a variety of satisfying and nutritious meals.

The problem isn't a lack of money - it's a lack of knowledge and ability. 

It stretches through every strata of society, and afflicts every corner of our nation. Frankly, it's embarrassing.

We are the descendants of pioneers. We have more tools at our fingertips than they could ever have dreamed of - well stocked public libraries, the internet, local Extension courses, older neighbours. We have let giant conglomerates convince us that we need them. That they make the rules - and the food. He who controls the food, controls the nation.

Don't be controlled or helpless. Use the resources available to you and ignore the politicians and the media as they try to justify their own excess. Learn to cook. Learn to spend your money wisely. 

We're only weeks away from a new year. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, the economy is likely to get much grimmer before it gets better. If you don't know much about food, cooking and nutrition, please consider putting it on your list of New Year's resolutions. You'd be amazed how empowering a few simple changes can be. If you don't know already, then for your health, and for your freedom, learn to cook

Saturday, December 8

Kitchen Tip

Whether you're writing a menu of festive holiday dishes or planning a New Year's resolution related to cooking, I would like to offer a simple kitchen tip that may come in handy.

If you're like me, you have several yummy recipes that call for white wine and just don't turn out correctly without it. (Chicken French, anyone?)

Unfortunately, I'm not particularly good at keeping an open bottle of white wine just hanging around. It can be hard to get good wine around here, and there are plenty of lovely wines that just aren't right for cooking with.

So here is the easiest solution I've found: grab a couple bottles of dry or semi-dry white wine (I'm partial to Riesling for cooking, but use what you like) just for cooking. Pour the contents into ice cube trays or other small containers and freeze. Toss into ziplock bags or tupperware, label and store in the freezer.

If you use more than one bag/container, number them and write yourself a note in giant letters on the last one to get more wine! That will give you plenty of opportunity to replenish your stash before you run out, and ensure that you always have wine on hand to cook with... even if your wine rack runs dry.

Friday, December 7

The Bread Trick

For many people, the holidays are a season of decadent food. Not least among the feasting are festive breads of all varieties - your standard boule, huge loaves of cinnamon raisin swirls, eggy challahs, and rich dense tea breads.

It's not uncommon to end up with leftovers, or to find that they don't hold well. If you don't have dogs as eager to help with cleanup as mine (or teenage boys), here are a few tips I learned back in my Panera days for making great use of miscellaneous bread a little past it's prime.

Steam It. Put your bread on a paper towel or plate in the microwave, and put a shot glass of water in next to it. Nuke it briefly. (Think 30 seconds to a minute, depending on your microwave and the quantity of bread being treated.) This creates steam, wonderfully resuscitating your bread.

You can do the same in an oven, it will just take a little longer. Put your bread on a cookie sheet and pre-heat the oven to 350 or 400. Slide the bread into the oven, and spritz down sides of oven generously with water to create steam. Close the door and let it sit for a couple minutes. You may need to steam more than once, depending on the type/quantity of bread, oven variations, etc., but this usually works nicely.

Grill It. Toasting bread can just make it more dry and brittle. Grab a skillet (I prefer cast iron for this, but probably anything would work) and heat it over low heat on the stove top. Butter your bread generously on both sides and plop it on the skillet. The butter will melt as the bread heats, caramelizing slightly as the bread softens and toasts. Grill both sides. If it isn't quite soft enough, pour a tiny bit of water onto the skillet off to the side of the bread and drop a lid over it, allowing it to steam for 30 seconds or so. You may never go back to regular toast again!

Bake With It. Obviously French toast is one of the most common options, and people are rarely unhappy with the result, regardless of what meal you serve it for. (Breakfast for dinner is a good thing!) But it's hardly the only choice. Bread pudding, crutons, frittatas are all quick, healthy and simple ways to use up bread that's a bit stale. Or toast it up and use it as the base for a simple dinner of creamed eggs, chicken, tuna or chipped beef for comfort food at its finest.

Thursday, December 6

Tracking Santa

Enjoy a little geekery now and then?

NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) has a dedicated website where you can track Santa's progress Christmas Eve!

I've never tried it before, but it comes highly recommended and I look forward to checking it out this year. A new tradition, perhaps?

Saturday, December 1

The Underground History of American Education

On a recommendation from my brother in law I picked up John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of American Education.

It blew my mind.

I cannot begin to describe how many disparate and complex subjects the author tackles, lining them up and connecting the dots between them. Faith, family, education, patriotism, business. This should be mandatory reading for every American.

Gatto respects the teachers who battle daily with the same goal he did - to genuinely help American students learn and thrive. But he breaks down the system, showing its poisonous roots and the myriad ways in which it crushes children, suppresses and fragments the family, and erodes Faith. Please make time to read it - we can't make a difference if we aren't informed, and this book brings together truths I have seen explored piecemeal dozens of other places. Together, the power and insight they bring is exponentially increased.

Although it would be impossible to describe here all the things that stunned me during the reading of this, one thing stood out above all else: your family is sacred. God designed families on purpose. That tiny core of structure - with all its defined roles, boundaries and supports - is the foundation of everything we need to be successful. 

There are so many things in this day and age seeking to destroy families. Many of us no longer even recognize or respect what the family was originally designed to look like - it's been beaten into us that the very things that will nurture and grow us are are restrictive, suffocating, to be revolted against. Don't buy it. Don't let anything degrade or eat away at the sanctity of your home. There is no more crucial fight than the battle to maintain a happy, content and intact home.

Okay. I'll get off my soap box now. But please read this. It will change you.