Archive for January, 2011

Tips for Freezing Vegetables

When I came across the 1973 edition of this book at the thrift store last week, and I snatched it up. We just bought a chest freezer, and I’m looking forward to being able to store some of our overabundance of summer garden veggies for later use.

I know the canning sections of this book are probably out of date. I like to refer to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which has the most recent USDA Canning Guide online. Canning freaks me out. Freezing, not so much. Although the NCHFP also has a lot of tips on freezing foods, which I’ll have to check out. I’ll probably get freaked out about freezing if I read them all!

In the meantime, my new (old) book has been very informative. Did you know that you pretty much have to blanch vegetables before you freeze them? Here’s what the book says:

Vegetables, as they come from the garden, have enzymes working in them. These break down Vitamin C in a short time and convert starch to sugar. They are all slowed down (not stopped) by cold temperatures, but they are destroyed by heat – by blanching. […B]lanching makes certain enzymes inactive which would otherwise cause unnatural colors and disagreeable flavors and odors to develop while the foods remain frozen. […] Vitamin C is retained in much greater amounts in many of those [vegetables] blanched before freezing.

According to the book, the basic rule of thumb for freezing veggies is: pretty much any vegetable that cooks well will freeze well. Here’s the method they recommend (click for readable versions):

I can’t wait to freeze my own peas, beans, and corn! And I’m excited to see if I can freeze my own cooked tomatoes to use in soups and sauces. Does anyone else do any preserving? I totally want a root cellar.

California Snow

All the storms back east have me thinking about snow. Where we live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, we don’t get much snow. The snow line in our area usually ranges from about 4,000 to 5,500 feet above sea level, and we’re quite a bit lower than that.

The photo above (taken almost exactly three years ago) shows the type of dusting we might get once or twice a year. It only sticks around for a few hours, or maybe overnight. December 2009 was a little different. We woke up to this:

That’s our garden fence on the left! This is not normal. Our neighbors, some of whom have lived on the street for close to 30 years, said they had never seen this much snow fall here. And it stuck around for several days. I listened to my scanner to hear about the power outages and downed trees, and chuckled when I heard that a sheriff’s patrol had lost control on the ice and hit some tree branches, breaking a rear window (nobody was hurt). Even our emergency responders don’t know how to navigate icy roads!

When I was a kid, we lived in a snowy area, and I remember the excitement of snow days. I got that feeling all over again when our road was too icy to get past for about 36 hours! There was no place we could go and nothing we could do except hang out and enjoy the beautiful, peaceful scenery. After a few days, it was back to reality. And really, a few days is about enough for me. I don’t want to deal with the snow on a regular basis. I like our mild winters. But just so you don’t think it’s paradise here, let me leave you with this thought: it was 108 degrees Fahrenheit the day we moved into our house. That memory makes me shiver.

MeeseCam 1.0

So, I’ve been trying to get MoleCam up and running, and I just got the web cam I ordered for that project in the mail yesterday. It’s a Logitech WebCam Pro 9000 with motion-detect software. I’m not fully ready for MoleCam, so I decided to do a test run with MeeseCam. We have two pet mice, Gray Meese and Third Meese. We call them meeses, which is from Snagglepuss. Here’s the (heavily edited) resulting video from last night.

Meal Planning, and What’s in My Fridge

Note: I swapped the fridge photos with better ones.

I recently and reluctantly decided that I need to do a better job of planning our meals ahead of time. There are a few reasons for this:

1. My grocery shopping tends to be pretty haphazard, so I often don’t have all the ingredients for healthy meals. It’s also probably not the most economical approach.
2. I want to eat more fruits and veggies, so I need to have them on-hand with the rest of the ingredients to prepare them they way I like.
3. Grocery shopping is not my favorite thing to do and I would like it to be as efficient and infrequent as possible.

So, here’s my first attempt at planning meals for four days this week:

I realize this isn’t the most sophisticated meal-planning attempt, but I’m trying to find something that works for me. I don’t do well with very scheduled, structured plans – that’s just not the way I think about things. I am more of a chaotic list-maker. 🙂 I wrote out a little schedule to remind me to do things like pre-soak beans and move stuff from the freezer to the fridge to defrost. I think a lot of people cook a big batch of something and then use it a few different ways. I couldn’t think of anything good to do that way, so the only things that are getting used twice are turkey (once in curry and once in tacos) and rice (once with chicken and once with curry). I still think it’s a pretty good start.

Hey, here are some totally uncleaned and unedited photos of the contents of my fridge and freezer! I did move a few things around and rotate them so you could see what’s what. Click on them to enlarge – I even made them extra big for your snooping pleasure. I love seeing what’s in other peoples’ fridges!

Do you plan meals? Any good tips or resources for my planning-averse personality?

Photo Tour of House Oddities: Non-Supportive, Non-Symmetric Post

Our house was built in 1979, and a garage and living room were added the next year. The home was built by the owner. Everything we’ve found suggests that it’s very solidly constructed, but there is some serious funkiness. I mean, we live in a geodesic dome, so you would expect it to be a little strange, but some things go above and beyond. I’d like to present a little photo tour of our house’s oddities. This will be done in installments, and I think you’ll soon understand why. Introducing the first oddity: The Non-Supportive, Non-Symmetric Post, located in our den.

This oddity is really a head-scratcher for me. There is a section of loft that juts out into our den. It’s cantilevered, with at least 80% of of it directly supported and probably 20% or less overhanging into the den. And yet, I naively assumed that the post below the cantilevered section served some utilitarian purpose. Part of the reason I thought this was because the post wasn’t at the corner of the cantilevered section; it was offset about a foot, making it look more than a little awkward. If you were going to put in an unnecessary post, wouldn’t you put it in the corner, where it’s nice and symmetric?

In the second photo you can see a corrollary oddity: Why on Earth Did They Use Dark Wood Trim There? (Also: Why Was the House so Dark Before We Moved In?) Anyhow, you can see how that post is clearly not at the corner of the overhang. It must be over a joist, right? Before we tackled the post, John decided to fix the funky trim, which required a surprising amount of work. He had to shim under the existing ceiling, and install new drywall and texture.

So, was that post over a joist? Of course not! It was just resting on sub-floor, totally unsupported from below. Because of the cantilevering, it’s not a structural necessity (which is confirmed by its original unsupported location). Nevertheless, we decided it would look strange to get rid of it entirely, so we moved it to the corner of the overhang. Where it is directly over a joist. 😮 I love our house, but there’s only so much of this that my brain can process at once (hence the installments)!

Here’s how it looks after all the work. John did such a nice job trimming it. It’s totally plumb, the second photo’s just a little off. You can see the new floors, and we also painted all the window and door trim white.

Well, having shared that, you know I would love to hear about any of your house oddities! Do you live with them or fix them? Are you fond of your oddities, or do you wish a pox on the responsible party? I have grown to love our strange house, oddities included!

It Took Us Four Years to Plant Fruit Trees

We’ve been talking about planting some fruit trees since we moved into our house in July 2006. And yet, we never did anything about it. We were too busy with other house projects to tackle gardening and landscaping; it took us two years just to get a vegetable garden started! Part of the problem is that it seems like such a commitment to plant a tree. It’s not like you can just move it if you don’t like where it’s planted. We finally decided to plant the trees in between our house and the road to the backyard. Here’s our new micro-orchard:

The road is on the left along the fence line, and our house is up on the right. You can see a bit of the shed, too. John did all the work while I spent the day with my Mom. My role was consulting on varieties and location. We chose an apple, a peach, a cherry, a three-way grafted apricot, and a mandarin orange (which hasn’t been planted yet). We’re also going to plant a navel orange, but our local nursery was out of the variety we wanted. John did a great job planting the trees…look how nice the base of the tree and the drainage look!

In other garden news, our lilac is budding! I love that thing, it smells absolutely heavenly when it blooms, and is gorgeous to boot!

I’ll admit that my big fear with the fruit trees is that they’ll die. We don’t have any real irrigation system, so we’ll have to figure out a watering schedule. And I know we’re prone to scale, so we might have issues with that. Do you all have fruit trees? Good resources? Tips for organic pest control and irrigation schedules? My friends at REOlistic Renovation inherited an amazing little orchard in their backyard! Hopefully they’ll be willing to trade veggies for fruit until our trees mature! 🙂

Turkey Math (or: Yes, I Really Am This Nerdy)

When it comes to turkey and chicken, I’ve always wondered whether it’s cheaper to buy the whole bird and cut it up myself, or buy the pre-cut parts (like breasts or thighs). I mean, the price per pound is always cheaper when you buy the whole bird, but it seems like there’s a lot of waste. I wanted to know how the price compared when I considered all of the stuff in the whole bird (giblets, skin) I don’t use. I needed to find out what percentage of the whole bird I really used.

So, I bought a whole turkey. I like turkey, and since I was going to do all the work of cutting it up, I wanted to get a lot of meat out of it. A chicken seemed like about the same amount of work for a lot less meat. I paid $1.38/pound for a 15-pound turkey at my local grocery store. Total cost: about $20. The turkey parts at that store were about $2.75/pound. I cut the bird up, and this is what I got:

27%: 4.0 pounds of leg and thigh (skin on/bone in)
12%: 1.8 pounds of wings (skin on/bone in)
21%: 3.2 pounds of breast (boneless/skinless)
24%: 3.6 pounds of useful carcass and neck (all skin and excess fat removed)
16%: 2.4 pounds of skin and waste

So, 60% of the whole bird was meat parts. If I consider the other stuff to be waste, I paid $20 for 9 pounds of meat parts, or about $2.25/pound. Of course, I actually use the carcass and neck to make soup (yum), so it’s not a total waste. Anyhow, if I had bought 9 pounds of meat parts at $2.75/pound it would have cost $24.75. I used about $1.00 in supplies to package it in vacuum-sealed bags so it would stay fresh in the freezer. Cutting up the turkey myself saved me $3.75. It took me about 45 minutes to cut, package, and clean everything up (I skinned the thighs before packaging them, which takes a while).

Assuming most turkeys are like my bird, 60% of a turkey is meat parts. This means that you will save money by cutting up a turkey yourself if the price per pound of turkey parts is at least 1.67 times the price per pound of a whole turkey.

Here are some examples. It’s cheaper to cut the turkey up yourself when:

– A whole turkey is $1.00/pound and turkey parts are $1.65/pound.
– A whole turkey is $1.20/pound and turkey parts are $2.00/pound.
– A whole turkey is $1.80/pound and turkey parts are $3.00/pound.

So, it’s a really good deal when whole turkeys are cheap (usually around the holidays), and a crappy deal when whole turkeys aren’t cheap. Based on the amount of work it took me to deal with the whole bird, I think I would have to save at least $7-8 (the cost of lunch at my favorite Mexican joint) to make it worth my while.

What do you think? Am I nuts to even consider doing all this work to save a few bucks? Or is it worth the effort?

This post didn’t have photos because I didn’t think anyone would want to see a bunch of photos of raw turkey. So here’s a pic of some backyard guests to make it up to you. 🙂

Pretty Sunsets

One of our favorite things about our property is the location. We’re super lucky to have a nice westward view, and we get some pretty amazing sunsets. Here are a few of my favorite photos. These are all taken from our deck, except for the last one, which I’m pretty sure was taken from the roof.

Foolproof Roast Chicken

One of my favorite things to cook is roast chicken. It’s super easy, pretty much foolproof, and everyone I’ve made it for raves about it. If you watch for sales, it’s also a really good deal – my bird was $0.77/pound, so this dish cost less than $5 (even including the extras). One five-pound chicken will easily serve four adults. In our case, it serves two hungry adults with lots of leftovers! And leftover roast chicken is the best, in my opinion!

A lot of roast chicken recipes are pretty complicated, but mine is pretty simple. I’m going to detail everything because I want your roast chicken to turn out great, but I bet it’ll take you longer to read this than to get the bird in the oven. Here’s what you’ll need (I’ll add in some options along the way):

– A whole chicken (about 5 pounds)
– Olive oil or other vegetable oil
– Salt and pepper
– A roasting pan OR aluminum foil

First, defrost the bird if it’s frozen. Just put the frozen bird in the fridge for a good 36-48 hours. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit while you get things ready. Remove all the giblets from the cavity of the bird (just look in there and pull everything out…it will be pretty obvious). Rinse the bird under cold tap water and pat it dry with a paper towel. You need it to be dry so you can oil it up and get a nice crispy skin.

Second, put your bird in the roasting pan, breast-side up, like in the photo.

If you don’t have a roasting pan, just make a little boat out of either two thicknesses of regular aluminum foil or one thickness of heavy-duty foil. This works great – just be extra careful when you’re taking it out of the oven (you may need to slide it onto a cutting board or piece of cardboard).

Rub the bird with olive oil and sprinkle it generously with salt and pepper. If you have something like onion, shallots, lemon, or herbs on hand, you can put them in the cavity. I recommend half an onion (two quarters) and one halved lemon. I didn’t have an onion, so I used some green onions. You don’t have to use any of this stuff, but it does add flavor. Then, you’ll want to tuck the wings under the bird so they don’t burn (check out the other photos for a better view). You have to kind of strong-arm them around and under the bird. If you can’t figure it out, just wrap the ends in a little piece of foil so they don’t burn. It’s traditional to tie the legs together with string, but this is totally optional. Just tie the string to one leg, then to the other. But seriously – it will taste exactly the same whether you do it or not, it’s up to you.

Third, put the bird in the oven. Cook it for 1 hour, 15 minutes. Check it after about half an hour, and then peek in every fifteen minutes or so to make sure it’s not getting too brown. If it gets as dark as you want it to be before the cooking time is up, just put a piece of foil on top of it. DON’T wrap the foil around the bird, just lay it on top to shield it. If things start to get smoky, pour some water into the pan/foil.

I didn’t need any foil this time, but I added water twice to keep the smoke down. It sort of varies, just keep an eye out for browning. You’ll know if it’s too smoky! After 1 hour 15 minutes, take the bird out of the oven and check to see if it’s done. You’ll know it’s done because when you poke a knife in, the juices will run clear (instead of pink). You can use a meat thermometer to check the temperature if you want. It should read at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Check the temperature by sticking the thermometer into the thigh, right between the body and the leg, pushing it in pretty far. You basically want the thermometer to be where my knife is in the photo below:

My bird temped at 175 degrees Fahrenheit in the thigh. It was still very moist and juicy. I think there’s a pretty good margin for error in roast chicken, but feel free to take it out a little early and check it if you are worried about it getting too done. Or, leave it in longer if you like! I have to say that the standard 1 hour, 15 minutes has worked great for me in three or four different ovens, so I think it’s pretty fail-safe unless your oven temperature is waaaaaay off.

Fourth, let the finished roast chicken rest for a good ten to fifteen minutes before cutting it. This helps keep the juices in the meat. Now you can carve the bird! You can really do it however you want. I start by cutting off the legs/thighs, which I’m doing in the photo above. Then I cut the breast meat like this:

Enjoy your roast chicken! And please share any ideas for roast chicken or good sides in the comments. I love a nice side of rice and a spinach salad, personally. And the leftovers are perfect for chicken tacos, yum!

Mole Cam 1.0

Alright, the mole has burrowed into one of our raised beds that has wire mesh under it. How, I don’t know. According to John, he stapled “the hell out of it” when he installed the mesh, and we can’t figure out how the darn thing is getting into the bed. For some inexplicable but unavoidable reason, John and I have decided that the best (and funnest) way to address this problem is with Mole Cam. I’m deep in the midst of researching this project. So far, here are my plans:

– HD Web Cam with motion-sense software. A trustworthy friend likes this camera, so we may go with it.
– Red LED Light (I can wire this to a USB cable, but I need to check USB power/amperage to make sure it can power both the web cam and the LED so I only have to run one USB cable with a splitter near the end)
– Plexiglass or glass container to protect the camera
– Silicone sealant to make it water-tight
– USB cables to get from the garden to the shed (about 40 feet)
– Bury the assembly somewhere in Moleville and hope for some action

I have to admit that I’m pretty excited about this plan. If it doesn’t work….wait, what am I saying? Of COURSE it will work!!! Others have had good luck with above-ground applications, like the Animal Detector. They use white light, but I’ve read that moles are light-averse, so I’m thinking red is the way to go…

I’ll take any and all suggestions/recommendations