Wednesday, March 31, 2010


There is nothing that says simple living like a pot of soup on the stove. I realize many people only eat soup in the winter, but it is a cheap, healthy and yes – simple way to eat well any time of the year. My view of soup is very practical. Give me anything and I can turn it into soup. Add chicken stock to leftover chicken and rice – you have soup. Steak and potato leftover from dinner out – add beef stock and onions – soup. Well, you get the idea, I like soup and I have broad views on what it is and when to eat it.

To keep it short (I’ll try) I am not going to post any recipes, or theories, science or history of soup. No, I just want to pass on three simple tricks I use to really make the most of ingredients. Waste not – want not is probably a very good maxim to be relearning as we head into another year of economic fear and loss. As I said before – if living well is the best revenge, the best way to live well is to eat well. So to keep my word and be brief, here are three tips to prevent waste and make awesome soup. 

#1) Keep a lidded container in your freezer.

Any time you cut more veggies than you need toss the extra into the container. The next time you need to make soup or the container is full, toss them into your broth and voila – you have homestead vegetable soup. The random mix of veggies makes this soup taste like a surprise from the garden – each time it is a little different. If you want to do this with leftover cooked vegetables you certainly can, but use a separate container. You may not always want to use them together since obviously the precooked ones won’t have the same texture or need any real cooking time.

#2) Never throw away any hard cheese.

What to do with that thick waxy rind you get from cheeses like hard Swiss, parmesan or Romano? Or the nice piece of cheddar you let turn into a hard brick in your fridge? Save them – wrap them in foil and they will keep forever. Next time you are making soup – just throw large chunks in while simmering and remove them just before you finish. It will impart a rich complex flavor to any soup. It is really amazing how good it is. It really supercharges the flavor.  Do not turn up your noses – Julia Childs did it.

#3) Never throw away soup

We all tend to make too much soup at one time. Huge batches of chili or lentil soup just appear. Where we had planned on a quart – we make a gallon. It happens to us all. We get tired of eating it and so often people toss the excess. No, no, no – once you realize you have made too much soup divide it right away and freeze the extra. Most soups handle freezing well. If you still end up with more soup than you can eat – don’t toss it. Take the leftovers and puree them with a hand mixer. This puree is great to put in the freezer and use it later as a starter for a new batch of soup. It can also be used fresh as a thick sauce to pour over vegetables like potatoes or asparagus.

Wow, I did it - I kept this post short. To be more self sufficient we do not necessarily need to find ways to get more, often we just need to find ways to use what we have. That is the essential trick to simple living.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dexter and Kerry cows: heritage Irish cattle for small homesteads.

Cows were probably introduced into northern Europe by the migrations of Neolithic man as early as 2000 BC. The original animal was closely related to the ancient Aurouchs of the Stone Age. From this small black cow most of Europe began to breed and develop the larger more productive cattle which emerged all over Europe.

But, as in all things, when trying to raise cattle, the hardy homesteaders of Ireland faced many challenges. Their climate was less than ideal. Their soil was thin and unproductive. Their land holdings were tiny and they had many other claims upon their daily labor than tending a needy breed of cattle – usually tending the cow was the job of the wife or an older child.

So, in the nature of things, the Irish began to favor tough, resilient, cows that could handle the Irish weather without lots of pampering or expensive shelter. They looked for calves that were smaller than most because smaller cattle could feed themselves from the tiny patches of pasture a cottage could provide. Also, smaller cattle were more easily handled by women and children. Similarly, cows that were good natured and calm were bred for because you needed that trait if you were likely to have a child looking after the animal.

Over the millennia, these pressures of land and preferences of the people, led to the breeding of a small, tough, good natured animal. While most of Europe went with bigger, heavier, more productive cattle, the Irish stayed close to their Celtic shorthorn ancestors, brought over nearly 5000 years ago.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

STORING TOMATOES for maximum flavor and shelf life

Gardening season in Florida is off and running. The number one vegetable grown in the home garden is the tomato. Of course, actually the tomato is a fruit, but let’s not get picky. A tomato plot is essential to all homesteaders, self sufficiency hopefuls and generally everyone who enjoys a nice salad. The tomato plays such a large part in simple living that it deserves a whole page just on its history. It is not going to get it here. Nor, am I going to talk about growing or even using tomatoes.

I want to speak to you briefly about storing tomatoes for fresh use. Even if we grow our own in backyard gardens, we must resort to store bought tomatoes in the off seasons. Very often, we find ourselves dealing with tomatoes that are not fully ripe. Almost every tomato you buy in the store has been picked totally green and far ahead of its peak ripeness. Even in homestead gardens, the heat or rain may require you to pick some tomatoes before they are fully ripe.  That is the bad news. A tomato that ripens fully on the vine and is picked just before use is ideal and can't be duplicated by commercial methods. However, there is good news. Tomatoes, as a fruit, will continue to ripen even after being picked. People hold them until ripe in many ways – some good, some bad. I will let you know which is which. Also, I can share with you a very effective heirloom method my mother uses and it works very well.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Simple living is a state of mind. If you decide that making jam and jelly is a terrifying thing, where any tiny slip can spell total disaster, then it will be. If you believe it will be a relatively easy process that almost always works, but which can have some random results, then it will be. Happiness is not in the process or even the results. Happiness is found in how we deal with both. Making jam and jelly is a very simple thing. It is an heirloom skill that has been working for centuries. You cannot undo generations of success with one small deviation from the process. If you add a little too much lemon juice or too little sugar, cook it too long or not long enough – it will still generally turn out perfectly good jam or jelly. It is here where the thought process comes in.

So, if you expect every jar to be brilliantly colored and just the right thickness then you are the problem. First of all what is the right color and consistency? I like mine brightly colored and just thick enough to stay on the spoon. Others like theirs to get a dark color and be thick enough for the spoon to stand up in. Heck, some even like it cooked to a rich amber color with a thickness just this side of taffy. So if there is no one “perfect” result there can be no perfect process nor perfect results.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

DRYING YOUR LAUNDRY ON A LINE IN FRESH AIR - heirloom skill worth revisiing

Well, I am still on the laundry.  I told you to reduce your laundry detergent in my St Patricks post. Today I want to talk to you about line drying. Drying your clothes on a line in the backyard invokes many different images. Some may dream of the clean sweet smell as you collect them from the line on a lemonade scented afternoon. Some may think of how much they are saving by not running that energy hog drier. Sadly, many will think of the lint riddled, stiff as a board towels they took down the first time they tried to dry in the sun. Worse, some will groan about better uses for their time and sniff at the silly waste of opportunity.

Let me address each of these images, started with the last one first. Is drying your clothing without a drier as waste of time and opportunity? Well, strictly speaking - yes. Of course it is quicker to dry clothes in a hot drier powered by a quarter ton of coal being burned to generate the electricity off at the power plant. I would argue, that if you do not care about saving the environment, you might enjoy saving the money needed to run an unnecessary appliance. But let us hit that opportunity cost idea. That concept is a hideously corrupting idea dragged into our homes from the business world. The idea is that one should compare the value of everything we do to the rate of earnings we could make spending that time working. So, if anything you do does not generate or save dollars equal to the rate at which one gets paid - it is a waste of time. Hogwash! First of all, this idea assumes that the dollar is the only measure by which we can get paid. If this were true, every minute we spend with loved ones, every time we went to a play or a picnic was a waste.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

SOAP AS SACHET - SIMPLE LIVING SOLUTION for people to lazy to make their own sachets…

In my previous post I told you how to make great sachets out of socks, stockings and cedar chips. It was a great heirloom skill revived to serves us today. But, I am sure there are those of you out there who cannot yet muster the time and effort to actually pull that off. Really now – it could not get more simple. But, well actually yes it can get more simple. If you are looking for super simple low effort solutions, I have one for you. It is not as good as cedar at repelling bugs and it does not do much to reduce moisture. But, it does a great job of providing a nice smell for your clothing, linen, towels and such.

So what is this even more simple solution? – Scented soaps. That’s right, scented soaps do a great job as sachets when you use them in clothing drawers, linen closets and towel shelves. Here are a few of the great tricks this little bar of soap can do

1) You can find every scent in the world in soap.

2) Top quality scented soaps are common in bargain stores.

3) The bars are small and can be slipped into every nook and cranny imaginable, including shoes. 

4) When actually need soap you just swap out an old one from a drawer and replace it with a new fresh bar next time you go shopping. This is a great way to keep the smells fresh and also ensure you never run out of soap.

5) It allows you to justify buying too much soap whenever you come across a really heavenly smell.

6) No fuss - no muss - no work.  ( You should be ashamed. )

Well, I am not going to spend a lot of time on this post, because it truly is so simple. This idea came from my mom and she still does it today. Her bathroom smells delightful and it changes a little over time as she switches from honeysuckle to lavender to spice. She also tucks tiny rich smelling bars from Paris and big milky ones from New Zealand into all her drawers and I can tell you I have never ever opened a drawer in my mother’s house and not been met by some wonderful smell.

Now mind you, she also uses the stocking and cedar trick. But I would have to say if all you are looking for is smell – soap is a simple living answer to how to get results with basically no work.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


It is almost St Patrick’s day, want to keep the planet greener in his honor? How about keeping your wallet greener?

Want to cut your detergent costs in half? Want to reduce your chemical footprint from laundry in half? Want to cut your trips to the detergent aisle in half? Okay, well I am sure you get the picture – want to do all of those things? If the answer is yes, then here is how you do it. Reduce the amount of detergent you put in your laundry by half. If you are using traditional laundry detergents, then you are using too much. This applies to high efficiency, ultra concentrations and the like.

The fact is, the manufacturer’s recommended amount is simply too high. It leads to too many suds which are hard for modern machines to remove in the rinse cycle – especially front loaders. These suds therefore remain in the laundry as residue in your clothes. Do the words residue and clean go together in your mind?

This excess residue does a world of bad things. It clogs the fabric and prevents proper breathing of the material. It is mildly caustic and eventually breaks down the fibers in your clothes leading to wear and tear. It remains next to your skin and aggravates allergies. The residue also actually attracts dirt to your supposedly clean clothes making them need laundry more often. As if that was not enough, the residue continues to accumulate and so it gets worse with each wash.

The answer to all these bad things is one simple thing. Never, ever use more than half the recommended amount of laundry detergent. I am not saying don’t use a pretreatment on bad stains – stains are a problem but you need to concentrate the chemical on the stain, not spread it over the whole laundry. Use pretreatments and stain removers like normal -just do not add more than half the detergent. In a very short while you will notice that your clothes feel more comfortable and they will come cleaner easier. You will be saving money and you will have halved or better your laundry chemical footprint.

By the way, this is not just some homespun wisdom. There is a scientific basis against using too much of any kind of detergent. The effectiveness of the detergent depends on its ability to remove the soil from the fabric and place it into the cleaning solution to be rinsed away. If the detergent causes too many suds, the soil gets bound up in the suds and stays with the clothing even past the rinse cycle. If this seems doubtful, take a load of clothing you just laundered using the recommended amount of detergent. Place your “clean” clothes right back in the washing machine and put it through a wash cycle – but add no detergent. Once, it hits agitate, give it a couple minutes then open the lid – I can almost guarantee that your see suds. Where do all these suds come from if you have added no new detergent? They come from the filthy residues left behind. Using too much is bad for the environment, bad for your pocket, bad for your skin and bad for your clothing.

By the way, we overuse many other household chemical beside laundry detergent. How many times have you seen someone clean with pure Chemicals when the bottle or box clearly states that it is to be mixed with water? Mixing it with water is not a way to save money – it is the way most chemicals become effective. As part of the cleaning solution the chemical’s job is mostly to loosen the dirt and then get it into solution with water so that it can be removed. If there is no water to carry away the dirt, then all the pure chemical will do is spread it around evenly. Water is the universal solvent. It dissolves far more than any acid or chemical can. If you do not allow water to do its part in cleaning you are not cleaning at all. I suspect you could cut way down on the amount of chemicals here also. But for now, just be sure to actually mix the household cleaners to the specified solutions. Using them pure is wasteful and is actually much less effective than mixed with water.

Cut your laundry detergent in half and be sure to mix cleaners properly with water. This is a simple living solution that anybody can do and everyone will benefit from. Cut back on the chemicals is an easy way to go at least half way green and not give up on the detergents and cleaners you have grown used to. In later posts, I will present some totally green simple living solutions to laundry and cleaning, but this is a fine place to start.

PS:  Just as I was posting this, I saw an article from a scientist claiming that if you see any suds with modern detergents, you have put in too much.  He recommends using 1/8 of the normal amount.  Sounds like someone being a bit extreme for the sake of the news to me.  I do not think all suds are bad - I'm just saying.....     
May the blessings of spring be with you all this fine Saint Patrick's day.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

OLD FASHIONED SACHETS - Simple ways to prevent musty smells in clothing storage.


Ha-ha I just had to get that out of my system. But, cheer up, I am not only writing to be clever, I bare useful ideas. Spring is coming and with the many rituals of spring comes that of putting away our heavy winter blankets and clothing. Spring is definitely coming and with it comes new life and new beginnings. But even the passing of winter comes with some regrets and so it is with some sadness that I relinquish all the warm cuddly blankets and the comforting sweaters to the drawers and chests and plastic bins in which they rest most of the year.

One of the issues that arise during storage of anything – long or short term, is smell. Cooping fabric up in tight airless spaces is just perfect for the breeding of musty smells, mildew and moths. Especially here in the south, humidity is high all summer long and that just adds to the problems faced by stored cloth.

Fortunately, there is a simple living solution. Sachets have been used for years to scent closets and drawers. They worked well then and they still do today. This is not going to be rocket science and it will be the very simplest process. I love dried herbs and flowers and personally think that crafting your own scented sachets is a great idea. In fact, I may post on homemade potpourri and sachets someday. But, today I offer a simple easy as pie way to make sachets that smell awesome, work great, and cost little.

Wait; before I go on does everybody know what a sachet is? - Probably not. Ok, well the most technical definition of a sachet refers to the fact that it is held in little fabric bags. In fact that is what sachet means in old French – “little bag”. But over time, the meaning came to include that these bags would be filled with something scented. Commonly, they are filled with sweet or woodsy herbs and tossed into storage chests or dressers to prevent bad smells and add a light pleasant scent.

So here we begin, we need cheap easy fabric storage bags that are sized well to fit into drawers. Two simple solutions to that need are common in every house. Socks and stockings, both are made from breathable fabric, both are long and tube-like to fit well in drawers and both are easily available as they get too worn to serve their first purpose. Little fabric bags? – done.

Now scented fillings need to be found. Well, honestly in a world of cheap Chinese made potpourris I have to make a stand. Cheap potpourri rarely lasts long enough to work. I know it smells nice to start – but remember this is for long term storage. What is my answer? – cedar chips. Cedar has been a favorite for storage since they started marinating the pharaohs in it 5,000 years ago. It holds its scent for a very long time. It does tend to be a little masculine but you can soften it a bit easily enough. Plus, cedar chips are cheap. They sell premade cedar storage blocks but they are very expensive. For the cost of one small solid block of cedar you can get a huge bag of chips. Look for them in the pet section, where they are sold as bedding.  Chips also allow more air flow and therefore spread their scent more effectively and can also pick up a little moisture from the air and thus help reduce mildew.

Finally, cedar is a natural insect repellant. Do not underestimate the value of being repellant to bugs. Although I have heard of moths eating cloth all my life – I never really saw it. Until last year, I noticed a lot of little moths flitting around the house and at first I ignored it. Then I went to open up a box of Viyella shirts. Viyella is a blend of cotton and wool, very nice, very expensive. Well, I am sure you can guess what I saw – moth riddled ruin. Now all those shirt and sweater boxes have a nice cedar stuffed stocking in them and I feel a lot better and they smell a lot better.

It is a grand slam – so there is our scent. All that remains it to combine them, simple enough one simple fills the socks somewhat over half with the chips and then closes the end with a simple knot of ribbon or yarn. To use stockings you may want to cut the tops down to the size you prefer. For panty hose, just cut off the legs to the length you desire. Stockings are not as “cute” as ribboned socks, but they allow better air flow. Also, they can be made very long and thin and thus perfect to stretch along the back edge of a drawer or chest.

Once made these sachets can be tossed anywhere you want to use them. They are flexible, cheap and effective. They are great in all your dresser drawers, and they fit easily into any storage chest or containers. But, a great use for them I found is to place them inside shoes and sneakers. They do a great job of reducing odor. I am working on an improvement to the shoe idea and if it works out, I will share it in a later post.

So, there you have – sachet – the little bag that does a big job. It is cheap, it recycles, it is very green and it makes your socks smell clean. Truly this is one heirloom skill worth reintroducing to the simple life.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

HOME MADE JAM - Heirloom skill, and a great made from scratch treat

NOTE: The first part of this post is recycled from an older post on jam - but the subject matter is new, so if you have read the first few paragraphs before - don't panic, it is worth reading on I promise.

JAM - it is a simple living staple. The easiest thing you can do to replace factory food with something you made with your own hands. Also, it is the best way I know to tell the world - "hold on a minute - I am not done with my toast yet!".

A crisp March morning (yes- they do happen in Florida and we cherish them) The Cardinals are waking the world with that sharp, short note they use. The sun is shining - golden, through the bedroom window and Grimalkin the cat is laying belly up on the bed next to me. Grimalkin especially loves mornings and he is hard to dislodge. Dislodge is the necessary term because Grim ways well over 22 pounds and he lies like a sack of flour.

It is Saturday morning and I have plans for some dawn gardening, a breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and jam and then a visit to the farmer's market for some fresh veggies. Well, plans and I have a better relationship in theory than in fact. Reality sets in as the sun rises over the maple in the back yard. I have spent way too much time in the backyard garden beds and if I plan on going to the market while it is still busy I'll need to skip breakfast. Fortunately, the great thing about being a homesteader means you always have homemade jam around. So the problem is solved with a piece of toast and a large dollop of last year's blueberry jam.

Of all the things that a self sufficient life affords, jam is one of the best. There is nothing as easy and rewarding as jam. Yet, as simple as jam is, its joys can transcend food and become a time machine. The jars sit on the pantry shelf glistening like jewels, sending you back to the warm summer day they arrived in your kitchen, full of potential. Later, as you open the jars and spread them across fresh toast you are transported back in time to a warm kitchen where someone kind and gentle uses the corner of her apron to open the jar and spreads a thick fragrant layer of strawberry jam. Later, after you have spooned out the last vestige and place the empty jar in the sink, time scans forward and you find yourself thinking of the next harvest, favorite recipes to repeat, new ones to try in their turn.

Quite an accomplishment for a small mason jar to hold. And yet it does, jam is past, future, memory, hope and ambition all condensed into a thick sweet miracle and preserved in shining glass on your kitchen shelf.

Like so many things, Jam is both science and art. The basic scientific elements are fruit, sugar, acidity and pectin. In a perfect world, the fruit contains all of these things. The pulp contains sugar, the juice has acid and the skins contain pectin. So one can take a solution of crushed fruit, cook it long enough to concentrate the sugar to over 60%, make sure the Ph level is acid - around 3.0 to 3.5and provide a pectin concentration of over 0.5%. Poof - you have jam - it's that simple- well, in science at least.

However, Jam is not all science. True, if you put in enough sugar, some lemon and a packet of commercial pectin and boil it long enough, you will most likely produce a jam of some sort. But to get jam that tastes like a summer orchard or a fall berry patch, a jam that transports you back as a child in your grandmother's kitchen -science won't do it. It takes something more - maybe art, luck or just plain magic. That's where I come in; I loved my Nanny and was blessed to spend a great deal of time with her. From Nanny, I learned the magic of jam and that is what I will try to convey to you.

First off, although my nanny did at times spend days in the kitchen processing huge batches of fruit. Everything we will need to know can be learned from making small batches. Small batches are best anyway for many reasons. Small batches - do not require a long cooking time and that improves flavor, do not require a lot of fruit and so if you make a mistake it is a minor one, allow you to make preserves from even just a basket or two of fruit, do not require a lot of special equipment.

1 pint basket of berries = 3 1/4 cups whole berries = 2 1/4 cups sliced berries = 1 2/3 cups pureed berries.

Based on that math, allowing for evaporation and adding sugar, you should yield about 8 ounces of finished preserves from a pint basket. 8 ounces is equal to the ½ pint classic jelly jar and can be found all over.

You never want to use fruit in a preserve that you would not pop in your mouth and eat fresh. My nanny made one exception to this and it was a great secret. She would take a few of the greener fruit and slice them in with the ripe ones. The reason for this is that green fruit contains a lot of pectin and that helps to set the jelly and give it a firmer texture.

The thinner you slice the fruit the more surface area you expose. More surface area means quicker evaporation. This is especially important for strawberries, because they contain a whole lot of water. Blackberries and raspberries can just be lightly crushed.

As long as the fruit is firm and good, you do not need to peel too closely, the fruit near the edge contains the most pectin and this is needed for setting,

Many recipes call for you to add sugar to the fruit as it is already on the stove heating. This is ok if you are making a very small batch to eat right away. But if you plan on storing it for any length you will want to put the fruit in a bowl and pour the sugar on top – cover with a dishtowel and let rest for 30 minutes or more. This will draw more juice out of the fruit and make sure it gets incorporated into the preserves. Otherwise it stays in the fruit, is not properly cooked and seeps out later making your preserves wet and runny.

This one I taught to nanny and not the other way around. The idea is to get sugar to that magic 60 percent concentration. Many recipes cheat by adding lots of sugar in the start, but then they require long cooking to convert the raw sugar into a syrup. That omits one big problem – the longer your cook fruit the more flavor fades. Also the longer you cook sugars the more they caramelize and overpower what fruit flavor that is left. Long hot boiling times equal thick tarry preserves that taste more like molasses than fruit. One trick to avoid this is the small batch. Less fruit means more evaporation and less cooking time to get to 60percent. But, it is even better if you cook the fruit in as wide a pan as possible. The wide pan surface allows easy evaporation and is much faster than a narrow tall pot. For small batches you can (I do) use a large stainless steel skillet. The French approve of this idea so much that they have their own jam pans that look just like an old fashioned wash pan.

Timing is very tricky with preserves and the other factors like sugar, acid and pectin have much more influence than heat. So, it is always better to err on the side of undercooking. It is true you may end up with a batch of syrup instead of jam. But you can always use the syrup. You can put it on pancakes, use it in pies, substitute it for liquid in cakes, or even add it to iced water and make a fruit cooler in the summer. The point is – undercooked jam still has uses. If you have ever seen an overcooked batch of dark tarry preserves you will understand they have far fewer uses. None come to mind really. No, when in doubt it is best to stop and hope for the best,

A huge water bath boiler or pressure cooker is great to have, but you don’t have too. You can easily and safely accomplish all you fruit preserving with a simple stock pot. As long as the water covers the tops with at least two inches and you boil for 10 minutes, all is fine,  Of course, you will need jars and a funnel and jar tongs are super nice to have. Everything else should be in your kitchen already. Bowls, dish clothes, spoons, etc.

Nothing can burn as badly as boiling syrup. If you leave the fruit unstirred for a while – be careful when you start to stir again. Sometimes a great deal of heat has accumulated and the pot may spit. The boiling water you use to sterilize the jars and lids is the reason why you will really need to buy a can lifter and a lid magnet. They are not essential – you can improvise with good tongues. But you can get both these things along with a wide funnel all in a kit at Wal-Mart or Target. Also the finished jars will be very hot – it is best to place them on a flat towel when you take them out of the pot, it prevents mess and keeps the jars from cracking from contact with the cold counter top.

This was nanny’s greatest gift. Don’t think you should use that much sugar? Try using less – with a small batch it will only take a little more cooking to set the jam. Don’t think your jelly has a rich enough color. Soak some of your fruit skins in a little warm sugar water and add the liquid back for a richer color. Your jam is a little too bland? – add a touch of apple cider vinegar. Truth be told, nanny and I once put a tiny sprinkle of red Kool Aid powder in a batch of really pale and thin Peach preserves. The color was awesome and everyone raved about how beautiful our preserves where. We just smiled. Its jam – no reason to panic.


• Jelly is a mixture of fruit juice and sugar that is clear and firm enough to hold its shape.

• Jam is made from crushed or chopped fruit. Jam holds its shape, but is less firm than jelly.

• Conserves are jam made from a mixture of fruits sometimes they contain nuts, raisins or coconut.

• Preserves are made of small, whole fruits or pieces of fruits in clear, thick, slightly gelled syrup.

• Marmalades are soft, transparent fruit jellies that contain small pieces of fruit or citrus peel.

• Butters are made from fruit pulp cooked until rich and very thick.

For those of you ready to make the leap I will include this super easy small batch recipe for strawberry jam.

6 cups strawberries – around 2 pint baskets – there will be a few left to eat

2 cups sugar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1) Slice the berries thinly and do not remove all the white part on top

2) Place the berries in a large 10 or 12 inch skillet

3) Sprinkle the sugar on top of the berries

4) Wait 30 minutes or so until the berries have sweated

5) Turn the heat on to medium high and bring to a boil– stirring occasionally

6) Reduce heat to medium – stir constantly

7) Simmer for about 8 or 10 minutes – skim foam as needed

8) When mixture looks syrupy, test by dropping a spoon full on a ice cold saucer

9) When the jam appears thick and runs slowly it is ready – no more than 10 mins

10) Take jam off heat and ladle it into sterilized jars using the funnel

11) Wipe the rims

12) Pick up lids from boiling water using the magnet or tongs

13) Place lid on jar, place ring on and secure firmly – do not over tighten

14) Use jar lifter to place filled jars back in water pot – be sure there is 2 inches over the top

15) Bring water back to a full boil

16) Boil for 10 minutes

17) Remove from jar using the jar lifter – or use tongs - or turn off heat after 8 minutes and allow water to cool if you have no lifter.

This recipe should yield at least two 8 ounce mason jars of delicious jam. That is it. You have made jam. Enjoy the fruits of your labor and start to think of the next batch because you will go through this like no bodies business.

Monday, March 8, 2010

MACARONI AND CHEESE - heirloom recipe for great food without a box or tray

So, the gauntlet is tossed. I have pleaded for us all to reexamine the value we place on our food and to consider cooking our own meals as an exercise in economy, self confidence, creativity, etc. While I do not have any intention of becoming a recipe site, I think it would be fair to publish a few simple and basic recipes.

Here is a food near and dear to most American tastes – macaroni and cheese. I must admit, I shudder every time I hear how good some mac and cheese is – only to discover it is Stouffers frozen. I am not a food snob and I am not a purist. Stir fried cabbage and Kraft deluxe mac & cheese is a guilty pleasure of mine when I am in a hurry.

But, if you are going to make real baked macaroni and cheese – and you want to earn bragging rights for flavor, cost and yummability - this is how you do it.


1) 1box of macaroni (4 cups or 1 pound)
2) 3 cups grated cheddar or Colby cheese
3) 2 cups milk
4) 2 eggs *optional
5) 4 tablespoons butter
6) 3 tablespoons flour
7) ½ teaspoon Pepper
8) 1 teaspoon mustard *optional


• Coarsely grate the cheese 2 cups is enough, 4 is extravagant

• Butter a 3 quart (9 X 13 inches) casserole dish

• Preheat oven to 375°F.

• Boil 1lb (4 cups or 1 box) of elbow macaroni until fully cooked

• Prepare a white sauce as follows
       1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat
       2. When the butter bubbles add the flour
       3. Stir constantly and vigorously, for a minute
       4. Add the milk
       5. Stir in the eggs – you can leave this out with no ill effect
       6. Stir in the pepper and the mustard
       7. Continue cooking and stirring for 2 minutes or until thick and creamy

• Pour the cooked macaroni into the casserole dish

• Mix in the grated cheese

• Pour the white sauce over the top

• Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown on top

• Allow it to sit for 5 to 15minutes to set, then serve

Notes: The eggs are great to add body to the dish but are not required. If you want it extra crusty, sprinkle some bread crumbs on top before you bake. You can also adjust the amount of cheese and mustard to suit your tastes without too much worry. The white sauce helps to form a thick sauce and lets you cut back on the cheese if you want or need to. You can also be flexible with what type of cheese. Pure cheddar is tasty, but it does not cook well. Mixing in some Colby or fontina or any other good melting cheese will help. By the way, this recipe can be prepared ahead of time and frozen.

So there it is, a recipe for macaroni and cheese that will surely make you a convert to home cooking. Simple living and cooking do not have to be mutually exclusive. Once you have a handful of recipes like this under your belt, you will see the light. Your home may not be an old farm homestead, and you may not be a seasoned cook yet. But, prepare and serve this heirloom recipe and you will think you are sitting at your grandparents table. You will also be well on your way to confidently preparing your own meals from scratch.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

CRUSTY ARTISAN COUNTRY BREAD – a simple living recipe - weeks of ready cook dough for minutes of effort


I recently made a call for people to return to cooking from scratch I realize that one cannot simply make the decision and immediately become a good cook. But the process is not that complicated either. Once you find a few recipes you like, practice them, soon you will find that you have taken your first steps to success.

Bread used to be called the staff of life. That is, it was a healthy basic food that most people ate with every meal. Today, sadly, what was once a sturdy staff of nutritional support is now a broken, empty reed. This bread recipe is a giant step on that process. It is easy, time efficient and cheap recipe for crusty breads and it can become a staple of many meals. Now this is not going to be the spun angel hair of American factory sandwich breads. Nor will it be the vague kind of “sort of” bread that we find in grocery store bakeries. This recipe will produce substantial, firm and weighty loaves with a thick crust bursting with flavor. Nothing calls to mind the joys of simple living like the smell of baking bread. Making our own bread is a giant step to self sustenance if for no other reason that the huge psychological reward you get eating bread made by your own hands. To paraphrase: Flour? – a few pennies; time? – yours to give; homemade bread? – priceless.

This recipe also has additional advantages for the beginner. It does not call for any real kneading of the dough and it has a very simple preparation technique. Also, it has something for those of us trying to learn how to slow down from fast food and take time for real meals. This recipe prepares a large batch of dough in a few easy steps and best of all the dough can be kept in the refrigerator and fresh loaves baked from it for up to two weeks. The bread actually tastes better late in the process as it develops some sour dough characteristics.

Ok, so what is this magic process? Here it is in a few simple steps. It is basically a version of the French “boule” – boule means ball. It is the easiest method to master and can be the stepping stone to learning other more complex recipes. A one to two week supply of dough is made in less than 15 minutes of work. Then whenever you feel like fresh bread you cut off a piece, let it rise for 40 minutes then bake and enjoy. Your house will spell wonderful and you will enjoy homemade food the way your grandparents did. Plus, no one need know that you did not spend hours – it can be our little secret.


6 ½ cups unsifted, all purpose flour

3 cups lukewarm water

1 ½ tablespoon yeast

1 ½ tablespoon salt

Cornmeal for the baking stone or baking sheet


1) heat the water to 100 degrees F, just above body temperature – so lukewarm to the touch

2) Add salt and yeast to the water in a large (5 or 6 quart) bowl. You can also do this directly in a resalable storage container of the same size to save time and steps.

3) Gently mix in the flour with a wooden spoon (can uses a mixer dough hook- but no need)

4) Mix together, if the spoon bogs down, use wet hands to mix gently

5) Cover loosely with a damp dishcloth or plastic wrap

6) Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature for around 2 to 4 hours (5 max)

7) Cover with lid (not airtight) and refrigerate


1) After at least 3 to 4 hours in the refrigerator, you can use the dough any time you want fresh bread

2) Cut off a 1 pound piece – about the size of a grapefruit

3) Place the ball on a baking sheet or stone dusted lightly with some cornmeal ( the corn meal prevents sticking and adds crunch to the crust)

4) Allow the dough to rest uncovered for 40 minutes (it may rise very little – do not panic)

5) 20 minutes before you bake – preheat the oven to 450 degrees

6) Place the baking pan or stone in the middle rack. Place an empty broiler pan in the lower rack

7) When ready to bake, coat the top with flour. Slash a ¼ inch deep cross or tic tac toe pattern on the top of the loaf. The flour prevents the knife from sticking and the cross cuts allow the bread to expand

8) Place the pan or stone in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes or until the crust is well browned.

The master dough will remain good in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Over time it will develop a mild sourdough character. Any time you wish fresh bread, simply cut off a piece and follow the baking instructions. Also, you can divide the dough into one pound units, wrap well and freeze. To use frozen dough you will have to thaw it in the fridge overnight and then follow the baking procedures as normal.

I have to say, I left out a few steps which do help to make this bread even better, but I did so in the cause of getting more people to try it. This is meant to be the first step on the path to being a home baker. It is a simple living essential that pays back greatly on the time and effort you spend. One thing that really is worth the trouble is buying a baking stone. They really make a difference and the bread is even better if you heat the stone before baking the bread. But, the basic method will still produce bread far superior to factory food.

I have given you the first step on the path to real (dare I say extreme) home cooking. It really couldn’t be easier than this. Also, it is very, very cheap, way less than 50 cents a load versus what 6 dollars at the store. The smell will reward you while you’re baking and the taste will reward you until you gobble down the last crumb. Remember, this is country bread. It is not supposed to be light and fluffy. It is the real deal and it may not work well with peanut butter and jelly, But team it with butter, cheese, or soup and things will seem a littel better in the world. I really hope you all try it at least once. You will not believe the results.  Bread making is an heirloom skill worth learning and can be the cornerstone of a simple life. Let's make bread a staff of life once again.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

COOKING FROM SCRATCH - simple living’s body blow to the recession*

George Herbert said it best: "Living well is the best revenge". Perhaps as we struggle in this current recession we must look to older ways to deal with life. Maybe we cannot go to our favorite vacation spot; electronic gadgets may need to remain window shopping daydreams. Our cars and shoes may have to last a little longer than usual. We must find better ways to live. But, there is no reason we should not find some silver lining even in this storm. Because we cannot afford to go out to expensive restaurant meals does not mean we must settle for pre packaged factory food. For generations, eating a meal meant eating something prepared in your own kitchen. People started with simple fresh ingredients and used their own hands to craft meals that nourished body and soul for generations.

Cooking our meals from the basic ingredients is an answer to a million problems facing us today and it is an invitation to a million blessing in our lives. Cooking from scratch – saves money, reduces packaging, cuts corporate profits, provides better nutrition and reminds us that we can build value with our very own hands. In this time of worry and want, perhaps the best revenge is a well lived life. Cooking a great pot of soup may not resolve the debt crisis or crooked bankers but it an heirloom skill that will help to stretch our budgets while also increasing the value we receive from our food. Cooking from scratch is not just a simple living essential -it is a true cornucopia.

We need to take back to ourselves the idea than we can provide for ourselves. Perhaps it is true that total self sustenance make not spring forth from your first home made meal. But, at least some portion of our lives can come back into our hands. Every time we make a meal from items closer to the soil than a glossy full color box we have built ourselves up and torn down the web of wasteful consumerism that destroys the earth and farmers, while filling the corporate till. The food we eat from those boxes and plastic trays are filled with chemical, laden with synthetic ingredients and barren of full nutrition. Man cannot prosper on modified food. That includes modified soy – so put down those vegan freezer boxes and learn to make some barley loaf or eggplant stew.

Here is a litany of reasons why learning to cook meals from scratch will improve your life and make the world a better place.

1. Health. Meals made at home are made from ingredients you choose. You can put real sugar in your cookies, not high fructose corn syrup. You are in control of the process; you can select fresh, organic, seasonal, humane or other preferred ingredients. If you ever figured out how much salt and sugar there is in the average box meal you would faint. Let’s not even talk about the chicken in those frozen dinners. Plus industrial cooking destroys most of the micronutrients and vitamins in food.

2. Economy. Meals made at home cost a fraction of the cost of restaurant or prepackaged foods. Sure you may beat this with the dollar menu or canned ravioli. But if you are going that route = refer back to number 1. The savings are constant and they are real. You can save money and eat better – that’s a rare tradeoff.

3. Taste. Food made from scratch is tastier. The seasoning is more subtle or vibrant; the texture is fuller and more satisfying. It does not have to be a 5 course French meal. Chili made by hand is far better that from a can. You can individualize it to your own tastes. Like rich potato soup – add some butter. Like your vegetable soup with a kick – add some cayenne. You get the freedom to explore and develop your own tastes instead of the flavor some cost accountant at Swanson’s thought you would tolerate.

4. Relationships. Nothing brings people together like a meal and no meal is as worthy or praise as a meal made by the hands of someone you love. The preparation of food can be a bonding between people as well as the eating. Plus, once you start cooking from scratch you find that you yearn to share it with friends. I tell you - good lasagna can be the basis of a social renaissance.

5. Environment. Food made from scratch comes in far less packaging. You only bring home commercial paper and plastic once a week. The industrial process behind packaging scratch materials such as rice is far less that the elaborate full color, triple wrapped concoctions they use for processed items.

6. Justice. When you prepare foods from scratch you shift your money to those items from which farmers receive a greater share of the profits. Ideally, you will buy produce from a local farmer. But even the packaged and semi processed stuff from the store is more farmer friendly that a frozen dinner. Also, near and dear to my heart is the thought that you are not just helping to increase farm income – you are reducing corporate income by denying them the high profits of prepackaged items.

7. Confidence. Many of you will be saying “I love this idea – but I cannot cook:” Well, it is true you will need to learn to cook. But this is not a huge and complex undertaking. We learn hundreds of more complex tasks in our pursuit of business. So why not devote a little time to learning a skill that will keep more of your income in your pocket and help you enjoy it all at the same time? Once you make your first spaghetti dinner – it will come to you and as with all things confidence comes from practice. Do not give up because your first cake comes out of the oven looking like something dark and monstrous. If you gave up that quick with other life skills, where would you be?

8. Spirituality. I described confidence in terms of the business skills we all force ourselves to learn. But let’s consider the spiritual side. Cooking from scratch allows you to see the process from farm to plate instead of a financial transaction. Food is something people work for and nature provides for us. It is a blessing. Cooking your own food allows you to see our own interconnections with something greater than yourself. Now that is a side effect for more interesting that that funny copper taste you get from frozen kung pao.

9. Relaxing. With practice, you will develop confidence in your growing repertoire of skills and recipes. With some thought, you will perceive the web of live in your cooking. With time, you will develop a love of it. Once there, cooking ceases to be a hideous chore, or a waste of your time. It becomes a chance to reconnect with the real world, revel in your own talents, and share love with friends and family. Cooking will become a respite from the crazy pace of modern life and it will give you the chance to relax each and every day. You may miss Yoga because you had to stay late for that staff meeting or you had to run to the mall. But, you will find time to prepare a hot simple meal that night and it will bring you peace. What more do you want?

10. Self Sustainability. As you are learning to cook your own meals from start to finish, you will be doing more than eating better and cheaper. You will be building a real skill set that will reduce your reliance on an industrial society that is growing ever more fragile and morally bankrupt. You will take a small part of your life back into your own hands. Despite what the recession driven layoff may say about you or the contempt that the corporation view you with – you have produce value with your own hands. This can be a simple small step to help you survive the struggle. Or it can be the delivery of fire to Prometheus – from this one blow you may separate yourself further from the machine and become a person again and not a profit center in a consumerist machine.

11. Role Model. When you start this process, you will be doing more than just helping yourself. You will give your friends and family a powerful model of self-sufficiency. As people see that it can be done, more will try. As they see the benefits accrue to you they will want them for themselves. You can find yourself at the center of an expanding circle of people learning the simple skill of cooking.

12. Supports ethical choices. Home-cooking won’t immediately transform you into an eco warrior or a spokesman for fair trade, small farms, field labor, localism and farm ethics. But being connected to the basic process of life will provide you with a foundation for those ideas. You can think them all out while peeling potatoes in your own kitchen.

Well, there it is an even dozen reasons to break away from the industrialize food factory and begin to cook from scratch. Simple living can be many things but nothing defines it more that food made by your own hands. Cooking from scratch is an heirloom skill that needs to be reborn and it can start with you and it can start tonight. Go forth and change the world!

PS: In the next posts or two I will provide some easy ways to wean yourself from corporate food. Some basic recipes to replace things we have been addicted to like taco seasoning packets. Stay tuned.

* I say recession because "Great Depression" should be a fully copyrighted trademark of Goldman Sachs.