Friday, August 13, 2010

A New Blog

I am now focusing my blogging more at Everyday Blessings, a Christian blog that includes spiritual muses, recipes, and ideas for home and family life.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Food Journey

Growing up on a small "hobby" farm in Southeastern Ohio, I took local food for granted.

We always had a huge vegetable garden in our own yard. We had chickens to provide us with eggs, and it was my job to collect eggs daily. (I was even able to sell the surplus brown eggs to our local health food store for some spending money.) We drank fresh, unpasteurized milk from our dairy-farming neighbor down the road. We even raised our chicken, pigs, and Angus cattle.

My mom was born in West Virginia, but contrary to the stereotypical hillbilly jokes about her home state, she spent her childhood in towns like Charleston and Huntington. She grew up purely as a city girl, thinking tomatoes came from the grocery store--not a garden. As an adult, she became fascinated with farm life and learning how to make, grow, and raise her own food, direct from the source. So, when she and my dad had the chance to move our family out to a 220-acre Ohio farm, they jumped at it.

Looking back, my parents gave DIY a whole new name. Purchased directly from an Amish family, the old farmhouse lacked indoor plumbing; it had some wiring, since it was not always an Amish home, but, according to my dad, it was just "shoved up" in the walls. Naturally, my parents had a few projects on their plate--not to mention responsibility for me and my sister, then three and seven, respectively.

In the midst of all this home improvement and child-rearing, my parents started right into farming. My dad took main responsibility for the livestock, and the vegetable garden was a joint effort. My mom also dove into food preparation, teaching herself how to make homemade bread, can fruits and vegetables, and even churn butter.

"There was a time when we could say that everything on our table, we raised ourselves," my dad recalls proudly.

As my sister and I got older and more involved in activities, and as my dad traveled more and got busier with work, my parents found that they couldn't keep up with raising so much of their own food. Little by little, the food on our plates changed. The bread was no longer homemade; the meat wasn't our own. But, we still did better than many of our fellow Americans--we got meat from our neighbor who raised her own cattle, and we always kept a big vegetable garden.

I grew up, moved away, and stopped really thinking about my food. In college, it was all about what was cheap and easy. After college, things didn't change too much, until I started subscribing to food magazines and becoming interested in cooking more. But, even then, it was about finding a recipe that looked good and going off and buying all the ingredients--regardless of what was in season, or local, or organic. The food's pedigree didn't even enter into my thinking. Then, kids came along, and I found myself doing things I used to turn my nose up at--making cream-of-mushroom-soup casseroles and crock-pot concoctions that included ginger ale and ketchup, and nuking chicken nuggets and easy mac and spaghettios.

Every now and then--for special occasions and when I got totally bored with our usual food--I'd go on kicks where I'd dig out my cookbooks and make good food again. But, by and large, I'd fallen into the trap again of looking at food in terms of how cheap and quick and easy it was. After all, I reasoned, I had little kids, I had work--what I didn't have was time to prepare elaborate meals.

Then, I got tired. Got tired AND educated. Got tired of sub-par food. Got tired of fixing a meal that I didn't even want to eat. Got educated about our food system in the U.S. and how far away from the source we've gotten. I learned how laden our foods are with preservatives, chemicals, and stuff we really shouldn't be putting into our bodies. I became convinced that it wasn't just a luxury to feed my family well; it was a necessity. Our health--our very lives--depended on it.

I learned to make food shopping and prep a priority. I learned again to take pride in where my food comes from. I'll be honest. It can take more time and money. But, let's take a look at my dinner table, before and after.

BEFORE: canned green beans, a casserole made with frozen chicken and canned cream of chicken soup, and some kind of "faux" golden wheat bread with margarine.

AFTER: grilled, grass-fed organic strip steaks, fresh local spinach sauteed in olive oil with sea salt, baked local potatoes with Amish roll butter and creme fraiche (made from local heavy cream and buttermilk, cultured with a bit of fresh lemon juice--check out this blog's recipe section for the creme fraiche recipe). Simple, but delicious.

What's notable about this kind of meal is not just what it is, but what it ISN'T. It ISN'T mass-produced, genetically modified, or filled with preservatives, MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, or pesticides. It IS hand-crafted--made locally with care by people who are interested in the quality of the food itself, not just how to make the largest quantities the quickest and the cheapest way possible.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that we have become purists yet, or that we are perfect. Far from it.

We still order take-out pizza; we indulge in things like supermarket ice cream in elaborate flavors and with an ingredient list a mile long; and our kids still partake of decidedly non-healthful things like juice boxes and candy at parties and kid events.

But, at least we are informed now. And, we're making a conscious effort to tell our food's story with pride.

"These apples are organic."

"This bread is made at a small bakery that doesn't use preservatives."

"This came from a local farm."

Monday, January 4, 2010

Happy New Year: Photography, Scrapbooking and Back to the Grind

Well, it's only January 4th, so perhaps it's not too late to still be wishing everyone a Happy New Year.

We had a nice holiday, and today is the first real day back to the old grind. We survived the high-teen temps at the bus stop this morning to get my first-grader back to school, and I even managed to take our Springer Spaniel for a quick one-mile walk. Any more than that, and I'm sure he would've started limping; even dogs can't take the cold--and salt--on their poor paw pads.

I've been busily taking photos since I last posted. I got my early combo Christmas/birthday gift in mid-December and have been loving it! I ended up with the Canon Rebel XSi. I found the best deal at B and H Photo. I got the body with a kit lens for $564.95. 

I'm still far from manual mode, but this is my first foray into SLR photography and even some of the creative zone modes have been giving me results far above and beyond what I expected this early in the game. I've mostly been shooting in Canon's "P" mode with no flash and auto focus. Here are some initial attempts.

My new-found photography inspiration has got me busy digital scrapbooking to showcase some of these photos. I had gotten addicted to Ikea Goddess' blog of digital scrapbooking freebies, just a few months ago to recently find out she retired. Thank goodness Digital Daisy is taking over. This is a great resource for any digi scrapper. Why pay when you can download all kinds of digital goodness for free?!

Here's my new January desktop design, thanks to the Shabby Princess' free download.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Easy Homemade Heath Bars for Christmas

Ok, so we're less than a week out from the holiday, and, if you're like me, you're still baking Christmas cookies. Maybe you're just getting started, or maybe your family ate up the ones you've been continually making since the beginning of December (ahem, family) and you need to replenish. Either way, these super easy homemade heath bars are always a hit for Christmas. My family has been making them since sometime in the 1980s when a family friend gave us the recipe. They're a must on our Christmas cookie list.

And, the best part is how simple they are. They definitely meet my criteria of being quick, easy, inexpensive AND impressive.

Here we go:

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
a bag milk chocolate chips
nuts or holiday sprinkles optional for topping


Spray or grease cookie sheet.
Line with saltines.
Cook sugar and butter over medium to low heat until sugar completely dissolves and mixture is hot and bubbly.
Pour over saltines and smooth evenly. Cook at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes or until toffee is light golden brown.
Remove pan and sprinkle with chocolate chips.
As the heat begins to melt the chips, spread them smoothly over entire pan. Add toppings if desired.
Cool and break or cut into bars.

Wait and see how long a batch lasts around your house. Mine only lasted three days...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mom's Easy Baked Steak Recipe

Tonight, looking for something simple but hearty for dinner I turned to one of my favorite comfort foods--my mom's easy baked steak recipe. It's one of those wonderful recipes that turn out to be so much more than the sum of their parts.

It's so simple.

Beef Round Steak
Garlic Powder

We get a whole beef each year and split it with my parents, so I always have a nice stock of lean angus beef in my freezer. I thaw a package of round steak--probably around 2 pounds or so--for this recipe.

Mom's Easy Baked Steak

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

I first trim any fat off and cut the round steak in half if it's too large to fit into my pan--I use a stainless steel All-Clad saute pan that I can transfer right to the oven. I then salt, pepper, and garlic the meat generously on both sides, and dredge it in flour. I heat canola or olive oil over high heat and sear the steak on both sides, just to brown it nicely.

I add a cup or two of water right to the pan, cover it, and cook for about an hour at 350. Then, I lower the heat to 225 and cook the rest of the day, nice and low and slow. Every so often I check it to make sure the steak isn't drying out and add water, so I have a nice pan gravy brewing right in there. It starts smelling absolutely mouth-watering about half way through the cooking time, so be prepared to be starving by the time dinner rolls around.

I usually try to cook the steak for at least eight hours or so (a minimum of six and no longer than 10 hours). The key is to keep checking and adding water so the steak doesn't dry out. I like to serve it with standard comfort food staples like homecanned green beans (if you have them) or mashed potatoes.

For those of you who aren't around home during the day, I would guess you could do a version of this in the crockpot too, so let me know if any of you adapt it, and how it turns out. Happy cooking!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

DIY Mom Does An Under-the-Kitchen-Sink Audit

Can the chemicals in standard household cleaners harm you, your kids, or your pets? Can products so widely used and distributed really be that bad?

I decided to do a DIY MOM/DIY 365 under-the-kitchen-sink audit of commonly used kitchen and bathroom cleaners to see what exactly I had been using on a daily basis and what effects it could have on me, my husband, my unborn child, my two dogs, and my two little girls.

I pulled out my Windex, Comet Bathroom Cleaner, Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner, and Lysol Antibacterial Kitchen Spray.

1. Windex doesn't even list its ingredients, which amazes me. It does say "KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN AND PETS." Hmmm... wonder why?

2. Again, Comet Bathroom Cleaner doesn't list ingredients, but does say: "ACTIVE INGREDIENT: Citric Acid. (Ok, that's pretty benign. According to Wikipedia, "Citric acid is a weak organic acid, and it is a natural preservative and is also used to add an acidic, or sour, taste to foods and soft drinks. ...It can also be used as an environmentally benign cleaning agent.") But then on closer observation I see that citric acid makes up only 6 percent of the total formula the other 94 percent is listed as "other ingredients."A little more sleuthing turns up a hefty precautionary statement that says the cleaner is harmful if you get it in your eyes ("call poison control center or doctor for advice"), don't mix it with anything containing bleach or mildew stain removers as it may cause irritating fumes, and, again, call the poison control center or doctor if swallowed because it contains an alcohol ethoxylate. A quick search on alcohol ethoxylate turns this alarming statement up:

"Toxicity to humans, including carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and acute toxicity." and "Toxicity to aquatic organisms." SOURCE: 

3. Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner--I'm ready for some bad news on this one before I even start my research. Online sources that I've perused before had said toilet bowl cleaners are particularly toxic. The front label as usual states to keep out of reach of children, but instead of saying caution, it says "WARNING."  The precautionary statement on the back says that it causes "substantial but temporary eye injury," (whatever that means--can "substantial" injuries really be temporary?), that I should wear "protective eyewear, such as goggles, face shield or safety glasses" when using, that I should wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling before eating, chewing gum, or drinking, and finally that I should remove and wash "contaminated" clothing. I don't know what you think, but that doesn't sound too reassuring to me.

However, ingredients--surprise, surprise--are listed. And, they sure are a mouthful--heaven help us, only figuratively! Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, octyl decyl dimethyl ammonium chloride, didecyl ammonium chloride, dioctyl dimethyl ammonium chloride.

Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride is a suspected gastrointestinal or liver toxicant, immunotoxicant, neurotoxicant, respiratory toxicant, and skin or sense organ toxicant. SOURCE:

A search on octyl decyl dimethyl ammonium chloride turns up the same precautionary statement as found for alcohol ethoxylate.

Then, it gets worse. Both didecyl ammonium chloride and dioctyl dimethyl ammonium chloride are considered "PAN Bad Actors" by the Pesticide Action Network. These pesticides are at least one of the following: known or possible carcinogen, reproductive or development toxicants, neurotoxic cholinesterase inhibitors, known groundwater contaminants, or pesticides with high acute toxicity. SOURCE:

4. I get the feeling I'm going to be very distressed when I research Lysol Antibacterial Kitchen Cleaner, the very stuff I used to spray on my kitchen countertops because it reassuringly "cuts grease and grime: and "kills household germs." It lists the active ingredient as alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride--the same nasty stuff we just learned that is a suspected gastrointestinal or liver toxicant, immunotoxicant, neurotoxicant, respiratory toxicant, and skin or sense organ toxicant. However, it is listed as only .10 percent of the overall solution, the rest being "inert ingredients," whatever they are. So, the really bad stuff is highly diluted, but still it's there, and I don't know about you, but after I used to "disinfect" my tables and countertops with this spray, I wasn't then washing it back off before I prepared food. It's a little disconcerting to think about when I could have just been using vinegar, water and essential oils to clean--see my All-Purpose Cleaner #2 recipe natural, chemical-free, and non-toxic option.

For an excellent overview of household cleaners and their effects, you can also check out the Organic Consumers Association
So, overall, how did my under-the-kitchen-sink audit go?  Well, I did notice that many of the cautionary statements used the words "suspected" or "possible." So, I guess that means they are not confirmed killers, but to me, something's "suspect" for a reason, and I have a choice. I can opt for gentler, natural, non-chemical options. I can spend a few minutes mixing baking soda and organic liquid soap for a "soft scrub" style cleaner. I can use club soda or water and vinegar for mirrors and glass. I can sprinkle some borax--a naturally concurring mined mineral--in my toilet instead of a toxic bright acqua cleaner. I can put my toilet bowl cleaner, kitchen antibacterial spray, glass cleaner, and bathroom cleaner out with the trash and start over--and better.

I hope this has inspired some of you out there to take a closer look at the everyday cleaners and chemicals you use and perhaps choose something safer. Maybe you'll even do your own under-the-kitchen-sink audit! I hope so. If you do, I'd love to hear what you find. 

Friday, December 4, 2009

DIY Mom Does Christmas Applique

Aren't these Christmas appliques cute? Today, I'm going to post directions and free patterns for these super-easy embellishments.

If you're like me, you're probably into everything Christmas right now--decorating, baking, shopping, Christmas cards, and more.

Despite some bouts of sickness, our family is plugging away at our holiday to-dos... The decorations are up, the Christmas cards are done, and we are going to cut down our live tree tomorrow. Next on the agenda: holiday cookies!

Something I enjoy doing this time of year is making matching holiday outfits for my girls. Last year, I made some fantastic holiday twirl skirts from You Can Make this (Bella twirl skirt pattern).

I'm not a pro seamstress, though, so it took me hours. This year, looking to scale back, I decided to do some really easy, no-sew applique. All you need is a package of fusible web (this is the "glue" that holds everything together when you activate the bonding process with heat), some fabric scraps, and fabric paint to finish the raw edges. You'll also need to get your iron and ironing board out. This project definitely meets my criteria of being inexpensive, quick, and easy. And, best of all, everyone seems to think I'm some kind of crafty goddess :)

You can easily find your supplies at most craft and/or fabric stores.

In my area, I like to go to Joann Fabrics. For convenience sake, here are links to the products I buy from Joann's--fusible web, fabric paint, and fat quarters (quilters' terms for smaller sized squares of fabric, which is often cheaper than buying by the yard, particularly if you're only appliquing a pair of jeans or two). You'll also want to choose your applique base. In my case, I chose jeans and a plain white tee, which I layered under a solid red top.

1. Once, you gather your supplies, start by clicking on the preview images below to download my very simple patterns here, or sketch your own.

Place the patterns under a sheet of fusible web and trace them, making sure you are tracing on the side of the fusible web sheet that has the adhesive layer attached to it. You can hold the sheet up to a window if you have a hard time seeing the pattern through the sheet of fusible web.

2. Roughly cut around each pattern piece that you traced onto the fusible web.

3. Take the backing of the fusible web off and place the roughly cut out pattern piece on the BACK of your fabric. Iron on high for about 5 seconds to fuse the adhesive to your fabric.

4. Cut your piece out neatly and now you're ready to pull off the last piece of paper and your pattern piece should be sticky on the back.

5. Place the pattern piece on your tee or jeans in its final "resting place" and iron on high for 10 seconds to permanently set it.

6. Repeat with each pattern piece until you have all pieces ironed in place. Let cool.

7. Use different colors of fabric paint to outline/finish off all edges of applique. Make sure you are generous with the amount of fabric paint used--it will dry into a thinner line. You want the paint edging to totally cover the fabric edges with no gaps. You can always go back after the paint dries and add more paint if needed. Of course, those sewing queens who can do a decent satin stitch should feel free to machine stitch around their appliques! :)

Now, wasn't that easy?

I typically advise folks to machine wash items with fabric paint cool and dry cool, but the fabric paint is amazingly resilient to wear and washing. The only really big no-no is to NEVER IRON ON THE PAINT! It will melt. Another tip is that if you find the paint is wearing thin or you missed an area, you can always go back and add more paint.

Happy appliquing! Please feel free to post with any questions or to show off your creations.

Learn fun and easy gift-giving ideas you can make!

You can also go to You Can Make This for more detailed applique e-books and fantastic applique patterns for all seasons.