Monday, December 26, 2011

Homesteading Goals for 2012

I can't believe that the Christmas season has already blown by! I had meant to do posts about the decorating- I incorporated real greenery for the first time in years and so thoroughly enjoyed the smell it gave off throughout the season. I made a lovely mixed greenery wreath for the front door using cuttings gleaned from a box that Lowe's had available from their Christmas tree sales along with boxwood and barberry  from my own yard. My Ryan and I went pine cone hunting around the neighborhood on a cold sprinkley day and I sprayed those with a silver spray glitter to finish it off. (I should note that the inspiration for the wreath came from here. Amy, over at Homestead Revival has many great ideas!)

Sooo happy with how this turned out. :)
I also added a little three foot fraser fir on the entry table that I walk by multiple times a day, and fresh cuttings on the mantle along with a poinsettia and paperwhites.

Mantle Close-up. I added some pothos cuttings for variety.
Paper-whites sprouting in early December

I didn't change much on my everyday mantle, just added the decorations in the center.

The main tree on Christmas Eve. No silk flowers here this year. Felt poinsettias made a wonderful impact. You can see the paper-whites bloomed right on time. They should last a few more weeks which will give my psyche a nice boost through the first cold, dark weeks of January.

Speaking of felt poinsettias, I had also intended to do a couple of hand made tutorials- the wreath, felt flowers and a tea tray made from an upcycled thrift shop picture frame among other things. I like to add some burgundy to the tree because my living room has a lot of this color in the carpet and pillows and I think that just red and white, although lovely on the tree, can sometimes look out of place in the room. I had planned to make some red and burgundy felt rosettes but that is a project that will have to wait until next year.  I did manage to take some pictures of some of my projects in process:

And then there is the requisite information about the hazards of Christmas with a toddler in the house:

Who me?
That would be one of my garlands.

And that would be the other one.

There could have been a post about the Christmasy stuff we did together like the totally awesome Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert:

Or how we went too late, again, to get the kids's picture taken with Santa at Bass-Pro Shop and took one with Frosty instead:

I could have done a post about how we wrapped presents in homemade paper, but we didn't this year. We used up some of the stuff that we didn't use when we did that last year. Somehow, there's still plenty left.

I could have done a post about the Christmas Eve meal that we ate, in our pajamas, because we didn't have any guests this year.
My traditional Mennonite zwieback turned out better than last  time.

Ryan making his "Elf Boots" napkin folds

Napkin Close-up
The Centerpiece

The Table Set-up

Two of my guys

Our Christmas Eve Dinner

And of course all the baking...I had two 2am nights of baking in which I tried a couple of new sugar cookie recipes and found one that I love. I made Springerle for the first time- turned out OK. I also got it in my head that I was going to make apple strudel, from scratch. It turned out really well but I was a little apprehensive starting out. Google and YouTube were wonderful teachers. I do wish that I had taken a picture of it before it was gobbled up.

But I have promised myself that I will not be a perfectionist and I will not let this blog bog me down. I want it to remain fun, so I will not be back-tracking over the last month and trying to create all of those posts. Instead, I'll just say I was too busy living and doing all that stuff I love to have time to write about all of it. Kind of like taking pictures. I love to take pictures, lots and lots of pictures, but sometimes, when I forget my camera, it's kind of cool to just live the moment instead of trying to record everything. Sometimes it's more enjoyable that way.

So I'm jumping back in where I am. Off and running in the new year with so many ideas and things I want to do and try. Now that I have really committed myself to this process of producing my own food, and cooking from scratch for the health of my family, I figured I should set some goals for the coming year to help give me some direction as I move along this path. Here's what's coming up:

1. Plant a garden: Last year I finally managed to get in some berries. I planted 2 blueberries, 3 raspberries, 3 grapes, 1 blackberry, 3 hardy kiwi, and 3 rhubarb. Of those, 1 raspberry, 2 grapes, the blackberry, kiwis, and 1 rhubarb took. I also got in some lilac that I had wanted for a long time. I have an existing herb garden with sage, oregano, thyme, chocolate mint and lemon balm. (I plant basil and rosemary in pots each spring since I've never had luck with them indoors and they aren't hardy here.) Right now, with our house on the market and wanting to buy some land I'm not planning on replacing any of the lost plants, but I do want to make sure to put in a vegetable garden. I finally installed some stepped beds along the side of the house last fall and now that the holidays are over, I am anxiously awaiting weather that is warm enough to fill them up, using the square foot gardening method, with tomatoes, peppers, onion, peas, carrots, lettuce, and more. I also plan to use the easement along the back of our property to plant Seminole squash, regular and sweet potatoes in straw or loose mulch, and maybe some corn and pole beans.

2.  Bread: I've got my honey wheat sandwich bread to a place I'm happy with. Same goes for pretzels, biscuits, and sugar cookies, blueberry muffins and pancakes. I want to try sour dough and maybe some other artisan loaves. A good Italian Rosemary bread is on the list and I need to continue working on the original list of baking goals: croutons, pita/flat bread, bagels, quick breads, and carrot cake. Scones, baked donuts and cinnamon rolls are also on the list.

3. Cheese: Learn how to make it. I've made my own sour cream. Next is a whole milk Ricotta, and on from there. Hopefully by the end of the year, I can be on to some hard cheeses.

4. Yogurt and Kefir: Obtain cultures to make these myself.

5. Keep updating my cook book and trying new recipes. Work on consistently completing weekly menu plans and finding more healthy dishes that the kiddos will gobble up.

6. Obtain the necessary supplies and learn how to can all that fresh stuff that my garden WILL be producing. :)

7. Find a local orchard and go pick peaches and apples.

8. Get some mini citrus and banana plants that can be raised in pots and brought indoors during our Midwest winters. A Meyer lemon, dwarf guava, super dwarf Cavendish banana, and some sort of orange top this wish list. In conjunction with this I will have to pare down on my other house plants to make room.

9. In addition to paring down my inedible tropical plants, I desperately need to purge my craft room and finish several projects.

10. We purchased our first 1/2 hog this year and I am loving shopping in my freezer for delicious pork cuts. Next, I'd like to find a source for grass fed beef and purchase a portion for the freezer. Same goes for free-range chicken and eggs.

This year promises lots of adventures. Wish me luck!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Light Up the Dark Candles- Guest Post

Hi all! I've got a guest post today from a great guy that I had the privilege of setting up next to at a craft fair in Lawrence, KS last year. James Mowrey is a talented candle maker who makes all soy candles. This guy even does custom scents. I must have spent an hour just smelling all of the different candles he had to offer. They are amazing!

He has everything from the clean fresh scents of linen and coconut,

to delicious cinnamon apple or banana nut bread.

There are even barbecue, bacon, fresh buttered popcorn, or fresh cut
grass, and they all smell divine!

Try fudge brownie, peppermint, or coffee scents to wake you up; or fireside, or butt naked when it's time to snuggle up.

Here's what James has to say about why soy is better:

What are soy candles?
Soy candles are made from soy wax, which is hydrogenated soybean oil.
Soy wax was invented in 1992 by Michael Richards who was looking for a
cheaper alternative to beeswax. As he entered the candle industry he
realized there was a growing demand for natural wax candles. Soy wax
is often mixed with fragrances to produce scented soy candles. They
are available in supermarkets and specialty stores and can also be
bought online. It is also easy and very rewarding to make soy candles!

Advantages of soy candles:
Soy candles have to following advantages compared to paraffin wax candles:

Soy candles are cheap- Beeswax is a great natural alternative to
paraffin, but to get the same results as a soy-based candle, it is
very expensive. Soy wax is a new alternative to paraffin wax that is
cost effective. Soy wax is also made from a renewable source.

Soy wax is natural- Soy wax is a favorite of environmentally
conscious people because it is made from a renewable source and is not
made from petroleum. Burning soy candles does not increase the CO2
level in the atmosphere. However, some suppliers may add some
synthetic wax or paraffin to their soy wax to adjust its physical

Soy candles last longer- Some suppliers claim that soy candles can
last up to 50% longer than paraffin candles. And they do!

Soy wax spills are easy to clean- It's very difficult to remove
paraffin wax from furniture or textiles. Soy wax spills can easily be
cleaned up with hot soapy water.

Soy candles produce less soot - Soot should be avoided because it is
very unhealthy and can eventually coat furniture and walls. Soy
candles produce about 90% less soot than paraffin candles.

Scented soy candles distribute more flavor- The incorporation of
soybean oil lowers the melting point of the candle, which translates
into cooler burning candles and faster scent dispersion. The lower
melting point of soy wax results in a larger size of the liquid wax
pool around the candle wick. It is from this liquid wax pool that the
essential oils evaporate into the atmosphere.

To find descriptions of James's candles along with more mouth watering photos go to and click on the online store tab at the top. Candles ship nationwide. Make sure to like his facebook too so that you can find out where he might be attending his next craft show, where he usually offers a discount.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Better Than McDonalds Peppermint Mocha

And you don't even have to leave the house.

This doesn't quite qualify as a whole, real food, but it definitely would be in the once in a while decadent treat category! And you can make some choices that make it a whole lot healthier than the Micky D's version by using Nestle chocolate which is HFCS free, homemade whipped topping, and less sugar. You can find their ingredients here.

First, make a cup of good strong coffee. Add some warm, frothed milk if desired. (You can create the milk foam without an expensive steamer! There are little wands that will do the job, but I just use my French Press. Warm the milk, put it in the press and pump the handle up and down until the milk has turned into foamy decadence.) Add about 1/3rd of a candy cane. That's it! If you really want to make it a treat, you can add whipped cream and chocolate, but it's not really necessary. Enjoy!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Thanksgiving Recipe Round-up

Now that the frantic Black Friday shopping is over and the Christmas decorations are (almost) all up, I'm going to rewind a little bit and give you my Thanksgiving recipe round-up. This year we had an amazing, intimate Thanksgiving with just the kids. I cooked everything completely from scratch- not a single can, box, or frozen item was to be seen and I didn't even lose any sleep over it. Those who have attended my holiday celebrations in the past know that I frequently stay up nearly all night prepping, waiting for rolls to rise or bake or any other number of tasks deemed essential for the perfect holiday meal. This time I kept the menu simple, started three days ahead of time, and was able to really enjoy both the creation of the meal and the additional time spent with those I love.

Fresh turkey
Sour cream and garlic mashed potatoes
Sausage stuffing
Green beans
Cranberry sauce
Sliced bread
Pumpkin and Pecan Pies

For the Turkey, I purchased a fresh one and brined it for the first time. Here is an excellent tutorial on how to brine a turkey. I purchased a spice mix from World Market- this was my ONE convenience item. You can see it here. Other specialty stores sell brine mixes for nearly $20, this was on sale for only $4.99 and I figured I'd spend way more purchasing everything I needed separately, so in the interest of frugality, I decided it would be ok to fudge on just this one item.

Oops, a little blurry- looked clear on the camera. This is the brine.
Basically, the process of brining involves dissolving the spices in a gallon of water over the stove. Then after letting the mixture cool, you soak the Turkey in it over night. I declined to purchase the $7 brining bags that I came across, instead I simply used a clear, clean, tough, outdoor garbage bag, tied tight. I tried to set this in the roasting pan and then in the fridge, but the pan wouldn't fit no matter which way I turned it, so I just put the bag in and prayed. Luckily we had no leaks.

Turkey in the pan that wouldn't fit in the fridge.

For roasting I combined Alton Brown's recipe found here for the aromatics and Martha Stewart's butter and wine gravy recipe found here for flavoring on the outside. I soaked a cheese cloth in the butter and wine mixture and covered the turkey, then roasted for 30 minutes at 425 and finished at 350, removing the cheese cloth at the end so the turkey could turn nice and brown. Be careful with the excess butter and high temps.

Sour cream mashed potatoes are an every day favorite in our house and hubby is the potato expert. He just mashes them with milk, butter, salt, pepper, garlic powder, sour cream, and mayonnaise until it tastes right. When I do it, I like to run them through the food processor to make them extra smooth. These are so tasty they hardly need gravy.

Speaking of gravy, mine separated and was super salty from the brine. That still needs work...

The sausage stuffing was a combination of recipes found herehere, and in my local paper, the KC Star, in the November 20, 2011 issue in an article entitled "Stuff Yourself!" by Elizabeth Mitchell.

First, we must start with a corn bread. This recipe comes from the More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix together:
     1 c. cornmeal
     1 c. flour (part or all whole wheat ok)
     4 t. baking powder
     1/2 t. salt
     2 T brown sugar
     1/2 c. dry milk powder (optional)
Make a well and add:
     2 beaten eggs
     1 c. milk
     1/4 c. oil
Stir just until smooth. Pour into a greased 9x9" pan and bake 25 minutes.

Then, we'll make the stuffing:

In a 10-12" skillet, brown:
     1 lb sausage
     1 med. onion
Wipe out the skillet, then add:
     2 T. olive oil
     2 c. chopped celery
     1-2 T. fresh sage
     1 t. fresh thyme (or 1/2 t. dried)
     1/2 c. fresh parsley
     1 t. fresh rosemary
Saute until just cooked. Meanwhile, crumble a 9x9 pan of corn bread and most of a loaf of homemade wheat bread (recipe found here). Add:
     1 3/4 c. chicken broth
     1/4 melted butter
     4 eggs, beaten
Toss in the sausage, onion, and contents of skillet. Place in a greased 9x13 casserole dish and bake at 350 for 25 min, covered, then another 15-20 minutes uncovered, until golden brown.

The Grean Beans came from the November 2010 issue of Good Housekeeping and were made that year by my mother-in-law who gave me the recipe.

2 T. olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 large onions, thinly sliced (I think I only used 1)
1 clove garlic, crushed
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, thinly sliced (I found a mix that was only 4 oz total-worked fine)
3 lb fresh green beans, trimmed (I used 2)

Heat a covered sauce pot of water to boiling. Meanwhile, in a 12 in. skillet, heat oil on medium high. Add thyme and onions; cook 10-12 minutes or until browned and very tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute. Add mushrooms and cook 5 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in 1/2 t. salt and 1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper. Remove and discard thyme.

Add green beans and 2 t. salt to boiling water. Cook, uncovered, 8-9 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Drain and rinse with cold water. If making ahead, transfer mushroom mixture to a medium bowl and beans to a resealable plastic bag. Refrigerate up to overnight.

When ready, return beans to sauce pot, add mushroom mixture, stirring to combine. Cook on medium until heated through, stirring occasionally.

The Cranberry Sauce is super easy. Just rinse a 12 oz bag of berries, removing any soft or bad ones, then add them to a lidded pot with 1 c. sugar and 1 c. orange juice. Boil until most of the berries have popped, stirring often. Serve warm or cool.

A good pie crust tutorial can be found here. I halve the salt to suite my own preference but it's good as is. I also used the video here, which gives some excellent technical info. This video gives you some good tips on rolling your pie dough and this one gives some neat ideas for decorating the edge of the crust.

My dad gave me some huge seminole squash that he grew this summer and told me that they are supposed to make excellent "Pumpkin" Pie. He couldn't have been more right! I used the recipe here, increasing the puree to 2 c. because the pie pictured looks a little flat. It turned out divine!

That squash is as big as my kitchen aid!
To make the puree, you can either peel, cut and steam the squash or pumpkin, then run it through the processor, or if you're lazy like me, just cut it in half, scrape out the seeds, then roast it at 350 in a pan, flat side down with 1/2 inch of water in the bottom. Once cool, just scoop it out of the skin into the food processor.

Puree from the Seminole squash. I saved the seeds to plant next year. Just rinse them and lay them on wax paper to dry for a week or so.

For the Dark Pecan Pie, I used Paula Dean's recipe found here, substituting cheap whiskey for the bourbon and 1/3 molasses with 2/3 light corn syrup for the dark corn syrup. So good.

Whipped cream is so very easy to make. Beat 1 cup of heavy whipping cream until soft peaks form, add   1 t. pure vanilla and 1 T. sugar. Continue to beat until desired consistency is reached. Don't over beat because it will become lumpy and more like butter.

Here is the schedule that allowed me to do all of this. The idea is to get as much of the prep done ahead of time so that you have as little as possible to do the day of.

Monday: This is my usual baking day, I made an extra loaf of my regular bread for the stuffing and to serve in lieu of rolls. I put it in the freezer after it had cooled so it would stay fresh.

Tuesday: Shopping day- went and picked up the turkey, brine, and fresh ingredients that I needed. My step-son was a HUGE help because he came along and helped with the baby man while I was in and out of stores. He also shelled most of the pecans that came from my mother-in-law's tree for the pie.

1. Take the sausage out of the freezer so it will be ready to brown tomorrow. (I forgot this step.)
2. Bake the corn bread
3. Make dough for the pie crusts and refrigerate
4. Make pumpkin puree
5. Brine the turkey
6. Go ahead and set the table
7. If you have time, you can also prep veggies (except potatoes), getting them trimmed, sliced and diced so they are ready to cook.
8. Make whipped cream
9. The pies are best baked the evening before, but can be done first thing the next morning. They'll need time to cool before serving.

Thursday: Everything else :)

I should also include our center piece since it was a huge part of the celebration. I put some bare sticks in a clear vase filled with pecans to stabilize them. Then, we cut leaf shapes out of scrapbook paper and had everyone secretly write about things that they are thankful for on at least three leaves. During dinner, we took turns guessing what everyone had written. There were certainly some gems. We all got some good laughs and there were some very sweet moments as well.

This list will be invaluable to me when next year rolls around, making it super easy to put on the traditional meal, no planning needed! Hopefully it will provide you with some inspiration and ideas for your own family traditions. Now, on to Christmas!

This post is linked at the Monday's Homestead BarnhopFat Tuesday, Domestically Divine Tuesday, and Frugally Sustainable