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Monday, February 25, 2008

Great Gifts: Black and Decker Rice Cooker

My husband and I went the first year of our marriage without having much rice at all. Then we worked at Cono Christian School, which is a boarding school that has a large population of international students. The two years we worked there, the dining center served rice multiple times a week, which encouraged Ethan's desire for meals with rice.

I probably wouldn't have choosen to have a rice night once I started cooking after our move, but some of my husband's favorite meals are stir fry and Mexican dishes - and he had become quite accustomed to having rice on a regular basis. So tonight is Monday night, which is rice night around our house.

The first year or two after we moved, Ethan tried making some of these rice meals by the stove top method. At Cono, however, the rice was steamed, and he was never happy with his results. So a few years ago for Christmas I got him a Black and Decker 16 Cup Rice Cooker. You can check it out a bit more on this link.

Although I would rather have a non rice meal, I do have to admit that it makes really good rice. It will make up to 16 cups of cooked rice, and it is very easy to use. The pan that inserts in to the cooker has very clear and easy to follow marks on it. If you put 3 cups of rice in the cooker, you fill the rest of the cooker with water up to the 3 cup mark. If you put 6 cups of rice into the cooker, you fill the rest of the cooker up with rice to the 6 cup mark.

Once you have the rice and water in, all you have to do is plug it into the wall and push a button. Then you can walk away and forget about it! When it is done cooking, the button pops up and the cooker goes to a warm setting to keep the rice warm. The end result is perfectly cooked, fluffy rice. It isn't pasty nor does it stick together.

There are two things that some people don't like about the cooker. One of these things is that if you put too much water in, water will splatter out of the steam vent while it is cooking. It can make quite a mess, but there are two solutions that I have found. One is to get familiar with your cooker and know just where the water level needs to be in relation with the line. I was able to do this after just a few uses and had no more splatters. Until I figured it out though, I just put a bowl loosely over the top of the cooker's vent to block the spray.

The other issue is that rice does tend to stick to the bottom of the pan a bit, especially if you leave it on the warm setting for quite awhile after it is done. This doesn't bother me either though. I just listen for the pop of the button and turn the unit off. The rice stays plenty warm if you keep the lid on. Any rice that is stuck to the bottom I just leave. (It is a bit dry if it is stuck.) After the meal, I put a couple inches of water into the cooker and let it set for about 15-20 minutes. The rice that was stuck rinses right out.

So although rice isn't one of my favorite meals, I would say that this is one of the Great Gifts that I have given. My husband loves it, and I like to see him enjoying his food. I enjoy eating rice from the cooker more than from the stove top, and best of all . . . sometimes Ethan takes over the cooking on rice nights!

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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Laundry is Done!

This week has been a big "catch up the house" week for me. Although I am not completely caught up, I don't seem buried by the mess anymore. I finally have all of the laundry washed. Some of it still needs to be put away, and lots of it need to be ironed - but at least it is washed!

In the winter, it is a lot harder for me to keep up with the laundry. I try to hang as much as I can, putting as little as I can through the dryer. Every time I take clothes out of the dryer I pull out a huge wad of lint, and I start to wonder how much faster things that are machine dried wear out than things that are hung up to dry.

Not only do I avoid machine drying clothes for wear and tear, but also for the cost of running the dryer. That may seem a little silly since we live in a parsonage and the utilities are paid by the church, but I feel that it is a good habit for me to get into for when we have a house of our own. Plus, if I don't want to spend my money on it, why should I make the church?

All of this is to say that it takes me longer to do laundry in the winter because I don't have enough drying space to keep up with the washer.

With spring approaching, I start to get excited about being able to dry my clothes outside again. One of the biggest reasons is that I can get through laundry faster but also because I ABSOLUTELY love the smell of clothes when they have been dried outside. There is an extra clean smell about them that makes me want to just bury my face in them and breathe in deeply.

This week while I was doing laundry and getting the house back in order, I also did some much need vacuuming. I seem to get a sore throat from the dust and allergens being stirred up when I vacuum, so this time I opened the windows while the vacuum was running. When I was done, I noticed something strange in the air that I just couldn't put my finger on. Finally, I figured it out. I was smelling laundry that had been dried outside! Actually, I was just smelling fresh air. It was wonderful! Right then and there I decided that I needed to air out some of this stale winter house air more often. Now if only I can remember to open those windows.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Sneak Peek

Yesterday we had another snow/ice storm come through. This time church got canceled, as well as evening youth group. As much as I want to get the house back in order, I believe that God knows what He was saying when He asks us to take a day to rest. So for the sake of my heath, I left the mess in the house and decided to spend the day working on the quilt for our room.

I have been slowly piecing it together over the last year and a half. The quilt will have 14 rows of 13 blocks each. Yesterday, I made a lot of progress. I ended the day with all 14 rows sewn in their strips. I also got 3 of those strips sewn together. After I attach the remaining 11 strips, it will be ready to start quilting.

I laid out all of the strips on our bed so that I could see how it would look finished. I was really happy with it, but I will just show you a portion and wait to take a picture of the completed quilt once it is done.I have been very blessed in that my Aunt Audry let me dig through her stash of fabric and let me just take what I wanted to make this quilt. She also showed me how to get it going and showed me some neat tricks to make it go together faster and more precise. This week her husband, Uncle Joe, was sent home from the hospital with at home hospice. He has been fighting cancer for over a year. Not only was yesterday a day for me to rest a bit, but it was also an opportunity for me to pray for my Uncle Joe, Aunt Audry, and their family as I worked on my quilt.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Laundry is Waiting

This week has been a full week! Ethan and I have multiple things going on that have caused me to get quite behind on dishes, laundry, and cleaning. Even so, I thought I would sit down and give my feet and mind a break for a few minutes and put a post on.

One of the things that has happened this week is that Ethan has started writing for They are the online magazine for Bon Appetit and Gourmet. They were looking for a farmer to blog for them and asked him after they stumbled across his blog. This has actually been in the works for about a month, but this week his posts just started showing up. You can find his posts in the Epi-log section, or you can go to his bio on the left side of the Epi-log and click on the link to his posts. I will also be putting a link on the right side of my blog that will take you to his posts. I'm very proud of him! He has been very diligent in learning as much as he can about sustainable agriculture and in sharing what he has learned on his blog, The Beginning Farmer. Hopefully this will encourage a lot of food lovers to buy from local farmers.

Also this week, Ethan has been getting ready for the Valentine's Banquet that his youth group puts on. This year they are doing "A Taste of Italy". Yesterday we went shopping for decorations, today Ethan is putting together lasagna to serve 60, and I am making the desserts. I am making 4 pans of Royal Chocolate Cake (1 fudge, 1 strawberry, and 2 caramel) and 2 pans of Cheesecake Pudding Delight. You can find their recipes here. The hardest part is making all of these and not being able to eat any!!

Here is a side view of the Cheesecake Pudding Delight. For the Valentine's Banquet, we described it as: Cheesecake, vanilla pudding, and chocolate pudding layered over a delicate crust. I think that this one is my favorite.

The Chocolate Royal Cake is equally as dangerous though. It was described as: Sweetened chocolate cake with a layer of caramel, fudge, or strawberry - topped with cool whip.

The last thing that has been going on this week is a continuation of something that we have been working with for a few weeks now. I really can't go into many details now, but hopefully will be able to in a few more weeks. It just involves LOTS of phone calls, e-mails, and time! If we ever pop into your mind, we would be so thankful if you took a second to pray for discernment and wisdom with our new project. I hope to update everyone soon!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Great Gits: Perennial All Stars

When I was growing up, I always enjoyed seeing my Grandma's flower bed. She always had beautiful flowers that showed the efforts of her hard work. She kept up her large flower bed by continually working in manure for fertilizer and also by keeping the weeds plucked out. My grandma is now in a care center, but she maintained her perennial flower garden into her 90's.

My mom also has taken up the interest in perennials and took a class through a local community college on how to make a flower garden the most visually appealing. For the last class, they were supposed to receive a list of information about various perennials, but she missed that class.

Since she had really been looking forward to getting that list, I got her a book for Christmas called Perennial All Stars: The 150 Best Perennials for Great-Looking, Trouble-Free Gardens, by Jeff Cox - who is the host of HGTV "Grow It!" I wasn't really sure what the book would be like since I wasn't able to look at it closely before I bought it. (Although you can take a small peek at it here.) When it arrived though, I was really impressed by it.

The book has great illustrations and lots of information about each plant. Each perennial has 2 pages dedicated to it that include photos and detailed information about the plant. It also has a highlighted section within the information that serves as a quick reference for the plant's growing conditions, similar to what you might find on a growing tag from the store.

I think one of the neatest things about this book is the Perennial Plant Finder - located right after the table of contents. It has the plants grouped into great categories that are wonderful for planning a flower garden. These categories include:
Spring-blooming by flower color, Summer-blooming by flower color, Fall-blooming by flower color, Winter-blooming by flower color, Long blooming, Less than 2 feet tall, 4 feet or taller, Cold climate plants, Deep South plants, Dry sites, Wet sites, Full shade, Full sun, Seldom need division, Deer resistant, Ground covering, Naturalizing, Evergreen or semievergreen foliage, Colorful or variegated foliage, Fragrant, Attract butterflies, and Attract hummingbirds.

I hope that my mom thinks that this was a great gift. I sure did! Of course, one of the reasons I thought that this was such a great gift is because the seller that I bought it from sent me a water damaged book - which wasn't the degree of condition that I ordered. I wouldn't have minded for myself, but it was to be a gift. Because of that, they graciously sent me a new one for free and told me to keep the damaged book. I gave my mom the good one, and I ended up with one for myself!

I hope that when we get a property of our own, I am able to put together a flower bed that would make my grandma proud.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Family Farming

If you have been following my husband's blog, you have seen that we had two new calves born on the farm. You can read more of the details on thebeginningfarmer, but to give you the short of it, it wasn't the ideal situation. With 1 foot of snow on the ground, this wouldn't have been the time of year we would have picked for calving. You take what you get though, when you find a good deal on cows. Next year we will do our best to have calving in the spring - unless our bull gets out to where he shouldn't be at the wrong time!

Since the cows are at my father-in-laws, we made a trip on Thursday to see the calves and to help out a bit. It was a cold day, so the kids stayed inside while we worked with the new additions. It was quite a busy day, so when we got done outside, we bundled up the kids, loaded them into the truck, and started back for home. After we had started off, Caleb announced that we forgot to show him the calves.

Now, we hadn't gotten very far, but when you have already loaded up two bundled up kids in car seats, have over an hour to drive, and need to get home to finish up things with deadlines, turning around and unloading kids to tromp through a foot of snow and then reloading them into the truck does not sound like fun. We asked Caleb if it would be okay if we just showed him the pictures. Caleb agreed, Ethan and I looked at each other, and then we turned around.

Ethan and I decided that when we started this farming adventure less than a year ago, that we were going to include our kids in it. Not just include them as extra hands, but really include them. One of the things that we think contributes to kids wanting to get away from the farm is too much of the work and not enough of the rewards - whether it's monetary rewards, rewards of ownership, or the reward of just going to look at and talk about new born calves.

So out of the truck came Caleb and Hannah, through the foot of snow we carried them, and into the shelter we peeked. It was definitely worth the time.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Have you ever noticed that after you boil vegetables in water or even after steaming them, the water turns a shade of the vegetables?

Well, that water does not only contain the color of the vegetable, but it also holds a decent amount of nutrients that have leached out into the water. Some of the water soluble vitamins are the very important B complex vitamins and vitamin C. These are also vitamins that your body needs to replace daily.

So, when you are dumping that colored water down the drain, you are dumping some good stuff.

When you cook your vegetables, use as little water as possible to help them retain as many nutrients as possible. (Vegetables cooked in large amounts of water lose more vitamins and minerals than vegetables cooked in small amounts of water.) After your vegetables are done cooking, remove them from the pot - but don't dump that good water!

Here's an idea of what to do with the water:
Pour the remaining water into a container and put it in the freezer. After it is frozen solid, remove it from the freezer just long enough so that it pops out. Then place your vitamin cube in a gallon freezer bag, and add more vitamin cubes as you make them.

When you make soup or have a recipe that you need water for, and one that retains the water, take out enough vitamin cubes to equal the amount of water you need. Not only are you saving some of those nutrients, you are also adding in some great extra taste.
One of my favorite sayings is, "I paid for it, I'm using it!"

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sourdough Photo Tutorial

I have received a lot of interest in my post on sourdough, and I continue to receive questions so thought I would start a new batch and show the process with photos.

Before you begin, you might need to go shopping for some of the ingredients. You will need:
*1 can of pineapples - Make sure that it is with 100% natural pineapple juice and no extra sweeteners. The juice is what you will be needing. The acidity of the pineapple juice keeps bad bacteria from growing as you start your sourdough starter.

*Whole wheat flour - The whole wheat flour is what contains the wild yeast. For my original batch I used Gold Medal. This batch I will be using King Arthur. I believe that any whole grain flour will do though.

*All purpose flour

*You might possibly need apple cider vinegar, however, my batches didn't require this.

*A non-reactive bowl to make it in. (i.e. glass)

Throughout this post, you can click on any picture to see a zoomed in view.
Okay, here we go . . .
Day 1
Mix 2 T whole grain flour and 2 T pineapple juice. Stir well, cover with a cloth, and let sit for 24 hours at room temp.

(For my first batch, I started my starter on the kitchen counter. For this batch, I am putting it into the oven with the light on. (Don't preheat the oven with it in there! That's something I would do!!) We keep our house fairly cool in the winter, so this will help the starter be a bit warmer. Another option is to place it on top of your refrigerator - which will be warm on top. I actually did end up doing this eventually with my first sourdough starter. (If you remember science class, yeast is encouraged by warmth.)
Day 2
Here is a picture of my starter before I added anything. (Sorry it's kind of fuzzy.) Although I covered it, it had dried a bit on the sides. This is okay. Just keep adding the ingredients.

Add 2 T of whole grain flour and 2 T pineapple juice. Stir well, cover with a cloth, and let sit another 24 hours at room temperature. You may or may not start to see small bubbles at this point.

For my first batch of sourdough starter, I didn't see the bubbles on this day. With this batch I did. They were very tiny pin prick bubbles that would emerge at the top even after I tapped the starter down after mixing it - a step you don't have to do, but I wanted to try and get all of the air bubbles out from mixing it to see if it would continue to bubble, which it did. I'm not sure what made the difference, maybe the warm oven? I went ahead and put it back in the oven with the light on.
Day 3
Here is a picture of what my starter looked like before I added the ingredients this morning. It was a little dried out again, but there were bubbles on the surface. Last night I actually peeked at it and there were more bubbles than there were this morning. They must have settled a bit during the night.

Again, add 2 T of whole grain flour and 2 T pineapple juice. Stir well, cover with a cloth, and let sit another 24 hours at room temperature. You may or may not start to see small bubbles at this point.

Today as I was mixing in my ingredients, my starter really got excited. I as I was mixing things in, I could see LOTS of tiny pin prick bubbles coming to life. After it was mixed, the starter looked kind of frothy, and it almost reminded me of a chocolate frosty that was starting to melt. I don't remember my first starter taking off this well. I'm guessing it's the warm oven, but maybe it because I used a different brand of wheat flour. Today though, I am covering it with a wet cloth instead of dry one when I put it back into the oven. I'm thinking that will prevent it from drying out a bit.
Day 4
Here is a picture of what my starter looked like before I add any ingredients this morning. There is no doubt about bubbles being in the starter now. I did have to rewet the cloth covering it last night, and although the cloth was dry again this morning, the starter wasn't nearly as dried out as the other days.

Stir the sourdough mixture well and measure out 1/4 c - discard the rest. To the 1/4 c saved, stir in 1/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour and 1/4 c water. Let it sit for 24 hours.

Today I needed to use a bigger bowl since the one I was using was just a custard dish. As I was stirring in the ingredients, the bubbles really got going again. I could actually see them forming and popping after I stirred it. I decided to put it in the oven for one more day since this was the first big feed. This time, however, I used a heavier cloth hoping that it would hold the moisture a little bit better.
Day 5
Today I was not able to get to my sourdough until evening, so it was more of a day and a half instead of a day. I did peek at my starter in the morning, and it had a slight layer of hooch on it.

Hooch is a layer of liquid that has seperated on the top. Sourdough contains a slight amount of alcohol from the fermentation process - and it is concentrated in the hooch that forms on top. The old timers used to drink this, but it should be kept with with the starter to keep enough moisture in the starter.

Hooch forms when the starter has gone too long without a feeding - which mine obviously did in the warm oven. There is nothing wrong with it. It is just a separation of the ingredients. (Since the liquid has risen to the top, the bottom layer will be thicker than normal.) It is very common to get layers of hooch once you move your starter to the fridge. If this happens, just stir it back in and continue with your starter or your cooking. If the layer of hooch is over 1 inch thick, you may want to mix it back in, take out a 1/4 of a cup of starter, and then start over on day 4. Doing this will just give you a more active starter.

When I did get to my starter in the evening, this is what it looked like. You can't really see the layer of hooch since it was very thin, but there were many bubbles that had formed. The heavier, wet cloth also made a big difference in that the starter was hardly dried up. Also, when I opened the oven to get my starter out, I could definitely smell the yeast - almost like there was a loaf of bread rising in there.

At this point in the sourdough starter making process, the days left until completion can vary.

Repeat day four's instructions each day until the mixture expands to double its size and smells of yeast. The mixture may start to bubble after a couple of days and then go flat, looking totally dead for a couple of more days. If this happens, at about Day 6, add the 1/4 tsp. vinegar with your daily feeding. This will lower the PH and wake up the yeast, which will then start to grow.

Since I smelled the yeast and have been seeing many bubbles while stirring in the starter's food (the flour and water), I am sure it is up and running. I transfered a 1/4 cup starter to a mason jar, where my sourdough sponge will stay. (The sponge is the active starter.) Then I added the 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 cup water. To cover it, I am using a lid specifically made for canning jars. (I found these lids this year at Walmart - they are GREAT for applesauce, jams, and other canned foods that don't get consumed all at once.) Today I decided to leave it on the counter after it's feeding instead of in the oven since it is going strong.
Day 6 (This day may be later for you.)

Here are two pictures from my starter today before I added the ingredients. You can see the layer of hooch on the top. This means that it is very active and needs feedings. It is also ready to go into the fridge where the cooler temperatures will slow the process down.

When you get to this point, you have reached the final step of making your sourdough sponge. (You can get to this point without seeing hooch. The hooch is an indicator that it is very active though.)
The starter should be fed equal parts of flour and water in a quantity sufficient to make enough starter for your recipe. For example, if your recipe calls for 1 cup of sourdough sponge, you will probably want your sponge to equal 2 cups or more so it can continue on.

Store the starter in the refrigerator when you are not using it, unless you plan on using it every day. It needs to be fed equal parts of flour and water once a week to keep it alive. Either use or discard at least half of it when feeding - THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT to maintaining a healthy starter! If you forget to feed it for a few weeks, it probably will be fine but it may take several feedings to get it back up to par or you may want to go back to day 4.

For my starter, I added 1 1/2 cups each of flour and water. I used my canning funnel to avoid a mess, and then I put the lid back on the jar and shook it up. Again, lots more bubbles formed. Now my sourdough starter sponge will go into the refrigerator where I will use it and keep it well fed.
A Few Last Thoughts On Sourdough

There are a couple of things that I would do differently the next time I do a starter. I would still put it in the oven the first few days, but I would be sure to use a heavier wetted cloth the whole time to prevent the drying. Since the starter formed hooch before I got it to the fridge, I would probably not put it back in the oven on day 4, when it really started to bubble. Instead, I would just put it on the counter to finish up.

Some people like to have two jars of sourdough going in their fridge - doing this by splitting their first starter batch and feeding them appropriately. This gives you the opportunity to have more sourdough sponge on hand while having a safety net that if one jar goes inactive, the second jar might continue on. If you do this though, it will be a bit more to manage in that you need to either use and feed it or dump and feed it.

When you use your starter dough in a recipe, remember to feed it equal proportions of flour and water. This will keep it active and will give you more to use for your next recipe.

Lastly, the things that you make with your sourdough starter might begin to change flavor over time. This is because your sourdough sponge will start to pick up the wild yeasts from your environment. These will begin to dominate over the yeasts that were in the wheat flour, which will in turn effect the flavor of your sourdough.

To see the condensed version, and my recipe for sourdough pancakes, click here.

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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Great Gifts: Al Dente Noodle Maker

I thought that this would be an appropriate gift to highlight this week since I just posted about making noodles. 4 years ago I received my noodle maker from my parents, I and have been enjoying since.

The noodle maker that I have is the Villaware Al Dente Pasta Machine. It is made out of chrome plated stainless steel and clamps onto a table or counter. It has 3 separate rollers, each 6 inches wide. The first roller used is to roll your dough to the desired thickness - there are 7 settings to choose from. After you have your dough rolled out to the desired thickness, you use one of the two remaining rollers to make spaghetti or fettuccine.

This pasta maker cleans up quickly with a dry cloth after you are done. It comes with a nice instruction booklet that also contains some recipes. I think the hardest part of using this pasta maker is really just with making the dough. The humidity of the day and the eggs you use effect the moistness of the dough, which is a very important part of making great noodles - so you have to learn how to get it just the right consistency.

You can read more about the Villaware Al Dente Pasta Machine here, although you can find it cheaper than that site if you shop around. I also just found out tonight that there are optional attachments that allow you to make angel hair, trenette, spaghetti, lasagnette, lasagna and ravioli. Hmmm. . . I think some of those might make my great gifts list of things I would like!
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