Monday, January 26, 2015

~ Snowy Pictures From the Backyard ~

 Good Morning!  We've had a few inches of snow last night, the wet, heavy kind that sticks to everything.  Pretty.  Enjoy some snowy pictures from around my yard.  

Purple Coneflowers with snowy hats.

My clothlesline in the backyard.  Covered in snow and there was a slight wind blowing so it was bouncing around, but no snow has fallen from it yet.  

Animal tracks.
Bunny Tracks.  (Not the ice cream!)  :)

I think this is a turkey.  Large bird tracks with the tail dragging behind.  How did I mss the turkey?  They don't often visit my yard, and this was a lone turkey I think, only one set of tracks.

Standing under the large hemlock tree in my backyard, which provides shelter for countless birds in the winter months.

The birdhouse on the top of the clothes line and the leftover twigs from a house sparrows nest.

This is a pallet leaning against the garage.  Even pallets can look pretty in the snow.

The magnolia tree in my front yard.  What a beautiful tree!  It is quickly becoming a great perch for the birds too.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

~ Easy Hot Cocoa Mix ~

 This may be the easiest hot cocoa mix ever!  Really!

It has only three ingredients.  Powdered milk, sugar, and cocoa.  Simpy mix in  a large bowl, 2 1/2 - 3 cups of powdered milk, 2 cups granulated sugar, and 1 cup plus one tablespoon of baking cocoa.  Mix them together in the bowl, and you can be finished there, or in batches that will fit in your food processor, just pulse for a few seconds, and you'll have a super fine powder that will mix very nicely.  Just add hot water or milk to about 3-4 heaping teaspoons, and you're good to go!  I use about half milk/half water, but you can use any mix or just one or the other to fit your taste.  

Now pack it into a jar to give as a nice and thoughtful gift to a cocoa lover in your life, or for yourself, add a label with mixing instructions and you're done!  Easy!  It took literally about 5 minutes to make one batch of cocoa.  I made three batches in just a few more minutes, and it stores for a long time!  Just like the label says....Enjoy!  :)

Friday, December 5, 2014


Here's what you'll need for this project:

black oil sunflower seed
saved grease from cooking (bacon fat, hamburger grease, sausage grease, fat from roasts, etc)
waxed paper
knife (for cutting into individual sized cakes)
freezer space

 I really enjoy 'my' backyard birds all during the year.  During the growing season, they don't have much trouble finding food, but winter here is a different story.  The hardiest of the hardiest can manage, but life is tough for a songbird...any bird, or any critter when food is scarce though.  I  like to and enjoy helping them out a bit until the sun is shining and flowers start to bloom again.  So I feed them through the winter, usually black oil sunflower seed and corn.  I have feeders for woodpeckers and suet loving birds (and squirrels) too.  When I have leftover grease from baking, I save it up and use it to make suet cakes.  Here's how I do it, the process is very simple.

I first combine my left over grease and sunflower seeds, the amounts can vary depending on how much fat you have on hand, I had about 1 1/2 cups of fat and added enough sunflower seeds to make a consistency of cookie batter or Rice Krispie treats.  (Now I'm getting hungry!)

People will often try to save some money buying 'wild bird seed', but honestly, the cheaper seed mixes have weed seeds as fillers, and I know many birds eat weed seeds, but these are seeds that they pick through to get to the good stuff.  In other words, those seed mixes put in seeds that most birds don't eat, therefore, they sit on the ground until spring and then most likely will germinate into something you don't want growing in or near your yard.  The black oil sunflower seed runs about $10 for a 10 pound bag,   It can be found cheaper the larger bag that is bought, the price goes down the larger the bag.  I've learned from experience to stick with the minimum of sunflower seeds....every backyard critter from birds to deer love them.  They attract all kinds of birds.

After I've formed my large bird cake on a wax paper lined cookie sheet, I fold over the edges so I get nice firm sides.  This helps when it's time to cut them into cakes.  I place the cookie sheet with the bird cake into the freezer.  Once it's frozen, simply remove and cut into shapes of your choice.  I chose to cut them into 4x4 inch squares since that's the size of my suet feeders, but any size or shape will do, the birds don't discriminate!  Now, being that I don't like to waste anything, I wrapped the suet cakes in the waxed paper that I lined the cookie sheet with!  No waste!  If I were making these for gifts, which you can totally do, any bird lover would like a gift like this, I would have been more careful on cutting and wrapping, but these are for our use, so that wasn't a concern here.   I had a bit left over from cutting and I just placed the bits and pieces into a leftover container from sour cream.  These all go into a plastic or paper bag, and back into the freezer for a cold day.  

 Now on a nice cold day in January ( I can't believe I just wrote ''), but on a nice cold day in January, I'll be able to trudge out to the back yard suet feeders and place a cake or two into the feeders, run back inside, and wait...and enjoy the bird feeding show.  And on the cheap too!  Consider that the cheapest suet cakes I can find that don't contain fillers that the birds don't like costs about $1.40 per cake, these cost a fraction of that, the cost of the seed and waxed paper.  :)  Nice return!!

Monday, October 27, 2014

~ Picture Perfect Pumpkins and Squash ~

I love decorating for the fall holidays.  The colors are so warm and inviting!  I also like to make my pumpkins and squash stretch, so we carve two pumpkins, one each for my kids, and leave the rest as is so they can last longer, even way past Thanksgiving!  We have in years past, turned our fall pumpkins into Santa and snowman pumpkins!  

This past weekend, I had the chance to visit a family farm not far from our farm, but on an out of the way road that ends at their farm!  I haven't been there before, and I have to say, I loved their farm!  My girls were able to pick a pumpkin from a great variety of large selection of pumpkins that unlike large scale commercial farms near here, these pumpkins haven't been climbed over, stepped on, tossed around while looking for 'the one'.  My thought is that these will last longer since they haven't been handled too much.  They were displayed in a very cute barn display, as well as stacked singly on wagons.   We picked up field pumpkins, a hubbard squash, a couple of warty pumpkins, and the orange unknown to me at the moment squash pictured above!

The two little pumpkins in front of this picture are the only two I got from my garden this year!  I"m not sure what happened, but I did plant them in the rain the day before we headed out for vacation this past June, and it rained every day we were gone, plus I could have mulched them better than I did, but I was focused on saving tomatoes and peppers since we have an unusually cool and wet June and July.  I knew by the end of July that I wouldn't have a  pumpkin crop, but I also figured that pumpkins and squash are a whole lot cheaper than tomatoes and peppers!  I also knew there were a handful of farms in our area that I could get pumpkins, so I accepted loss early on and focused on tomato sauce and salsa!  The little ceramic kitty is one that my daughter painted about 8 years ago, and it's has been happy to sit on our porch guarding the front door for a couple of years now.  It's perfect for Halloween!

I just really like these warty pumpkins!!  I'll save seeds from everything I bought this year to plant for next year too.  I've never used Hubbard squash for cooking before, but I'm going to puree this one.  I've read and heard from so many people that the hubbard's make the best pumpkin pie and desserts!!  I can't wait to try it!!  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

~ A Quick and Almost Free Scary Halloween Tree Decoration ~

 It really is almost free!!  This isn't the end result, I still have a bit of detail work to do, and I need to run to the store to pick up some clear tape!  But this is the idea of the look of the finished product.  I decided a few days ago to try this out, and got around to giving it a try last night.  It turned out so good, and with only about a week before Halloween, I thought I would post this right away in case someone else would be interested in making this.  :)

It starts with a few brown paper grocery bags.  You can use craft paper, but I am a recycler, and I these work great!  For this project you'll need:

* three brown paper grocery bags
* scissors
*a Sharpie pen or any kind of pen or crayon to draw the outlines for your tree and birds
* tape (both to tape the trunk and branches of the tree, plus for hanging)
* a can of black spray paint

I started with cutting the trunk from two grocery bags.  Cut along one edge to the bottom of the bag, cut the other side to the bottom again, and cut through the bottom at the side to make one long piece of paper.  This will give you about 3 to 31/2 feet for the trunk.  For our door, that was plenty big.  Save the scraps from cutting out the trunk!  You can use those for the birds, bats, and pumpkins if you want to add some at the base of your tree!  I googled an image of a Halloween tree to find an image I wanted to work from.  What I chose doesn't look exactly like the tree I ended up with at all, so don't stress about the detail in the google images, use that as a visual only, to get an idea of what you want.  I wanted a trunk that twisted slightly with a hillside and some scary looking branches.  You can see how I taped the pieces to the door as I went along.  It gave me an idea of where to place branches to make sure I got the look I wanted. As you cut the branches from the scraps of paper, just tape them into place.  Don't worry about the color or placement of the tape, it will all be spray painted in the last step.

It's really easy to freehand a branch.  See how it looks kind of weird drawn, but once it's cut and added to the trunk, everything falls into place!

I was happy with this as the 'skeleton' of my tree!  This is why I like taping it where it will hang once completed.  This way you can make sure your finished product will look balanced.  Adding that little hillside at the bottom grounds the tree instead of it looking like it's hanging in mid air.

At this point, tape the seams of the trunk and branches very well so they are secure.

With the scrap paper left over from the trunk and branches, cut out some bats and and owl.  Again, it doesn't look like much on the paper, but once cut out, it looks like a bat!  Also...very important!  You can cut your bat slightly different from the freehand drawing.  Once I started to cut this bat out, I thought I would like some ears to show, so I cut the ears in as I was cutting towards the head simply by cutting them 'outside the lines' so to speak!  

I liked the ears better!  /

I did the same for the owl that's sitting on the top branch of the tree!  My pool little owl looks kind of silly here, but the finished product looks great!  Cut out the eyes so the light can shine through them once a light is turned on at night.  You can add some transparent plastic film in the eyes too if you want them to glow more, either yellow or orange.  One hint to keeping that part cheap and not having to buy extra paper from the craft store is to search out something in your house already that is that color...a potato chip bag, some plastic wrap colored with a highlighter?  Use your imagination and resourcefulness here.  Glow in the dark paint would be a great option too.

  Once your tree looks the way you like, carefully untape it from the door, take it outside to spray paint.  You MUST spray paint outside in a well ventilated area!  I put my tree and birds on the lawn to spray paint.  When the first side was dry, I turned it over to paint the reverse side.  I left it outside to dry and let the fums dissipate.  Spray paint really stinks!!  Once both sides are dry, place your tree and birds in a dry place to make sure the fumes are gone before hanging in place.

This isn't quite done yet, but you get the idea.  I'll post a finished (and much better picture) later today after I get to the store to get some clear tape.  ( I will actually buy some clear packing tape.  Since the holidays are coming, and we send homemade cookies to relatives out of state, I need the packing tape anyway!)

This is a great decoration to make in a short amount of time with very little money involved.  I had to buy the can of spay paint and clear tape.  Everything else, I had on hand.  It's cute, I was able to personalize it to fit my likes, I didn't have to buy a prepackaged decoration so I have saved on packaging and the cost of shipping on a seasonal item, and it's frugal.  The cost of a door sized decoration like this would have easily cost about $10 to $20 dollars!  And did I say it's cute?!?  

Remember to check back for the finished piece in place on my front door!  

Awesome.  Imaginative.  Easy on the pocketbook.  I love it!!  :)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

~ Homemade Pierogies...and Baked Potato Skins ~

 Homemade Pierogies.  It sounds like it can take all day, but with a bit of organization, or simply having made them a few times, it really doesn't.  It does take longer than opening up of box of frozen ones, but the result of homemade pierogies can't be beat.  I got my recipe here:  You can use the recipe as it's written, or as I often do, change things up a bit.  I like to use baked potatoes since I can use the hollowed out potato skins to make baked potato skins in addition to the pierogies. I also don't add onion to the potato mixture.  I love that this recipe uses sour cream in the dough, somehow the sour cream gives tenderness to the finished product.  I have a lady lock recipe that uses sour cream in the dough, and they are so good, better than good, but that's another post for another day!  So here's how to make a great pierogi. 

I start out by baking some potatoes in the oven just as I would for baked potatoes.  Pierce the skins in a few places, about five or six spots so steam can vent and the potatoes don't explode in the oven!  I baked about eight medium to large sized potatoes, and placed them directly on the rack so the skins could crisp up a bit.  When they are cooked, I sliced them in half lengthwise to cool faster.  Save the skins!  What I like about baking the potato vs. boiling is that there is no waste here, I use the potato skins to make potato skins!

 Simply scoop out the potatoes into a medium to large sized bowl.

Add whatever kind of shredded cheese you like to the potatoes, I used colby-jack, about 4 oz.  At this point, I also add about 2 tablespoons of butter and 1-2 teaspoons of milk.  It just makes the mixture a bit more creamy.  I also don't add onion to this mixture, I add onion to the pan during the last step of cooking.
Mix everything together until nice and smooth.  Actually, I like some lumps in the potatoes, it's a matter of personal preference.   I use a fork or slotted spoon, but this can be done with an electric mixer too, I just like to minimize clean up!

Now just roll out the dough from the recipe above.  I did roll it thinner than 1/8th inch, this dough has a good bit of elasticity, so the dough stretches a bit to seal in the filling.  Cut circles with the edge of a glass or cookie cutter.  I used a large drinking glass, a mason jar would do the job too. 

Place about 1-2 teaspoons of potato/cheese filling to the center of the circle and fold the dough to form a half circle.  Seal the edges with a fork.  If the dough is dry and the edges aren't sealing, simply brush a small amount of water to the edge and seal with the fork again.  You want a good seal so that the potato filling doesn't leak out while cooking.

At this point, I change the recipe from above a bit again.  While I'm forming the pierogies, I add one onion, (I like sweet onions) , to a large cast iron skillet with 1- 2 tablespoons of butter and saute until the onions caramelize and get a nice brown color.  Again, this is a matter of preference, I like the onions cooked a bit more.  Add the pierogies directly to the pan and add about 1/2 cup of water, more can be added if it all cooks off before they are done.  It only takes a couple of minutes each side to cook the pasta and warm the filling.  At the very end, as the water is cooked out of the pan, I add just a bit, maybe a tablespoon of butter to finish off and give a nice flavor.  Not much is needed, and you don't have to add any, it just finishes off the pierogies nicely without making them greasy.  Basically, I cook the pierogies with the water instead of a lot of butter or oil, the pierogies turn out nice and tender, then I add the butter for flavor.

This is the finished product!  Whenever we have a starchy meal, I balance it out with a green vegetable.  This is a trick my mom taught me as a young girl.  It adds veggies to the plate, and the green and in this case, red of the tomatoes makes the meal look appetizing.  A fresh simple salad from the garden to compliment these pierogies...nothing better.  It was delicious, my kids were very quiet at the table, no bickering or complaining, because they were too busy eating!  :)  

These can also be made but not cooked and frozen for later use.  If you choose to make extra for a future meal, simply freeze on a cookie sheet single layer, then place in a tightly sealed ziploc bag, and freeze. 

Now to the hollowed out potato skins from the start of the recipe, I simply add any leftover potato filling, some shredded cheese and carmelized onion and bake for about 5-7 minutes at 375 degrees F, until the cheese has melted.  Add to this any topping you like.  I like just a simple salsa to the top, but you can add sour cream, bacon pieces, taco toppings...really, whatever you like!  Enjoy!!

So, by baking the potatoes instead of boiling, and mixing everything by hand, I save a lot of time on clean up!  I hate clean up!  If I can minimize pans used to prepare a recipe, I'm all for it, and there is very little waste or waste from packaging from this recipe.  One of these days, I'll learn to make my own cheese, to minizmize waste from packaging even more!  This is a great home cooked dinner, that doesn't take as much time as you might think, and it fills the belly.  :)

Friday, July 25, 2014

~ Blueberry - Basil Vinegar ~

 I see at the grocery stores all of the time gourmet salad dressings that are 'some sort of fruit vinaigrette'.  They are typically more expensive, and since I've had a decent amount of blueberries this year, and I want to simplify and cut back on what I buy and what I put in the recycling bin, I thought I would give this vinegar a try.  It can be added to oil, garlic, dijon mustard and basil any time to make a nice salad dressing or glaze for meats.

So here is the process:  I followed the recipe from Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving.

I added 4 cups of fresh blueberries with 1 cup of white wine vinegar to a glass container with a fitted lid.  This is very important since this will take up to 4 weeks to make!  Just crush the berries.  The recipe said lightly, I may have crushed them a bit more, but still looking pretty intact.

I picked about 1 cup of fresh basil, and tore the leaves, then crushed them to release the oils in the leaves.  I have a few varieties growing, I used a bit of each.  It smells really good!  Ball recommends using a mortar and pestle to crush the leaves. I don't have one yet, so I used a ceramic bowl and the back of our ice cream scoop.  The idea is just to crush the leaves, it doesn't have to be fancy.

Next, I added the crushed basil leaves and the zest of a lemon to the blueberry/vinegar mixture along with 3 more cups of white vinegar.

This is what it will look like once everything is mixed up.  It doesn't look great, but it will start to brew!  I have it sitting on the back of my kitchen counter with the lid firmly attached and a dark towel covering everything.  It needs a cool, dark environment to blend the flavors without spoiling.  The back of my countertop is under a corner cabinet and is pretty dark back there, so I figure I'll remember to stir it every two to three days as the recipe recommends. I can't wait to try this.  After it's the strength I like, I'll strain and can the vinegar to keep for future use.  I really can't wait!

I've wanted to do something like this for years, but have always been hesitant to use 4 cups of precious blueberries which I'll later discard.  I have enough already frozen this year, and have decided to focus on freezing for muffins, cakes, and pancakes, instead of jellies.  I'm going to try my hand at grape jelly later this summer, and elderberry, my all time favorite, so making this blueberry-basil vinegar seems like an adventurous idea!  It will take up to 4 weeks, so this will be an exercise of patience!  I'll keep you posted!

Here's the recipe:  (It's on page #276 if you already have this book!)

 ~ Blueberry - Basil Vinegar ~

4 cups blueberries
4 cups white wine vinegar, divided
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves, crushed
Grated zest of 1 lemon

In a large glass bowl, combine blueberries and 1 cup of white wine vinegar. Lightly crush the blueberries with a potato masher.  Add the remaining 3 cups of vinegar, crushed basil and lemon zest, and stir to combine. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand in a dark, cool place, ideally 70 to 75 degrees F. for up to 4 weeks, stirring every 2 to 3 days.  Taste weekly until the desired strength is achieved.

After the desired strength is achieved, prepare canner, jars and lids.

Line a strainer with several layers of cheesecloth and place over a large stainless steel saucepan.  Strain vinegar without squeezing the cheesecloth. Discard cheesecloth and residue.  Place saucepan over medium high heat to heat vinegar to 180 degrees F.

Ladle hot vinegar into hot jars, leave 1/4 inch headspace.  Wipe rim and center lids on jars.  Screw the bands down until resistance is met, increasing to fingertip tight.

Place jars in canner making sure they are completely covered with water.  Bring to a boil and process for 10 minutes.  Remove canner lid and let sit for 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

Variation:  If you wish to keep fresh whole blueberries in the vinegar, add 1/4 cup fresh blueberries to the mixture before ladling into jars.