The Necessity of Close Community – Revisited

We had a tragedy in our community last week.  A vibrant, lively 7-year old-died in a shocking accident and our little village is reeling.  Parents aren’t supposed to bury their babies and when it happens, there are simply no words.

This morning, the local elementary held a crisis intervention and the one thing that I took away was the comment that someone has to be in place to “heal the healers”.   The speaker told of the blessing upon our village, that ours is such a tight-knit community there will always be someone there to support those who are  hurting.

But not everyone is blessed in that way.

In November, we talked about the importance of being engaged with your community; of being the familiar face and hands willing to serve in times of need.  This tragedy is a clarion call for me and I once again urge you to get plugged in with your village/township/city.  Life is so short and fragile, and at some point in that life, we’re all going to be beggars desperate for bread.  Be the person who shows the beggar where to find it.  Be the one who “heals the healer”.

Blessings upon you and yours

Andrea

 

 

Don’t Organize. Minimalize.

 

 

 

Right now, I know you’re being inundated via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, Ebay and a hundred other entities with ideas and products for getting organized after the holidays.

Friends, I’m not going to be that voice.

I’m going to be the voice of reality and sanity and tell you that organizing doesn’t work.  If organizing worked, we’d all be organized, having all made the very same resolution back in 2013 to “get organized” and as a result, Hoarders wouldn’t exist as a reality TV program.

With few exceptions, organization isn’t the problem.  The problem is we have too much stuff.

One of the reasons our grandmothers always had neat and tidy homes, were always ready to receive visitors, and were rarely up to their eyeballs in debt:  they owned less stuff.  In my mind, I can walk through my great grandmother’s 4 room house on Rt 5 in Ashland, Kentucky and tell you where each of her things were located…because there were so few things.  Dusting wasn’t an issue.  Maintenance wasn’t an issue.  Clutter wasn’t an issue.  Compare and contrast that to today where we make more money, have more stuff, are far less content and far more overwhelmed than even a generation ago.  Crazy, isn’t it?

Last spring, I became tired of the stuff and began moving hard and fast toward minimalism.  The difference was immediate and amazing.  We had free time because there was less to do.  Personally, I was far less anxious, perhaps because my eyes had places to rest. Cleaning was far simpler.  And here’s the thing I didn’t expect: it greatly impacted our finances.  We tended to think twice about a purchase because we didn’t want to clutter up the house with something we’d turn around and throw away.  We still have a long way to go; books, clothing and sentimental items seem to be our collective nemeses here, but I’m finding we’re far more content to live with far less and it makes me quite anxious to live with far less still.

Let me dispel a few myths for you.

Minimalism is NOT:

  • Punishment.  There’s nothing punitive in getting rid of stuff we don’t need.
  • Misery.  There’s also nothing disheartening about it though admittedly, you may have to face up to a few emotions that perhaps you hadn’t dealt with.
  • Stark.  There is nothing barren, dreary, desolate or cheerless about getting rid of junk cluttering up your living space. It showcases the things you love!
  • Boring.  Minimalism doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life.  It means you won’t have clutter preventing you from enjoying life.

Here’s the funny thing:  once you begin to declutter your living space, the desire to minimalize will begin to extend to other areas of your life.  Your job.  Your relationships.  Your goals.  Your media life. I love this quote from Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life

Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s most important things–which actually aren’t things at all.

Doesn’t that just sum up what most of us really want out of life?  That’s why our grandparents were so content with so little.  And perhaps that’s why we are so stressed out with so much.

Baby Steps Toward Minimalism

Minimalism isn’t an all or nothing prospect.  It also doesn’t happen overnight.  It took us a lifetime to accumulate the clutter and develop the bad habits; it’s going to take a while to undo them, but here are a few steps to get you on the way.

  1. Remove duplicates.  You don’t need 15 winter hats or  4 “I Love Vegas” mugs.  If you have multiples, purge 1 (or 12).  Sell it, donate it, junk it, whatever.
  2. Throw away broken items.  That sounds like a gimme, but I’ll totally confess to hanging onto things I intended to mend and it just never happens.  Probably WON’T happen.  Junk it.
  3. Break it down into bite-size jobs.  Don’t tackle the entire office in one afternoon.  How about just the books?  Or just one cabinet?  Accomplish that single task, pat yourself on the back for a job well done and move on.
  4. If you’re like me and you like seeing a completed checklist on paper, go to Pinterest for a printable declutter checklist.  There are zone-based, monthly-based, number-based…I’m sure you’ll find a checklist that will help keep you motivated.
  5. Find a collector/dealer/website that will be glad to take your things.  I had a cedar chest full of mid-century items from my grandmother’s first husband who was killed in Korea.  His burial flag, for instance. I was thrilled beyond words to find a military museum who wanted to display it in their Korean War memorial.  The cedar chest was emptied and a 19 yo soldier was remembered again. Win.
  6. Don’t get hung up on perceived value.  The fact you paid $179 for an item back in 1967 means nothing in this economy and culture.  If it doesn’t bring you joy, be rid of it, regardless of how much you paid for it.

I hope those baby steps will get your started in the right direction, if you’re resolved to never organize again!  My simple decluttering goal for 2018 is to get rid of 2018 items; just 5 things a day.  Do you have goal?

New Year’s Peas & Greens

Good morning, friends!  I hope this post finds you rested, relaxed and recuperated after a long holiday season.  With just one more “event” to go before a return to normal life, I’d like to share a couple of my favorite traditional New Year’s dishes.

Greens are a staple side-dish on our table year ’round, as they’re low carb, high in fiber, full of vitamins and utterly delish!  On New Year’s, however, they take center stage, along with a big dish of limas or a piquant salad of marinated black-eyed peas.   Beyond being amazingly delicious, a meal of pork, greens and peas is supposed to bring you luck for the following year.  I can’t vouch for the verity of that tradition, but I don’t mind giving it a try each year!

While the cooking time may vary, the procedure for making a steaming pot of greens is about the same, no matter the variety you choose.

  • First, buy more than you think you’ll need.  What may seem like an extraordinary amount of raw greens will cook down to fit in a small bowl.
  • Greens need to be soaked in a deep sink full of cold water to allow the sand to rinse off.  Most likely your greens were grown in sandy soil and if you don’t soak and rinse them really well, you’ll end up with grit in your teeth!
  • Fold the leaf in half lengthwise and cut away the thick, coarse stem on the back of the leaves.  You don’t have to do this, but I really dislike the fibrous bites of stem from tougher greens like collards.
  • Allow plenty of cooking water/broth.  Some greens can be quite bitter, so plenty of cooking water will let the bitterness cook out…and the resulting pot liquor is absolutely delicious!

Ingredients for Classic Southern Greens

1-2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 clove of (minced) garlic

4 cups chicken broth (add additional as needed)

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 large turkey leg or ham hock

2# collards, mustard, turnip greens or kale, well-cleaned and chopped

salt & pepper

vinegar or hot sauce, to taste

Instructions

In a large pot, cook onions in the olive oil till tender.  Stir in garlic and cook till fragrant.  Add chicken broth, smoked meat and pepper flakes, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes.  Remove the turkey leg or ham hock, allow to cool then pick the meat off the bone and return to the pot of broth.  Add the greens to the pot a handful at a time so they can wilt down in the hot broth.  When all the greens are wilted, cover and simmer for approximately 20-30 minutes for kale or mustard, an hour for collards, or till they reach the desired texture.  Stir occasionally.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, then serve with vinegar or hot sauce.  For my vegan and vegetarian friends out there, simply omit the chicken broth and turkey/ham and replace with vegetable broth and a bit of adobo sauce for that wonderful smoky flavor.   

Okay, moving on to my favorite black-eyed pea recipe…black-eyed pea salad!  I know it sounds strange, but I’ve never developed a taste for a big old pot-full of black-eyed peas.  Any other pot of beans or peas, yes, but black-eyed peas, no.  I was introduced to this dish at a friend’s restaurant in Beaufort, SC and was instantly hooked!  It’s spicy, savory, filling and makes a great main dish during crazy hot weather.  It’s also a perfect spin on the dish that’s traditionally served for “good luck” on New Year’s Day.  Here’s all you need…

Ingredients for Black-Eyed Pea Salad

1 large tomato, diced

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped

1 jalapeno, finely chopped

2-15oz cans of black eyed peas

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 Tablespoon of Dijon mustard

salt & pepper to taste

Instructions

Combine the tomato, onions, peppers and peas in a largish container with a tight-fitting lid.  In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil and Dijon mustard.  Pour the oil and vinegar mixture over the chopped veggies and peas and combine gently.  Cover tightly and place in the fridge for at least 8 hours or overnight, then salt and pepper to taste.  *I personally double the marinade because I love it so much!  But that’s just me.

Alongside your beans and peas, serve a thick slab of buttery cornbread (not the sweet stuff!) and finish the meal with a slice of lemony pound cake or traditional banana pudding.  That’s good eats, I don’t care who you are!

Till next time, best wishes for a prosperous New Year from my family to yours.

 

 

The Forgotten Practice of Self-Care

 

Good Monday morning, friends!  I hope you had an amazing weekend and you’re primed and ready for the new week!  I’ve got to confess that this girl is feeling a little bit stressed.  Between the extra hours at work, the impending holiday and family commitments, I’m noticing a difference in my person.  My sleep is off, my diet is off, my mood is way off, much to the dismay of the people who have to live with me!  Whenever I neglect myself, my mind, body and emotions suffer, so with that in mind, I thought we would talk about old-fashioned self-care.

No one has to tell you that modern life is stressful, but I think we as a culture take a demented pride in abusing ourselves.  We pride ourselves in the number of hours we put in at the office, how little sleep we get, how many meals we eat on the go, how much coffee we drink to make up for lack of sleep, how much wine we drink to try to relax in order to sleep.  The lack of rest and proper nutrition weakens our immune systems so when we get sick, we get sick, but like the troopers we are, we push through the illness, further taxing our immune systems.  We’ve created these dreadful cycles of exhaustion, illness, stress and anxiety…because we consider it weakness or foolishness to care for ourselves.  So we push harder.

It’s crazy!

Let me tell you, friends, you’re worth taking care of.  I hate sounding like a L’Oreal commercial, but you are worth it.  My Faith tells me that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, a creation so amazing that the Creator Himself declared us very good, better than all other creation and loved with an everlasting love.  If only we saw that worth in ourselves and took care of ourselves as we should!  As we’re in the midst of what may be our most stressful season of the year, how about we discover some simple ways to care for our minds, bodies and emotions?

Our grannies were experts at self-care though they wouldn’t have labeled it as such.  They just knew what their minds and bodies needed to function at their best and that’s a lost practice in our culture.   We relegate it to old wives tales and lore instead of researching the wisdom behind it.

As it’s a broad, broad topic, let’s find easy ideas for self care during the dark winter months.

Drink warm drinks– There’s a reason our mamas and grannies gave us warm milk on restless nights—-it’s a sure-fire cure for most of what ails us!  With winter upon us, I make sure my kids have a hot cup of  something each morning and night.  Tea, cider, cocoa, broth, soup, something.  Not only is it comforting to our spirits, it warms our bodies and keeps us warm for hours.  It’s no different than warming a Thermos or tea pot before we add hot drinks.  Warm the inside and everything will feel warmer!  Hot fluids also hydrate quickly, create inhospitable conditions for viruses and soothe irritated throats and noses.

Dress warmly– I know this sounds like a gimme, but people don’t dress appropriately in cold weather.  We’re more concerned about being fashionable than toasty!  But here’s what I’ve noticed: even though I’m healthy overall, when I get cold, I ache.  My bones and muscles just ache!  Anxiety is exacerbated.  Productivity goes downhill.  Mood worsens.  Typically, my diet suffers because I turn to junk food for quick heat and energy.  There’s nothing we can do about the weather, but we can bundle up in natural fibers, dress in multiple layers, wear fluffy socks, slippers, robes, woolen coats and whatever it takes to stay cozy.  Dont laugh, but in the dead of winter, its not unusual to find me in 4-5 layers of clothing.  Camisole + tee + long sleeved shirt + sweater + Sherpa vest.  And you can expect to see me in Uggs til the spring thaw.  Do what you have to do to stay snuggly, my friends, and save the fashion statements for summertime.

Eat hearty meals– Now hear me, I’m not telling you to gorge yourself on indulgent holiday foods, but winter calls for heavier meals, whatever that looks like in your house.  In winter, we need the extra (beneficial) fats and perhaps a few extra carbs to keep our bodies warm so keep that soup pot full of hot brothy soups, make a big batch of stew or a big cheesy casserole for dinner  (and leftovers for lunches).  For breakfast, a pot of cheesy grits or oatmeal topped with dried fruit will warm your innards and satisfy you much longer than a cold bowl of cereal.

Sleep– Allow yourself as much sleep as you need.  If that means an afternoon nap or turning in at 8:30, do it!  Turn your bedroom into a sanctuary and treat winter as a season of rest and recuperation.   Nest with soft cotton sheets, a thick downy comforter, a handmade quilt, a heated mattress pad….whatever it takes to make it a place of comfort.   Now one caveat: be mindful that the need for extra sleep can be a symptom of SAD, thyroid disfunction and a myriad of other disorders.  If the need for sleep becomes excessive and you never feel quite rested, regardless of the amount of sleep you receive,  it’s time to talk to your PCP.

Take care of your skin– Winter in extreme northern and extreme southern climates tends to wreak havoc on our skin, so treat your skin with care!  Warm baths and showers followed by carrier oils or body butters are the way to go to prevent dry skin, chaffing, chapping and itchiness.  This skin has to last a lifetime,  so don’t be embarrassed to baby it!  During periods of outdoor activity, be sure to protect the delicate skin on your face and hands from windburn with a heavy balm or butter.

Be still– Apart from sleeping, there’s no shame in using this season to just be still.  To take a rest from the busy-ness of spring, summer and fall to simply be.  To read, daydream, write letters, watch movies, crochet a hat, snuggle with your spouse under a fluffy blanket or spend an afternoon drawing with your child in front of the fireplace. Plan a time each day to just be still.

Get outside – Admittedly, outdoor activities are not my favorite in the wintertime,  but I do make an effort to go outside with my children to play in the snow when it’s not crazy-cold.  We fill the bird feeders, walk behind the barn to see if the pond is frozen, move firewood or look for signs of deer in the trees around the milkhouse.  On particularly warm days, we may take a walk down the road.  Believe me when I say there’s nothing like a warm fireplace and steaming mug of cocoa after a busy day outdoors.

As I said, these are just a few suggestions as this topic is a mile wide and twice as deep.  Self-care is going to look different for everyone depending on climate and season of life, but we’re all worth the time and efforts to take care of ourselves!  These are a few of my favorites; what are your favorite self-care tips?

Looking Ahead

Hello friends!  Whoo, what a month it’s been already!  I don’t know about you and your family, but here at Legacy Home and Apiary, we are counting down the days til the holiday break!  With Christmas plays, band concerts, shopping, baking, parties, village festivals and dinners, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas leave us feeling a little breathless. After our vacation begins on the 19th, we restrict our activities to lounging in our jammies, playing board games, baking cookies and hanging out in front of the fireplace watching Christmas movies.  I consider it a very necessary, modern-day hibernation.   

After the excitement of Christmas is over, we tend to spend the remainder of our break planning for the year ahead.  We organize our agendas, schedule appointments, prioritize our household projects, order seeds for the spring garden and my favorite: research the skills we want to learn the following year.  Each year, I encourage the children (and myself as well!) to learn a new skill or hobby and each year, the children never fail to amaze me with their choices.  Some years, it’s practical and utilitarian; other years it’s pure enjoyment.  Angus’s interests have ranged from coding to tinkering on small engines in the barn; Petunia, from bird watching to learning to use kitchen knives.  Learning has never been a burden for them, as they get to choose the topic and I’m just pleased that they get to enjoy a wide array of experiences while they’re young.  My hope is that they’ll develop a joy of learning that will last them for the rest of their lives.  

I’m pretty excited about the year ahead as both kids have expressed a desire to learn beekeeping.  It’s not the MOST practical of skills, but it’s something they could use in adulthood, perhaps as passive income but more likely to benefit their garden.  What I’m most excited about, though, is our 2018 family project:  

We fell into an amazing deal on a mechanically-sound 1979 CJ5 to restore for a family vehicle.  I know nothing about basic mechanics and it’s something I’ve always regretted, so hopefully this will be an opportunity for the kids and me to learn at the same time!  Perhaps by the end of 2018, I’ll be able to fix flat tires and do my own oil changes!  Ha!  But our main goal with this restoration: Angus has shown a real interest in mechanics and engineering, and I’m praying that this restoration may spark a desire that could be developed into a career.  He’s only 13 and I’m sure he’ll change his mind a hundred times between now and adulthood,  but it’s never too early to begin encouraging the thought process, right?  

I know it’s early to begin thinking about 2018, but what’s your thoughts on the new year?  Any fun planning in the works?

Bringing The Outdoors In

There’s nothing I love more than bringing the outdoors in to decorate my old farmhouse.  Though it’s a favorite practice all year long, with freshly cut daffodils in April and treasures from the coast during summertime, Thanksgiving and Christmas are when those natural elements seem to really shine.  Personally, I love reading old books that describe how our great-grannies decorated for Christmas.  It’s so easy to visualize the older brothers cutting down a fresh pine tree while the younger siblings gathered holly, ivy, pinecones, acorns and local, seasonal items to decorate the mantles, windows, doors and tabletops.

I’m sure it’s the romantic in me, but I love to do the same; to bring nature indoors for the holiday season.  Admittedly, it’s not always practical, but with some clever planning, it can be beautiful, frugal and totally cozy.

Here are some ideas that my family incorporates into our Christmas décor.

Pine boughs- This is a total gimme, but you have so many options here!  You can purchase inexpensive live garland at most grocery and hardware stores or a cheap tree to butcher for decorating…but I encourage you to scrounge, my friends!  Look to your landscaping for branches that need trimmed back or forage (with permission) from a local lot.  You can also find freebie trimmings at most local tree lots for free.  These boughs look beautiful tucked into artificial greenery, tied carefully around candles, draped on mantles and light fixtures or turned into a simple swag for your door.  Of course, you need to be cautious around flames!

Pine cones – Each year when my children were young, we’d visit the local cemetery and gather baskets of pinecones to decorate the house with.  To kill off the bugs and get them to open up, simply pop them on a cookie sheet in a warm oven (200) for an hour or so, then stash them in baskets, add them to the mantle, hang them from the tree, create a pinecone wreath, a bird feeder or sprinkle with a cinnamony Holiday Essential Oil Blend to healthfully fragrance your home.

Acorns, Buckeyes, Gum Tree balls, Rose Hips – These simple, natural elements look beautiful strung on wire!  Incorporate them into your garland on your stairway, hang them on the Christmas tree, add them to a basket or lantern on your table, toss them onto your mantle, fragrance them with essential oil and sit them around the doorways to greet your visitors!  Most of these can be found in any wooded area, just ask for permission before you begin gathering!

Hedge Apples -I love to see baskets of hedge apples sitting around during fall and winter!  Also called Osage oranges and horse apples, these funky-looking, inedible fruits have a fresh, slightly citrusy scent and are rumored to keep spiders away.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I love the bright shock of lime green and the funky texture that hedge apples offer to décor.

Magnolia Leaves – Don’t laugh, but when we visited some friends in South Carolina this summer, I was sure to bring home a HUGE bag of fallen Magnolia leaves to decorate with.  (I’m sure their neighbors shook their heads and declared I wasn’t from around those parts lol)  Plan A was a pine and magnolia wreath….plan B involved wiring them into ‘picks’ and tucking them into the stairway garland and Christmas tree.  I love the warm, cinnamon brown shades of the leaves among the evergreen!  And just seeing the leaves remind me of good friends and downtime in the Lowcountry.  Sigh.

But don’t stop there!  Any natural elements that you find beautiful can be incorporated into your décor!  I love to add pheasant feathers, antlers, cotton stems, dried citrus slices, broom corn, cinnamon sticks and Spanish moss to my decorating theme, but look to your own region, travels and experiences to find unique items that will delight your family.  Tell me how YOU bring nature indoors for the holidays…..

Infused Sugar In Only 2 Steps

 

Okay, I’ll confess that I don’t eat a lot of sugar anymore….but….I used to LOVE my sugar!  In my tea, coffee, iced tea, in cereals, on my winter squash and sweet potatoes.  I unabashedly had a love affair going on with the sweet stuff.  Today, I try to avoid it but when I do indulge, it’s a real indulgence.  (No sugar in my coffee, but I would love a sliver of sweet tater pie, thanks!)  If we choose to indulge, shouldn’t it be of the best quality and the most amazing flavor possible?  That’s my thinking.

Now our grannies have been making infused sugar for ages…not only did it flavor the sugar, it also dried and preserved whatever they added TO the sugar.  Bonus.  And you know how I love bonuses!  Infused sugar is a simple way to add a kick of flavor to everyday foods, use food scraps (such as citrus peels) to reduce waste and it’s also a great, frugal gift that the giftee will appreciate every time they use it!  As with most edibles, there’s a ton of room here for personalization, so if these recipes sound a little meh to you, use your imagination to create blends you will love!

How To Use Infused Sugars

Oh my word, you can use infused sugars anywhere and in anything!  Imagine lemon-infused sugar in your hot tea, lavender infused sugar in your sweet tea, a chili-lime infusion for flavoring ribs or a pork loin, a cayenne infusion for dusting your hot cocoa (trust me!)  or an orange-vanilla bourbon infusion to glaze a ham or to flavor whipped cream for a pound cake.  You could also sprinkle it on top of pancakes or oatmeal, sweeten your coffee, dust fresh fruit with it or add it to your buttered toast.  Doesn’t that sound amazing?!  I gotta tell you, this is making me rethink the whole sugar-free diet thing lol.

 

What You Need To Make Infused Sugars

So as I stated above, the sky is the limit when it comes to infusions, but there are a few rules.  No, not rules, guidelines. There are a few guidelines.

    1. Whenever possible, buy organic sugar.  I know sometimes it feels like you’re being beat over the head with this whole organic thing, but I think in terms of sugar, it’s important to use the best quality product, even if that means spending an extra dollar or two.  With something as elemental as flavored sugar, the difference in taste really will shine through.  Now you CAN use plain old white beet sugar, but brown sugar, cane sugar or even coconut sugar will yield the most interesting flavors, so I highly encourage them!
    2. As much as possible, use dried herbs, flowers, citrus or flavorings.  To yield the best results, you need to use the driest ingredients possible.  It’s not a deal breaker, BUT any moisture you add can create hard lumps and slow the infusion process, so drier is better!
    3. To store the finished product, you need a glass container with a tight-fitting, sealed lid.  No plastic containers please, as it can give an undesirable flavor to the sugar.  I love the old bale-top storage jars, but for gifting, a simple jelly jar with a 2-piece lid works great.

How To Make Infused Sugars

This is the easy part, friends!  To make infused sugar, simply combine the flavorings with the sugar, seal tightly and let it sit for a couple weeks so that the flavor is spread throughout the sugar.  Now there is an exception and I’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, some simple recipes!

Vanilla sugar:  Cover 1 vanilla bean with 1 cup of sugar.  Seal tightly in a jar.

Espresso sugar:  Combine 1 cup of sugar with 1 tablespoon of crushed instant coffee granules.  Seal tightly in a jar.

Lavender/floral sugar:  Combine 1 cup of sugar with 1 tablespoon of dried culinary flowers (lavender, rosebuds, chamomile, etc).  Seal tightly in a jar.

Cinnamon sugar:  Cover 1-2 cinnamon sticks with 1 cup of sugar.  Seal tightly.

Pumpkin spice sugar:  Combine 1 cup of sugar with 1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg and ground ginger.  Seal tightly.

Cayenne sugar:  Combine 1/2 teaspoon of ground cayenne with 1 cup of sugar.  Seal tightly.

Now we’re going to branch off and make a few sugars using fresh, liquid ingredients.  The procedure isn’t that different, but you have to leave the jar sitting open at least overnight so that moisture from the ingredients can evaporate.  If you don’t, you’ll have some seriously lumpy sugar!  Before you seal these sugars in jars, stir them and check for moisture.  If the sugar feels moist, let them sit opened for another 12-24 hours.

Citrus lime sugar:  Combine 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, 1/4 teaspoon of chili powder and 1 tablespoon of fresh lime zest.  Mix thoroughly then let sit opened overnight for best results.

Citrus vanilla bourbon:  Combine 1 cup of sugar with 1 tablespoon of fresh orange zest, 1/2 vanilla bean and 1/2 teaspoon bourbon.  Shake thoroughly to combine then let sit opened overnight.

But don’t stop there!  Imagine your favorite liquors (especially rum and amaretto) or citrus infused into sugar to garnish drinks.  Any combination of spices (cinnamon, allspice, ginger, cloves, nutmeg) will give a warm, holiday flavor to any drink or even better, sprinkled over a dessert.  Brown sugar, sea salt and pungent spices such as black pepper, cayenne, chili and cumin would make an incredible dry rub for a bbq!  Any combination of sweet, spicy and pungent that suits your taste buds is perfect by me!

Again, if you plan on gifting these, think presentation.   Use a small, air-tight container; no Gladware, unless the recipient really likes Gladware, whatever, but be sure the seal is tight or you’ll end up with one giant sugar cube.  Go to Pinterest for some cute downloadable labels and accessorize with items you think may go along with your sugars: some good quality loose leaf tea, your favorite cocoa, a homemade sugar cookie mix, barbeque accessories or whatever floats the recipient’s boat.  I guarantee this will be a handmade gift somebody is going to love!

3 Steps to a No-Stress Cheese Plate

 

Cheese plates are one of my favorite things.  I know you’re shocked about that, especially after the confession in my most recent Waste Not! post, but it’s true.  I love to search out seasonal and regional cheeses and enjoy them as a snack or simple lunch.  But beyond that, I also love to put together more elaborate cheese plates for both holidays and quiet nights at home in front of the fire!  In fact, one of my children’s favorite things to do during winter is to enjoy a cheese plate (which they call a snackie supper) in the living room while watching a family movie—it’s the ONLY time that we don’t eat at the table, so it’s a really special treat for them.  And it’s totally hygga and an escape from the winter blahs!

I think for many people, there’s a real apprehension about serving a cheese plate, especially for a holiday party, because they believe there are so many elaborate “rules” about how to prepare one.  I’m assuming that’s because cheese plates are rooted firmly in French culinary tradition and man alive, do French culinary folks love their rules!  That fork here, this wine there, this course, that sauce, pinky up, elbows down, don’t slurp.  Frankly, it’s exhausting and I have no desire for their rules.  But here’s the thing:  all cultures going back hundreds and hundreds of years or more have their own version of the French cheese plate.  If you deconstruct the idea, a cheese plate is nothing more than an offering of small amounts of seasonal, regional foods.  A few ounces of cheese is combined with fresh fruits, a regional condiment and perhaps a bit of bread or meat and turned into something nutritious and filling.  It’s a great way to turn humble homemade, homegrown or foraged foods into something amazing and I think that’s the direction we need to take when we’re putting together a cheese plate.  Forget the French rules, mon petit ami, and concentrate on the nutrition, flavors and experience!

So I’ll not give you any rules.  I’ll not tell you how to pair cheese, fruit and wine together because who needs that stress?!  But I’ll tell you there are only 3 steps to putting together a primo cheese plate that would be suitable for any humble supper OR holiday party and they are: 1) choosing the cheeses, 2)picking out complimentary foods and 3)presentation.  This is what works for me, but you change it up however will work for you!

Choosing The Cheeses

When assembling a cheese plate, I try to pick out 3-4 good quality cheeses and for my home, I only have 1 hard, fast rule:  No Velveeta or American singles.  Those barely qualify as food; in fact, the package indicates it’s not even a cheese, but a pasteurized cheese food product.  (What the heck IS that anyway?!) I typically go for a fresh cheese (such as a marinated mozzarella), an aged cheese (sharp white Irish/English cheddar), a cheese in the Swiss family (Gruyere or Emmental) and a hard or blue cheese depending on what’s available.  There’s no magic combination when you’re picking out cheese; just go for a range of flavors and textures that you think everyone will enjoy.  If possible, shop local cheese shops (Young’s Jersey Dairy, y’all!) but when that’s not possible, just look for the best quality you can afford.  My general rule of thumb is to plan for 4-6 ounces of cheese per person, give or take.  But that’s not a rule.  More of a guideline.

Complimentary Foods

After I’ve chosen the cheeses, I try to add at least one each of the following foods:  a sweet, a sour/spicy and a salty/savory.  That sounds complicated, but it’s really not.  The goal is to provide a variety of flavors as well as nutrition and what you use is entirely up to you.  For me, it’s an opportunity to raid my pantry and showcase homemade goodies, but I’ll also use whatever happens to be available in the fridge at the time.  Don’t get hung up on this:  serve what you enjoy.  That’s the bottom line.  For my family, our normal cheese plate includes:

For the sweets: apple slices, dried fruit, honey or even good quality fruit preserves or chutney

For the sour/spicy: pickles, pickled peppers, marinated olives, mustard, jalapeno jelly

For the salty/savory: brined olives, toasted nuts, dipping oil, roasted red peppers, cured meats, caramelized onions

Whenever possible, I try to offer seasonal items too.  In summertime, we love a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes and fresh raspberries; in fall, ripe pears and apples;  in winter, cranberries, black walnuts and orange marmalade; in spring, strawberries and fresh herbs.

If the cheese plate is a side to a simple meal like a salad or quiche, I’ll stop here.  If however the cheese plate IS the meal, I generally bulk it up with some thinly sliced ham, cocktail shrimp or smoked turkey and a crusty loaf of bread or crackers.  That will provide enough fat and protein to satisfy any appetite!

Presentation

Again, don’t get hung up on the rules.  We don’t need no stinking rules!  I encourage you to make it look beautiful and easy to pick from, but beyond that, it’s your call.  I generally use a large wooden cutting board lined with parchment paper or a heavy  platter for serving and I go for an orderly-disorderly look.  Wedges, crumbles or rounds of cheese are placed between piles of sliced meats, small bowls of preserves, chutneys and pickles with a scattering of nuts and dried fruits here and there.  Really.  That’s it.  The only caveat I would offer would be to keep plenty of space between the cheeses so your mozzarella doesn’t end up tasting like your blue cheese.  Ick!

Listen to my heart, friends…I know that many of you, like my family, live on modest budgets.  At the end of the week, when the bills are paid, the kids are fed and our obligations are met, there’s not a lot of time or money left over for hosting holiday parties.  BUT I also know, based on the response to my Practicing Hospitality post, that many of us want to be people who welcome others into our homes.  So let me challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone.  Use these 3 simple steps to create a holiday cheese plate and then open your doors to your friends and neighbors.  Simple fare, a silly game and a bit of holiday music will make for a night of fun and fellowship!  My best—-A

 

Posted to the SimpleLifeMom Homestead Blog Hop

 

Winter Squash & How To Use Them

 

This is going to sound condescending, and honest-to-goodness, I don’t mean it to….but til 2 weeks ago, I thought everyone knew that winter squash were food.  Yes, they’re very pretty sitting in a fall display on your porch, but they’re food.  I can understand why people believe they’re just for decoration, with all the beautiful drawings we see this time of the year of the Colonists’ homes with piles of squash and pumpkins on the porches at the first Thanksgiving.  But they weren’t there for pretty, they were there because they were just harvested and were being kept as storage crops.  They’re food, folks!  Up til the 50s and 60s, squash were a common storage crop that was grown in all gardens and stored in cool, dry cellars, crawl spaces and barns because they would keep for 6 months or longer and provide fresh food in the dead of winter when nothing else was available. Anyway, after I gained that bit of knowledge, it occurred to me that there are those among my beautiful readers who have no idea what to do with a squash.  Nor why bother.  Let me help you there because you are missing out on one of autumn’s most delicious crops!

So as you can see from the beautiful picture above, winter squash come in a hundred different sizes, shapes, colors, textures and flavors.   There are enormous pink and blue hubbards and green-striped cushaws that can run up to 20# or more, down to itty bitty, emerald green acorn squash that are barely big enough to feed one person.  Some of them are great winter “keepers” while others won’t last more than a few weeks.  But for the most part, all squash are the same.  They’re all cousins in the pumpkin family and as a rule, they can be prepared the same and used interchangeably in most dishes.  Let’s start at the beginning and learn how to pick one out, how to prep it and how to cook it.

Picking A Winter Squash

When you’re picking out winter squash, whether to store overwinter in your basement or cook immediately, you’re looking for the same characteristics.  Winter squash should feel quite heavy for their size as they typically have a thick layer of moist fruit inside the “shell”.  You want to check it over for gashes, mold or soft, bruised spots; if you find those, that is not the squash for you.  Check to be sure there’s a nice 2 inch stem on top; short/no stems can allow disease and general yuckiness into squash, so avoid that one too.  Last, pick a squash appropriate to your dish; there’s no reason to buy a blue hubbard and have 20 pounds of cooked squash sitting in the fridge if it’s a dinner for two.   The most popular squashes you’ll find at groceries and farmers markets in the fall are delicata, acorn and butternut, all of which are delicious!

Butternut Squash
Delicata Squash
Acorn Squash

 

Prepping A Winter Squash

I’m not going to lie to you:  getting INTO the squash is the hardest part of prepping it to eat.  If you’ve ever carved a pumpkin, you know how difficult it can be.  But I think carving a pumpkin is easier than a squash because squash are roly-poly and want to roll all around your cutting board.  So be careful.  Using a sharp, appropriately sized knife, you want to split the squash in half lengthwise, that is from pole to pole.  Not equator!  Once you’ve cut it in half, use a large spoon to remove the seeds and stringy bits inside the cavity of the squash and you’re all ready to roll.  And yes, you can bake the seeds just like pumpkin seeds.

How In The World Do You Eat This Thing?!

Unlike pumpkin, that we traditionally ONLY eat in pie form, squash can be eaten dozens of different ways.  In our house, we love simple baked squash.  Take the squash and place it in a baking dish, cut side up and brush the squash with a little bit of oil or melted butter.  Roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes or until the densest part of the squash is fork-tender.  Carefully remove the squash from the pan and scrape the flesh into a serving bowl.  Top with brown sugar, cinnamon, maple syrup, honey, chopped nuts or whatever appeals to your taste buds!

Another favorite for us is Roasted Squash with Apples and Cranberries.  You simply cube the raw squash, toss it with butter, diced apples, fresh/dried cranberries and bake.  Something about those tart berries against the sweet squash and apples just makes this dish come alive!  I really love this served alongside a roast chicken or pork loin.

A third very popular squash recipe is Butternut squash soup (though any squash can be substituted).  There are very simple, savory recipes out there, such as this one from Food Network or sweeter versions that include green apple and cinnamon from Simply Recipes.  I tend toward the apple version because the I love the tang of the apple against the sweet squash.  Either direction you go, it’s only a matter of simmering the ingredients in broth til the squash is tender, pureeing til smooth and seasoning with the appropriate spices.  It’s seriously easy, my friends!

Last idea for today is a stuffed squash. I’ll be totally honest with you:  I don’t like stuffed squash.  I think it’s because the squash is so sweet and mild that it’s often overwhelmed with savory spices, heavy meats and fillings in the dressing.  The whole idea sort of gags me, to be honest, but I think that if someone stuffed the squash with a milder, sweeter filling, like this sweet cornbread and apple dressing, I believe I could have a go at that one.  All you do for stuffed squash is prep it as we did above, brush with butter or oil, stuff the cavity with the dressing of your choice and bake til the squash is tender and the dressing heated through.  So simple!

Anyway, the next time you see winter squash marked down at the end of the season, or thrown out because they were only purchased for décor, I hope you’ll snag them and give them a try.  They’re a delicious, nutritious, simple way to eat local and seasonal all winter long!

 

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Hot Process Soap Making Pt. 2

 

Okay, in Hot Process Soap Making Pt. 2, we’re going to pick up where we left off last week.  If you recall, we reviewed the necessary equipment, I gave you an overview of the process (just 4 steps!) and we began weighing our products to begin the soap making procedure.  So at this point, we’d melted our solid fats and heated our liquid fats in a crock pot.  As that was melting, we created our lye water by combining distilled water with an accurate measurement of lye…preferably outdoors….completely covered from head to toes to avoid any accidents….and well away from children and small animals that could be injured.  This resulted in a chemical reaction that stank to high heaven and doubled or tripled the water temperature in seconds.   Okay, so now our mixtures are ready, let’s move on to step 3, combining the lye water and oils.

 

Step 3.  Combining The Solutions

Now we’re going to do some crazy science and combine the cooled lye water (100 degrees) and melted oils to create yet another chemical reaction, though it will be nowhere near as dramatic as the first.  Very carefully and very slowly, pour the lye water into the crockpot containing the melted oils.  The water will sink to the bottom of the crock as it’s heavier than the oil and you’ll end up with a goopy, sludgy mess.  Totally normal.

Using a spatula, plastic whisk or a highly recommended immersion blender, begin to gently combine the oil and lye mixture.  As you stir, you’ll notice the mixture becoming opaque rather than clear.  It will also begin to thicken and resemble pudding…but keep stirring.  (With an immersion blender, this step could take less than 1 minute; with a whisk or spatula, 10 minutes or longer.)

Keep stirring and watch for a point called trace, when the soap mixture that drops from your spatula or blender holds its shape on the surface of the mixture for a few seconds before it “melts” into in the bowl.  It’s hard to explain but you’ll know it when you see it.  (Remember in the Lord of the Rings when the Ring of Power sort of lingered on top of the magma inside Mt Doom before it disappeared and was destroyed?  Yeah, it’s like that!)  Once you see trace, stop mixing.  I took a quick video to show you what trace looks like….it was always the step that unnerved me!  Pardon the length, but soap waits for no (wo)man!

Step 4. Curing The Soap

Once trace has occurred, put the lid on the crock pot and allow the soap to cook on low for approximately 1 hour.  While you don’t have to babysit the crock pot, you do need to stay close and give the soap a quick stir every 10-15 minutes.  The soap likes to…grow.  It’ll bubble up and out of your crock if you don’t keep an eye on.  It can also scorch on the bottom, so just be mindful of those facts.    Your soap will change in appearance as it’s cooking: from pudding-like to gelatinous, like Vaseline.  Again, totally normal, just keep cooking til the soap has a gloppy, mashed potato appearance.

Once the soap has cooked for an hour and has reached that mashed potato appearance, you can add any essential oils (approximately 50 drops) or natural additives.  I love peppermint leaves and oil, lavender, vanilla and brown sugar, milk and honey, ground oatmeal.  Any combination you like is fine.  After you’ve personalized your soap, spoon the mixture into your prepared molds and use a spatula to smoosh the mixture into the corners.  Give the mold a few hard taps on the work table to remove any air pockets.    Allow the soap to set for 12-24 hours til completely cooled and hardened, then remove it from the mold.  Cut the soap into bars and allow to dry for several more days on a piece of plastic canvas….no metal cooling racks, please!  I allow it to dry a week or two, as the more water that is removed by evaporation, the harder the bar will be and the longer it will last in the shower.  Once cured, store your soap in a covered plastic container.

Now the fun part:  if you plan on giving this soap as a gift, there are great options out there for creating cute, custom packaging.  For packaging soap that I plan on giving as a gift, I prefer to use 4X6 Ziplock Reclosable Bags. The 4X6 inch-sized bags will hold almost any size bar, regardless of the thickness of the bar, and the ziplock prevents the essential oils from evaporating.  For labeling, I love  brown kraft labels! Just download the template from the Avery website and you can make your labels as simple or elaborate as you want them to be!  I love the simple, rustic look, especially when the package is tied up with a bit of twine and a simple pick, but the kraft paper label can also lend itself to a minimalist look, with a modern, modern black font.  As I mentioned in Homemade Holidays, presentation is everything when it comes to a homemade gift, so wrap up a bar of homemade soap with a cotton spa cloth, a loofa sponge, a spa CD or any other accessories that will round out the package!

A Couple Dependable Recipes

Okay, now that we’re finished, I want to share a couple recipes that I’ve used numerous times and have found pretty much fail-proof.  These are plain as can be, nothing fancy and you should be able to find all the oils right at your grocery store.  The one I demonstrated today is courtesy of the Prairie Homestead and makes a small batch of perhaps 6 bars:

  • 10 oz olive oil
  • 20 oz coconut oil
  • 9 oz distilled water
  • 4.78 oz 100% pure lye
  • Essential oils for scent (optional)

 

The second recipe is Rachel’s Tried and True Soap posted at Millersoap.com.  This recipe makes an enormous batch of soap, I can’t even guess how many!

48 oz Crisco (3# can)
21 oz soybean/olive/grapeseed/canola oil or a blend
18 oz coconut oil
28 oz cold water
12 oz  pure lye

So who is brave enough to try their hand at homemade soap?!  If you love the idea of homemade soap, but are still a little leery about making it yourself, perhaps you’d like to visit my Etsy shop to purchase some of the soap you watched being made?

 

Shared to the SimpleLifeMom Homestead Blog Hop