Friday, July 28, 2006

Kids Canning

The county fair is around the corner and the kids have tons of canned and dehydrated goods to enter. Even my 10-year-old son is entering something. I never imagined.

I encourage you to get the kids involved in your kitchen. Sure, wee ones can make the whole process more difficult and time-consuming, but it will pay off in the long run. I have a tiny kitchen, yet somehow we make it work. My goal is to make the kitchen a warm and happy place for my children so that when they grow up and leave the nest they will enjoy cooking.

I am already seeing the benefits. My teen daughter was able to can beans, taco sauce, mangos, grape jelly, strawberry jam, blueberry butter, and pink grapefruit jelly all by herself. She also made dehydrated cinnamon apples and two batches of fruit leather. With the exception of driving her to the store to purchase her produce, she required zero help from me. Tween daughter only required having me close by in case she had a question. 10-year-old son needed me in the kitchen with him for direction in every move, but I know that in a few years he'll be as independent as his sisters in the kitchen. Teen son isn't interested in canning, so you can't win them all, but he still knows his way around the kitchen fairly well.

This is homeschooling at the core.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Freezer Jam Rocks

We've been making loads of jam and jelly at our house, but not all of it has been canned. We've also been making freezer jam. If you haven't already, I encourage you give it a try. It's so easy. No cooking, no canning.

You can buy special freezer jam pectin, but you can also use regular pectin. There will be recipes in the pectin package. You can also find recipes in the Ball Blue Book of Preserving (those recipes all call for freezer jam pectin) or by searching the Internet.

Basically, all you do is crush the fruit, then mix with sugar and pectin. Easy. I put mine into plastic pint containers that I found at Meijers for half off, but you could use just about any freezer-safe container. Some people even use Baggies.

If you like sugar substitutes, I saw a recipe at for strawberry freezer jam that uses Splenda sweetener.

You can keep the jam in the fridge for 3 weeks or in the freezer for a year. Make sure to label with the date.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Food Preservation Q&A: Part Two

More Q & A on food preservation (canning and dehydrating):

Q: What variety of apples do you think makes the best applesauce? What do you consider a good price for apples? I've always thought about making applesauce but wondered if it actually saved money in the long run.

A: Last year, I bought Macintosh for apple sauce, and Jonathons for dehydrating and canning apple rings. If you go to the farmers' market (I loooove farmers' markets), the farmers are usually very helpful in guiding you to the right variety for your needs. You should get the same level of service and expertise at the apple orchard.

A good price is free and sometimes you can find such deals. Perhaps you have a friend whose apple tree is heavy with fruit and in need of picking. I've gotten pears this way. Our homeschool group goes on an apple orchard field trip each year and everyone comes home with free apples. But this is not the norm.

I paid $10 a bushel and got 14 quarts of applesauce out of it. Not a huge, huge savings but nice enough, and difference in quality is huge.

Q: I have not been able to find a tomato or barbecue sauce that we liked so if you would be willing to share your recipe, I would really love it!!

A: I just use the recipe in the Ball Blue Book of Preserving. The key is, I think, in making any tomato-based sauce is to stir OFTEN. One year my barbecue sauce was a total flop because the sauce burnt on the bottom of the pan and it ruined the flavor of the whole pot. Ick! So, in reducing your sauce, cook it on low, slowly, checking it often.

Another tip is to use plum or roma tomatoes. They are more expensive and harder to find, but they are meatier and the sauce is thicker to start with. Juicy tomatoes are great for sandwiches and salads but they make thin sauce and as a result you have to cook it forever!

Also, make sure to use the freshest vegetables and cut out any bruises.

Q: When you have a moment, would you be willing to share your recipes for pineapple/papaya salsa and mango salsa?

A: I got my recipe for pineapple/papaya salsa from The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest (Your library may carry this title). For the mango salsa, I used the Spicy Tomato Salsa recipe from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving and added two chopped mangos to it. I've also found recipes in the past by searching the Internet.

For the most part, I use my Ball Blue Book, but it doesn't always have exactly what I want. For example, one year I made garlic jelly and red pepper jelly (Both great on grilled chicken breast! And makes a pretty gift.) because I had an abundance from the garden -- I found the recipes searching the Internet. (See previous post for links.)

Q: I'd like to know what brand of dehydrator you use.

A: I did a lot of research before making my purchase. I asked friends and searched the Internet. You can make your own, which I think is a really neat idea, but in the end I figured that wasn't going to work for my family. If you want to try it, do a search on the Internet for free directions.

My husband and I decided to stay away from cheap dehydrators as we didn't want to spend money on something that wouldn't last a long time. Plus, we have a large family and would be using it more than the average family. On the other hand, we couldn't afford the top of the line Excalibur that I coveted.

We went with the top of the line American Harvest (Nesco). It has eight trays and we use them all! So far, I'm happy.

Q: How do you make fruit leather?

A: It's pretty easy. Wash your fruit, cut out any blemishes, peel and pit. Puree in your blender until smooth. If it's too thick, I add a little water or juice. If it's too tart, add some corn syrup or honey. Then I pour it evenly over the tray and set the dehydrator for 135 until leathery. You can also do this in your oven -- search the Internet for how-to or check out a book on dehydrating from the library such as The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest. Unlike canning, you can use overripe fruit for this, which is very nice.

Q: My Pampered Chef apple slicer/peeler/corer broke after two years. Yes, it was guaranteed but was a pain to get replaced. Where did you buy yours?

A: I got mine from Meijer, which is sort of like a Super Walmart. You can usually find them at restaurant supply houses or any place that sells cooking equipment.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Food Preservation Q&A, Part One

Following are some questions I've received regarding food preservation, followed by my answers:

Q: I'm sorry to sound so dense . . . but where do you keep all this stuff? Do I need an extra refrigerator?

A: Not a dense question at all -- most Americans aren't familiar with the lost art of food preservation. No need for refrigeration. That's the beauty of canning -- your creations can be stored safely for a year on a shelf. I keep my home-canned goods in a cabinet in the basement. A cool, dark place is best. Dehydrated food has a shorter shelf life, but could be extended with refrigeration or freezing if you desire.

Q: Okay what exactly is an apple peeler/slicer/corer?

A: It's a kitchen tool that peels, slices, and cores your apples all with a turn of a handle. You secure the gadget to your kitchen table or a special stand, attach your apple, and turn the handle. In the end, you have lovely apple rings. Most can be adjusted to just peel. I'm told that you can use them for potatoes too.

Several list members wrote to tell me that Pampered Chef carries one. It's a little more expensive, but it comes with a stand and looks pretty sturdy. Here is a link if you want to see what it looks like.

Q: What is a food sieve and what does it do?

A: There are several styles that one can purchase and they can be called food mills, sieves, or strainers. The one that I own is the Victorio Strainer, which I love but I think is out of production. Here is a similar model.

You put apples in the top and out one end comes the icky seeds and peels, and out the other end comes yummy applesauce. Similar process for tomato sauce.

That's all I have time for today. I still have blueberries to put up. More tomorrow.

Monday, July 24, 2006

New Homeschool Resource Site

Home Schooling Unlimited's Free Classifieds

Pickled Watermelon Rind

At our traditional Memorial Day Barbecue last year we had lots and lots of watermelon. Because I just hate to see anything go to waste, my 9-year-old daughter and I cut up and peeled the rind to make pickled watermelon rind.

Now if you're making face, saying to yourself "that sounds gross," hear me out. They taste like sweet pickles. The rind, minus the fruit and the hard shell, has little taste. Pickled it has almost a sweet and sour taste to it and it is wonderful for summer picnics! Price pickled watermelon rind sometime, I bet that you won't find it for less than $5 a jar. It makes a great gift - your friends and family will think you're a gourmet!

And think about the educational value. My daughter and I not only had a completely enjoyable time together canning those pickles, she learned a lot about food preservation. She also learned that one man's trash is another man's treasure.

As an added bonus, my daughter entered a jar of the pickled watermelon rind in the 4-H competition at the county fair and won a blue ribbon.

If you want to give it a try, I got my recipe from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving. You can also find lots of recipes online. (Check the Internet links in the previous blog entry.)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Lost Art of Canning

I'm planning to blog on the topic of canning over the next week. To get us started, I'm reprinting my Thrifty Homeschooler column from a past issue of Heart and Mind magazine.

The Lost Art of Canning
Maureen Wittmann

Imagine it’s January, there’s snow outside and the temperature is below freezing. Wouldn’t it be nice to go to your cupboard and pull out a little bit of summer? Perhaps a big jar of vanilla pears or snap green beans or even some mango salsa?

If the thought of canning your own produce scares you half to death, know that I used to feel the same way. The whole process seemed too daunting, too large. But one day I took the plunge, and I’m so glad that I did.

How to Begin
Getting set up for canning would be expensive if you bought all of your supplies brand new. The good news is that you don’t have to do that. You can find canning equipment at garage sales and thrift stores. If you have elderly family members or friends, ask them if they have any equipment or supplies to pass down to you. More than likely, they will be thrilled to find someone who wants to carry on the art canning and pass it onto her children. Almost all of my canning equipment, including a large selection of jars, came from older acquaintances. I simply mentioned that I wanted to learn the art of canning to a few people and, before I knew it, my cupboards were full. All I pay for is labels and lids. Sometimes I forgo the labels and write on the lids with permanent marker.

Basic equipment that you’ll need for the Boiling-Water Canning Method (for high-acid foods such as fruits, including tomatoes):
· The Ball Blue Book of Preserving
· Water canner
· Canning funnel
· Jar lifter
· Jars, lids, bands, and labels
· Basic kitchen utensils
There are other goodies that you can acquire, but these will get you started. If you’re going to can jellies or jams, you’ll want to add pectin and Fruit Fresh to your grocery list.

Once you’ve been canning a year or so and feel ready to can low-acid foods, such as vegetables and meats, then you will need to add a steam-pressure canner to your list of basic equipment. At that time you can look to acquire more specialized equipment, such as a food sieve, apple peeler/corer/slicer, or lid wand

Finding Produce
The first place to look for produce is, of course, your own garden. Keep canning in mind when you plan your garden. For example, if you want to can a year’s worth of salsa, you’ll need to plan on planting plenty of tomatoes and peppers.

When your friends find out that you’re canning, they’ll bring their garden surpluses to you. I’ve been given full bushels of green beans as well as bags of tomatoes, peppers, and more. The children and I have also been invited by friends to pick pears and strawberries on their property.

Farmers’ markets are another great resource. Not only do you get fresh produce, often picked that morning, you get the wise counsel of the farmer. Don’t be shy and ask as many questions as your heart desires. I have found farmers to be wonderfully friendly and happy to share advice. They can tell you the best variety of apples for applesauce versus apple pie filling versus apple rings. They can tell which variety of peaches are best for eating fresh and which are best for making jam. They may even have a recipe or two to share.

My children can for 4-H and the county fair. The farmers especially love answering their questions and helping them choose their produce. In fact, upon finding out that we’re canning for 4-H, the farmer will usually give the children a little break on price or a few free samples.

Another resource is universities. We live close to Michigan State University, which has a degree program in agriculture. For this reason, they have several big produce sales at the end of harvest season. Also look into community gardens, co-ops, and city markets.

What Next?
Now that you have your equipment and your produce, you’re ready to get to the real work. I highly recommend finding an experienced canner to help you with your first canning attempt. She can help you get over any little bumps and answer last-minute questions. Most of all, she can give you peace of mind. There’s nothing like having a friend close by when trying something new.

Plan ahead for canning day. Check the recipes that you have chosen and make sure that you have all of the equipment, supplies, and produce needed. Borrow anything that you don’t yet own. For example, if you’re attempting apple rings for the first time, you may need to borrow your friend’s apple peeler/corer/slicer.

If the children are helping, write out a list of everyone’s assignments and the order they will take place. Even the youngest of children can help with simple tasks, such as rinsing off produce or handing Mom supplies. Older children can slice and dice. My children’s favorite job is turning the crank of the sieve when we make applesauce or tomato sauce.

The kitchen should be clean and uncluttered. Everything should be laid out and ready to use. You’ll be less stressed and everything will go smoothly if you take care of these things in advance.

Next sterilize everything, following the instructions in your Ball Blue Book of Preserving. While waiting for everything to sterilize, you can start your prep work. Wash, peel, slice, dice, etc. As you prepare your recipe, get your water bath canner on the stove. After checking your jars for any cracks, fill them according the directions and seal. After removing them from the canner, put them onto a dry, clean tea cloth where they can sit for the next 24-hours. Check to make sure they do indeed seal and then put them up to enjoy come winter. Or enter them in the county fair!

Canning is not only thrifty, but it is very educational for your homeschooled children. My children love helping and they’ve learned a tremendous amount about food safety and food preservation. An additional benefit is that the food you preserve will taste better and be healthier than anything you can buy in the store.

To learn more about canning, check out the following books and websites:

The Ball Blue Book of Preserving
The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest

For recipes:

Food preservation websites from 4-H for homeschooling lessons:
All the info you’ll need for canning.
Canned Fruit and Vegetable Checklist.
Canned Meat Checklist.
Pickles and Relish Checklist.
Jam Checklist.
Juice, Jelly, and Syrup Checklist.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Enthusiasm is Contagious

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I guess this means that if we want great homeschools, we better be enthusiastic about homeschooling. If we want great kids, we better be enthusiastic about raising them

Monday, July 17, 2006

Grocery Tip #13: Checking the Unit Price

Make sure that you are checking unit prices. It is worth the cost of a little calculator. Keep in your purse so it's handy while grocery shopping. My grocery store shows the unit price on regularly priced items, but not the sales items.

I have run across, one too many times, bulk items that were actually more expensive than smaller-unit items. I have also seen, way too many times, sales items that were still costlier than off-brand items, as well as same brand but smaller size items.

So always check the unit price to see if you are really getting a deal or not.
If you haven't done this before, just take the price and divide by the number of ounces, or whatever unit of weight is used for that item.

This is a great math project for the kids to do. Assign the task to one of
your children. Or make a game of it and give calculators to several children and see who comes up with the answer first. Multi-tasking: school and shopping all in one - now that's thrifty!

Friday, July 14, 2006

You're Doing a Great Job

I just want to give you a pat on the back for doing a great job. Just think of all the money that you're already saving simply by homeschooling!

You don't have to buy uniforms, or worse make sure that your children are wearing all the right labels so that they fit in with their peers. You don't need to concern yourself with daily transportation to school. You don't have to give up your evenings to work bingo or attend PTA meetings. No tuition or after-school tutoring programs to fit into the budget. You don't have to buy those prepackaged expensive lunchables. You don't have to hire a housekeeper or cook, because you've added home-ec to your curriculum :-).

I bet you can think of some more to add to this list. (Feel free to leave them in the comment box.)

Keep up the good work!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Deals from Dover

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

From Danielle Bean's blog:
And finally, a shopping tip: Amazon is getting into the grocery business-- with free shipping on all orders of $25 or more. And they have a promotion going where you can get $10 off an order of $49 or more between now and August 31. Even if you just stock up on shampoo, diapers or wipes this way, it seems
worthwhile to me. And the bonus is, no trekking through Sam's Club or BJ's with a cartful of whiny kids begging for ginormous packages of Keebler cookies. Go here for details.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Truth About Debt

Dave Ramsey has a good article at his website on debt:

Debt is dumb. Most normal people are just plain broke because they are in debt up to their eyeballs with no hope of help. If you're in debt, then you're a slave, in the sense that you do not have the freedom to use your money to help change your family tree.

According to a recent USA Today article about debt, 78 percent of Baby Boomers have mortgage debt, 59 percent have credit card debt, and 56 percent have car payments. It takes a lot of will, discipline, courage and help to slay the debt monster. But it can be done. Imagine how much you could put toward retirement if you just didn't have a stinking car payment? This is how the wealthy really build their wealth. Debt is dumb. Welcome to the real world!

To read the rest, click here.