Tuesday, December 31, 2013

We Did All That?

As I sit here taking some time to organize a list of things I would like to accomplish around the house in 2014, I am reminded of all the things that made 2013 so special to me.

There were trips to 32 Texas State Parks, each so different from the other.  Here is a list of my top 5.

I made a lot of meals I am proud of and stepped out of my box and tried some new things.

I canned and canned and canned to my hearts content:  jellies, jams, jalapenos, pico, and pears.

There were quiet walks with my husband around our home in the country.

We made several upgrades to the home as well, including, but not limited to, these:

I created a vegetable garden and learned a lot.  I planted so many things in the summer and fall.
  • onions and garlic
  • carrots and celery
  • tomatoes and jalapeno
  • gourds and cucumbers
  • broccoli and pole beans
  • zucchini and squash
  • lettuce and basil

It is so nice to go back and see all that we did over the past year. I have been a little hard on myself of late not realizing how much we HAVE done.  Sometimes it's easy to forget how much we accomplished, and we did accomplish a lot.  We added to our home, spent quality time with our family, and made lots of memories. Now bring on 2014!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Not Buying THAT Again!

With the experience I gained making my Christmas gifts this year, I have come to the conclusion that there are things I will not ever buy for myself again.  Sugar and salt scrubs?  So fun to make.

And with our new fire pit, the fire starters will be great fun.

Granola.  Oh my, yes.  I will always make my own granola now.

Of course, jam from my kitchen is always best, but there is something else from my kitchen to add to the list. Beef Jerky.  I made up a bunch for my dad to take to the land when he goes camping.  I started with lean flank steak sliced to about 1/4".  I did freeze the meat for 30 minutes first to make it easy to slice.

I used 3 steaks, 1 1/2 pounds each, and seasoned them 3 different ways.  Once I mixed up the spices and liquids, I marinaded the meat for 8 hours.

Air circulation is important around the meat since it is cooked at a low temperature, so I used my cookie racks to lay the strips out.  The thermostat here reads low because I had just opened the door to turn the meat.  It was cooked at 170F for 4 hours.

The rich brown color is not from over cooking, it is from the dehydration process.

The batch pictured was spicy (click here for the marinade recipe minus the Franks' Sauce), but I also made a teriyaki (click here for the marinade recipe) and a more traditional smokey flavor as well. It takes a little time, but it is so worth it.  How great to have some to take on our State Park hiking trips?

Smokey Flavored Jerky Marinade
3/4 Cup Worcestershire Sauce
1 1/2 tsp liquid smoke
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp Applewood Smoked salt
1 Tbsp brown sugar

Sunday, December 29, 2013

No Sugar Canned Pears

My mother asks for pears for Christmas every year.  This year I decided to can a few for her so she could have some in her pantry whenever she wanted them.  

I planned to make 3 different flavors.

One was made with vanilla bean, one of my favorite ingredients to work with.  I love how the tiny seeds add so much flavor.

I got three pots going with 3 flavored but sugarless syrups.

  1. 2 1/3 cup of water with 1 vanilla bean
  2. 2 1/3 cup of water with 2 cinnamon sticks, 2 star anise, 4 whole cloves, and 1/2 orange peel
  3. 2 1/3 cup of water with 1 tsp. ginger, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, and 1 tsp. lemon juice

While they were simmering to meld all the flavors, I peeled the pears for slicing.  I kept them in a bowl of cold water with a little lemon juice so they wouldn't brown while I was getting everything ready.

Before adding the pears, I scooped out all the spices and lemon rinds.

The pears were stirred in and boiled for 5 minutes to get them hot for processing in a water bath for 25 minutes.

I also made up some labels for the canned lids.

Somehow, though, I managed to forget to get a final picture of the pears.  I don't know how that happened. All I have is this out of focus shot of all the canning I did which has the 6 jars in the mix.

I need to do a better job making sure to get the after shots.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Carrot Cake Granola. What?

You read that right.  Carrot Cake Granola.  Oh my gosh, it's out of this world!  Really!  I've never made granola before, and maybe its just dumb beginner's luck, but I can't imagine doing any better than this. Simple ingredients like oats, coconut, and carrots get it started.

One important tip; make sure and chop the carrot small so it can completely dehydrate.

Then a little oil, brown sugar, and maple syrup.  I had all these on hand which made it even better.

Melt the sugar and oil with the syrup, add in a little spice, and pour it over the dry yummies and it's off to the oven.

Spread on a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for a total of 45 minutes.

It comes out a nice toasty brown and smells amazing.

The carrots dry up to small little flecks of flavor, so don't be weirded out by carrot in your breakfast food.  Also, because they dry up so small, don't skimp on the amount of carrot you put in.

When it cools, toss in the rest of the traditional carrot cake ingredients and it's good to go: pineapple, raisins, and walnuts.

I tested it out for breakfast this morning with milk and was not disappointed.  This is going to be fantastic Christmas morning for breakfast.  Now to create some more granola from some of my other favorite flavor inspirations.

Carrot Cake Granola
2 Cups uncooked oatmeal
1 Cup unsweetened coconut (I went with grated, but maybe slivers next time)
3/4 Cup finely chopped carrot (I used matchstick pieces and chopped them)
1/4 Cup coconut oil (been wanting to find a reason to buy this for some time)
1/4 Cup real maple syrup (slightly more if you want your granola to clump)
1/2 Cup light brown sugar
1 heavy tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup chopped dried pineapple
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Bring to a boil the oil, syrup and brown sugar over medium heat.  Add the spices and vanilla.  In a separate bowl, combine oatmeal, coconut, and carrot.  Pour the hot liquid over the oats and mix well to thoroughly coat.  Spread over a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake at 325F for 30 minutes.  Stir and bake another 15 minutes.  Turn off the oven, open the door, and leave the granola to cool slowly and continue to dry if needed. When cool, crumble the granola into a clean bowl and toss in the raisins, pineapple and walnuts. Store in mason jars or ziploc baggies.  Makes 2 quarts of yummy.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Luxury of Homemade Scrubs

One of my most popular posts was one I did of the homemade Gingerbread Sugar Scrub I made for my coworkers last year at Christmas.  (On a quick side note, this post has been pinned to Pinterest, and it makes me smile to think someone else finds something I've done something they want to do.)

It was one of those gifts that I really enjoyed making, and the feedback from the ladies was so positive that I knew I wanted to experiment with more scrubs this year.  Back in October I began the process by making some essential oil from the rosemary growing in my garden.

Every two weeks or so I switched out the old rosemary and added new to the oil until it had a rich, strong scent of the wonderful herb and was ready to use.  After a lot of research on line looking at recipes, and finding out that basically anything goes, I made 4 scrubs using some very simple ingredients.  The first was a Lemon Rosemary Salt Scrub using the essential oil I had made.  After mixing the ingredients, I packed it into some really cute jars for giving.  The orange/yellow bits you see are pieces of dried lemon peel.

Sea Salt, Epsom Salt, Lemon Juice, Dried Lemon Peel, Fresh Rosemary, Rosemary Essential Oil
I wish you could have smelled my kitchen when I made this.  My gosh, it was wonderful.  After this, I made another scrub that I called Warm Spiced Sugar Scrub. It smelled like pumpkin pie.

Brown Sugar, White Sugar, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove, Vanilla, Grapeseed Oil
Next, in the spirit of Christmas, I made a Peppermint Salt Scrub.  I did add a little red food coloring to compliment the peppermint theme, but the smell alone gave it away.  I love the way some salt took more of the color so it has a little white and pink mixed together.  I confess that I have a small jar of this scrub in my shower right now.

Sea Salt, Epsom Salt, Peppermint Extract, Vanilla Extract Rice Flour, Red Food Coloring
Last, but certainly not least, I made an Oatmeal Almond Sugar Scrub.  This one turned out to be my favorite and I will be making more of it myself.  I love the texture and the scent and everything about it.  The flecks of orange/brown are dried orange peel and steel cut oats.  Love it.

Oatmeal, Steel Cut Oats, Dried Orange Peel, Almond Extract, White Sugar, Grape Seed Oil
After making some cute little labels with my Inhibitors prominently displayed (my two cats; Kracken and Rudy), I boxed up my gift.

So much fun to make.  I really don't know why I don't make scrubs more often.  If you have never tried one you should.  Now back to more gift making.  Just 2 more to go and I'll be ready to put my feet up and enjoy my Christmas Break.  But if you are wondering what my coworker gift was this year, just think back to all that jam and jelly canning I did this past summer.

Cherry Amaretto, Apple Raisin, Blueberry Apple, Carrot Cake, Vanilla Pear, Jalapeno Jelly

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Best "Feel Good" Moment of the Holidays

I am lucky that I have the job of my dreams.  I get to go to my job everyday and work with 3-7 year old children with autism.  It also happens that my school coworkers and administration are fantastic.  But did I mention the janitorial staff?  Not yet.  These 4 men and women also come to work everyday, but their job is very different.  They don't work with our young students or see their smiles of accomplishment, but everyday they are there making our little corner of the world safe and clean.  It's so easy to forget how important they are since they are so out of sight most of the time . . . until this year.

This year, at the suggestion of Krystina, our Special Education Services team of teachers and paraprofessionals (and our wonderful councilor, Lisa) decided to treat them to a warm meal made with love, a cozy table setting to eat and have fellowship before beginning their shift, and gifts of appreciation for Christmas.  The pictures below were taken by Krystina, my wonderful friend, of the teacher's lounge before they arrived for their night shift.

Now before you judge on the paper and plastic, let me tell you some thought went into this choice.  You know I'm kinda green and using disposable anything makes my heart beat too fast, but we really didn't want them to feel like they had to do dishes when they were finished eating.

We made plenty of food so that they could bring home leftovers of the Chicken Spaghetti ( I made enough for 2-8x8 casseroles, but put them in a large foil pan) , salad, and bread.

There was also dessert, sweet and un-sweet tea with ice, and containers for them to pack up a to go meal.

We collected so many nice little treats that extra large gift bags were needed.  There were candles and lotions, gloves and cookies, gift cards and candies, and all kinds of goodies.  Okay, I know it's a cheesy rhyme, but it's Christmas.

Everyone was so touched by the experience, but most of all those of us who gave.  More than one person got tears in their eyes when they told me the next day how wonderful they felt about what we had done.  I felt good dropping my spare change in the Salvation Army bucket at Hobby Lobby. I felt great shopping and wrapping for a family with 3 children and true needs.  But my best warm fuzzy feel good came from seeing the smiles from Jose, Maria, and Margaret the next day when they came in for their last shift before Christmas Break.  I think we all agree that this is a tradition that will continue for years to come.

Thank you Krystina, Andrea, all 3 Janets, Lindsey, Sandra, Sara and Sarah, Paula, Shelby, Stacie, Sharon, Lisa, Leslie, and Elizabeth.