Monday, August 27, 2012

What to do with a garden surplus

My first inclination is to give it away!  However, my neighbors are likely as tired of cucumbers and tomatoes as I am.  Two years ago, we had a crop of 1,800 tomatoes.  This year was not as abundant, probably due to the inconsistent weather that we've had.  We still ended up with a LOT of tomatoes.  Our best producing tomato bush is the one that we have tilled under year after year, and it keeps coming back in the same place!  It was an heirloom tomato bush that we purchased from a farmer on the side of the road for $1.  It looked rather straggly and we felt sorry for it. Three years later,  I now refer to it as Father Abraham.

Last night's crop.

Just about the time this morning that I began to wonder what to do with all of these tomatoes, my 11 year old son begged me to make homemade tomato soup.  Here's my favorite, oh-so-simple recipe.

Tomato Soup for Two

2 cups of pureed, fresh tomatoes (skin and all, I throw them into my blender)
1 tablespoon of butter (I use ghee, which is an excellent grass fed source of vitamin K2)
1 tablespoon of flour
1 cup of milk or cream
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
1 teaspoon of dried basil (or fresh, if available)
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or garlic sea salt (if you use iodized table salt, cut back the amount slightly)

In a saucepan, heat the butter until melted. Add the flour and stir to blend.  Quickly add the cup of milk or cream and whisk until smooth.  This is your classic white sauce.  Add the 2 cups of pureed tomatoes and the remaining ingredients.  Heat through, then remove from heat. Cover and allow the soup to sit for five minutes before serving to allow the flavors to blend.

You can substitute nearly any vegetable for the tomatoes in this recipe, I just used what I had in abundance.  In the past, I have made cream of asparagus, cream of broccoli and even cream of celery when needed for a recipe.  Some vegetables require steaming them to soften them before pureeing.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to make expensive Greek yogurt for less than $5 a gallon

Greek yogurt has been all the rage for the past several years, and for good reason.  It's a power house of nutrition, especially protein.  If you factor in the additional benefits of probiotics (beneficial bacteria for your gut), Greek yogurt is a health bargain, even at full price.

But you can successfully make it for less than $5/gallon (your mileage may vary depending on that you are willing to pay for a gallon of milk).  Here in our home, we prefer "real" milk, purchased directly from the farmer. We have been consuming "real" dairy products since 1998, and have never, ever had a food borne illness from consuming non-pasteurized or non-homogenized milk products.  The concern is trumped up, but that's a different blog post.

To make your fancy yogurt you'll need a large slow cooker, a wooden spoon, approximately 1/2 cup of plain yogurt with live cultures (just about any commercial yogurt on the market and you can be as discriminating as you want), a gallon of milk, some cheesecloth to line your strainer, and a pot to catch the yellow liquid (called whey) that will drain off of the yogurt.

Pour your milk into your slow cooker.  Turn it on to "LOW" and allow to warm up for several hours until you see many tiny bubbles on the surface.  You do not want to boil your milk.  I have, in the past, accidentally overcooked the milk until it turns a light tan color.  It didn't affect the quality of my yogurt, it just looked bad to those in the family who prefer their milk "white".  Because there is no true standard amongst slow cooker temperatures, I cannot tell you how long your slow cooker might take to reach the tiny bubble stage, but mine took 3 hours to reach approximately 140F degrees on my digital thermometer.

I then turned off the heat and removed the lid to cool my milk to 110F degrees.  This took about two hours, and will vary depending on your room temperature.

When my milk reached 110F degrees, I added my 1/2 cup plain yogurt (I used Fage plain Greek).

Stir the yogurt in until completely dissolved.  Now your milk is ready to "incubate".  There are different methods to achieve this.  My inner crock from my slow cooker can be removed, so I take it out, put the lid on, and put in my unheated oven with the light on.  The light is sufficient to create just enough warmth to maintain the temperature at 101F degrees. The idea is to maintain the temperature between 100F and 110F degrees for at least six to ten hours, or until your yogurt is thick.  Another method is to set your pan or crock on a heating pad on the counter and wrap with a towel.

Your yogurt should thicken up nicely if kept in the correct temperature range. If it still has not thickened, cover it back up and continue to incubate it for several more hours.  Don't worry, there is a large margin of error before you could actually ruin the yogurt.

When your yogurt is thick, congratulations!  You now have yogurt!

But don't stop there, Greek yogurt requires a few more steps...

Line your strainer with cheesecloth and position over a pan large enough to catch the precious yellow liquid (called whey).  Pour your yogurt into the strainer and let sit for about an hour or more.  As the liquid whey drains off, your yogurt becomes even thicker.  If left to strain for days, it will eventually become a very soft, spreadable cheese, resembling cream cheese.  But if you stop the process after only straining for about an hour, you will have Greek yogurt at a fraction of the cost of store bought Greek yogurt.

Do not throw away the whey!  It's an excellent medium for soaking grains and flour or for adding to to baked goods for added nutrition.  I've also used whey to make dill pickles using a process called lacto-fermentation.  They were a big hit here in my home, and fermented foods will be a topic for another day.

This is the yellow liquid that was strained from my yogurt.  It's called "whey" and is packed full of nutrition.  Whey lasts a long time in the refrigerator without spoiling, and usually our demand is more than our supply.

A gallon of Greek yogurt barely lasts a week in our home as we use it to substitute for sour cream and I use it for baking.  Remember to save a half cup of your yogurt creation to use as a starter for your next batch!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Frugal and natural personal care products

For thirty days, I've been an experiment in making and using my own body wash and shampoo.  It all started when my husband went to visit a friend of a friend who lives off-grid in the mountains of Georgia.  He came home from that trip so excited about the possibility of making our own body wash and shampoo.  I'm a woman who enjoys the delightful smells of life, so my first inclination was to brush off the suggestion and hope that the idea would fade.  Yet my husband kept on about how the major corporations in the personal product industry peddle harmful chemicals in a deceitful way:  they sell you a shampoo that chemically strips the dirt and grime out of your body and hair, leaving it void of moisture, and in turn market conditioners and lotions to you to replace the moisture. They most usually have to add fragrance back into the product to cover up the chemical concoction's unpleasant smell.  Thus, they've snagged you not once but two or three times in a very cleverly orchestrated campaign for your dollars.

It turns out that my husband's own marketing campaign was successful.  He knew exactly how to appeal to my practical tendencies. Aside from resisting any product that contains ingredients that are proven be carcinogenic, as well as hormone disruptors...quite frankly, I'm cheap.  

And so it began.  We use this simple recipe for both our hair and our bodies.  I've also been using it to bathe our dogs and they smell so fresh after their baths!

For this recipe, you'll need:

6 cups of water
several drops of vegetable glycerin (optional, for added moisture retention)
several drops of your favorite natural essential oil for fragrance

  • Heat the water on the stove, but do not boil.  While your water is heating, grate your bar soap.  I like to use my Salad Shooter, which makes the job of grating go much more quickly. The bar soap is fairly soft, so a manual grater would work well also.

  • Add your grated soap to the water and stir until dissolved.  This process only takes five minutes at the most.  Remove from heat after the soap is dissolved.

My hair is noticeably softer after thirty days using our body wash/shampoo.  Once per week,  I deep condition with pure extra-virgin coconut oil.  I give special attention to the ends. If you have dandruff, apply the coconut oil to your scalp.  I leave it in my hair for 10-15 minutes, then shampoo with my liquid soap. My hair texture continues to improve with each use. No, this does not make my hair greasy.

  • Allow to cool before adding the vegetable glycerin and/or essential oil.  This step is completely optional.  My husband and I both have middle-aged hair, and as it grays it becomes coarse.  To counteract the coarseness and keep it smooth, we like to add the glycerin.  As far as essential oils, we opted out because we actually like the pure, clean smell of the Kirk's soap.
  • Transfer to a container of your choice.  We recycle a pump type dispenser to use for our soap. One recipe has brought us 30 days of daily use.  Your soap will be very thin and will gradually thicken as it ages.  Coconut has antibacterial properties, so no preservatives are needed.

Just a note: Any castile soap will work.  We chose Kirk's because of the simple, natural ingredients and the price.  On sale, a bar of this soap will cost less than $1. I order other products frequently from iHerb and Swanson, so my shipping is usually free.  Kirk's has also been spotted from time to time in Dollar Tree stores in the Southeast.  You could also substitute any castile bar soap for this recipe, but the other "name brand" castile soap (bearing the name of a certain Doctor) has a higher price per bar and fundamental beliefs of the company do not align with our family's.