Friday, July 1, 2016

July Give Away and Featured Items

Just in Case Item: Wonderbag

Preparing food consumes a huge amount of fuel.  Most recipes call for cooking times that can run into hours, particulary for dried foods...and a good portion of our food storage consists of dried foods. It's no surprise, then, that cooking is one of the most difficult work arounds.  There are several situations that may require a cooking work around: power outage, unsafe gas / propane lines, or not being home.  

In an emergency scenario, gathering enough wood to cook a meal may be impossible.

That's why I love the Wonderbag.

A Wonderbag is a super-insulated bag that functions like an off-grid crockpot.  All you have to do is heat food to a boiling point (about 15 min), then take it off the heat and pop the whole pan into the Wonderbag to finish cooking over the next few hours. 

I've had people ask why I choose a Wonderbag over a pressure cooker, which can make a meal quickly, also saving fuel.  The answer is that it depends on the situation.  If you're at home and can use your stove, a pressure cooker is fine; but if you're cooking on something other than a stove, a pressure cooker could be very dangerous if it's jostled. Pressure cookers need to be used over even heat which would be very difficult to do with a wood fire.  The other reason is the weight.  If you have to grab and go, a pressure cooker isn't practical.  It's heavy and it's awkward.  A Wonderbag can be carried by the strap.  Add a lightweight aluminum pot with a lid and a few plastic dishes and utensils to the bag and you have a Grab and Go kitchen.  This can be handy if you're going to have to camp out for a while until you can either get back home or to a better situation. 

In addition to cooking food, it can also keep food cold.  This makes it handy for picnics or outings and it's not as heavy as a cooler.

The more you use your Wonderbag, the more uses you'll find for it.  It's an inexpensive, very flexible, easy to store tool that can be exremely helpful in an emergency.  You can get it on Amazon here:

Pantry Item #1: Vinegar

It would be hard to find something that has more uses than vinegar.  There are many varieties of vinegar, we'll talk about the two most common ones: white and apple cider.

White vinegar is used for both cooking and clearning.  

In the kitchen:
  •  Most pickling recipes call for white vinegar.  
  • You can often "rescue" a dish that's too sweet or too salty with a dash of vinegar (this came in handy for me when I thought I could substitue chicken stock with chicken boullion in a recipe. A few tablespoons of vinegar saved the day).  
  • Add two tablespoons to the water when you boil eggs and they won't crack 
  • Add a teaspoon to the water when you cook rice for nice fluffy rice that's never sticky. 
  •  If you need buttermilk for a recipe, just add a tablespoon of white vinegar to a cup of milk.
  • Mix a cup of vinegar and a cup of broth for a tenderizing marinade
  • A tablespoon of vinegar is the secret to amazing potato salad, add a dash to the yolk mixture when you make deviled eggs
  • If you're cooking fish or onions, leave a bowl of white vinegar on the counter to neutralize the smell  
  • Flavored vinegars are a great way to perk up a dish, but they can be expensive and hard to find.  Here's a DIY guide to making your own

Around the house, white vinegar inhibits the growth of mold, mildew and some bacteria.  You can boost it's germ-killing abilities to equal or exceed that of bleach by following it up with hydrogen peroxide (never never never mix them together!  Use one, then the other.  See this article for more info 

Just a few household uses:

  • Soak lemon or orange peels in a quart jar of white vinegar to make a great all-purpose cleaner. Pack a quart jar with lemon or orange peels, fill to the top with white vinegar and leave in a dark place for several weeks.  Dilute in a spray bottle 1:3 parts water or 1:1 for windows and mirrors. Do not use on natural stone
  • Run a cup of vinegar through your washer to eliminate soap build up and keep it fresh
  • Sluggish drain? Put some baking soda down the drain, follow with vinegar.  Let it sit about 30 minutes then flush with hot water
  • Get rid of fruit flies by putting a small amount of vinegar in a jar with a piece of over-ripe fruit.  Roll a piece of paper into a funnel, put the small end in the jar and let the wide end expand in the jar so it touches the rim all the way around.  The fruit flies will follow the funnel into the jar and be trapped.
  • Here's a great place to find dozens of recipes for great natural cleaners you can make yourself

  • How much to store

    The amount of vinegar you will need to store depends on how you use it and what kind you prefer.  I use a lot of white vinegar for cleaning, so it's not unusual for me to go through 2 gallons per month, more in the fall when I'm pickling anything that I can get my hands on.  For preserving food or making flavored vinegars, it's important to use a commercially prepared vinegar so you can be sure the acidity level is safe.  A gallon of white vinegar at Walmart is $3.44, so it's not hard to pick one up for your pantry whenever you do your regular shopping.  

    Unopened white distilled vinegar has in indefinite shelf life if it's properly stored.  Keep it away from heat sources (not in a cupboard next to the stove or dishwasher where it will be repeatedly warmed and cooled).  Bottles are awkward to store, so I buy vinegar a case at a time and store the unopened cases in my refrigeroom.

     I use apple cider vinegar primarily as a health aid, so I make my own (instructions here) .  I don't store a lot of it,  I just keep a gallon of it "brewing" all the time.  

    Kitchen Item: Vacuum Sealer

    Once you get the hang of using a vacuum sealer, you'll love it!  It's great to be able to make just the right sized bag for what you need.  This makes it easy to buy in bulk and divide it into right-sized portions.  I save a lot of money buying spices in bulk, but using it from a bulk package would cause it to degrade quickly so I break each bulk package down into smaller ones for storage. 

    Don't forget the bags for it.  

    There are very expensive vacuum sealers out there, but I've learned that "expensive" isn't necessarily the best.  I've had good luck with this one, and it's one of the lower-priced ones. 

    Medicine Cabinet Item:  Hand Sanitizer

    There's been a lot of discussion lately about the use of hand sanitizer.  The concern is that, like antibiotics, hand sanitizer is being overused which is causing it to be less effective.  

    I tend to agree.  A good hand washing is very effective at stopping the spread of germs and most of the time, plain old soap and water are enough to kill everyday household germs.

    However, I have a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse right now.  I have one in each of our Grab and Go bags and I have several large bottles of it in my medicine cabinet supplies.  BUT, I don't use it every day. I have these for times when hand-washing is problematic.  

    Hand sanitizer is good in situations when you're away from home, that's why it's in our go bags.  It's good for times when you may be touching things a lot of strangers touched before you, that's why it's in my purse.  

    I buy big bottles and use them to refill the small bottles.  These four packs at Amazon are a great price and shipped free if you have Amazon Prime.

    Pantry Item #2 : Dessicant

    I'm slipping an extra pantry item in this month because it's just a quick, very inexpensive purchase.

    You know the little packets that you often find in a box of new shoes?  Stop throwing those away.  That is dessicant (silica gel) and it's job is to keep things dry.  Keeping moisture out of your long term storage items is crucial.  You can put one or more of these packets in your dry storage items like white sugar or rice or wheat.  You can use them in your closets or cabinets if you live in a humid area (you can get big buckets of dessicant for large areas). I put them between clothes I've put away for the season.

    A few other uses for silica gel:
    • Make razor blades last loger by storing them in a closed jar with silica gel
    • Put some in your camera bag to keep your lens fog-free
    • Keep your jack-o-lantern fresh longer
    • Keep your spices dry, especially ones you keep near the stove
    • Put them in boxes that store important papers
    • Slip a few between the pages of books in storage
    • Put some on the dash of your car to keep your windshield from fogging
    • Put them in with any electronics you're packing for storage or travel
    Collecting silica gel packets one at time from things you buy is a slow process.  I buy them in bags of 50 from Amazon.

    If the dessicant stops working, just open the paper bags and pour the silica gel onto a cookie sheet and place in a low oven or dehydrator or in the sun on a hot day to "reactivate" it.  When it's dry again, you can  put it into empty tea bags.  I like the ones below.

    Last but Not Least....Here's the Giveaway!

    Recently, I made a "find" that got me really excited.

    First the backstory.  A few years ago, when I still had three kids at home, I took advantage of an opportunity to caretake a farm in Costa Rica for a year.  It was an amazing experience in a lot of ways, we were in an undeveloped area so we mostly ate what grew on the farm.  I learned to cook with green bananas, yucca root, wild yams that were enormous and eggs...lots and lots of eggs.  As much as we enjoyed our new life, we missed our traditional American food.  

    One day, we were cutting the grass (a daily chore there) and I caught a whiff of a very familiar scent...cilantro.  I could smell it, but I couldn't find it.  Finally I started sniffing the grass (only one of the many strange things my neighbors found me doing) and I found it...but it didn't look like cilantro, it looked like a dandelion plant with serrated edges.  The neighbor who dropped by to see what the Crazy Americans were doing that day told me it was called culantro  (Side note:  I thought he was just mispronouncing it, but it turns out it really is called culantro and it's completely different from cilantro).  

    I wasn't a huge fan of cilantro normally, but I'm even less of a fan of bland food, so I started cooking with it. Everything I put it in came out delicious (including lemonade) and everytime I cooked with it, the whole house smelled amazing  One day someone gifted us some real spaghetti and I was trying to "invent" a sauce for it and I threw a bit of culantro into it. We ended up with the best spaghetti any of us have ever home or abroad.  

    When we returned home, we craved our Costa Rica spaghetti. Of course, there was no culantro to be had so I had to settle for cilantro which was a poor substitute, the flavor is weak in comparison.

    Finally, I found a little seed company that had some culantro seed!  It was a big day for us.  This is a tropical plant, so it isn't hardy at all.  It sulks if the temperature drops elow 70 degrees F.  It likes indirect sun and moist soil.  Sprinkle the seeds on the top of moist soil.  It takes its time to germinate too, a good 30 days and another 8 weeks after that before you can even think of transplanting it.  I live in zone 5, so it's a houseplant for me.

    Still, it's worth the coaxing and cajoling necessary to get it started.  Use fresh or soak the leaves in a jar of olive oil for a week then blend the whole thing (oil and all) and store in the freezer, scoop out a bit as you need it.

    So for our giveaway this month, I'm sharing my precious culantro seed with one lucky person.  

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