Monday, December 13, 2010

Creating Our Own Traditions

When I was a child, I was blessed to have four grandmothers and a grandpa still living. Every grandmother had her own "flavor" and style. They were the glue that held our families together.
Lots of grandparents meant lots of wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. I have SUCH amazing memories of our family and relatives packed into each of their houses, laughing and cutting up. It was so cheerful and comforting.
My great-grandmother was from Mexico. She was a wonderful cook and spent so much time in her tiny little kitchenette creating amazing food for the people she loved. I can get close, but I don't think I'll ever be able to re-create her food exactly. Still, my husband appreciates my efforts very much :). She lived in a retirement community of buildings containing individual apartments. She had a tiny little one-bedroom apartment but found a way to pack us all in and around her table. Tamales, fideo, beans and rice ( and Tang! lol) were our Christmas feast at her house. She'd almost always have Mexican wedding cakes, an apple pie or a yellow cake from scratch for dessert. She did it all herself. All we had to do was show up with lots of hugs.
My grandmother Campbell ( her daughter and my paternal grandmother) has her own style as a result of her Mexican culinary roots and the influence of her mother-in-law who was from Kentucky and made lots of traditional Southern style dishes. The blending of the two styles is absolutely out of this world and I've never found anything even close anywhere. I remember ham with her own unique spice, a dish made with cabbage and sausage, the most amazing coleslaw ever ( her mother-in-law's recipe), and an out-of-this-world warm applesauce spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, raisins, brown sugar and butter. Everyone would bring their own contributions, but her food was always the star.
My grandma Mitchell (maternal grandmother) was a second or third generation Hoosier and her style was solidly Midwest- baked ham, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, sweet potatoes, rolls and the requisite carry-in side dishes. Very "Wonder Bread" ;).
My Papaw and Grandma Margaret ( my dad's step-mom) lived on a farm and their two blended families made for the most amazing spread you can imagine. Easily over twenty-five people on Christmas. My grandma would prepare the turkey, and I think ham and one or two sides- along with a card table loaded with "appetizers"- cheeseball and crackers, vegetable tray, etc. , and everyone else would bring one or two carry-in dishes and a dessert contribution. It was a spread that spanned the main table, the side-board, a card table and sometimes flowing back into the kitchen. We have some amazing cooks in our family, and as kids, we could pack it away! I remember seeing male relatives sprawled out all over the furniture snoring while we kids would waddle outside to run it off ( eighteen acres of room to run!) and the women stood around and talked.
The common thread through all was the comfort, security, coziness and cheerfulness.
I only have my grandmother Campbell and Grandma Margaret now, and with three grandparents gone, our extended family has scattered to the winds. Add that to the fact that we've moved two states away and don't drive home for Christmas because of the threat of bad weather ( btdt- not doing it again) and it's a given that my children won't get to experience the Christmases that I did. It weighs heavily on my mind and heart. For the last couple of years, we've been trying to work out our own traditions to give our kids wonderful memories and a heritage of their own to pass down. I've been trying to figure out how to blend elements of all the different "flavors" into Christmas for my kids and adding some of our own.
We're slowly getting there.
I've been conflicted as to which direction to take for Christmas dinner- Mexican or "Traditional" and I think I've come to a solution this year.
Christmas EVE breakfast will be a wonderful breakfast my great-grandmother used to make for us- a mixture of chorizo, potatoes and eggs served with a side of beans and fresh corn tortillas (I'm pretty sure they serve it in Heaven. I've been a vegetarian since I was 14 and it tempts me)
Christmas Eve dinner will be tamales, beans, rice, fideo and yellow cake with chocolate frosting- I might even serve Tang to drink ;).
Cinnamon rolls and "breakfast casserole" have come to be expected on Christmas morning. I have a hard time giving my kids "dessert" for breakfast, so cinnamon rolls are reserved for Christmas ;).
Christmas Dinner will be a gut-busting compilation of all my favorite traditional dishes- a little bit of my grandparents and extended family shared with my husband and children.
I'm thinking cheeseball and crackers, veggie tray, ham, scalloped potatoes, corn bread casserole, green bean casserole, baked beans, cole slaw, rolls, deviled eggs, warm applesauce, iced tea, spiced cider and of course, apple and pumpkin pie.
We've even begun a tradition for New Year's Day entirely by accident. It's become a day for hunkering down as a family and just "being". We'll watch a Christmas movie or two for the last time, play games, have a "nacho bar" for lunch and spend a few hours goofing around outside.
The day after New Year's? We begin a culinary cleanse, lol.

They just don't make them like they used to...

It's become very obvious to me as of late how things just aren't made very well anymore.
Not too long ago, companies took pride in their products and made them to last and we appreciated things that lasted. Not anymore, though. Supercenters like Walmart sell cheap, poorly made products mass-produced in China. We've been conditioned to accept that things just don't last. When they break, we go out and buy another piece of junk to replace them and companies continue to profit off of junk they should be ashamed of. Well, I'm tired of it!
For the last eleven years, I've made do with hand mixers that generally cost around $10. They'd last about a year and a half and then we'd have to replace them- usually as I was trying to get something ready for a carry-in!! Well, about three months ago, my little cheapie broke and my sweet husband thought he'd do me a favor and replace it with one that cost about $30. It was manufactured by GE and came in a cute little case. I was surprised at how flimsy the beaters seemed, though. They weren't welded together, the tines of the beaters were just stuck ( and I think glued) into holes at the top. Sure enough, after only a couple of weeks of use, one of the beaters began coming apart on a regular basis. We were disappointed, but I would just stick them back in and keep going. My husband tried to fix it permanently for me, but they continued to give me problems. I finally gave up on using it after struggling through several batches of cookie dough last month.

For the time being, I'm mixing things for my family with my (clean!) hands, but it's really putting a kink in my usual Christmas baking for neighbors. I've decided no more junk! I'm going to skim ten dollars a week off our grocery budget until I have enough for a decent mixer.
Another kitchen tool that's really let me down lately was my can opener. Now, the one we had lasted me a good five years. I can't remember where I bought it or what it cost me, but it was a faithful little can opener. Fast forward to last week. It finally broke. I finished opening cans with a knife ( and miraculously avoided ending up in the ER with a finger on ice in a baggie) and called my husband at work to ask him to pick up another one on his way home. He did. A few days later, I went to open a couple of cans of tomatoes and it broke on the first one. The culprit? plastic gears in a metal can opener- what kind of sense does that make?! I bought another, slightly pricier one to replace THAT one. It skips, leaving little bridges of attached metal all around the can. I mean- really?!
I know the difference well-made products can make. About two years ago, my husband's former boss gave me some professional-grade chef's knives he'd bought himself and no longer used. It really opened my eyes. The knives I'd been using- that I thought were okay suddenly cut like butter knives to me. I have now made a personal vow to only give our business to companies that still take pride in their products and stand behind them.
We've always chosen carefully when buying large appliances. My husband pores over Consumer Reports, compares and reads reviews for hours and hours. It takes days and sometimes weeks to make a decision. The small appliances in our house need to work just as hard, so it only makes sense to choose them with just as much care. No more cheap junk! Viva la revolucion!!

Monday, November 15, 2010


I was just thinking about a 50's-era sitcom I watched once where the husband calls the wife an hour before he's due home and cheerfully says, "by the way, Honey, I'm bringing the boss home for dinner".
Even as a kid, I remember feeling panicked for the wife and thinking, "he did not...".
I had a moment like that last night.
A couple of months ago, my husband started taking part in leadership training through his place of employment. His group is made up of a few co-workers and others in the community going through the same training. They do things like listen to speakers, take tours of the city, learning the history and how people are working to improve it, etc... . About a month ago, he told me they were going to be taking part in a literacy "fair" of sorts and that he signed up to bring refreshments ( read: signed me up), but wasn't sure of the when and where yet. I said no problem, just give me a heads-up as it gets closer. Well, last night, as we're driving home from church and I'm already mentally crawling into bed, he says, casually, "so, the literacy fair is this Wednesday. It'll probably only last until eight or so." I said, "Mmm" and started to zone back out. Then, I realized what he meant and had a moment of total panic.
I'm a planner. Sure, I love to do spur-of-the-moment things like pack the kids in the car and take off on a road-trip, but when it comes to making food to feed people, I start with a rough-draft list of ideas, which then gets refined by stages into a final draft. Then, there's pulling the recipes and compiling ingredient and shopping lists ( I am so not kidding).
I said, "wait a minute- is this the thing I need to make the cookies for?!". He said, "Oh, yeah, sorry, I meant to tell you sooner." I mentally started going through my recipes and said, "Okay, well, how many?". He didn't know. So, today as my kids sit doing their schoolwork, I'm poring over recipes. I'll make a trip to Aldi tonight to grab ingredients and I'll probably start baking tomorrow morning and go until I run out of ingredients. Sounds like a plan- right?
I so wish I could say my husband will come home to this

but I'm sure it'll probably be closer to this.

But that's okay, because when it's all said and done,

and I'd do anything for him. Even make dozens of cookies with a day and a half notice ;).

Update: Well, information makes all the difference! Hubby just emailed me- it will be 24 adults and has been advertised as "refreshments". Anyone who knows me knows how completely high strung I can be.

I'll come down. I will. It'll take a couple of hours, but I'll get there :).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Thoughts for next year's garden.

When we moved out here, I hadn't had a garden for two years. Needless to say, I was excited :). All this room!!!
I immediately began flipping through seed catalogs and browsing websites planning my very ambitious garden. Thankfully, my common-sense husband pulled me back down to earth and we decided to make this year's garden "experimental" to see what would grow well for us here and what was worth planting again and what we'd rather shell out for at the store. One of the crops I was excited to plant was potatoes. Potatoes are one of the "dirty dozen". I remember hearing somewhere that some conventional potato farmers won't even eat the potatoes they grow because they wouldn't dare give their family something so contaminated with herbicides and pesticides. I almost always opt for the more expensive organic potatoes in the store ( when they have them) unless the sale on conventional is just too good to pass up.
We settled on Yellow Finn. A variety along the lines of "Yukon Gold" . That one was a big hit with everyone.
We recently began putting our garden to bed for the winter and dug up the remaining potatoes I'd allowed to sit. I made them last night for dinner along with the "Purple Dragon" carrots and onions we'd grown. I'm really kicking myself for not having planted more of the potatoes. That one is getting considerable space next year ;). The carrots ( purple on the outside and orange on the inside) were a fun novelty, but were really just so-so as far as carrots go, so we'll pick another variety next year. One thing I WILL NOT devote any space whatsoever to next year is eggplant. Ugh. HUGE disappointment! I was so looking forward to eggplant parmesean and got two hard, dinky little eggplants that I ended up throwing to the chickens.
Something we've had quite a bit of "discussion" over is corn. Until this summer, my husband thought it was a waste of space and tried to talk me out of it right up until we were putting it in the ground. *I*, however, being the good Hoosier girl that I am, HAD to have corn. My awesome Dad sent me some seed from Indiana and it did REALLY well. My husband was doubtful right up until I picked the first ears and made them for dinner one night- I could see by the look on his face that he was converted. There is NOTHING better than fresh-picked corn. Even the stuff you buy at roadside stands isn't as good as corn that's picked a few minutes before you cook it. Almost as soon as it's picked, the sugars start converting to starch, changing the flavor. Thankfully, I've been granted room next year for more corn :). I also grew a variety of winter squash this year that I've fallen in love with. It's a blue squash called "Sweet Keeper". It has a blue outside and bright, bright orange flesh. If I were to use it to make pies, nobody would know the difference between that and a pie pumpkin. I will be growing quite a few of those to store for next winter.
I think now that I've gotten all the funny little novelty varieties out of my system, next year's garden will be more utilitarian. I will only devote room to things that produce like crazy and things that keep well. Back-to-basics!!! Will somebody remind me that when I'm checking out the purple green beans in the catalogs come March? Which, by the way, we were NOT impressed with- yuck.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Part Two.

One of the other ways I've been trying to save our family money is by having a home garden and visiting "you-pick" farms. Our garden didn't do very well at all this year because of a drought in our area. I watered for a while, but was afraid of drying up our well, so I quit at the end of July and let it fend for itself. The result was okay, but not as good as it could've been, and definitely money down the drain. I did manage to have enough zucchini to freeze for bread and some to make zucchini relish. We also got some Yellow Finn potatoes to can. I bought green beans and a sweet friend gave us enough tomatoes so I was able to can those, too.
The you-pick outings went much better. We went out and picked strawberries, blueberries and apples this year.
The strawberries all went into jam, as did some of the blueberries, but we froze a lot, too. The apples went into frozen pie filling, applesauce and apple butter. I'm actually still working on the apples. Things have been a little nuts, lately, but I WILL get it done ;). We also actually came into some free "found" foods. Or rather, donated :). We currently have six pumpkins awaiting dispatch. It's not advised that you home can pumpkin or winter squash of any kind, but we have big plans for the seeds ( yummy) and I'm going to bake and freeze the pumpkin puree' for pies.

Here's a picture of our "cellar room" in the basement. It's where I keep all my home-canned goods and duplicate canned goods. I've got quite a collection going. it's funny, but seeing it almost full makes me feel secure. :).

Thanks to our church, we also have weekly access to bakery-quality bread. Panera Bread has a program where they donate day-old bread, bagels, etc... to churches to pass out. We come away with a few loaves every week that really help stretch our budget.

Something else we're doing to save money ( although it's really more for quality and "know-where-your-food-comes-from sake) is keeping chickens. We've got ten hens and two roosters right now. This picture is from when they first started laying. We were getting quite the assortment of sizes and shapes. They're all pretty uniform, now. It's not really a money-saver, but I like knowing what our chickens eat and that they're not medicated and that they're treated well. We're not really selling eggs, yet ( okay, not at all), but we do give some every week to our neighbor. He's been good to us and if it helps with public relations, it's worth it ;).
I'm hoping next year, our garden goes much better. I've got the canner and dehydrator on stand-by, so maybe next summer/fall, I'll be able to post some REALLY bountiful pictures :).

Thrifty Deals and Stockpiling Part One

Since my last post about a year ago, I've begun using coupons and building up a stockpile that enables me to do most of my "shopping" from my freezer and pantry. As grocery prices have gone up, our budget has not. I needed to do something to adjust or we were really going to be hurting. It took me a while to really get the hang of it and figure out the best way to go about it. The secret is to pair a lot great coupons (especially BOGO or those that double) with items on sale. For example, I recently got a LOT of Barilla whole wheat pasta at Tops by waiting for the 10 for $10 sale that comes along every few months.

I ordered three lots of twenty .55 off one box coupons- netting me 60 boxes of free pasta because the .55 coupon doubles at Tops. Granted, there was the cost of ordering the coupons from the coupon clipping service/ebay, but $7 dollars for 60 boxes of pasta is worth it to me. There IS an art to it, though. Tops will only double four "like" coupons per order, so I do several separate orders at the three different Tops stores close to us. Since there is also "overage", I have to have other items to absorb the overage. In this case, the Jennie-O turkey sausage was also on sale. Many of my order totals were about eleven cents.I try to only go after those deals that will either be free or very deeply discounted. An example of deeply discounted would be the Quaker Oats I got for .50 a canister. It was on sale two for three dollars and I believe the coupons I ordered were for a dollar off each one, making each one .50. That one was nice in that I didn't have to worry about doubling the coupon, so I was able to do a lot in one order. I still split it among my three local Tops stores so as not to clean off the shelves at any one store, but it was nice.
The Better Than Oats instant oatmeal in the picture was a great free deal, too. It ran 10 for $10 several weeks in a row at Tops. I had a two $1 off coupons that I had printed online and more for .75 off one box that I had ordered. When those doubled, I had a LOT of free instant oatmeal. That was nice on Sunday mornings when we were rushed for time! The kids liked the peaches 'n cream and Josh and I liked the raisin 'n spice. The box in the picture is all that's left out of about twelve.
There have been many other great deals that I haven't documented, but you get the idea. 50 boxes of Rice Krispies lasted us about five months. When I first started, I would stand back and look at how much I'd gotten and feel slightly guilty/overwhelmed, wondering if we could possibly use it all- we can. Not to mention how nice it is to be able to put together a box as a gift for a friend who may have fallen on hard times. When we were first married with a baby, times were often rough. Several times a box of groceries turned up on our door-step and to be able to "pay it forward" is a great feeling.
My most recent bulk deal were 60 cans of Libby's vegetables at about 13 cents a can and 24 packages of Jennie-O hot dogs for FREE. The veggies were on sale 20 for $10 and I ordered 20 coupons for $1.50 off 3. The hot dogs were on sale 10 for $10 and included in the Tops circular last week was a $2 off super coupon for Jennie-O netting you two packages of hot dogs for free each trip. Josh and I worked in tandem, spreading out purchases over the week at the three different Tops stores. Extra circulars are always placed in a rack at the front of the store. All told, I think we used seventeen super coupons. We follow the rules printed on the coupon and try not to push the issue. We also got several packages of turkey bacon very cheap. I had printed two .55 off Jennie-O turkey bacon coupons online that when doubled and paired with the $2 super coupon got me each package for .40 cents. I couldn't print anymore of the bacon coupons, but using one $2 super coupon on ONE package still got us turkey bacon for .80 cents. Now, I'm not a fan of giving kids lots of hot dogs. They're chilling out in our freezer and will more than likely be a year supply for us. I'm picky about canned veggies, too. I detest canned peas, for example. Most of what I picked up were canned corn, french-cut green beans and mixed veggies for soup. I also picked up a few cans of "succotash". I'm sure I can find a creative use for them.One more recent freebie that I'm rather proud of is about twenty individual Bumblebee tuna pouches. They were on sale for several weeks at Tops 10 for $10. Well, right below the box was a little "blinkie" coupon machine spitting out coupons for .55 cents off one pouch. When doubled, makes for free tuna plus overage that can be applied to something else.
Another way to save on food is to go to "pick your own" farms, and of course, to grow your own. There is up front cost, but it ends up being much, much cheaper in the long run. I'll continue that in the next post.

Picking up where I left off...

I've had quite a few culinary adventures since my last post, but I've been neglectful about posting. I'm going to try to give my FB account a rest and chronicle my stories here instead like an adult. :). I'm sure my FB friends will be grateful.