Thursday, August 22, 2013

Salsa - the food, not the dance

My mother makes an awesome salsa!  She perfected it many years ago and submitted it to a fundraising cookbook called Heavenly Delights for the Lakeland Christian Academy Class of 1996 (for any nostalgia buffs).  She called the recipe Hot Salsa and some years it was very hot!  I love the recipe and make it frequently, although with fewer hot seeds.

One of my daughters likes salsa, but doesn't care for the hot stuff. For a time I was buying Chi Chi's for an easy lunch option for her. Chips, salsa,cheese -easier school lunch than PB & J, and she loved it too. 

Over the last two years or so, I have been working to improve the quality of the food I provide for my family. I have tried to cut out high fructose corn syrup. Additionally I started realizing many foods contained unnecessary added sugar.  During the phase when I was purchasing Chi Chi's salsa I assumed it contained sugar and other ingredients typical of processed food, however, I was willing to live with that at the time to keep my sanity.  One day I finally got brave and read the ingredient list on Chi Chi's.  Imagine my surprise when I realized the ingredients were the same as my mom's recipe but in different quantities.  Thank you Chi Chi's for not adding sugar and weird ingredients to your salsa!

Since I had the ingredients and was making hot salsa anyway, why not try to replicate Chi Chi's milder salsa? So last summer I created this kid friendly salsa recipe. I had most ingredients on hand, making it a cheaper option than store bought salsa. We have never successfully grown jalapenos, so that is a small expense.
Here is the recipe:
 3 cups diced tomatoes
 2 cups diced onions
 1 1/2 cups diced jalapenos, remove all seeds for mild salsa
 3 cloves garlic, minced
 1 cup vinegar
 2 teaspoons salt
 2 small cans tomato paste
 Combine all of the ingredients except tomato paste in a medium sauce pan. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for five minutes.  Add tomato paste and thoroughly mix.  Process like you would process tomatoes - can or freeze.  (I have been working with tomatoes a lot this week. 'Tis the season... My research indicates that recipes like this with acidic and non- acidic vegetables together must be pressure canned as opposed to water bath canned.)

Some of our favorite ways to eat salsa are:
 plain with chips,
 mixed with cheese and sour cream as a chip dip,
 on potatoes,
 in chili,
 on chicken,
 on tacos, salads, and burritos,
 and my new favorite trick is to combine it directly with the taco meat for the flavor with less mess.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Energy Suckers - Life Lessons from Tomatoes Part 1

We currently have 1 Roma tomato plant, 1 volunteer Cherry Tomato plant, and 7 other tomato plants - normal round ones whose varieties we can't remember.  I know, what kind of gardeners are we, not remembering each tomato variety?!

But regardless of variety, tomato plants grow stems and leaves every which way.  And any place a stems branches off from a bigger stem, there is opportunity for a "sucker" to grow.  These are new stems/leaves trying to grow.  The problem is that they steal energy from the other stems that are bearing fruit.  For better fruit, you want as much energy as possible to make it to that fruit as it is growing.  Or at least, that is my understanding of the process.

Here is a picture of a sucker.  See how it is a small stem growing between two more established stems?  To allow more energy to go to the fruit supporting stems, I have learned to pinch these suckers off and remove them from the plant.  Once you start it's kind-of addictive.  These suckers are everywhere!

Just as removing suckers is good for the tomatoes, removing energy suckers from your schedule is good for your productivity and fruitfulness.  We are adjusting to a new school year and this is a great time to consider how fruitful our schedule is.   Are we rested enough and energetic enough to accomplish our goals?  Or are we involved in too much and running from activity to activity in a tired, whiney mess?  How many sports, clubs, lessons and other extra curricular activities can we really handle?  Will each child's activities coordinate with the other children's activities, or will they be in constant conflict?  As chief taxi driver, will I constantly be pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to get to that lesson that is 20 minutes away in only 10 available minutes?

A friend once told me not to do the good or the better, but to strive to do the best with my time and energy.  We have to pass on some sports opportunities, some classes, some social activities.  There are seasons in which I have to pinch off certain reading material or television viewing because it drains too much emotional energy.  I love to read food blogs, but sometimes I have to stop reading food blogs because it can suck too much time.  And I'm sure you've all seen the jokes about Pinterest - spending so much time at the computer "pinning" and not getting any real work done.  Yep, it can happen to anyone.  Sometimes you have to pinch off excessive amounts of time on facebook and Pinterest.   I have to trim away some good and better to strive for the best, so my life will bear more fruit.  I want to have the energy to serve my family and meet my goals.

 Do you have some energy suckers that you need to pinch off before your school year gets too far away from you? 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Almost Like Home Grown

We have been participating in a CSA since the middle of March.  I wanted to publish this post back in April or May, but I have had a series of technical difficulties.  On top of that, our family entered one of our super busy parts of the year.  In the meantime, I have lost the original pictures I had planned for this post, so I've had to find some newer ones.  With out further delay, I present my early experience with a CSA.  Depending on where you live, there is still time to get involved if my experience interests you and you wish to find a CSA to try for yourself.

If you aren't familiar with the CSA acronym, you might be like me and pause to look it up on your favorite internet search engine.   Or you could keep reading in hopes that I will disclose the full meaning of those initials.  Either way works.

I first read a blog that talked about CSAs a few years ago.  Then I read another one and another.  I decided I wanted to know more.  First, what is a CSA?  CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Second, how does it work?  Participants pay a fee to a local farm and get fresh produce in exchange.  Third, why does it matter?  For me, I liked the idea of fresh, homegrown produce but I am unable to grow enough on my own.  I like to have greater variety than what I can successfully grow.  I began thinking through the pros and cons, but did not immediately act because the cost seems significant and would require some financial balancing.

Last summer, my sister (who blogs at joined a local CSA.  With her photography schedule she wasn't always available to pick up her produce, so that job fell on my family.  At first we picked up her items just to be helpful, but by the end we looked forward to getting a peak at her box to see how her produce compared to what we were growing in our garden or finding at our farmer's market.  We drooled a bit at some of the items she got.  (I hope she washes her produce before she eats it.)

Through the winter my husband and I continued to tweak our grocery budget.  As spring came around we decided we wanted to participate in a CSA.  We agreed that we would still plant a garden (the tiller is fixed and the ground is prepped - we are way ahead of last year!) and we would still shop at our Farmer's Market.  But what we hoped to accomplish was to supplement with less grocery store produce. We realized we would receive produce we had never tried before and we wouldn't be able to customize quantitities.  My previously unadventurous husband was willing to try this, even a little eagerly.  We agreed we were willing to try whatever we received and if we didn't care for something or got too much of it we could always share it with someone else.

Before I share some of things we have tried, let me share some tips on trying new things.  My husband and I were both fortunate to have mothers who were very good at using whatever they had available to make meals for the family (and they did it without the internet!).  Find ways to use what you can, but if you have too much of an item, consider freezing it to use later.  There are many websites dedicated to walking you through food storage issues.  The Ball Blue Book:  Guide to Home Canning, Freezing & Dehydration is one excellent source of information; it can be found almost anywhere that you can buy canning and freezing supplies.  (Ball is not paying me to endorse their book; I mention it simply because it has been a family favorite for generations.)

If you are unsure how to serve an item, the internet can be a helpful resource.  Should I eat this raw or should I cook it?  Can I eat the leaves too or just the root?  You can type in the food item and find all kinds of articles to help answer your questions.  Many CSAs will include recipes with the produce to help you out.  The library is another good resource to help you learn how to use new foods.  And since this post is primarily about produce, you should know there are many good vegetable recipes included in gardening books, food storage books, picnic books. lunch packing books, etc.; don't limit yourself to cookbooks.

Lastly, when learning about a new food, don't forget the wisdom of your mothers and grandmothers or other older women.  I have learned much just by observing others.  Pay attention and ask questions.  Most homemakers I know are eager to share things they have learned.

To help you see exactly how this CSA has been working for us, I'll walk through what we received those first weeks and how we used it.

Weeks 1 & 2: We used some spinach in a Breakfast Egg Bake.  We kept the potatoes for later.  We used lettuce, carrots, radishes, microgreens, parsley and spinach for a large Easter Dinner salad.  We recieved maple syrup too.  I used that to sweeten tea or to quench an afternoon sugar craving :-)

Week 3:  We used spinach and microgreens in sandwiches and wraps along with meat and cheese for our lunches.  We used some Pac Choi leaves in a rice and veggie dish.  We used a combination of greens for a taco salad.  Since this wasn't our traditional lettuce, I prepared the salad for the girls and put the greens between the chips and meat/cheese.  They didn't comment on the greens being different and they ate most of them.  Success!

Week 4:  I made a huge salad with remaining salad mix from previous weeks, parsley, Salanova red lettuce, spinach, flowering mizuna tops, pea shoots, sunflower shoots, microgreens.  I served with a homemade Caesar dressing that a I got from a newspaper recipe, written by Three Many Cooks.  (That reminds me, I should check out their website again; they have lots of good recipes!)  Anyway, my youngest enjoyed the salad and dressing so much she asked for more!

In week 4 I also used pac choi stems and parsley in a ham and bean soup, and added some parsley to a potato dish.    I made a Mediterranean Chicken Bake (a recipe I found in a health magazine called "Better Nutrition").  The recipe called for spinach, but I was out so I used the Swiss Chard that came in the CSA.  I also used CSA garlic.  Later in the week I used the leftover Chicken Bake and various other leftovers in a dish I called "Dump Chili" (dump in a bunch of leftovers).

Week 5:  We roasted white potatoes, purple potatoes and turnips.

For lunches we had Pita Salad Sandwiches.  I toasted the pitas and spread cream cheese in them, then filled them with salad and a little dressing.  Another yummy lunch from that week was leftover rice with spinach and an over easy egg.  I pureed some of the spinach and swiss chard and used it in soup.  The color is obvious, but the texture is less offensive for my picky eaters.  We also used swiss chard stalks, spinach, garlic, radish greens and turnip greens in a stir fry. We have received two small packages of popcorn that I hope to try soon.  The kernels are too small for our air popper or we would have tried them already! 

Weeks 6 & 7:  We continue to get a good variety of lettuce mixes, radishes, sunflower sprouts, micro greens and now kale too.  We have made several big salads to serve on Sundays and then we use the leftovers throughout the week for sandwiches or lunchbox salad meals. We also added wraps to our lunch menus:  tortillas, meat of choice, salad greens - sometimes cheese or mayo too. We have had roasted potatoes and turnips again.  I even learned how to roast them in the crock pot - I love the internet for easy-to-find recipes!  Another time we had roasted sweet potatoes. 

We received some kohlrabi.  My husband and I aren't sure we've ever tried kohlrabi before. We tried a bite raw just to see what we thought.  It wasn't bad.  We thought it was like a mild radish.  The rest we sliced up and added to a One-Pot Chicken and Spring Vegetable dish.  We used carrots in the chicken dish as well as cutting some carrots to eat raw.   I made Kale Chips and everyone tried them - most weren't fans, but we'll keep trying.  I used honey we received in banana bread and sun tea.   We received some fresh mint that we also added to the sun tea.

I hope this gives you some idea of how a CSA works and helps you decide if you might want to try one.  It's not too late.  Do a CSA search and a list of local options will come up.  If it's not for you right now, maybe this post will inspire you to try something new from your local farmer's market.  We all know that vegetables are healthy, right?  If your veggies are organic and local that boosts their nutritional value, so find some local veggies - you might be surprised at how much you like them.

Chicken kabobs featuring onions and peppers served with grilled asparagus.

Lunchtime salad using leftover meat, lettuce, onions, carrots, radishes and spinach.  I also added some canned corn.

We have been experimenting with grilled pizzas.  Yum!  These feature CSA onions and peppers.  Another time we included CSA fennel and fresh tomatoes.

  I hope you have been inspired to try something new.  What new veggies have you learned about this summer?

Sunday, April 21, 2013


My husband and I have been enjoying watching Burn Notice (old ones, on Netflix). The main character is a spy who was blacklisted by the government. He opens in a monologue in which he says, "When you're burned... you rely on anyone who's still talking to you - a trigger happy ex-girlfriend, an old friend who used to inform on you to the FBI, family too- if you're desperate."

On what or whom do you rely?  This question has been going through my mind alot in recent months.  What does it mean to rely on something?  The dictionary defines rely as "1: to have confidence based on experience (someone you can rely on) 2: to be dependent (the system on which we rely for water)."
We attended three funerals in the first three months of 2013.  It got me to thinking about what things are secure in my life.  What things can I count on?  As I have pondered this I have come up with quite a list of things I count on to be consistent and stay in place in my life.

I rely on:
* my beliefs, my church, my family and friends
* a working car
* operating refrigerator, freezer, oven and dishwasher
* furnace and hot water heater that heat
* shelter
* electricity, computers, internet, email, free tv
* cell phones
* employment, income, insurance
* basic health and relative safety
* security, privacy

On a bigger scale, we hope we can rely on:
* completing marathons without being bombed
* doctors following a code of ethics
* our rights
* leaders to be not corrupt

How realiable are the things on my list?  Maybe you have guessed that they aren't 100% reliable.  There is always a chance of failure or breakdown.  In recent weeks we have had several cables go bad and need to be replaced for some of our electronic devices.  Even as I type this, I am not using my normal computer - my normal laptop is misbehaving and being extremely uncooperative.  The fuel pump went out in my car - thankfully the problem revealed itself while we were in a parking lot rather than on the road.  One morning a while ago the furnace kept blowing without making the house any warmer.  Our family has been dealing with quite a round of springtime colds.  The local news has been full of house fires and traffic accidents. 

Last week I worked with a lady and we talked about recent thunderstorms.  She shared that lightning had taken out her weather radio.  There's something ironic about that.  Even our safety measures aren't safe. 

My free tv is suddenly not so free anymore. 

Our family has realized too deeply that family members are not around forever. 

So, is there anything that can be relied upon?  Is there anything that is secure?  Anything that lasts? 

The Bible tells us that God is eternally reliable. He was and is and always will be.  His Word will stand and His love endures forever.   In times of discouragement, I can go on knowing that God is with me.  In times of hate, God's love remains.  God's plans cannot be thwarted by evil.   I can rely on God for hope and strength.  I can rely on God regardless of circumstances.  The things of this life will fade away, but God will remain. 

If you are frustrated with relying on temporal things of this world, I encourage you to learn more about the eternal God.  If you wonder why your possessions break down and fail to fulfill your needs, consider turning to God to fulfill your needs.  Find a Bible to read, find a friend who can answer your questions, find a church that will teach you how to find a more reliable life. 

"'I am the Alpha and Omega,' says the Lord God, 'who is and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.'"   Reveleation 1:8

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."  Hebrews 13:8

"Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever."  1 Chronicles 16:34

"The plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations."  Psalm 33:11

"The word of the Lord stands forever."  1 Peter 1:25a

"The LORD reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment.  He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice.  The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.  Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you."  Psalm 9:7-10

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's Raining, It's Pouring!

It's spring!  It's raining!  I spend time outside in the rain.  My girls walk to school - rain, shine, snow or mud.

I thought it'd be fun to share a few observations about rain gear.

1) Few people can successfully use umbrellas.  Children are not usually among those few. Hats are safer  - for everyone.

2) Rain boots help keep ones pants dry.  Rain coats or water proof jackets help keeps ones arms dry.  Legs might not be so lucky, or backsides.  I am reminded of a time when I was young and visited Niagara Falls with my grandpa and other relatives.  We rode on the Maid of the Mist.  We wore rain coats as we rode under the Falls.  Everything under the coat stayed dry, but I had a lovely ring of water on my backside when I stood up.  I was mortified, but my grandpa assured me I would be okay and my shorts would dry.  They did.

3) Snow pants are not necessarily water proof against pouring rain.

4) If you don't wear boots and you have to sit on the floor with wet feet, you might get wet pants.

5) If you don't wear boots, you might kick water and mud up onto the back of your legs. 

6) Puddles are fun to jump in.  I am not a fan of jumping in mud however because mud gets down inside the boots and is hard to clean out.

7) Bikes in the rain?  This is a frequent debate.  My solution:  when it is drizzling on and off, bikes are allowed but a drying rag kept in the backpack is strongly encouraged.  I wouldn't want to sit on a wet bike seat, but the kids don't seem to mind. 

My mornings have been a little rough with all the recent rain.  First it's hard to get up when it's dark and rainy.  Second, it's hard to dress professionally and figure out how to stay dry while working outside as a Crossing Guard.  But those minor difficulties aside, I like the rain.  The grass is nice and green, flowers are growing and the ground is being prepared for a future vegetable garden.  Dress smartly for the weather and enjoy the rain!

Monday, January 21, 2013

When my strength is failing - Alice's music

My mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly last Monday.  She was a wise woman for sure! 

There are many things  I could say about her, but instead I want to focus on one thing - her love for music.  Love for music is a family thing.  My husband and his family sang together as he was growing up.  As time went on and her children got married and moved out on their own, Alice continued singing with her husband and in her church.  More time passed and my mother-in-law aka Alice aka Grandma also sang to her grandchildren. 

Alice also enjoyed listening to her family sing! She encouraged the grandchildren to sing songs they were learning for others.  It seems fitting that my youngest is processing recent events through music.  This morning my girl was singing a unique composition about the events of last week.  She started with a borrowed phrase, "It's so hard to say good-bye" then played the piano freestyle and sang several lines about the funeral service and ended with a chorus of, "And I will miss her very very much!"   

While Alice loved music, she was selective about her music.  She was partial to the old hymns and not so fond of contemporary Christian music. If you listen to family reminiscence long enough you may hear tales of contraband music, but you didn't hear that from me!  In recent years, Alice has been spending multiple weeks per year at my house, where I would only listen to Christian radio stations.  On various occasions she questioned the music to which we were listening - a wise move.  It is wise to know what you are listening to and to be sure you agree with it.   It is unwise to fill your mind with songs that contain questionable messages or inappropriate lyrics.  Give this some thought especially if you have young children. 

Alice's last months were affected by a second stroke.  Her ability to speak was greatly affected and likewise her ability to sing.  We didn't hear her sing as much.  But she still enjoyed listening to music and would quietly observe as her granddaughters practiced music for church.  One song in particular seemed to become a favorite.  She didn't talk about it and state it as a favorite, but it was one of the few songs I actually heard her sing along with when it came on the radio.  The song is 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman and ends with these lyrics, "And on that day when my strength is failing, The end draws near, and my time has come; Still my soul will sing Your praise unending..." 

I am thankful for those girls who practiced the song enough for Grandma to learn it.  And I am thankful for a mother-in-law whose soul kept praising even when her speech and strength were failing. 

No matter what circumstances come in 2013, will you be able to keep on praising?  The song also says, "Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes."  May that be true in my life... 

"Great is the LORD, and most worthy of praise."  Psalm 48:1a

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Five Quick Kitchen Storage Tips

A friend posted something on Pinterest and of course, I had to check it out.  It led me to a website which led me to a mailing list to get weekly emails to help with home organization.

Now, I am not calling this a New Year's Resolution.  And I'm not going to pretend that I will keep up with the suggested daily chores.  But at the time it seemed like a helpful tool as I worked to recover for the holiday chaos.  I use the word chaos with love.  No matter how well I plan and prepare, four gatherings of just over 20 people in a week's time leads to chaos.  I love the people and our time together, therefore I love the chaos.  But once school starts up again and the Christmas decorations get put away, I find it helpful to take a few steps to regain some order. 

The focus last week was on the kitchen.  (You can see what it's all about here:  As I was working in my kitchen, straightening up and cleaning things out, I smiled as I realized how many previous attempts at order had worked well and survived the test of time.

Today, I share with you Five Quick Kitchen Organization Tips:
#1 - Office desk drawer organizers work equally well as Kitchen drawer organizers
The compartments are nice sizes for small lids, medicine cups, snack bag clips, mini containers, reusable popsicle molds, straws, etc.  This drawer has space around the outside of the organizer for jar lids.

#2 - After YEARS of fighting with my serving spoons, I realized that they look nicer and it is easier to find the right piece if they are stored on their side.  The small space above contains dessert servers, large spoons, regular serving spoons, slotted spoons, plastic spoons, and meat forks. I save time finding the right piece, not to mention the reduced frustration level!

#3 - After my success with keeping serving spoons on their side, I realized water bottles are also easier to keep on their sides.  We can easily grab the one we want without moving any ones in the front out of the way.  They are all visible.

#4 - Corral small items within bigger boxes.  My kitchen does not have enough drawers for my liking.  So I have had to improvise.  I have a spice rack, but it does not hold all of my spices.  After trying several systems that fell short of ideal, I realized I could put an unused container to use for my spices.  When I need one of those spices, I pull the box down (almost as easy as pulling out a drawer) and use what I need.  I am currently using this method for tuna pouches as well.  In the past this system has worked for taco seasoning packets (before I started making my own), soup packets, etc.

#5 - I saved my personal favorite and most long-standing trick for last.  Does anyone recognize these shelves?   We incorporated two similar styles of shoe storage into our kitchen!  The two horizontal shelves are one unit and they work for cookie sheets, baking stones, muffin tins, etc.  The 12 cubbies are a different style of shoe storage and they contain: loaf pans, aprons, a mini bar pan, the power cord for an electric griddle,  boxes of baggies and wraps, a hand mixer, mini loaf pans, water bottles, and recycled kleenex boxes for storing smaller items.

I hope you will find something helpful in these ideas that will work for you.  Do you have a kitchen tip that has been a success for you?