Monday, April 29, 2013

Problem Solved

I'm not sure if it's a sign of spring or my energy returning after my bout with endocrinologist-induced hypothyroidism but lately I have been in a frenzy of cleaning, decluttering, organizing, and rearranging. A lot of things that I have ignored for years are suddenly making me crazy and I am trying to tackle a million little problems around the house. In the midst of big stuff (moving furniture, repainting, cleaning out long neglected cupboards) there have been some smaller, simpler solutions including this one which just makes me happy.

I am a scarf lover, big time. I rarely leave the house without something draped around my neck. Not only do I like the extra bit of color, but that extra bit of warmth is welcome, too. The only problem is once I come home I tend to fling my scarves off and drape them over the backs of chairs or pile them in baskets which means they quickly become cat beds. I have never been able to figure out a good way to store them until the other day when I was looking for a new shower curtain at IKEA and I had a brilliant flash of insight when I noticed a simple package of shower curtain rings. I tossed the package in my basket, came home and slipped them on to a wooden hanger and suddenly one irritatiting problem was solved, just like that. Don't you love cheap, easy, functional solutions? No, it's not a cure for cancer or an end to global warming, but it's a problem solved and that makes me happy.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Some Like It Hot

No doubt you are familiar with the ubiquitous hot sauce known as sriracha or, more familiarly, "rooster sauce". Although made in California, it claims to be a Thai-style sauce and yet it goes well with just about anything. Yes, it's delicious in SE Asian style soups and noodle dishes but it also perks up eggs, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, and Mexican-style tortilla-based dishes as well. It's also cheap and easily found in just about any grocery store around here so why bother making it from scratch?

As you've probably guessed, I just like making things from scratch. That's my #1 reason. I also like avoiding preservatives like potassium sorbate. As it turns out, when you ditch the preservatives, you end up with a much fresher tasting end result. While it can cost more to make your own rooster sauce than to buy it, your end result will be brighter and more interesting than the store bought variety. Also, making it yourself gives you the chance to adjust to your taste. Maybe you like a bit more garlic? A touch more vinegar? Less salt? You can even dial down the heat with the addition of red bell pepper if that's how you roll.

The hardest part about making your own sriracha is finding appropriate chiles. The first time I made this, I used a mix of hot chiles from a local organic farmer. My resulting sauce was good, but the flavor wasn't very distinctive and the color was muddy from all the different chile varieties. It was still a good hot sauce, and the technique and quantities work well with any variety of chile but if you are aiming for rooster sauce, you want bright red, fleshy chiles along the lines of a red jalapeños or Fresno chiles shown below. I have the best luck finding appropriate chiles in markets catering either to Mexican or SE Asian customers. For my most recent batch I started with 1.5 lb of fresh Fresno chiles.
The only other exotic ingreient you will need is palm sugar which usually comes in 2-3 ounce cakes. If you are lucky, you will find a soft palm sugar but sometimes it is hard as a rock. Most recipes direct you to grate the palm sugar but this can be rather like grating concrete so my workaround if I have super hard palm sugar is to bring the vinegar and water to a boil, drop in the palm sugar, and dissolve it, breaking it up as it softens with a sharp knife, before adding the chiles and garlic. That way the sugar has time to break down without cooking the chiles to death. You may be lucky and find granulated palm sugar. Another option is light brown sugar although I haven't tried this myself.
I generally follow this recipe for fresh chile sauce and it has never failed me. It's a simple matter of stemming the chiles, chopping them up, and then briefly simmering them in water and vinegar along with with garlic, palm sugar, and salt. Once cooled down, you run everything in the blender until smooth (or use a stick blender as I did) and then press through a fine mesh sieve to remove seeds and skin.
The end result is a beautiful bright red sauce that you can bottle up and use to brighten just about anything.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

The Lazy Gardener

While I absolutely love a lush, well tended garden I'll be the first to admit that I am one lazy gardener. I don't mind digging and hauling and bending and lifting in moderation but if it's too much work I am likely to wander off and find something that requires less energy like, say, sitting in my hammock with a cool drink. I start off every spring with the best of intentions and a flurry of horticultural activity which I am rarely able to sustain throughout our growing season. When my inherent laziness is combined with a tiny yard and very little space for growing I tend to choose my plants carefully and I do a lot of container gardening so I can haul my pots around as needed to provide them with the best growing conditions. I don't plant much from seed because I am impatient and I try stick with edibles I know we'll enjoy.

I recently learned about growing scallions not from seed but from old scallions and this seemed like a plan I could get behind. I have grown scallions from seed in the past and found this to be a painfully slow endeavor with a very poor yield. On the other hand, I get sick of buying scallions by the bunch only to have the majority of them go slimy my refrigerator. I predict an end to slimy scallions now that I've learned this little trick. You can cut the greens off your scallions and use them however you like but if you save the bulbs at the end and poke them into some soil they start to regrow almost immediately which is about as close to magic as it gets in a garden.

The shoots you see below started showing themselves within 3 days of planting and had been in the dirt for about 10 days when I snapped the photo.

Any day now I'll be able to start snipping greens off my recycled scallions but I'll leave the bulbs in the dirt where, rumor has it, they will continue to send up new shoots. How great is that? I hear you can do the same thing with celery so that will be my next recycled vegetable project. Meanwhile here are some more lazy gardener tips which I hope you'll enjoy.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Good to Go

I don't know about you, but I am always on the lookout for handy, nutritious, on-the-go snacks. One of the things I learned when I went gluten free was that this type of quick bite nearly always includes bread of some sort. Those of you who can eat sandwiches, pizza, bagels, wraps, and burritos don't realize how easy things are for you. If I'd forgotten to plan well, I used to find myself crazy with hunger and desperate for an appropriate snack on days when I was out of the house all day. Then I discovered a certain nut and dried fruit bar that had it all. These bars are nutritious, tasty, convenient, widely available and they come in a variety of flavors. They don't have any scary ingredients and they will keep forever in backpack or in the glovebox. The only problem? At $1.25-1.75 apiece, they can add up, especially when I am feeding kids.
I'm not sure why it took me so long to try making my own. I think I was convinced my DIY version wouldn't measure up. As it turns out I hit a home run on my first try. After doing a little research I learned that others had had good luck making their own custom bars. It's a simple enough formula: if you put equal parts nuts, dates, and dried fruits in the food processor and let it run until your ingredients change from crumbs to paste to a big sticky ball you're good to go. You can press the mixture into a baking pan, chill, and cut bars to any size you like or, if you have some type of mold you can try that. I used a silicone mini loaf mold and my perfectly sized bars popped right out after spending the night in the 'fridge.
For these bars I used 1.5 cups of nuts (almonds and hazelnuts) which I roasted in the oven to bring out the nutty flavor but this step isn't strictly necessary. I tossed the roasted nuts in the food processor with 1.5 cups of pitted dates and 3/4 cup dried cranberries and 3/4 cup unsulfured dried apricots. I also added a couple of tablespoons of unsweetened shredded dried coconut and a couple of tablespoons of chia seeds. I purchased my ingredients in bulk and ended up with 10 good sized bars at approximately .60 cents apiece so a considerable savings over the original. The bars travel pretty well wrapped in waxed paper secured with a rubber band. I know I shouldn't have been surprised but these homemade bars, like so many things, taste fresher and just a bit more delicious than their store bought counterparts and I'm looking forward to experimenting with other flavor combinations.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Best Kind of Project

Long, involved projects can be deeply satisfying. I have a couple things I've made which took months of work and which I absolutely love wearing including my reverse appliqué skirt and my February Lady sweater. But there's something to be said for the low investment, high impact project, too. I enjoy embroidery because it's such a simple way to add charm and color to an otherwise drab garment although I appreciate more intricate work as well as you can see from my collection of embroidery pins.

I found this cotton knit skirt for a few dollars at a thrift store. The fabric was of good quality and the cut was flattering but all that grey just wasn't doing it for me. It needed work so after I washed it I pulled out my embroidery threads and added a few free form flowers to brighten things up and now I love it. Total investment:$4 for the skirt and 90 minutes of my time. I may continue to add flowers...or I might just move on to a new project. But chances are good that whatever I work on next, I'll be wearing this skirt.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Elderberry Syrup

April 8, 2013:  This is an old post, one which has received more page views than anything else I've written, from back in 2009 when we were all worrying about H1N1.  Apparently there's still  a lot of interest in homemade elderberry syrup as well there should be.   It's great stuff for fighting viruses, it's easy to make, it's tasty and versatile and so much cheaper than what you can buy.

September 2009:  Now that I have a 17 day break with holidays coming up, I expect to share some tasty new food finds with you but first, I wanted to let you know about my recent experience making my own anti-flu medicine because I am just so thrilled to be able to make a proven antiviral flu remedy for a mere fraction of the cost of the commercially prepared variety.

Elderberries grow on tall, spindly bushes and the tiny dark blue-black berries develop in clusters after the feathery flower fade. Elderberry bushes are apparently quite easy to grow so I will be looking to add one to my garden soon as elderberries are extremely nutritious, rich in antioxidants, an known to stimulate the immune system in response to flu viruses. As the H1N1 hysteria grows (along with the pressure to subject our children to a virtually untested vaccine) you can bet I want something safe and free of side effects to give my family when we head into crowded synagogues and classrooms later this month.

Elderberry syrup, as it turns out, is super easy to make. The only hard part is finding your berries. Here in the Portland metro area Morning Shade Farm has a row of u-pick elderberry bushes. It took about 10 minutes to fill our buckets with snipped berry clusters. The only fiddly bit is coaxing the berries off the stems. After that, a quick rinse, a bit of a simer, some straining, adding honey, and bottling. That's it! Seriously. Instead of paying $9-12 for a 4 ounce bottle of Sambucol, I have nearly a quart of the stuff which cost about $2, plus another 4 batches worth of berries in the freezer. How cool is that?

The recipe I used came from Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal which is the source of The Dreaded Tonic, our standard homemade cold remedy. I made a double batch of the elderberry syrup by gently simmering 2 cups of washed elderberries in 4 C water for 45 minutes. I let things cool and then strained the juice through a fine mesh strainer, mashing all the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. I then mixed in about a cup and a half of raw, local honey and poured the mixture into a 1 liter ez cap bottle (I buy mine here).  Because you want the benefits of raw, local honey, it's important that the berry juice be cooled down before you mix it with the honey or the enzymes and other good stuff will be destroyed.   I will keep this refrigerated. The great part is that, unlike the tonic, this stuff is good. Really good. Like pour it on your pancakes or drink straight from the bottle good. I only used about half the suggested quantity of honey and it's still sweet and fruity and ever so delicious. I won't have any trouble getting my kids to take their daily dose. That would 2T/day for big kids and adults and 1 T/day for younger ones as a preventative measure and twice that amount to reduce severity if someone falls ill with the flu. Another option is to mix a few tablespoons of syrup with some plain bubble water for a flu-fighting soda.   Because of the honey I wouldn't give this to babies.

One thing I learned as I did a little research: under no circumstances should you substitute red elderberries which are quite toxic. And don't eat your black elderberries raw--they can cause stomach upset.

I understand that the hard part here is finding the elderberries. But they are out there--ask around. And if you can't find fresh, you could make this with dried elderberries purchased online. I figure that using my u-pick berries I can make close to 5 quarts of this stuff for under $10 which might be an incentive to plant a bush in your garden. I hope you are able to try this and that we all stay healthy this fall.

Edited 9/9/09: I just learned that you can buy dried elderberries from The Herbalist and it's still very cost effective at $2.33/ounce. You only need 1/2 cup of berries to make 4 C of syrup so making your own is still a huge savings.

4/7/13  Another good source for dried elderberries is Mountain Rose Herbs where I recently purchased a pound of dried elderberries for $10.50.
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Sunday, April 7, 2013


I am a lifelong fan of macaroni and cheese, by which I do mean the real stuff, with cream and butter and shocking amounts of shredded cheese of all kinds. I am particularly fond of macaroni and cheese with a kick so smoky hot paprika and chopped pickled jalapeños often make their way into my beautiful old Pyrex casserole dishes.
Unfortunately, as I get older and my body adjusts to no longer being in a raging hyperthyroid state due to Graves' Disease I am no longer able to eat endless amounts of creamy, cheesy deliciousness. Suddenly those recipes calling for pounds of different cheeses just aren't looking so good or sitting so well. In recent months I've been drawn to versions of my favorite meal that, while still comforting and substantial, are likelier to be a bit lighter and contain more vegetables to offset the richness and up the nutrition. And of course these days I use gluten free pasta. My favorite is a corn-quinoa blend made by Ancient Harvest which is an improvement over wheat-based pasta in terms of protein, fiber, and vitamins.
I'll be sharing a few of my new favorites with you in upcoming posts but I'm starting with this recipe for Pasta with Cauliflower in a Spicy Pink Sauce which I found on the Saveur website. The only changes I made were to use gluten free pasta (and next time I would use larger tubes rather than the tiny shells I had on hand) and to substitute half and half for heavy cream. As you can see from the ingredients, this hardly qualifies as spa cuisine, but it does sit more easily in my system than a flour thickened, super cheesy macaroni and the addition of the cauliflower, tomatoes, and chilies bring a good dose of vitamins to the dish. Plus this stuff is great! While the kids weren't sold on it, the adults in the house couldn't get enough. Add a fresh salad and you've got yourself a nice, easy meal full of flavor. I haven't tried it yet but I am guessing this dish would freeze and reheat well and, as the authors recommend baking the pasta in smaller dishes, you could certainly tuck a couple away, well wrapped, in your freezer for a dinner emergency or a friend who could use a meal.

What about you? Are you a mac and cheese lover? Do you have a favorite variation? Do tell!
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The Back Story

Way back in 2006 I started a blog called Magpie Ima. I enjoy writing and taking photographs and it was a great place for me to record my days as a busy homeschooling mama before they slipped away. Gradually I came to realize that I wanted to have a place to focus on food and my next blog, Magpie Eats was born.  Keeping both of these blogs was fun and exciting until one day, quite honestly, I just ran out of time and energy.   Due to a combination of factors including an increasingly complex life as my children grew and  chronic health issues, I found I really didn't have the energy to both do and document what I was doing so, as so often happens, I let things slide, leaving me with two abandoned blogs taking up space on the internet.  How sad.

In the intervening years I decided to go back to school and tackle my health issues head on and I've come out the other side, feeling very much that I'm entering a new phase in my life, one with less pressure and more energy and the time to get back to doing the things I love.  I am, at heart, a maker.  I enjoy dong things the hard way and working through challenges. I am always asking: how could I do that myself?  Would it be cheaper?  Better?  More satisfying?  And I am delighted when I can forgo a trip to the store because I have the ingredients on hand to make my own DIY version of something. In addition to being a maker, I am also a perpetual student and a teacher.  I love to learn new things and share what I've learned and help other people grow their own skills. The last thing?  I really do love to write.  I thought grad school would pretty much take care of any urge to write that I might have for the next five years or so but I'm finding that I actually miss it.

So that's the back story.  Yes, I'm starting another blog.  It will be pretty open ended.  I plan to share new projects as well as republish some old posts that fit my vision for this space.  Some of the things you'll see here will include gardening ideas, gluten free recipes (my own and those I find elsewhere), crafts, home remedies for common ailments, all natural body care and household products, and pretty much anything that strikes my fancy.  Interested?  I hope you'll want to follow along, ask questions, try some of the projects, and share your experiences.  I'd love to see this develop into a community of like-minded folks who enjoy making as much as I do.  So here's to spring and new beginnings and fresh starts!

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