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Easy Apricot Jam

Today amid driver’s ed and housecleaning and dealing with kid ‘tudes and hosting an afternoon swim attended by 15 cousins, I also managed to can 24 pints of apricot jam. I say this not to brag, but to encourage those of you who are thinking about trying canning.

Canning is NOT hard. It so isn’t.

I got my apricots for free from a relative– gotta love that. This time of year many people with apricot trees find themselves swimming in apricots. If you ask around, you may score some for free too.

Mary’s Truly Easy Apricot Jam

4-1/2 cups apricot puree (use food processer)
1/2 cup lemon juice (or vinegar, which is what I used– this keeps the apricots a good safe acidity)
1 box Sure-Jell pectin (or similar brand)
6 cups sugar

Wash and sort the apricots. It is OK to use apricots with small soft spots as long as they aren’t discolored or (duh) moldy. My 3 and 6 year old daughters helped me sort, and did a good job at it. Tear the apricots in halves to remove the pits. My 10 year old sons did this for me. Fill food processer with apricot chunks and puree for a minute or so. Repeat until you have enough puree.

Wash 5 pint sized canning jars and rings. Fill a boiling water canner half full of water and bring to a boil on the stove. Dip each jar in and out of the boiling water. If you do not have a canner, you can use a very large pot, something tall enough that your jars can be fully submerged in water during processing.

Measure your puree carefully and pour into a big pot on the stove. Immediately mix in the pectin using a wire whisk. Heat mixture to a full rolling boil, first stirring occasionally and then more frequently as mixture heats up.

Once the mixture has reached a full rolling boiling, add sugar a couple cups at a time, stirring continuously. When all sugar is added and mixture has returned to a full rolling boiling, cook for one minute.

Pour mixture quickly into jars leaving 1/4 inch of ‘headspace’, or airspace at the top of the jar. Wipe edges of jars clean. Set on lids and screw rings on tightly. Process in boiling water water bath for 15 minutes. Remove jars carefully and set on a towel on the counter to cool overnight.

Once cool, lids should seal down tightly so that you cannot push them further down when you press the center of the cap. If any of your jars do not seal, simply set them in the fridge and use within a couple weeks.

One batch of jam will probably take you an hour–more if you have an infant, and less if you have a kid or two over the age of 5 who is willing to give you a hand. And it is so darned pretty to look at when you’re done. One of the things I love about canning is that it is one of the few jobs that it doesn’t get UNdone immediately. Unlike laundry or vacuuming or dishes!

I’d love to hear if you decide to try your hand at this– it truly isn’t hard.

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Recently I was asked to review a book called Eco-Friendly Families. It was written by Helen Coronato and will be released on August 5th. This book is an activity guide to help families gently move toward greener living.

This was written in a nice easy-read format, with many suggestions that even young children might be able to do with the help of their parents. I especially liked the chapter checklists at the end of each chapter– they are basically a list of action points that people can implement.

The book contained a lot of things that I’m already doing, along with a smattering of ideas that I didn’t know. Frankly, I haven’t done huge amounts of thinking about my own ‘green’-ness, but as I read, I found my own ‘green’ policy solidifying in my mind.

It’s a simple one: basically I am for eco-friendly living up to the point where it might cost me extra money. Ask me to shell out extra bucks and I probably won’t buy it. Fortunately a huge portion of green living is actually frugal living as well.

Hang drying clothes? Check.
Using vinegar and baking soda as cleansers? Check.
Walking places instead of driving whenever you can? Check.
Storing leftovers in margarine containers instead of expenive ziplocks? Check.

Certainly there are some places where a larger investment up front will save your resources in the long run. A good example of that is flourescent light bulbs, which we have in a good portion of our home.

Where eco-living kind of loses me is in the organic foods department. Granted, we grow a ton of our own produce and I cook the vast majority of our food from scratch, so we have an advantage there. But in the grocery store when I’m looking at a rack of apples, I’m afraid my criteria is simple: what’s cheapest and isn’t a Red Delicious?

I probably won’t get around to implementing everything in this book, but it was a good reminder to me of all the small things we can do to live a little more lightly. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool tightwad like me, you might want to check this book out at your library. But if your family is just beginning to wonder what you could do to lessen your impact on the earth, this book might be a good way to jump in.

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This week Shannon’s Works for Me is featuring easy recipes. Actually, recipes that take 5 ingredients or less. This recipe can have more than that, but it is a fun way to get kids to eat their greens and so I am sharing it anyway.

Thai Chard Wraps
Prep time: 20 minutes
Serves:6 or more

Ingredients
a big bunch of chard (or spinach, or lettuce)- probably a pound or so
2 carrots
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
2 lb lean ground beef (or ground turkey)
Slosh of fish sauce (or soy sauce is OK if you don’t have fish sauce)
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: any other veggie, minced
Can also add a cup or two of rice, which is how I made it in the above picture.

Preparation
Wash chard or lettuce leaves, shake off, and set aside in a bowl. Shred carrot, onion, garlic, and any other veggie that you desire using a food processor. Cook ground meat in a large skillet with a little slosh of sesame oil, if you have it. If you are using ground turkey, you will probably need a tablespoon or two of oil as you cook it.

Once meat is cooked, remove from pan and cook chopped veggies in the remaining oil until soft. Return hamburger to pan and mix with veggies and a good slosh of fish sauce or soy sauce (probably around 1/4 cup). Add a cup or two of cooked rice, if desired. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat for a few more minutes, til ingredients are well mixed and heated.

Serve by wrapping leaves of chard or lettuce around several tablespoons of meat. Let people take their own lettuce and their own serving of meat/veggies and wrap right on their plate. If your family is like mine, you will be amazed at the amount of chard/spinach/lettuce they will consume at one meal.

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Usually by this time of year we are DONE planting. But the other day I bought half a dozen more seed packets and this morning the big boys and I were moving compost while my husband set up new sprinkler lines in preparation for just a bit more garden space.

The seeds I bought? Parsnips. Turnips. Kohlrabi. Salsify. I’ll be honest: we’ve never even tried some of these foods. But this summer I happened upon a book called Root Cellaring and got inspired. For years John has talked about digging a root cellar to store some of our garden produce a little longer. I wasn’t sold on the idea til I bought the book. Now he and I are both looking at various areas of our property with a critical eye, trying to figure out where the best place would be for a nice cool hole in the ground.

We may not love every veggie we try. But I figure I can use most of it in a nice winter soup, and with a little experimentation we can find other ways to do different veggies too. We are really hoping to discover some good new veggies that will be happy in a root cellar for a couple months, thus decreasing our dependence on grocery store food.

In the book ‘Farmer Boy’ there’s some great description of their family’s root cellar. It was quite inspirational to read how the family with careful management was able to save all sorts of food through the winter using only the natural cooling powers of underground storage.

We could definitely use more ‘fridge’ space. In good years we harvest 12-15 bushels of apples. We routinely get bushels of onions for free. The cabbage tends to come on all at once, leaving us trying to use it all up fast, to regain fridge space. We always have lots of pumpkins. And there are lots of other winter-keeper type veggies that we haven’t even tried.

The other day I grabbed a couple of unusual things from the grocery store to try: a long white daikon radish and 3 ‘bulbs’ (??) of kohlrabi. When I grabbed the radish, a lady next to me asked me what I was going to do with it. “I dunno,” I said. “I’m experimenting. I’ll probably put it in a stirfry.”

“Me too,” she said, holding up her bag of kohlrabi with a smile. “I’m growing this for the first time in my garden and I wanted to taste it.”

At home with my vegetable bounty, I contemplated what to do. Google a recipe? Nah, too easy. Besides, I was starting to envision some kind of veggie/skewer/beef recipe on the grill. I peeled and cubed the radish. Then I chopped the long leafy ‘legs’ (tops?) off the kohlrabi. (My hubby looked suspicious and said it looked like Martian vegetables.) While trimming the kohlrabi, I discovered that the outside of it seemed woody. I trimmed all the skin off which revealed a greenish white interior that seemed much more tender. I cubed it like the radish, and then got out some brussel sprouts and cubed some carrots and potatoes so my brave food explorers poor children would have something familiar at dinner. I already had some cubed stew beef that I cut into fairly small pieces just in case it was tough.

My skewered-food-on-the-grill idea went out the window when I discovered I only had one skewer and it had last been used to unclog a bathroom sink drain. Hmm… Since it was hot outside and I wasn’t anxious to heat my house, I still wanted to try the grill. But i wasn’t sure if I could get the veggies to cook evenly. I put a pot of water on to boil and added the veggies in gradually. First the hardest veggies: radish and carrots, then kohlrabi and brussel sprouts, and finally the potatoes. Ten minutes for the firmer stuff and only 5 for the potatoes. I just wanted them to be partly cooked. The grill would finish the rest.

I tossed the meat with a little steak sauce and garlic salt, then spread it on an oiled cookie sheet which covered half my grill. Then I tossed the remaining veggies with a bit more steak sauce and salt and put it on a second oiled cookie sheet on the other side of the grill. The oil on this sheet was fairly generous– about 1/4 a cup, since I didn’t want the veggies to stick.

The veggie pan was very full– I’d put too many veggies on to cook well, and I had to stir gingerly so as not to lose anything into the fire (medium heat, btw). But the 2-1/2 lbs of beef was spread in single layer on the pan, and was soon cooking merrily. I stirred it a couple times. It browned nicely, smelled great, and was cooked through in 10 minutes. At that point I took it off with a slotted spoon into a bowl, leaving some good meat juice and a little oil on the pan. Then I was able to put half my cooking veggies onto the cookie sheet from which I’d just removed the meat.

The veggies cooked my more efficiently spread out like that, and soon all the veggies had some nicely browned surfaces. Once everything was cooked, I mixed the meat and vegetables together and served it all over rice.

The radish turned out to be rather sharp-tasting; none of us liked it that much and I don’t think we’ll be growing radishes any time soon. The familiar veggies: potatoes, carrots, and brussel sprouts were happily eaten, though next time I’ll add the brussel sprouts to the boiling water sooner. They would have benefitted from a bit more cooking. The surprise hit was the kohlrabi. It had a mild sweet flavor that reminded me somewhat of a squash, but with a firmer texture than squash. It was very nice and we are definitely adding it to our garden line-up.

The whole meal was gobbled quite happily with people coming back for more. My hubby said, “I would never have guessed that kohlrabi is that good.”

Hmmm….what to try next? Anyone know what to do with salsify?

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I thought you might like a look at our garden this year. It is about 50 feet wide and 120 feet long. Things are growing pretty well. Here you can see the whole garden with a couple of the kids hard at work. We have a 30-minute weeding ‘party’ every morning Monday through Friday to keep things in line. It really helps to get out there on a regular basis– and to have a lot of people to help with the work.

You can see cabbage on the left. The two rows of tiny plants are peppers, both sweet and hot. Then there are our obligatory 100 tomato plants, and a good sized corn patch. The corn is almost too tall to step over, which is good because that also means it is getting close to the stage where it is obviously winning over the weeds, and we can content ourselves with weeding only the edges of the patch where we can get to them.

Here is a picture of one of our grape vines. It is a Concord grape that is growing at one end of the garden and stretches further down the fence every year. That one plant is probably covering 30 feet of fence this year. Good thing– we ran out of jelly this winter, and I am hoping to make a LOT more this year.

The apples (above) and the plums (below) are looking wonderful this year. I sprayed the apples a couple weeks ago and need to do it again soon. I try to spray about every 3 weeks during the summer. Most of our garden is organic, but there’s no such thing as a good organic apple. Plums, on the other hand, are fine without spray.

Below is one of the two volunteer zucchinis. It has a couple of zucchinis on already, tiny 3 inch long babies that will probably be perfect by the end of the week.

The cabbage is looking wonderful. Probably within a week I’ll be picking the first one.

I didn’t get pictures of our strawberries or our chard, both of which we’ve already been eating. Later this week I’ll be sharing a recipe using that chard. But for now I am headed off to bed!

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Today I was reading a post by a careful spender who called herself a frugal traitor after she and her husband decided to once again subscribe to satellite TV. She went on to describe how she resolved those feelings. Her post hit upon an important part of my frugal life philosophy.

Deciding to be frugal does not mean you never buy non-essentials. Sure, I watch prices and buy food where it’s cheapest and buy in bulk and cook from scratch. I buy clothes at yard sale and thrift shops and cheerfully accept hand-me-downs. Our garage freezer came from a yard sale and our garage fridge came from Freecycle.com and we bought our pool used on craigslist.com.

But not everything in our lives is bare-bones. The TV in our living room is (ahem) a wee bit bigger than strictly necessary. There are vacations and trips to the movies and a netflicks.com subscription and a small array of other niceties that we could live without. But we choose not to.

I do not believe that these extras spoil my frugality record. We carefully choose which ‘extravagances’ are most worthwhile, and we don’t feel guilty for thoughtfully deviating from deep frugality in those instances. And here’s the truth: not only does frugality enable us to afford those small splurges, it also lets us enjoy those extra goodies in our life with a thankful heart.
Selective frugality: it works for me!

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120 tomato plants, being transplanted by my hubby from seed packs into yogurt containers.

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