Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Clean Out The Fridge Chicken Stir Fry

If I have a single pet peeve in the kitchen, it's food waste.  In North America, we throw out a ridiculous amount of food every year. That food could go a long way both to stretching our budget and sparing our resources, so at our house we make a conscious effort to use things up.  At least two or three of our meals each week are made from leftovers of previous meals.

It can take some ingenuity to use up all the bits and bobs that find their way into the fridge by the end of the week but, over time, every home cook develops a repertoire of go-to dishes to use as refrigerator Velcro:  Dishes that adapt well to the addition of a wide variety of ingredients.  

Some of my favourite dishes for using up leftovers are soup, pizza, quiche, casseroles, and stir fries so when a gander in our fridge yielded a number of small bowls of veggies, a jar of homemade chicken stock, and a single,cooked, chicken breast,  my fella - who knows me well - said "Stir fry for supper tonight?"  And that's just what we made.

To make Clean Out the Fridge Chicken Stir Fry, you'll need:

  • 1-1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1- 1/2 Tablespoons chicken fat, saved from slow cooker roasted chicken pan juices (This adds great flavour but if you don't have it, you can use whatever cooking oil you prefer instead)
  • 1 onion, sliced, about 3/4 cup
  • 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced, about 1 Tablespoon
  • 1-1/2 inch fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 1-1/2 cups sweet red bell pepper, cut in 1/4 inch strips
  • 1-1/2 cups carrot slices
  • 2 cups cabbage, shredded into 1/4 inch strips
  • 2 cups broccoli florets
  • 1-1/2 cups sliced zucchini
  • 1 large, cooked chicken breast broken into bite-sized chunks
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 heaping Tablespoon cornstarch (I use organic, certified GMO free)

Begin by heating the toasted sesame oil and chicken fat (or cooking oil) in a large pan or wok.  When they are hot enough that they begin to shimmer and ripple, add in the onion and saute it until it's tender and a little translucent.

Add in the garlic and ginger, and stir for about 30 seconds more.

Add in the bell pepper, carrot slices,cabbage, broccoli, and zucchini, stirring to combine the vegetables and aromatics.

Add about 1-1/2 cups of the stock, bring it to a boil, and put the lid on the pan.  Cook the veggies until they're brightly coloured and tender crisp, then stir in the chicken.

While the chicken is heating through (this will take just a minute or so), dissolve the cornstarch in the reserved chicken stock and add it to the pan.

Stir again until the stock boils and thickens into a sauce.

Serve your stir fry immediately, while it's still piping hot, over rice or noodles.  

If you have leftovers, you can add some more stock and maybe a little soy sauce to make a quick and flavourful soup. 

This recipe made a generous meal for the two of us with enough left over for lunch the next day.  If you're feeding more than two people, you'll want to increase the quantities.  

Monday, 13 January 2014

Card Making on the Cheap

I know several people who used to enjoy making their own cards but no longer do so because of the expense. Paper crafting materials are big business these days and buying them can be quite costly. It is often less expensive to buy a card ready made than it is to make one yourself.

It's true that a person can spend a great deal of money on card making supplies but equally true that wonderful paper crafts can be made while spending almost nothing at all.  If you acquire the habit of looking around you and imagining how things can be repurposed, card making is still an affordable hobby.

You do need some tools to get started with paper crafting.  There are lots and lots of them available at scrapbooking stores but, really, you can get by with just a few basics.  Here are the ones I most often use:
  • Scissors
  • An Xacto knife
  • A ruler, preferably cork backed so it won't slip
  • Glue sticks
  • Tacky glue
  • Double sided tape
  • A pencil
  • A pencil sharpener
  • A metal knitting needle or dull edged letter opener for scoring fold lines in paper & cardboard
I also recommend that you buy a package of heavy 8-/12 x 11-inch white card stock from an office supply store.  It's much less expensive than cardstock from a scrapbooking or hobby store and can be used to make the bodies of most of your cards.  Save the colourful stuff and special embellishments to glue on the front of your white card body.

Other things that are nice for card making, but not essential are:
  • Coloured card stock (Best purchased from the dollar store - I often get four 12 x 12 sheets for $1.25 - and used in small quantities on card fronts only.)
  • Decorative edge scissors 
  • Glitter glue (I buy this from the sale bins a Micheal's or at the dollar store)
  • Acrylic craft paint (often most affordable at either the dollar store or Walmart)

Once you have the basic tools on hand, you can start looking around for materials with which to embellish your cards. Here are some of the many found materials that can be used:
  • Children's artwork
  • Greeting cards you've received (Great for cutting up and re-using in new combinations)
  • Pictures and patterned papers from magazines and advertising flyers
  • Tissue paper and wrapping paper (Reuse paper from your packages if you can. You can iron it if you want it smooth, or leave it crinkled for added texture.)
  • Sewing patterns and embroidery transfers
  • Foil candy wrappers
  • Mylar bags used to package cookies and crackers

  • Pretty packaging like tissue boxes and chocolate boxes
  • Plain box board from cereal and cracker boxes (to use for postcards or to layer behind things for added dimension)

  • Used books including old manuals, dictionaries, textbooks, cookbooks, and children's books
  • Maps (Old National Geographic magazines can be a great source for these.) 
  • Canceled stamps and postmarks

  • Clear plastic bakery containers
  • Printmaking media. This can be almost anything with a texture or to which a texture can be added, including bubble wrap, styrofoam meat trays, string, wool, rubber bands, and corrugated cardboard
  • Flowers and leaves for pressing and pasting or for printmaking

  • Old calendars

  • Fabric scraps, ribbon, yarn, buttons, lace, embroidery thread, felt
  • Scraps of paper from other projects.  Every single bit of card stock or scrapbooking paper you buy or salvage, no matter how small, can be used.  Make your dollar stretch by saving even the smallest off-cuts.

I'm sure you'll find lots more material to work with. Once you get in the habit of looking at the objects around you as potential card embellishments, you'll find inspiration almost everywhere. You'll start seeing interesting designs in the most commonplace things.

The trick to not spending a ton of money on making cards is to let the materials suggest your design rather than making the design first and then shopping for materials with which to execute it.  Gather your materials on your work table and play with combinations until something sparks an idea, then take it from there.

Don't worry if your finished product is not perfect.  People appreciate the gift of time and effort you make every time you send a homemade card, and the individual touches are what make your cards so much more interesting than something that might be found in the store.

Roll up your sleeves, get out the scissors and the glue sticks and have some fun.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Carrot and Granola Cookies

Our diets have changed a lot in the past 150 years.  With the advent of steam ships and trains, and then cars and transport trucks, a whole new world of food became available to us.  

We're now accustomed to eating foods from all over the world but it was not always so, and most of us - if we stop to think about it - can think of some (or many) foods that have been introduced to our diets in the course of our lifetimes.

We all take broccoli for granted.  It's such a staple that many folks find it boring, but an elderly friend of mine distinctly remembers the first time it was served to her in a restaurant.  

Likewise, both yogurt and granola are standard fare in most households now but I remember when they first appeared on our tables.  In the late 70's and early 80's both were a brand new trend in much of North America, introduced to us by the back-to-the-earth folks' search for wholesome foods made with natural ingredients.

This recipe, from the Fanny Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham, dates back to that time, and combines the flavours of two huge food trends of the day:  granola, and carrot cake.  I loved them back then and continue to bake them still.  These cookies are always a hit at our house.

To make Carrot and Granola Cookies, you'll need:

  • 6 Tablespoons butter
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 cups shredded raw carrot
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 cups granola

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar.

Beat the egg, then mix it into the butter and brown sugar mixture, along with the vanilla.

Stir in the shredded carrot.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda salt, and cinnamon.

Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and stir until well combined.

Add in the granola and stir it through the batter.

Drop heaping teaspoonfuls of the cookie dough onto greased or parchment-paper-lined cookie sheets. 

Bake them on the middle rack of a 350F oven until they're set and have begun to brown a little around the edges.

Transfer the cookies to baking racks or a sheet of brown paper (my preference) to cool.

When the cookies are cooled completely, store them in an airtight container.  If, that is, there are any left!  ;^)

Recipe source:  The Fanny Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham, pub. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1984

This recipe has been shared at the Hearth and Soul Blog Hop, hosted by Premeditated Leftovers, The 21st Century Housewife, and Zesty South Indian Kitchen.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Save Money on Postage

Just so you know: The first part of this post - about the cost of stamps - is specific to Canada.  It's important enough to my Canadian friends that I really needed to share it. The rest of the information is pretty much universal though, regardless of where you live, so please do bear with me.

The two rolls of stamps in this picture costs $132.30, including taxes.  On January 13, they will cost $136.50.  On March 31, the same stamps will cost $210.00.

Please note:  Since the time I originally posted this piece, Canada Post has discontinued permanent paid postage stamps.  They will not be re-issuing them until after the price increase at the end of March has come into effect.  Shame on them, but - sadly - there's little we can do about it.  Costco has sold out their entire stock of these stamps too. 

Canada Post has stated on their website that stamps purchased after March 31 in quantities of a booklet or more will be discounted to $0.85 per stamp.  It's still a big increase but better than a dollar a piece.  They will also be honouring $0.63 stamps for a limited time after the small increase that is scheduled to come into effect on January 13 but definitely not after March 31.

I would recommend that you purchase a small number of $0.63 stamps to use between now and the end of March and that you save what permanent postage stamps you have on hand for use after March 31.

If you do a lot of personal mailing, or if you own a small business that does a lot of mailing, you will want to do what you can to reduce the impact of this very significant increase.  

Did you notice the little "P" in the corner of the stamps?  That "P" stands for permanent postage paid and what it means is that, if you buy these stamps now, you can continue to use them even after the price goes up.  If you have enough cash to do so, I strongly urge you to purchase some rolls of stamps now and within the next couple of months, even if you use a postage meter.  The metered rate will go up.  Pre-purchased stamps, while less convenient to use than a postage meter, will save you money.

Here are some other ways you can save money on postage and shipping.

Ensure that your cards and envelopes comply with your postal service's sizing standards.  If your envelope is over sized or has unusual dimensions, it can cost you extra postage. 

I do a lot of mailing and I make handmade cards.  I wanted to ensure that my cards complied with mailing standards so I purchased this handy mailing template from Canada Post.  You can also find envelope size specifications on your postal service's website.  A simple web search will yield the address of any national postal service.  Here are the links for Canada and the USA.  

If you're going to be mailing a lengthy letter, use both sides of each sheet of paper.  Reducing the number of sheets of paper used will help to keep the envelope thinner and will reduce its weight.  Both will help to reduce the cost of postage.  

If making a card that you will be mailing, try to keep your embellishments and decorations as flat and as thin as possible.  

If you're sending packages, smaller is better.  Package shipping used to be priced by weight.  Now it's priced by both volume and weight.  Mailing a large package can be very expensive, even if it weighs very little.  

Use the online package rate calculators provided by your postal service to estimate mailing costs before heading to the post office.  If you're sending a gift and the cost of mailing is likely to  equal or exceed the cost of the package contents you'll want to consider sending something else instead.

Compare rates.  There are lots of carriers other than the postal service with which you can send a package, including Greyhound, rail service, and courier services.  It may be less expensive to choose one of these carriers instead of the postal service.  

If you are a small business, inquire about rate reductions based upon shipping volume.  If you do most or all of your shipping through either the postal service or a private carrier, they may offer you a price reduction based upon the amount of mailing you do.    

Save the cost of mailing altogether:
  • Send a card and a promise to deliver your gift the next time you see the recipient.
  • Order through a company that offers free delivery and have the package delivered directly to the intended recipient.
  • Send gift cards or gift certificates.  

I hope this is helpful to you.  

If you're in Canada, remember to buy stamps before March 31!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Peach Spice Bran Muffins

I make muffins almost every weekend, and put them in the freezer so that we can enjoy them for breakfast or lunch throughout the week.  

There are an almost endless variety of muffin recipes available on line but I often make mine up as I go along, based upon the ingredients I have on hand.  That's how this recipe came to be.  I wanted to make something a little bit different, using ingredients I had in the pantry.  

I pulled a jar of homemade peach pie filling from the shelf and built around it.  The resulting muffin was very moist (always nice in a bran muffin, I think), with a pleasant gingerbread-y flavour from the spices.  We enjoyed them warm from the oven with just a little butter.  When they were cooled, we served them with cream cheese.  Both were yummy.

To make Peach Spice Bran Muffins, you'll need:

  • 1 pint canned peaches or peach pie filling (I used homemade pie filling this time.  Canned or jarred peaches or pie filling from the store will work just fine too.)
  • 1 egg
  • 1-1/2 cups wheat bran
  • 1/3 cup sunflower oil
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Begin by preparing the peaches. If you're using canned peaches, pulse them in your food processor until the pieces are chopped but still have some texture.  Remove about half the chopped fruit and then process the remainder into a puree.  Transfer both the peach pieces and the puree to a large bowl.

If you're using pie filling, process it just until the pieces are chopped but still have some texture, then transfer it to your bowl.

Beat the egg and add it to the pie filling, along with the bran, oil, and brown sugar.  Stir until well combined.

Set the mixture aside and let it rest for 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, and salt.

Add the flour mixture into the wet mixture and stir just until combined.  The batter will be quite thick and a little lumpy.

Portion the batter into an oiled muffin pan.  These muffins don't rise very much, so fill the cups of the muffin pan quite full.

Depending upon how much batter you spoon into each cup, you'll get between ten and twelve muffins.  I got eleven from this batch.

Pour a small quantity of water into any empty cups in the pan.  This will help distribute the heat more evenly and also protect the pan from warping.

Bake the muffins on the middle rack of a 350F oven, for about 25 minutes, until they spring back when you press on the centre lightly with your fingertip.

Allow the muffins to cool 10 minutes in the pan, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Store the muffins in an airtight container for up to 3 days, or freeze them and thaw them as needed.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Fish Condominium (A Betta Bowl With Planter)

I seem to be in a fishy frame of mind this week.  lol! Yesterday I wrote about the Vancouver Aquarium.  Today I'm writing about building a new home for Ozzie, our office fish.

Ozzie is a betta, or Siamese fighting fish.  His ancestors hail from the enclosed rice paddies and riverside marshland of southeast Asia so he's well adapted to still water.  Bettas can survive perfectly well in small bowls or tanks and don't require water filters or other fancy equipment to provide conditions in which they can flourish:  Good news for me because I inherited responsibility for his care and I have only a little (mostly unsuccessful) experience in caring for fish.

Ozzie came to the office in a tiny glass bowl, with no gravel and barely a cup of water.  He seemed okay with it, but it was bothering me.  He's such a pretty creature.  It seemed a shame to confine him to such a tiny, uninteresting space.  

My sister-in-law, Leanne is - unlike me - something of a fish whisperer.  She's has an aquarium at home, has raised some amazingly large koi in the tank at her office, and has been known to successfully nurse sick fish back to health: something I can't even imagine doing.  She keeps her bettas in glass vases topped with planters.  The plants' roots reach down into the water, feeding on the nutrients the bettas leave behind and, in the process of doing so, filter the water, helping to keep it clear and oxygenated.  

It looked like a good arrangement to me, and far more appealing than Ozzie's original bowl so I decided to make one for our office. It was an easy project to do and, since it would make a nice decorating accent or even a nice gift, I've decided to show you how to make one too.

Here's what I used:

  • One urn-shaped vase, about 2-1/2 litres in capacity
  • 1 plant (Leanne had a spare plant to share with me and I used it for my project.  I'm not even sure what kind of plant it is - perhaps one of my plant loving readers can help me here - but I know it will work because Leanne has had the same plant in her betta bowls for a long time.  Other plants will work too:  Bamboo and ivy both spring to mind but I'm sure that your local nursery will be able to suggest many others.)
  • 1 clear plastic soda or juice bottle, well washed and rinsed (I scrounged several out of the recycling bin at my apartment building, then tried them all until I found one that would sit top-down into the neck of the vase without tipping over or falling through)
  • a roll of jute twine
  • tacky glue
  • aquarium gravel
  • a pair of scissors
  • a soft craft-sized paint brush

The planter portion of this project will rest in the neck of the vase.  I didn't want the mechanics of it to be visible so I decided to wrap the neck of the vase in twine.  You could use a wide ribbon or even some decorative paper instead if you prefer.

Use tacky glue to adhere your twine (or ribbon, or paper) to the vase.  Pour the glue into a shallow container and apply it  with a paint brush.  

Press the covering material gently into the glue.  If you're using twine, you'll want to hold the ends in place for a couple of minutes to ensure that they're properly adhered. 

Wipe away any excess glue before it dries.

Here's what mine looked like when it was done:

Allow the glue to dry for a couple of hours.  

When the glue is dry, rinse some aquarium gravel and spread it 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep in the bottom of the vase.  Fill the vase with water to an inch or two below where then neck narrows. 

If you're using tap water, you'll need to add a betta water conditioner to the water before pouring it into the vase.  

Leave the filled vase to sit for at least a couple of hours so that the water reaches room temperature and any dust or debris from the gravel has had an opportunity to settle.

Prepare the planter portion of your project.

Cut the screw top portion off of your plastic bottle.  Then make a second cut a little further down.  My bottle narrowed where the label was attached so I used that as my cutting line.

Discard the screw top portion you've removed, and the bottle label. Keep the bottom portion of the bottle.  It'll come in handy later on.

Clean any soil or algae from the roots of your plant.

My plant had been sitting in its container for a long time so there was lots of algae in the water.  When I removed it from the container, I discovered that it had several stems, all of which had roots attached. 

I split the plant into individual stems and rinsed away any algae that was clinging to the roots.  Here's what the prepared plants looked like:

I used two stems for my project and put the remaining pieces in a vase for another time.

Position your plant in the top portion you cut from the soda bottle, feeding the roots through the hole left where the screw top threads were removed.

Carefully fill in aquarium gravel around the plant.

Put the planter portion in the neck of the bottle and check the length of the plant roots.  Trim them if needed.  They should extend into the water but not all the way to the bottom.  Your fish needs room to move around too!

Now you're ready to move your fish into his new home.  This is where the bottom of the soda bottle comes in handy:  

Lift the planter out of the neck of the vase and sit it in the soda bottle while you transfer your fish into the water in the vase, then put the planter back in place.  You'll do the same thing when you remove the plant in order to feed your fish.

That's it.  

Easy, right?  

I really like how this project turned out.  My fella says it's 'way too fancy to be called a fish bowl so he's dubbed it the betta condominium.  I think it's a fine name, don't you?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Beef and Mushrooms in Cream Sauce

My husband joined the navy at the age of 16.  After training, he was assigned to a ship and put to work in the galley.  Not the adventure he'd imagined when he enlisted, but the experience served him well.

The navy fed her sailors afloat very well.  My fella had learned good basic cooking skills from his mom, and in school (he was the very first male Home Ec student in his school district) and the navy further refined them.  By the time he returned to civilian life my guy was a competent saucier, knew the rudiments of butchering, could cook an excellent meal, and was an accomplished baker.

Cooking aboard a ship is governed by some limitations that one simply doesn't encounter in a home kitchen. Space is limited, weather and the ship's motion can make even the most basic tasks a challenge, and storage is limited.  So, while fresh food is served as much as possible, there are times when conditions require that the cooks fall back upon staples in storage.  When that happens, old standards from the military menu are likely to appear on mess trays.

One of those storage staple standards is SOS - Stuff on a Shingle (although sailors do not say it so politely).

Creamed chipped beef on toast:  I haven't heard of a single branch of the service that doesn't serve it from time to time. Made with rehydrated dried chipped beef and canned milk, it provides a filling meal when fresh meat is not readily available.

Oddly, while it may not sound very appealing, many military folk develop a real liking for SOS and will continue to enjoy it even after they return to civilian life.  My guy is one of them:  He misses this old standard dish.

Chipped beef is about as common as unicorn horns hereabouts so, if my fella wants to replicate the flavour of SOS, he needs to do so with fresh beef.  This is basically the recipe he came up with, with some mushrooms thrown in.  

I often find them for half price on the manager's mark down cart at our store, and they help to stretch the meat in the recipe to cover more servings.  They add flavour, texture, and nutrients too.

I do hope you'll try this.  It may not be the prettiest dish in the world but it tastes great, and it's a frugal meal too.

To make Beef and Mushrooms in cream sauce, you'll need:

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 cups of sliced mushrooms (I used cremini, from the sale rack)
  • 1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, cut in quarter inch dice - about 3/4 cup
  • 1 - 3 cloves of garlic finely minced (I used one because, as you can see, it was huge.)
  • 12 ounces extra lean ground beef
  • 3 Tablespoons butter*
  • 3 Tablespoons flour*
  • 3/4 cup beef stock
  • 3/4 cup evaporated milk or 3/4 cup cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Begin by sauteing the mushrooms.  

Heat your pan, add in 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan.  

Add in the mushrooms and sprinkle the poultry seasoning over them.  

Saute the mushrooms until any moisture they give off has evaporated and they've browned nicely.  

Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper to taste and set them aside.

In the same pan, add another Tablespoon of olive oil and the onions.  

Cook the onions until they're tender but haven't taken on any colour, then add in the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds more.

Add in the ground beef and break it up with a wooden spoon or spatula.  Cook it until it's browned.  

Season the meat mixture with add salt and pepper to taste.

While the meat is cooking, make the cream sauce in a separate pan.

Melt the butter over medium heat and stir in the flour.  Cook the roux for 3 to 5 minutes.

Gradually add in the stock, stirring constantly, then mix in the evaporated milk.

Continue stirring the sauce until it boils and thickens.  Taste it and adjust the seasoning.  

Keep the sauce warm until you need it.

Add the mushrooms to the beef and stir until they're reheated.  

Mix in the cream sauce.

Serve your Beef and Mushrooms in Cream Sauce immediately, over rice, noodles, or toast.

Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to three days and reheated as needed in the microwave.

*If you prefer a slightly thinner cream sauce reduce the butter and flour quantities to 2 Tablespoons each.