Saturday, October 30, 2010


Our entire pumpkin harvest. All the how-tos say to leave them on the vine to ripen, but the vines were nearly dead, and with all the rain we've been having, the slugs were moving in. These are small, even for pie pumpkins, but the paper tells me the commercial growers didn't do too well this year either. Since they've at least started to change color and the stems have hardened, I think there's a good chance they'll color up a bit more. The instructional blogs all say that sunshine is the key to ripening, but I think heat is more an issue, as the mostly-green ones were green where they were exposed to such sunlight as made it through the overcast, but yellow or orange where they touched the presumably warmer ground. Anyway, they're now on a card table in the back bedroom, which is the coolest part of the house but much warmer than outside. I'm hoping we'll get enough pumpkin puree for pies, pumpkin bread, etc.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Pennypinching: Fruits

This wasn't a good garden year in western Washington, and our little orchard didn't fare much better. A couple of deer incursions eliminated most of the apple leaves, then the brief but intense hot spell sunburned most of the apples that the deer had missed. Once they were sun-damaged, the apples invited insect attacks. The few apples that survived all that fell prey to birds and wind. All in all, we had mostly salvage and windfall apples. I finally picked the last of them short of perfect ripeness, to save them from the birds.

Salvage was an ongoing operation, with small green apples turned into puree (for applesauce bread and muffins) and larger ones canned for pie filling or made into chunky applesauce. But I was running out of pint canning jars and didn't want to buy more. Since there are usually just the two of us here, I prefer to can in pints. (Besides, the rack for the big canner went missing when we moved, and the little one isn't deep enough for quarts.)

Freezing in bags was the obvious option, but filling little bags with applesauce is a tedious and messy operation. Then I had one of those "Doh! Why didn't I think of that before!" revelations. I still had a wide-mouthed pint jar available. I placed a sandwich-size plastic bag in the jar, popped in my canning funnel to hold the bag open, and filled the bag as easily as filling a jar. Since the jar is tapered, I had no problem sliding the bag out and sealing it. I further simplified the operation by placing the small bags inside a gallon Ziploc, so I only had to label the outer bag. I do that when freezing small portions of meats and vegetables also. The outer bag doesn't touch the food, so can be reused, and a big bag is easier to find in the freezer.

Do you ever wonder what to do with the juice/syrup from either store-bought or home-canned fruits? It can be thickened with tapioca or cornstarch to make pudding or a sauce.

For tapioca pudding, mix two cups of juice with three tablespoons of quick-cook tapioca (Kraft's Minute brand). No need for sugar, unless your juice isn't as sweet as you want it. An egg is optional--I had one that had cracked a little on the way home from the store, so I wanted to use it right away. Stir it and let it stand about five minutes, then cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a full rolling boil. Let it cool and serve either warm or cold. You can also cook it in a microwave, in a large bowl to avoid boil-over, stirring every three minutes. It should take about 10-12 minutes.

You can make a sauce using one tablespoon of cornstarch for each cup of juice. Either mix it all together before cooking, or stir the cornstarch into a small amount of juice, bring the rest to a boil, and stir in the cornstarch mixture. It's about the same as making gravy. Use it warm as a sauce for cake or ice cream; it will set up into a pudding in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pinching Pennies: Bread and Butter

What do you do when a friend or relative insists on giving you bread that is a bit too far past its prime to bother freezing it? The solution for me was to slice it thin and pop it in the dehydrator. A slow oven would probably do as well. So now instead of rather tough bread, I have a supply of crispy melba toast-like slices, good for eating like crackers or dropping in the soup. It can be made into croutons or crumbed for a variety of uses, and stores well at room temperature in a paper bag.

I used some of the crumbs for tuna patties, which are a great way of stretching a can of tuna into several servings. You can do crumbs in a blender or a food processor, but I get good results by putting the bread (or corn flakes, if I'm making meatloaf) into a paper bag and either crushing it by hand or using the rolling pin.

So on to the butter. Once we started learning about things like trans-fats and I realized the nutrition gurus had been lying to us all these years about hydrogenated vegetable shortening and margarine being the healthier choices, I went back to butter. I buy it when it's on sale and usually have a few pounds in the freezer. We don't use a lot, but I do prefer the convenience of the soft-spread variety for uses other than baking. It's easy to make your own soft spread. Just whip together a cup of butter, 1/2 cup canola oil, and 1/2 cup water. Store it in the refrigerator in a covered container.


In case you're wondering how the mouse problem worked out, son Jon took pity on me and removed the partition between the dishwasher and sink area. He then informed me that my theory of mousy access was wrong; there was no possible way they could get in there as the base of the dishwasher was tight against the wall, and in fact they seemed to be coming in on the other side of the sink, in my pan cupboard. He used a flashlight to point out the evidence, back in the dark recesses of the cupboard along the outside wall. Yuck!! So I washed all the pans, vacuumed and disinfected the pan cupboard and under-sink area, and sealed all around the edges with spray foam. This involved lying down on the floor, attempting to crawl into the cupboard, and using my handy-dandy grabber gadget to reach the far corners. It's all sealed and clean now, and the mousetrap that I re-installed under the sink has so far remained untouched. The partition between the pan cupboard and the sink area was loose, and had been sloppily installed in such a way that it couldn't fit tight, so I pulled it out and re-fastened it. End of problem? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

And yet another mouse story...

It's that time of year. The weather's getting cooler and damper, the garden is winding down, The critters are starting to look for warmer quarters. I've learned to keep a mousetrap behind the trash can under the sink, since it appears the mice come in somewhere under the dishwasher, and scramble over the partial partition that separates that area from the one under the sink.

Yes, I could solve the problem by removing the partition and sealing up whatever holes they come through, or simply add on to the partition so they can't get through. It's been on my to-do list forever. I'm a talented procrastinator who really hates doing household repairs. Note to any of my children reading this: take pity on your poor old gray-haired mom and fix this for me. It would be a nice, cheap birthday gift, and my 70th is rapidly approaching. Pretty please?

Alas, 70 is the new 40 and my kids know I can do it myself if necessary. We'll overlook the fact that I taught them to use tools early on, just so I wouldn't have to.

End of digression--back to the mouse story. I had already disposed of one victim a few days ago and replaced the trap. Yesterday brother Richard glanced under the sink and said "didn't you put a trap in here?" There was no trap behind the trash can--but further over, stuck behind the pipes, the missing trap seemed to be bouncing around. A still-live mouse, caught only by one foot, had dragged the trap as far as possible and was trying to pull free, while simultaneously scarfing down the peanut butter bait.

I can deal with setting a trap and disposing of the remains. Doing the killing myself was more than I wanted to handle. Letting it struggle until it eventually died wasn't acceptable either. I picked up the trap with my handy-dandy two-foot-long grabber device, took it outside, and used a table knife to pry up the bar. The mouse immediately jumped free and dove between the boards of the cover over the crawl space entry. So it's lurking under the house, perhaps contemplating trying it again.

I don't imagine mice have very long memories, but I'm hoping that one won't be back for a while. I suppose it's too much to hope that he warned his friends away, too.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Experimenting in the Kitchen

The house I share with my brother came with about 90 gallons of wheat stored in metal cans. I guess the previous owners had a survival hoard. I used to do a lot of baking when my family was growing up, but not so much in recent years, so I've forgotten a lot (and there was plenty I didn't know to begin with). Lately I've been experimenting with home-ground flour.

My first biscuits using 100% whole wheat flour were more like hockey pucks or ship's biscuit. They were edible, but nowhere near light and fluffy. The second batch, using half ww and half all-purpose flour, were an improvement. Then I got really daring and made chocolate drop cookies using half ww. Edible, even tasty, but the appearance and texture left a little to be desired. That's when I remembered making cracked wheat bread about forty years ago--I always soaked the cracked wheat overnight. Hmmm.

My friend Amanda had given me a roll recipe that she said worked with up to half the bread flour replaced by ww. But my home-ground flour is probably a bit coarser than the commercial stuff. So I mixed the ww (almost half) with the milk in the recipe, covered it and left it in the refrigerator overnight. The flour soaked up ALL the liquid. Her recipe was for a bread machine so added the yeast with the dry ingredients. I figured I'd better go with the more traditional method, plus I was guessing I might need more liquid, so I dissolved the yeast in (more) warm milk, then added that and the other ingredients to my milk and flour glop (which I had first warmed a little in the microwave). Success!! The rolls came out perfect.

I think next time I make cookies I'll try the pre-soak method.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Door in the Sky is available

I now have copies of The Door in the Sky, book two of the Hall of Doors series. The publisher hasn't updated either their website or, but you can get them directly from me. Contact me at gramajan500 at msn dot com if you want autographed copies.

In this adventure, Sammy learns that love and friendship are stronger than fear, and sometimes you just have to "do it scared." She's off on a roller-coaster dragon ride to help Princess Selena with a serious problem, one that will take all the courage she can gather. In helping her friend to open a spell-bound treasure chest, Sammy also discovers the key to solving her own problem.

The Mirror Door
and The Secret Door are still in the publisher's queue, with no release date set. Since the illustrations are done for The Mirror Door, they tell me it's possible that it might be out this year. Here's a sneak preview of the cover picture.

And on a somewhat more silly note, can you imagine a bank telling a 46-year-old man that he can't add his wife to his bank account without his mommy's permission? That's what happened to my oldest son recently. Nearly thirty years ago, when he was a teenager, I cosigned so he could have his own checking account. We never took my name off the account--in fact, I had forgotten about it. But the bank refused to make any changes unless we both appeared in person to sign papers. A note wouldn't do, even if I had it notarized. So I made the 75 mile drive on a Saturday morning, which was the only time he and his wife could both make it to the bank, and we took care of it. Or at least we got my name off. His wife, a Chinese immigrant, didn't realize that she would need her social security number for the transaction, so they'll have to go back next Saturday to finish up. I guess a bank has to be careful about these things, but I wonder what we would have done if I were still in California, or had become mentally incapacitated.