Category Archives: Product Reviews

FreshWorks – Miracle Boxes for Your Produce

freshworksY’all need to get yourself a set of these babies, STAT! (as ever, my product reviews are my own, unsolicited opinions – I don’t get anything for sharing about products I love).

Some people impulse buy in the candy aisle or the shoe department.  Not me.  I impulse buy in the produce aisle.  Those jumbo boxes of baby greens at the warehouse club are my crack.  Trays of Persian cukes, bags of organic sweet peppers, sleeves of sugar peas and haricots vert.  Can’t get enough.  And a Farmer’s Market?  Forget it – I will come home with my own weight in everything available.  Since it’s just the man and me, that means a lot of delicious, mostly organic, expensive veggies find their way into our compost bin.  Those baby greens are the worst.  You know what I mean – you open the bin, take out a few cups, go in there the very next day and blammo – slime city.  So frustrating.

Enter the FreshWorks bins.  I saw an ad for them and ordered a set from Costco. I figured if they didn’t work I would take advantage of Costco’s very generous return policy and get my $ back.  The set was $30 (currently on sale for $24!) and included 2 large bins and one medium bin.  The large bins hold 1 lb of baby greens (those big tubs they sell at the warehouse clubs) or 2 heads of butter lettuce or a large head of Romaine.  The medium bin holds a pound of green beans, sugar peas or a quart of berries.  I have a counter depth fridge (which I hate), and the two large bins fit on one shelf, front to back, with space left over, so not tooooo much of a space bully.  As I eat stuff down I combine different types of produce in one bin.

These things are MAGIC!  You actually get to eat all the baby greens!  The remains of 3 huge heads of butter lettuce and romaine I got at the CSA 2 weeks ago are still crisp and green.  The last few sugar snap peas I bought 2 ½ weeks ago were sweet and crunchy in our salad tonite.  My sister told me she got one and it kept raspberries fresh for 2 weeks.  I don’t know what kind of voodoo the magic membrane in the lid conjures, but it keeps produce fresh for days and days.  My guess is it keeps carbon dioxide in and oxygen out, but who cares?  It keeps your produce fresh and tasty and out of the compost bin!

Bird Feeding Tips – Keeping “Undesirables” Out of the Feeders

We have an amazing assortment of birds who come to our backyard and porch feeders.  I keep a list going in my bird guide and to date we have seen over 30 species in our yard!  Unfortunately we also have a few four-legged, furry varmints who try to horn in on the goodies.  We’ve had good results with three different types of “squirrel proof” seed feeders.  As ever, my opinions are my own – I receive no compensation or perks for any of my product reviews.

  1. Woodlink Absolute II Squirrel Proof Feeder:  This big boy holds over a gallon of seed and is pretty much squirrel proof.  The perch bars are spring-loaded so anything heavier than a bird pressing on them lowers doors over the seed trays.  The occasional smartyboots realizes he can lay flat on top and streeeeetch down and around to get his paws on a few seeds.  But for the most part the tree rats are thwarted.  Deer however, are another problem.  They just stroll up and lick the seed out of the tray.  Deer don’t like walking through tall bushes or grasses (I guess they are afraid a predator could be hiding in there) so we situate the feeder in the midst of perennials they don’t like, and that cuts down considerably on deer feeding.
    We keep this big boy tucked in the perennial garden to keep birds fed and deer at bay

    We keep this big boy tucked in the perennial garden to keep birds fed and deer at bay – even on snowy winter days.

     

  2. Brome Squirrel Buster Classic:  This large hanging feeder is awesome!  It holds about 1.5 quarts of seed so we don’t need to refill it every day, it vents the seed tubes to keep the seed safe to eat, and the design keeps the vermin away.  The outer metal cage is spring-loaded so if anything heavier than a bird lands on it or hangs on one of the perches, the cage slides down and closes over the seed cups.  I’ve watched squirrels jump on it and boo hoo, no seed for you!
    With four staggered perches there's plenty of room for hungry babies to hang out and wait for Dad to rustle up some grub

    With four staggered perches there’s plenty of room for hungry babies to hang out and wait for Dad to rustle up some grub

    Let's not think too hard about what's actually going on here! #kindagross

    Let’s not think too hard about what’s actually going on here! #kindagross

  3. Brome Squirrel Buster Mini:  This is the first Brome feeder we bought and it also works great.  It too is spring-loaded so anything heavier than a bird drags down the outer cage and closes the seed cups.  The only drawback is its size – it only holds 3 cups of seed, so we were filling it daily, sometimes twice daily.
    Male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

    Male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

    House and Goldfinches share the feeder

    House and Goldfinches share the feeder

We also like to offer suet to the birds year ’round.  At first the squirrels and the resident ‘coon ate us out of house and home, but then we discovered suet made with Cayenne Pepper.  This kind costs a few cents more so shop around for the best price (our local Ace Hardware consistently has the best price, and sometimes I even catch a sale).  Mammals hate its spicy taste, but birds do not have any pain receptors for capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers hot) so they couldn’t care less about it.

We soon discovered, however, another type of “undesirable” at the suet feeders:  birds that are not true suet eaters!  Finches, cowbirds, thrashers and others sat at the suet cakes and tore them apart to get at the seeds inside, scattering most of the suet on the ground.  We were going through 3 or 4 of these pricey suet cakes a week, so it was very annoying to see so much waste.

While we were at our local Ace stocking up on black sunflower seeds and suet cakes we spied a funky looking suet feeder, the Songbird Essentials Recycled Upside Down Suet Feeder.  As you can see this feeder is a little recycled plastic house with access to the suet only on the bottom.  We could not imagine how a bird was going to flip upside down mid flight to get at the suet, so we read some reviews and other users swore the birds quickly figure it out.  Indeed they do.  Only true suet eaters are capable of or “like” feeding upside down, so this feeder perfectly suits the birds you want at the suet feeder – woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, bluebirds and the like.  As a bonus, the squirrels can’t get at it either, so we can forgo the extra expense of the hot pepper suet!  We are now going through about a third of the suet cakes we used to, so this baby paid for itself in about 3 weeks.  Win, win, win!  Here’s a few of the beauties who now have exclusive use of the suet feeder:

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker

 

Male Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

 

Baby Boy Downy Woodpecker - even the babies figured it out!

Baby Boy Downy Woodpecker – even the babies figured it out!

 

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

 

Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

 

Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee

 

Carolina Wrens are my heroes. They are small but mighty, curious, industrious and they do things their own way. This guy was not injured - he was just having fun!

Carolina Wrens are my heroes. They are small but mighty, curious, industrious and they do things their own way. This guy was not injured – he was just having fun!  Like he was working on his Triangle Pose while grabbing a snack.  Don’t you just want to rub that fuzzy buff tummy?

 

Container Gardening & the Perfect Grape Tomato

Juliet Grape Tomatoes

Juliet Grape Tomatoes – plump, firm and perfectly tomato-y!

I am not much of a gardener, but I simply couldn’t do without my little container garden that I cram into the only corner of our back porch that gets any sun.  I love being able to nip out while I’m cooking and grab a handful of fresh basil, oregano, mint, lemon thyme, rosemary or parsley.  This year I added dill, cilantro and Mexican tarragon to the gang.  I have no idea what Mexican tarragon is, but it looked irresistible with its tiny golden flowers.  I also upgraded to new containers this year – some faux half barrels that I found at Lowes.  They are cute, sturdy, and the price was right!

The real tip I want to pass on here is a recommendation for a fabulous grape tomato that is perfect for container gardening – Juliet.  I have grown Juliet the past two summers and couldn’t love her more.  She produces gobs of tomatoes in grape-like clusters.  The fruit is firm and easy to slice, with a minimum amount of um, I believe “jelly” is the polite term (aka tomato snot), and the flavor is excellent.  The fruits are thumb sized and resemble wee little San Marzanos (see above).  The Park seed catalog classifies Juliet as a “saladette” tomato – somewhere between a grape and a Roma.  Never heard that term before!

Because they are so sturdy and don’t have gobs of jelly, they are perfect not only for salads, but also for roasting, sautéing for a quick pasta sauce, topping a pizza, or just dunking them, still warm from the vine, in blue cheese dip and popping in your mouth.  Heaven!  The sturdy, fleshy fruits last for about 2 weeks in a bowl on the counter – which is good because one Juliet will produce a good pint of tomatoes per week for about 4 months.   My porch doesn’t get a ton of sunlight, so just imagine how she would produce in full sun!

Juliet is not a common variety around here, but I have found plants at both Lowes and Walmart, and you can buy seeds from Parks.  I use organic garden soil which contains fertilizer that is supposed to last 3 months, so mid Summer I start feeding all my plants with Alaska Fish Emulsion (very smelly, do not get that stuff on your hands!), and the tomato gets the occasional dose of Epsom salts and finely crushed eggshells (use a spice grinder).  This year I am going to try Alaska Vegetable and Tomato Dry fertilizer, which has all the fishy goodness of fish emulsion with lots of the calcium tomatoes really need around here.

Juliette produces thumb size tomatoes in grape clusters

Juliette produces thumb size tomatoes in grape clusters

 

Even in partial sun Juliette is a vigorous producer

Even in partial sun Juliette is a vigorous producer.  As the stems grow upwards I tie them to a tomato cage and then train them to cascade back down again, making sure to evenly space the vines for good air and light penetration.

One more tomato growing tip I’ll pass along is something I discovered last summer.  Our hot, humid Southern summers can do a number on garden plants, and my Juliet developed quite a few brown, droopy leaves.  Since this plant is on my back porch I wanted to tidy up the look, so I carefully removed every browned leaf cluster on the plant.  To my surprise, everywhere I removed a leaf stem the plant regenerated a whole new one!  This regeneration kept the plant lush, full and bountifully producing all through summer right up till frost.

If you take a few minutes to remove any browned leaf clusters, the plant will regenerate itself.

If you take a few minutes to remove any browned leaf clusters, the plant will regenerate itself.

My Favorite Ingredients – Part 2

I’m sharing my favorite ingredients, things I reach for over and over.  In Part 1 I talked about Dolin Dry Vermouth, Citrus Oils, Nut Oils, Clarified Butter and imported San Marzano tomatoes.  Today I’m moving on with the next 5, again in no particular order.  You may remember I had originally titled these posts “My 10 Favorite Ingredients”.  I had a hard time narrowing it down to 10, so there will be at least one more post with a few other goodies.  I hope you’ll find something to add to your pantry or fridge!

I buy the Organic versions of the Chicken and Beef bases at Costco and decant them into smaller jars to save space in the fridge door.

I buy the Organic versions of the Chicken and Beef bases at Costco and decant them into skinnier jars to save space in the fridge.

Better Than Bouillon Bases  Two foodie friends turned me on to these products.  I was surprised that these ladies used bouillon concentrate, because these gals are big on everything natural, organic, etc., as am I.  My assumption was a bouillon base would be a scary chemical sludge.  I had been buying Swanson Lower Sodium Chicken Broth by the caseload at Costco.  That’s a lot of cans to store and recycle!  So I tried a jar of the BTB organic chicken base and was pleasantly surprised.  Plain, I do prefer the taste of Swanson’s.  But when do I ever drink plain chicken broth?  Never.  In soup, sauces, stews, etc. the BTB works great.  No cases to lug and store, no leftover broth to eventually toss or freeze, no cans to recycle.  I have also used the Organic Reduced Sodium Beef, Vegetable, Fish and Ham bases and love them all.  Two words on that Ham base – get some!  It is great for seasoning the water for cooking greens or beans or adding a little smokey goodness to soups or stews.  Okay, I know that these bases are processed products.  The chicken & beef bases are the ones I use 90% of the time, and I always buy the organic versions.  The other ones I use sparingly.  But that ham base.  Seriously, get some.

The Cadillac of Allilums - they will take your cooking to new levels of yum.

The Cadillac of Allilums – they will take your cooking to new levels of yum.

Shallots  If you’re thinking that shallots are just fancy overpriced onions, think again.  These little babies pack a major flavor punch that is somewhere between garlic and onion but so much more.  Yeah, they are more expensive than garlic or onions, but I buy mine on the cheap at the warehouse club – a sack of 10 or so for under $4.  Even if you have to pay “full price” at the supermarket, they are worth every penny.  To help extend their shelf life, when I bring a bag home I spend a few minutes grooming off any dirty/moldy outer skins.  And since I store them on the counter, they look nicer, too!

I put shallots to use almost daily.  In salad dressings I usually add a Tbsp or so of finely minced shallots – great flavor without coming off “hot” the way raw garlic can.  I make a confit with caramelized shallots and dried cranberries (or cherries) that people go bonkers for when I serve it with a cheese plate.   Hmmm, I need to post that recipe!  And I wouldn’t think of sautéing veggies like green beans, broccoli or zukes without first sautéing a shallot in the pan.    Shallots work anywhere you would use onions or garlic – soups, stews, sauces, stir fries, pizzas, appetizers – they add a wonderful layer of umami goodness that makes everything else taste better.  They’re like natural MSG! I am never, ever without shallots!!!

I love this stuff - took my bread baking from hit or miss to consistently great.

I love this stuff – took my bread baking from hit or miss to consistently great.

SAF Red & Gold Yeasts.  You wouldn’t think yeast brands would be that different.  I have been baking bread since I was a Kinder and I’ve always used Fleischmann’s yeast.  Perfectly good.  But sometimes, especially when baking a whole grain loaf or a sweet bread with lots of butter, eggs or dried fruits, my results were less than praiseworthy.  Squatty.  Doughy.  Not right.  An infuriating waste of time and ingredients!  Turns out sugar is a bit of a bully in bread dough.  It hogs up all the water and leaves your poor lil’ yeast limping along in thirst, unable to do its job.  Enter SAF Gold yeast.  This yeast is specially formulated to perform well in a high sugar environment as it needs less water to function.  Voila!  Sweet, rich doughs that rise like a dream!  SAF Red yeast is “basic” yeast for the rest of your bread baking needs.  I find that it too is more robust than other brands of yeast.  Doughs rise faster and more consistently.  My tried and true recipes turn out better than ever with these yeasts.

Yes, they come in 1 lb. sacks, and even though they have a 2 year shelf life, I will never use this much before the expiry.  But fear not – it’s actually quite cheap.  You can find it at some warehouse clubs for about $1 more than the 4 oz jar of Fleischmann’s at the supermarket.  Or, you can order it online – I usually get mine at King Arthur when I’m stocking up on baking needs.  I portion out what I think I’ll use by the expiry and vacuum seal it in 8 oz canning jars which are stored in the fridge or freezer.  I share the rest with friends who love to bake bread too.  Win-win!

An arsenal of flavor

An arsenal of flavor

Nielsen Massey Extracts.  I hate wasting my time baking something that comes out “meh” or just lacking in flavor.  Like most people in the US I grew up using McCormick extracts, which is pretty much all you could find at the supermarket.  I’m pretty sure it was while watching Ina Garten’s show that I thought “girlfriend never uses anything but Nielsen Massey vanilla – I should check that out.”  Boom!  Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla totally converted me from a chocoholic to someone who genuinely prefers all things vanilla.  And fyi, the “Bourbon” in Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla is merely the name of the vanilla bean varietal – there is no Bourbon or Bourbon flavor in the vanilla.

I have tried all their vanilla varieties – Madagascar Bourbon, Mexican, Tahitian and Vanilla Bean Paste.  I buy the Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla in quart bottles at King Arthur.  Watch for a sale!  Stored cool and dry, vanilla will last for years.  I decant it into a smaller bottle for everyday use. I confess that the nuances of Mexican vanilla are lost on my palate, so it’s not worth the extra expense for me to keep that one around.  Tahitian vanilla, however, is quite distinctive.  The flavor is very floral and reminds me of marshmallows.  It’s kind of the cilantro of vanillas – you love it or hate it.  The subtle flavor shines best in simple things like vanilla pudding, tapioca, egg custards, fruit salads or good ol’ steamed milk (sooooo good in sweetened steamed milk!!!).  The Vanilla Bean Paste is also a winner.  Same great taste as the Madagascar Bourbon extract, but with the added visual appeal of all those little vanilla seeds.  Perfect for ice cream, yogurt, cakes, cookies – anywhere you want to taste, smell and see vanilla.  Tip:  if a recipe calls for 1 tsp. of vanilla, be generous and add up to 2.  I almost always double the amt. of vanilla called for, and I often add a tsp or so even in recipes that don’t call for vanilla.  It’s just that little somethin’ somethin’.

Nielsen Massey makes a full range of extracts, and you can often get good prices by purchasing them in sets.  I love to use their coffee extract when I make anything with cocoa; a half tsp. or so really upps the chocolate flavor.  Their citrus extracts deliver clean, natural flavor to breads and other baked goods.  I don’t use them as much since I’ve “converted” to citrus oils, but they are great.  And their peppermint extract is the best I’ve ever tried.  I love, love, love anything peppermint and I when I bake something peppermint flavored, I want it to taste like an icy-cool candy cane, not “random, muddled mint flavor”.  NM is the only brand I’ve tried that delivers that brisk, candy cane flavor.

A spoonful of fiery deliciousness

A spoonful of fiery deliciousness

Sambal Oelek  Sriracha is a close second, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose Sambal Oelek.  It brings  clean, simple heat to a dish, whereas Sriracha also brings a big garlicy punch.  Sometimes you just want to invite your spicy friend to the party, and you don’t want her bringing her loud-mouthed cousin, you know?  I use sambal oelek in stir fries, salads (think spicy coleslaw to offset sweet barbecue), dressings, dips (queso, baby!), sauces – anywhere I want to bring a bit of heat.  The flavor is purely of the peppers – not vinegary, salty, etc., just a vegetal note from the peppers and heat, heat, heat!  The only thing you need to remember is that it will obviously tint your dish reddish orange, so keep that in mind.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest to try a few new things!  I’ll be back soon to share my better-than-Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte syrup!  Blessings, E.

My Favorite Ingredients – Part 1

I thought I would share with y’all some of the ingredients I reach for over and over to make my life easier in the kitchen and add big flavor to our meals.  Packaged/processed foods use all kinds of spooky chemicals to trick your brain into thinking food is tasty.  Making food that is really and truly delicious is simply about choosing really and truly delicious ingredients.  I hope you’ll add a few of these gems to your pantry or fridge and enjoy them in your cooking.   And like a mother who doesn’t play favorites with her children, I have listed these items in no particular order of “love” or frequency of use.  Here are the first 5:

Dry Vermouth - A fabulous aperitif and a major source of flavor and brightness in stews and sauces.

Dry Vermouth – A fabulous aperitif and a major source of flavor and brightness in stews and sauces.

Dry Vermouth – I’m not sure how or why that first bottle of Vermouth found its way into my kitchen.  I’m not a martini drinker, so it just sat there, taking up valuable space.  And then I realized that Vermouth is just herb-infused wine.  Hey, why couldn’t I cook with it?  Oh, yeah, you can cook with it!  A tablespoon or two added to a pan sauce brings brightness and depth.  A splash adds sophistication to crisp veggies sautéed in butter with a bit of shallot.  I use it in pork or chicken stews that call for white wine.  Basically if a recipe calls for a cup or less of white wine I feel comfy using Vermouth.

Even though Vermouth is a fortified wine (i.e. higher alcohol) it doesn’t come off as “boozy” or overpowering.  One caveat – use a high quality Vermouth that you would enjoy drinking as an aperitif.  No $5 bottles from the supermarket.  My favorite Vermouths are from Dolin – so well crafted! I keep opened bottles in the fridge after sealing them with a vacuum stopper, and I find the flavor is fine for at least 6 months.  Bonus:  whenever I break out the Vermouth to cook with, I pour myself a wee nip to enjoy while I cook.  Cook’s treat!

My flavor babies - dropper bottles are a must have to avoid being heavy handed with them.

My flavor babies – dropper bottles are a must-have to avoid being heavy handed with them.

Citrus Oils –  Citrus is a favorite flavor profile of mine, but keeping oranges, lemons, limes and other seasonal citrus on hand is a pain and expensive.  How to natually add citrus flavor without buying, storing and zesting citrus fruit?  All-natural citrus oils!  Citrus oils are distilled from citrus peels, where all the flavor is located.  Instead of a teaspoon of lemon zest in a recipe, you just add a few drops of lemon oil – no fuss, no muss, no grit, and no danger of getting that nasty bitter pith in your food.  Citrus oils are great in cookies, cakes, muffins, salad dressings, cocktails, smoothies, even coffee.  Two drops of orange oil in a cafe au lait is sublime, as is a drop of lemon oil in an espresso.

I decant my oils into small, dark bottles and top them with droppers.  The dropper is a must, because citrus oils are powerful and it’s very easy to ruin something with too much (done that!).  I also store them in the fridge to prolong their freshness.  As you can see mine are past their expriry, but because I refrigerate them in small, dark bottles, they taste and smell fine.  I think it buys me a few extra months of use! Important:  be sure you use a citrus oil that is intended for cooking – not “essences” that are meant for use as scents.

Take your pasta sauces from

Take your pasta sauces from “meh” to “Mama mia!” with Italian tomatoes

Imported Italian Tomatoes  Every summer growing up we would “put up” a year’s worth of home canned tomatoes.  I continued this pleasant summer ritual until a few years ago when I discovered imported Italian tomatoes.  Home canned tomatoes taste great and they “function” better than American canned tomatoes because American canned tomatoes are processed with calcium chloride, a firming agent.  The addition of a firming agent is great if you are using the tomatoes for chili, soup or a casserole and you want the tomatoes to remain in distinct chunks.  If you want them to break down into a silky smooth pasta sauce, forget it.  We always used our home canned tomatoes for pasta sauce, but home canned tomatoes also have their flaws, namely they are pretty watery and you have to cook them forever to thicken them up.

Enter Italian canned tomatoes, whether they be “true” DOP San Marzanos, or the less expensive and quite similar “San Marzano” tomatoes grown elsewhere in Italy.  What’s the difference?  Think of it this way – it’s the difference between a sparkling wine from California and Champagne from France.  It’s basically the same thing (yeah, yeah, terroir, I know), but the California wine can’t be sold as “Champagne” because it does not originate in the registered Champagne region of France.  Tomatoes labeled “DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) San Marzano” are a specific variety grown in the small San Marzano region of Italy.  San Marzano tomatoes are grown elsewhere, including the US, and are quite similar in taste/texture.  They are also much cheaper than the “real” thing.

There is no comparison between Amerian and Italian canned tomatoes.  Italian tomatoes are packed in a thick tomato puree, not juice as they are in America.  Italian tomatoes never contain calcium chloride or sugar (another common but stupid additive here in the land of diabesity), and they usually don’t contain salt or any other seasonings.  They are thick, meaty, intensely flavored tomatoes in a rich sauce – a blank canvas for you the culinary artiste to use and season as you wish.  Italian tomatoes can be had at good prices in warehouse clubs and some supermarkets, but I always order mine by the case from Amazon.  They come in whole, diced or crushed in 28 oz or 15 oz cans.  For some reason the price fluctuates a lot on Amazon, so keep your eye on them till you see a price you like – somewhere around $25-$35 per case.  Buon appetito!

Nut oils - great for your palate and your heart!

Nut oils – great for your palate and your heart!

Nut Oils – Oh Trader Joe’s, you really have turned me on to soooo many wonderful things.  Every Christmas they sell a gift set of three nut oils.  I bought one and wowza.  There is no better salad dressing in the world than one you make with Walnut oil, especially roasted Walnut oil if you can find it.  Revelatory.  A hunk of crusty bread dipped in Pistachio oil?  Hide the can, because I could drink that buttery, faintly floral-sweet oil straight from it!  Toasted Sesame oil – don’t even try to make anything Asian without it – what an amazing flavor bomb!  And a salsa or salad made with Avocados goes from yum to “I can die happy now” with a drizzle of rich, fruity Avocado oil.  These oils are not only extremely flavorful and delicious, they are healthful additions to your diet.  Go nuts!

Mmmmm fatty-licious!

Mmmmm fatty-licious!

Clarified Butter – otherwise known as Ghee.  Alright, so this one isn’t the most healthful fat.  But since the rest of the time you are cooking with Organic coconut oil, EVOO and all those wonderful nut oils, you can afford to indulge in some good old-fashioned saturated animal fat once in awhile.  I discovered this item at Trader Joe’s and bought it on a whim.  I use butter all the time, and I know the cook’s trick of using half butter, half some other oil to raise the smoke point.  Works, fine, right?  Is it really worth the bother to have this specialty product on hand just because it doesn’t have those pesky burnable milk solids?  Oh baby, yes!  For some reason clarified butter tastes “more buttery” than butter.  It really brings the flavah!  I use it for scrambling eggs, grilling sandwiches, sautéing veggies or aromatics and making rouxs.  I recently used it to griddle up a batch of Arepas, as if Arepas could get any more delicious.  This one is definitely a pantry staple for me!

I hope I’ve encouraged you to try something new!  I’ll be back soon to share five more things I don’t want my kitchen to ever be without.  Blessings….  E.

Waterlogue – Coolest App Evah!

A few weeks ago I discovered the cooooolest app:  Waterlogue.  It “morphs” your photos into watercolor “paintings”.  Not only is this app totally fun to play with, but for me it is a decorating boon.  I love to take pictures of all the places we go, but I do NOT like to put photographs on my walls (no clue – it always looks good in someone else’s home, but not in mine.  Kinda like red or yellow walls!).  However, I absolutely LOVE watercolors!  So my plan is to “Waterlogue” some of my photographs, have them color printed on heavy paper and display them.  How cool is that!?  The app is a couple bucks and available on iTunes.  Here are some of my favorite “Waterlogues” so far…

The Old Homestead after a recent snow

The Old Homestead after a recent snow

Flowers from my garden

Flowers from my garden

Diamond Head from the beach at the Royal Hawaiian - Waikiki

Diamond Head from the beach at the Royal Hawaiian – Waikiki

Sunset Palms in Poipu Kauai

Sunset Palms in Poipu Kauai

The Poggio family farm, Linden CA

The Poggio Family Farm, Linden CA

Lenten Roses

Lenten Roses

The KY State Capitol

The KY State Capitol

John hiking Flat Top Mtn near Anchorage, AK

John hiking Flat Top Mtn near Anchorage, AK

A perennial bed in our front yard

A perennial bed in our front yard

The famous Dragon of Cabo San Lucas

The famous Dragon of Cabo San Lucas

Unripe Blueberries

Unripe Blueberries

My man and I in Beaufort

My man and I in Beaufort

Crabapple Blossoms

Crabapple Blossoms

Crabapple blossoms

Crabapple blossoms

New Kitchen Toys and Donut Joys!

The last three weeks have been pretty glum around here.  We’ve endured non-stop cold, cloudy days with occasional apocalyptic downpours.  The most un-Springlike Spring I’ve ever spent in North Carolina.  But a great big box on my doorstep from the King Arthur Flour Co. put the sunshine back into my life!  KA had one of their 20% off everything sales last week so I stocked up on everything I’ve been waiting for a sale to buy:

Precut sheets of parchment for 8" and 9" cake pans and half sheet pans.  No more wrasslin' with a big ol' roll of parchment that never tears straight or fussing around cutting a circle of parchment for a cake.  How did I ever survive without it?

Precut sheets of parchment for 8″ and 9″ cake pans and half sheet pans. No more wrasslin’ with a big ol’ roll of parchment that never tears straight or fussing around cutting a circle of parchment for a cake. How did I ever survive without it?

Espresso powder for making ice creams, milkshakes and for adding oomph to chocolate dishes.  Speaking of chocolate, I also got a bag of something called "Black Cocoa" which I promptly put in a canning jar.  I'm definitely looking forward to making some brownies or cake with that stuff!  It smells amazing!

Espresso powder for making ice creams, milkshakes and for adding oomph to chocolate dishes. Speaking of chocolate, I also got a bag of something called “Black Cocoa” which I promptly put in a canning jar. I’m definitely looking forward to making some brownies or cake with that stuff! It smells amazing!

A jar of high falootin' candied peels for making my beloved panettones and holiday breads.

A jar of high falootin’ candied peels for making my beloved panettones and holiday breads.

Several bags of the world's best flour for making crispy, chewy pizza crust.  I make a LOT of pizza, and it pains me to say it, but this fancy, expensive flour is totally worth the fuss to acquire.

Several bags of the world’s best flour for making crispy, chewy pizza crust. I make a LOT of pizza, and it pains me to say it, but this fancy, expensive flour is totally worth the fuss to acquire.

I got several Loran extracts for sprucing up smoothies, cocktails and baked goods.  I also got these brilliant dropper tops to go with them.  No more sloshing out too much flavoring or having it drip down the sides of the bottle!

I got several Lorann extracts for sprucing up smoothies, cocktails and baked goods. I also got these brilliant dropper tops to go with them. No more sloshing out too much flavoring or having it drip down the sides of the bottle!

A little splurge for my sweetie.  Popcorn is a favorite nitetime snack, and he is all about cheesy popcorn!

A little splurge for my sweetie. Popcorn is a favorite nitetime snack, and he is all about cheesy popcorn!

I'm really not a "mix" girl, but I will try them if they don't have any ingredients I wouldn't use if I was making it from scratch.  These mixes complied with my "rule"  so I thought I'd try a few.  They were pricey - I hope they're worth it!

I’m really not a “mix” girl, but I will try them if they don’t have any ingredients I wouldn’t use if I was making it from scratch. These mixes complied with my “rule” so I thought I’d try a few. Even on sale they were pricey – I hope they’re worth it!

Which brings us to the two gizmos that actually prompted this whole spending spree in the first place:

Regular and mini donut pans!  These are so cute.  Even tho we are not really that into donuts, I HAD to have them!!!

1.  Regular and mini donut pans! These are so cute. Even tho we are not really that into donuts, I HAD to have them!!!

Bonus points if you even know what this is!

And 2.  Bonus points if you even know what this is!

That, my friends, is a dough whisk, and if you ever make muffins, quick breads, pancakes, brownies, etc. you NEED one.  It looks like it’s not going to do anything, but the design is dead brilliant.  The point of this baby is to thoroughly mix a batter without developing a bunch of gluten which will make your final product doughy or chewy.  The outer part perfectly scrapes the bowl clean, while the inner loops actually do a great job of mixing the lumps out of a batter.  It’s weird to use at first, but wow – I am very impressed with this thing.  Hopefully gluten-y pancakes, muffins, etc. are a thing of my past!

So with all my new toys I took a little break from spring cleaning this afternoon to whip up my first batch of donuts.  I tried the King Arthur chocolate donut mix (which I jazzed up with a 1/2 tsp. of espresso powder) and my fancy new whisk.  I transfered the batter into the pans by glopping it first into a plastic bag, snipping off a tiny hole in the corner and then carefully piping the batter into the rings.  Very quick and neat!  I can’t imagine trying to do that with a spoon or something.  They popped right out of their pans and they looked and smelled incredibly chocolate-y!

Fresh from the oven - soft, hot and insanely chocolate-y.

Fresh from the oven – soft, hot and insanely chocolate-y.

Since my hubby loves chocolate cake with vanilla frosting I gave them a vanilla glaze.  After I glazed “his” donuts, I added a few drops of my new Lorann Coconut extract to the glaze which gave it a great flavor, and then dipped the glazed donuts into sticky, chewy coconut flakes.  That last part serves two purposes – one, I love coconut and two, John hates it, so it effectively assures I’ll actually get to eat them!  Y’all, those donuts are delicious!  A big A+ to the King Arthur baking mix, the dough whisk, the espresso powder and coconut extract, and the adorable pans.

I can't wait for my sweetie to come home to these treats!  Happy Friday!

I can’t wait for my sweetie to come home to these treats! Happy Friday!

Looking for a New Stick Vac?

I needed a cordless stick vac to take care of my new hardwoods without scratching them to bits, so I did what I always do when I need to buy any kind of appliance:  started reading reviews on Amazon.com and epinions.com.  One of the highest rated ones on Amazon was the Hoover Linx Cordless Stick Vacuum– 4.5 stars out of 5 with 1,174 reviews!  That’s almost too good to be true.  And this thing is chock full of features:  it is cordless and bagless with a washable filter, switches easily between beater brush option and suction only, has a whopping 11” wide cleaning nozzle, swivels around effortlessly on soft, wide wheels, has a battery life indicator and a fancy lithium ion battery that pops out for easy charging in an Energy star charging base – and it is cute as a button to boot!  

With the older cordless vacs you had to install some charging base near an outlet to store the vacuum, which meant your vacuum was always in view.  Not cool.  The Linx battery, which is about the size of a large deck of cards, pops out so you can charge it like you would a phone or iPod while the vac is tucked away out of sight.  According to Hoover this type of battery offers fade free power (no dreaded slowing down of the suction as the battery poops out) and it has enough power to deliver the same suction a corded vac would.  Again, this really sounded too good to be true for a cordless vac!

So I order this puppy, put it together, and charge the battery.  One thing I am immediately impressed with is how totally cute this thing is.  I looks like a regular upright vac from pixieland!  The next thing I am impressed with is that the battery charges in less than two hours (the user manual says 3, but mine always charges faster).  The charging base plugs in like a phone charger and the indicator lights let you know that the battery is seated properly and charging and also when the battery is fully charged.

I cannot wait to use my adorable pixie vac, so as soon as the battery is charged I give it a go.  The vac feels substantial, but is very lightweight and easy to zip around with.  The switch has two positions for you to choose from suction-only and the beater brush feature.  This thing has some serious suction power!  It got up every speck off the floor, including all around the room edges.  And the beater brush actually lifted the nap of my carpet – albeit not as much as my regular big-boy upright, but plenty good to touch up the carpets.  After zipping around the downstairs (hardwoods and tile throughout and carpet in the family room) I also did the stairs.  We have 2 flights of carpeted stairs that are a royal pain to keep clean.  My old stick vac just really didn’t do the trick and my canister and upright vacs are so unweildy on stairs.  I had a bad accident falling down a flight of stairs several years ago, so I hate doing anything on the stairs that feels unstable.  The Linx vac gets up any dirt and also fluffs up the carpet – perfect!  And I don’t feel like I am risking life and limb to do it.  The manual recommends emptying the dirt cup every time you use it, which I thought was excessive.  However, even in my “clean” house (no kids, no pets, no shoes in the house), when I do the downstairs, stairs and a little touch up work upstairs I am astonished at how much junk is in the relatively large dirt cup!  EWW!

A few of the reviews I read complained about the battery conking out after a few months and no longer taking a charge.  It has a two year warranty, so I assume if you get a lemon battery you can get it replaced.  Some other reviewers complained that they couldn’t clean much area on a charge.  I will say you could vacuum a whole house on one charge if you were doing almost exclusively hard surface floors.  If you use this on carpet (i.e. you use the beater brush) it obviously drains the battery much faster.  I can vacuum 3 bathrooms, the kitchen, dining room, front and back halls (all hardwoods or tile), 2 staircases, family room and a quick touch up in our bedroom (all carpet) on one charge.  I’d say about 1800 sq feet, 2/3 of which is hard surface.  I don’t know what some people expect out of a cordless vac, but I’d say that is pretty good.  I absolutely love this vac and would highly recommend it.

Trader Joe’s Hall of Shame

Here we have a list of the rare “fails” that we’ve encountered at TJ’s.  One thing ya gotta give TJ’s is that they will stand behind their products.  If you simply don’t like something (I don’t mean it was rotten or defective somehow, you just didn’t like it), they will give you your $ back – no questions asked.  Try that at the Super Walmart and all you’re going to get back is a withering side-eye.

  • Sliced Bread – I haven’t tried all the sliced breads offered at TJ’s, but the ones I have tried were all disappointing.  They must arrive at the store frozen (I have found them on the shelves still damp and frozen).  Then they turn moldy PDQ.  All around fail.
  • Cheeses Sold by Varying Weights – Most TJ cheeses are great, but the ones that are shrink wrapped in very thin plastic and sold by varying weights (they have a “deli label” sticker on them with the name, price and weight) have always been clunkers for me.  I’m not talking about the cheeses of uniform weight that are shrink wrapped in heavy plastic – those are fine.  Every time I have bought those “thin wrapped” cheeses they have molded almost immediately upon bringing them home.  Several of them molded over before I even opened them, and before their sell-by date.  This tells me that wherever these cheeses are cut and wrapped is not the most sanitary of facilities.  I have never had this problem buying cheese anywhere else, so I just avoid any cheeses from TJs that have been processed this way.  Go figure.
  • TJ Brand Organic Milk – This isn’t an out-and-out clunker, but it’s not the best organic milk out there and I only buy it when I don’t have time to go buy milk anywhere else.  I choose organic milk for several reasons:  it’s better for the cows and dairy farmers, it’s better for the environment, it’s better for me and it actually tastes better.  I think part of why organic milk tastes better is that it is routinely ultra-pasteurized.  TJ’s organic milk is not ultra-pasteurized; it just doesn’t taste as good to me, and when I use it to make yogurt, the yogurt doesn’t have the same creamy texture and taste it does when I make it with other brands of organic milk.
  • Chocolate Almond Spread – wow, I really fell for the Fearless Flyer write up on this one.  Dummy me thought this stuff was almond butter with a little bit of cocoa and sugar, ’cause that is pretty much where the write up led.  Normally I scrutinize the nutrition label of everything (and I mean everything) I buy, but this time I just blindly trusted TJ’s not to mislead me into buying pure crap.  I bought a jar and thankfully took a glance at the ingredients before I opened it.  The #1 ingredient is added sugar.  #2?  Added fat!  Almonds come in third.  Soooo basically this is chocolate-almond flavored frosting.  Took that puppy right back, tvm!
  • TJ’s Cheese Puffs – these were just yucky!  If you are jonesing for cheesie poofs, get the real thing!  I’m pretty sure biodegradable packing peanuts taste better.
  • TJ’s Mixed Berry Crumb Pie – I’m not sure which was worse – the gummy fruit filling or the soggy, pasty crumb toping.  Mega gross.
  • Uncured Turkey Hot Dogs – By far, the absolute worst hot dogs either of us have ever eaten.  I mean a sacriligious waste of a turkey’s life!  The first clue that they would be hideous is what they looked like after just a few minutes on a medium grill:  instead of looking plump and juicy, they looked dry and shrivelled all over.  The first bite revealed they tasted worse than they looked.  The “skin” was tough and rubbery to bite through, and the “meat” was so soft and mushy.  Seriously, the most disgusting hot dogs ever.  We threw them all out.  Not even worth leaving out for the ‘coons to find them.
  • Jalapeno Hot Sauce – I’m a huge fan of hot and spicy anything.  This sauce just doesn’t cut it for me.  It reminds me a little too much of sauce you get in little packets at Taco Bell – both in texture and taste.  I much prefer Cholula and Huy Fong Sriracha for my hot sauce needs.
  • Potato puff chips – If communion wafers were made out of freeze-dried potatoes this is what they would be.  Yick.

The Trader Joe’s Report – vol. 2

Here are my Trader Joe’s All-Stars – everyday products I always have on hand:

  • Baguettes and Ciabatta Loaves – While every loaf of sliced bread I’ve ever bought at TJ’s has been an unmitigated disappointment (see my post on TJ’s Hall of Shame), the fresh baked breads are winners.  They are baked locally and are fresh and delicious.  I think the bread in our area is baked at a local Lebanese store and restaurant which sells great breads.  I saw their truck making a delivery to TJ’s and I couldn’t think what else TJ’s would be buying from them, but I’ll have to see if I can confirm that theory.  Since these breads are fresh and preservative free, you will need to freeze them if you don’t finish them in a day or so.  When I buy loaves I immediately cut them into serving size chunks and put what I won’t eat that day in a zip top bag in the freezer.  If you defrost the bread slowly at room temp, (wrapped in plastic so it doesn’t dry out) it will taste just like fresh baked.  You can also defrost bread by wrapping it tightly in foil and heating it in the oven for 10-15 minutes.
  • Organic Tri-colored Peppers – these bags of three colored bell peppers (one each of red, orange and yellow) are a great buy.  They are usually very fresh and flavorful, but you have to check the bags carefully.  Every once in awhile they are all a little too soft and you have to pass them up.  I always have these in the fridge for salads, stir-fries, crudité and my favorite use for them – my special summer succotash (check the recipe section).  Peppers are one of the “dirty dozen” fruits and veggies that you should always buy organic if you can.  One thing I love about TJ’s is that they make buying organic so affordable.
  • Salts and Spices – TJ’s offers good prices on a limited selection of quality seasonings.  My faves are French thyme, oregano, dried pepper flakes (some seriously hot pepperoncino – be sure to store them in the fridge to prolong their freshness), pink Himalayan salt and smoked salt, and my tip-top fave, Pumpkin Pie Spice.  I went nuts when I discovered their incredibly yummy version of Pumpkin Pie Spice!  I sprinkled it on my morning lattes and if a recipe called for any spices, I swapped in this mix with great success.  One caution:  they only carry Pumpkin Pie Spice in the fall, so get it while you can!
  • Frozen Cilantro Cubes – These cubes of frozen herbs are just the right size when all you need is a bit of cilantro to perk up some salsa or guacamole.  As a bonus, I reuse the cute little trays to freeze grated fresh ginger into tsp. sized cubes.
  • Frozen Diced Mango – Mangos have been all the rage for the last few years, and they are certainly appealing both health-wise and looks-wise (we eat with our eyes, yes?).  Truth is, though, I really hate fresh mango.  It has a sharp, peppery taste that is 100% unpleasant to me.  Besides, they are a pain to peel and seed.  However, TJ’s frozen diced mangos don’t have that taste, and you don’t have to prep them!  I use them in smoothies.  My two fave mango smoothies are (1) mangoes, almond milk, yogurt and morello cherries, and (2) mangoes, yogurt, banana, orange juice (or pineapple juice) and a tsp. of matcha powder.
  • Frozen Veggies – TJ’s has great prices on high-quality frozen veggies, many of them organic.  I especially like the organic peas and corn, edamame, the lovely haricot verts, asparagus (not for eating on its own, but in quiche or on a pizza) and especially the organic chopped spinach.  Their spinach is the best frozen spinach I have ever found.  When you defrost other brands of spinach you end up having to squeeze out a tremendous amount of water (and nutrition).  I don’t know if it is the type of spinach they use or the fact that it is organic, but TJ’s spinach just doesn’t give off much water when it is defrosted.  You get more usable product, more nutrients, and the benefits of organic produce – win, win, win!
  • Pound Plus Chocolates – These large bars of milk and dark chocolates, both with and without nuts, are great both for baking and well, I’ll admit it, simply chowing down on.
  • TJ’s Chocolate and Yellow Cake Mixes – Again, I’m not much for using mixes.  Most commercial cake mixes are choc-a-block with preservatives, funky additives, artificial colors and synthetic flavors.  But the ingredients in TJ’s mixes are exactly what you would put into a cake if you were making it from scratch.  Nothing fake, funky or felonious.  And the cakes themselves are moist and delicious.  Can’t ask for more than that!
  • President’s Reserve EVOO – this is a well-priced olive oil with a fresh, not too assertive taste.  At prices like this, you can use it for everything – dipping, salad dressings, pastas and sauteeing.
  • Trader Giotto’s Balsamic Vinegar – I’m sure this is not the best stuff out there, but it is quite passable for salad dressings, cooking, and dzujing up a sandwich (I love balsamic vinegar on my Italian sandwiches!).
  • This … Walks into a Bar Fruit Bars – These are tasty little snack bars, kinda like giant Fig Newtons.  Fig is my fave flavor, but blueberry and strawberry are good too.
  • Frozen Brown Rice – This seems like the height of lazy here, but sometimes you want dinner on the table quick and we all know brown rice takes at least 40 minutes to cook.  These pouches of cooked brown rice nuke up light and fluffy and ready to eat in minutes, and the rice has a great nutty flavor.
  • Frozen Potato Cakes – Another breakfast fave at the Whitesides house.  They’re like ginormous flat tater tots.
  • Organic White Corn Tortilla Chips – John is a major nacho hound so we always have a bag of these going.  I got really spoiled on the amazing tortilla chips you get in Mexico – they are so thick, crisp and fresh tasting.  To me most American tortilla chips taste like cardboard and are soooo not worth the calories.  These are my favorite “domestic” chips – nothing like the ones in Mexico, but they have a good corn flavor and they stand up to hearty dips.
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