Monday, July 29, 2013

Food Storage: Transporting hot & cold foods

For our vacation, we rented a hotel room with a kitchenette. It did legitimately save us money on breakfasts and lunches and even a couple dinners, as we were able to do a picnic dinner the night we went sailing, and supply foods for a backyard BBQ another night. (And as the room was the same price as some of the other local hotels without kitchenettes, it didn't cost us any extra there either!)

Of course, Seattle being about 30-50% more expensive for groceries than Portland/Vancouver, and seeing as we wouldn't be getting into town until after our first wedding of the trip, I didn't want to have to buy much food up there.

Enter the cooler.

Place food, insert ice, seems pretty simple. But what about if you have cardboard foods that could get soggy in the melted ice? I put a couple items in small garbage bags with good results! Unfortunately, there aren't many plastic-conscious ways of handling that, unless you want to transfer to glass containers.
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The last day of our vacation, we were supplying the entree (and possibly all the food) for a friends' wedding. Lasagna seemed the easiest way to do this, as we would be getting in LATE the night before a NOON wedding at the end of a long week, so time and ease was imperative.
*Tip: Costco lasagna says it has 12 servings in it; IT ACTUALLY DOES. Do not upsize the serving much, especially if there will be any other food, they're bigger than you think. 
But a 2-hour cook time (plus some for filling the oven) and a half hour drive plus setting up before a noon wedding which wouldn't be terribly long but still.... it all meant that we needed to get the lasagna in the oven around 8am, and a way to keep it hot! We had a chafing dish, but it only had room for two of the four lasagnas we made. In retrospect that would have been plenty--but that's beside the point now. And a chafing dish can't be used for transporting.

I'm not sure how much of this is industry knowledge and how much people may have picked up from eating at buffets, but if you are restaurant industry, just skip to the next paragraph. Chafing dishes involve a rack with room for a deep pan to sit over some cans of fuel, a shallower pan for the food, and a lid. You fill the deep pan with water to create steam, which disburses the heat from the single or dual-point source of heat at the bottom. Then you put the shallower pan inside that, trapping the steam in, keeping everything over the steam bath hot. No electricity required. If you tried to transport it all set up, you would end up with lots of spilled food, spilled water, and a flying can of flame. 
Enter the "cooler".

Remember that the cooler is simply a thermal device, much like a giant ravel coffee mug. It keeps the inside temperature mostly constant as compared to the outside temperature, and you can manipulate that inside temperature as you wish. Most people use lots of ice for a cooler, but you can make it colder with dry ice. Similarly, you can keep hot things hot in it. Spoiler alert: This worked much better than even I expected.

So we baked the crap out of some lasagna. Carefully rotated it up->down and left->right to combat hot spots. We lined the cooler with a towel for additional insulation and to keep the lasagna from sliding too much. Of course, the lasagnas had foil lids, which would have collapsed under the weight of one being on top of another, let alone stacking four of them (no, we couldn't fit them next to each other, my whole life is a half inch problem). To disburse the weight to the walls of the dish, we just put wire racks and cookie sheets between them. Success! Another towel on top, and we were off to the wedding.

Here's where I would change things: We took the hot pot to make boiling water for our chafing dish and that was all fine and dandy. The chafing dish worked, but it was an unnecessary additional stressor in this case. We set the food up before the wedding, because the reception was to be starting immediately after the ceremony.

Lasagna came out of the oven at 11am. When the reception started at 2pm, the lasagna still inside the cooler was still so hot that you couldn't even hold the edges with your bare hands. At 3pm when we left, the final lasagna that never made it out of the cooler was still so hot to the touch you couldn't hold it from the bottom, or even carry it by the edges more than a couple feet without hot pads. That's 4 hours! I took an internal temperature just in case: We pulled them from the oven just over 160 degrees, and at 3pm, the final one was just over 140. We hadn't even hit the danger zone for bacterial growth yet, and could have left it out for another 4 hours relatively safely. Though cheese left out at room temp would have looked disgusting in 20 minutes, but I digress.

That's why I say the chafing dish was an unnecessary stress. I could have simply pulled out a lasagna at a time from the "cooler", and placed it on the table as people went through the buffet line. Easy peasy.

So next time you have to drive across town with a hot casserole for Thanksgiving dinner, or want to have something other than a slow cooker to keep your pot luck buffet food hot, take a second look at the thermal box you usually put ice into.

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Have you been going to many weddings lately? What is your go-to pot luck dish? 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Menu: July 29-August 4; using leftovers and restocking the freezer

With all the leftover food from the wedding on Saturday, and specifically the veggies we forgot to take for the salad and veggie trays, we have a LOT of produce. Produce purchased in plastic packages (oh dear, way that 5 times fast!). It has struck me how these packages involve so many chemicals that I can smell and taste them. It has been so long since I used pre-packaged broccoli and carrots that I forgot what that tasted like. It gave me a headache. But I can't bring myself just to throw it away! And it isn't as obvious when you don't eat them raw. Still, in the future I think it is worth the effort to chop up some broccoli and romaine!

We had a bit of a mishap right before we left on vacation. An impulse buy of ice cream bars got shoved haphazardly into the big freezer, and kept the door from sealing properly. Mr. Moon found the issue the next morning, but not before we lost quite a bit of our stores. Mostly vegetables, bread products, and our homemade food items. We took the opportunity to remove some items that had questionable origins or storage times, so while we aren't working with a totally clean slate out there, at least all the items on our inventory list have estimated or accurate purchase dates now. And of course, with vacation and it being the end of the month, there isn't much wiggle room for finances to just buy whatever.

What's a homesteading couple to do? Try to use up as many of the abundance of veggies as we can, and re-stock the freezer with the things we like to eat!




Mr. Moon has a new schedule with more early days, so leisurely mornings and late evenings are out. We basically skipped our chores the week before vacation so it's been two weeks for most things. We aren't trying to do any marathon cleaning sessions, we are following Nony's advice and just going through our routines. We DID make a point of not planning any "projects" for the week, and just focusing on getting back into our cleaning routines, allowing that they will take a bit longer than they have been to get caught up. Slowly but surely, the house will get to some semblance of order.

What's on the menu?

Breakfasts: Mr. Moon: Oatmeal, cereal; Me: Eggs, yogurt, fruit.

Lunches: Salad, quesadillas, ramen/pho soup.

Snacks: Veggies, OatDough (check back on Thursday about this!), fruit.

Dinners:
Monday: Day off! Grocery shopping, food prep, bathrooms all on the to-do list.
Batch cook: Broccoli Mac, one for dinner and two for the freezer. [vegetarian; pasta; leftovers; batch]

Tuesday: Day off! Coffee date in the afternoon, Laundry Day, vacuuming, and Bedroom pick-up.
Chicken & Mushroom & Rice casserole [bird; rice; casserole; freezer]

Wednesday: Mr. Moon works early. Kitchen and Lounge day. Date night in the evening.
On Your Own Night. Mr. Moon and I are pooling our leftovers and having a bruschetta night. Looks like right now for toppings we have a smoked salmon spread, plum jams (pepper and rosemary both sound good with this), goat cheese (plain and herbed), maybe a spinach artichoke dip, roasted red peppers (that I will mix with something to make a topping, probably a traditional tomato garlic bruschetta topping), and pickles and olives. [OYO]

Thursday: Day off! Dining room and Laundry room day. And also trash and recycling. Gosh our days are so exciting. But since we are having people over Saturday after he gets off work, getting ahead on the living room pick-up is in order.
Steak Pita Sandwiches with Broccoli Salad [beef; pita; salad; sandwich; freezer]

Friday: Mr. Moon works a double. We've taken the chores entirely off this day, because there was no point in pretending it was going to happen! They got shifted to other days, and this is the week we test the new routine. But also important is making sure there is a dinner plan in place that won't tempt us to grab take-out mexican on the way home (the only thing open when he gets off work).
'Rents: Clam Chowder (freezer); Us: Ribs, which don't take that long to cook if they're thawed ahead of time; leftover broccoli salad. [fish; pork; freezer; easy]

Saturday: Mr. Moon works and early shift after a double--brutal! But it means he gets a weekend night off work, and that's saying something. Chores should be quick after work, vacuuming and picking up the living room and bedroom. We are having friends over for our much-anticipated bahn mi sandwiches and mojitos. Not too spicy on the meat or fridge pickles, I'm going to top them with cilantro and make a jalapeno lime aioli sauce (and then just use mayo for the 'rents since they don't like spice). Probably serving on a ciabatta roll because as much as I love them on sourdough baguette, the ones we can get around here are WAY too chewy for my poor jaw to manage, and the soft ones I like I only know how to get through a food service supplier. [pork; Cuban; pot luck; spicy; freezer; sandwich]

Sunday: Mr. Moon works the late shift, so everyone is On Your Own for dinner. I expect leftovers. Otherwise there is chicken we can cook. [OYO]

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What's on your menu this week? Need planning ideas? I'll be linking up at orgjunkie.com, if you need other ideas!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Returning from vacation in 3... 2... 1...

Mr. Moon and I had a fabulous time on vacation! We got to see four beautiful souls get married, reacquainted with some old friends, met some new ones, exhausted ourselves, ate too much junk food, and all-in-all had a marvelous time.

Before moving down here, we spent two months driving back and forth, 3 hours at a trip, multiple times a week. It was a wonderful time to reconnect, discuss our goals and dreams and giggles and hopes and sorrows and concerns about anything that came to mind. It was helpful, because it gave us both time to process and strategize. Even the next two months we had plenty of time in the car together, with his job a half-hour or more commute each way.

Lately our car trips have become shorter as have our tempers. Our time with just the two of us for company and no chores to be doing has become less frequent, and less time on each trip. I noticed it slipping away and thought it was a blessing, more time to Be Productive. But productivity is not the end-all, be-all of existence, a concept which I struggle to internalize and perhaps always will. I greatly appreciated the long drives together we got this week, the brainstorming and the ideas and the outpouring of thoughts I hadn't even yet formed into words, and lest you think it was just me talking, as verbose as I am that was hardly the case. Truly a conversation.

As always on these long drives, the conversation came around to priorities. Who did we definitely need to see while we were home and who would we forgive ourselves for putting off until next time? What do we want to be focusing our energies on in these coming months, and what are we willing to sacrifice to accomplish those goals? What is our plan for our late night and early morning, providing what could be the only food for a friend's wedding the next morning? Yes, everything from the mundane (get the lasagna in the oven before breakfast, let's make sure we get our bedding washed after our sandy trip with mildew hotel room) to the strategic (how do we want to go about getting new flooring in the house, and when can we get friends over for cuban sandwiches?).

We even delved into the philosophical, about the struggle of deciphering between fatigue from fibromyalgia, apathy from depression, the body's natural process of avoiding pain based on past experience of certain activities causing it (i.e. don't get out of bed, the last twelve times you got out of bed you hurt yourself, IT'S A TRAP!), and of course pure coziness. What is fatigue and what is "laziness"? Why do I insist on feeling guilty over this perceived laziness when much of this situation involves factors outside my control? Is there more I could be doing or is the fact that every time I've pushed myself harder than I am now has been too far an indication that ANYTHING more is too much? How much of that is fatigue and how much of that is low metabolism from low activity? How do I even go about finding the answers the these questions and making my life a better one to be living?

One of the results is this: We've decided to drastically scale back our gardening aspirations. The raised beds will be a project for a future home. For now we will limit ourselves to an herb garden and maybe a vegetable or two, though the herb garden will probably still be growing a bit more variety and quantity as we get the herbs back into the raised bed area instead of just tiny pots.

Another result is strangely both an increase and a decrease in our expectations of my daily accomplishments. For reasons which I can't possibly get into here, my goals for any particular day are very simple: Brush teeth (gets me up at least once), do one in-bed physical therapy exercise and one out-of-bed one (maybe at the same time as brushing teeth but if not, gets me out of bed a second time), and take my allergy pills. Anything else I accomplish is gravy. If that's all I get done, that's a good day anyway at current productivity levels. So hopefully this will help combat the depression fatigue (which often dissipates with some activity) and the "but this bed is so cozy, the blanket people have made me their queen and I can't leave them now" factor. If nothing else, it will be more information to be able to figure out where to go from here, medically speaking. Maybe one day I will have a life again?

I have aspirations and dreams. Mr. Moon has his own, and some of them even overlap. I want to have a reason not to feel so hopeless that we can ever achieve them.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Menu: July 8-14

Whew! Almost 100 pounds of plums came off that tree! I'll post about the canning process later this week, but suffice it to say, the first day of preserving went very well. Not perfect, but I didn't expect it to be. I'm proud of all we accomplished.

This week we have more plums to get processed, and start working toward getting ready for a trip we are taking to Seattle for a week. I have no expectations that we will accomplish anything beyond finishing these plums, but it's a hope!

Pops has his first round of chemo therapy on Monday, so we wanted to make sure he had food available that would be appealing but easy to manage for the first few days. The fact that these menu items require little cooking helps since we will be doing lots of canning this week and don't have time for a lot of food prep.

Oh! I wanted to share how last week's Salad Menu worked out! I have to call it a raving success. Pops was a bit hesitant about the idea of taco salad (I've never made them anything that was too spicy except arguably one batch of chili, so I really don't know why, but he was hesitant nonetheless). Actually he was very hesitant about the idea of a week of cold dinners entirely, but he gave it a shot. And boy oh boy, is he glad he did.

Monday was a hot day with hot meatballs marinara and LOTS of cooking ingredients to keep the oven off for the rest of the week. Tuesday was Chicken Broccoli Cheddar Pasta Salad, which had those obvious ingredients as well as some onion and corn with a mayonnaise dressing including some garlic and dill. Really delicious, if we hadn't overcooked the chicken, but irony abounds, the 'Rents liked the dry chicken. Wednesday was taco salad day and that was when we'd spent all day harvesting plums, so we were glad for a quick and easy meal. Both of those took ten minutes or less from the time we decided to make dinner to the time everyone had bowls in their hot little hands and that included frying up some strips of taco meat for the taco salads.

Friday we had a mediterranean rice salad, and YES the lemon rice was fabulous even with a lemony dressing. Truly delicious and both parents went back for seconds. Saturday was supposed to be egg salad sandwiches but we ate all the hard boiled eggs we had and the stovetop was full of preserving stuff so we couldn't boil more, and I never made the carrot slaw as I intended. I offered to make them a green salad and Pops actually ASKED for more of that taco salad if we had things left over. WOO HOO!

This week is a little cooler, 70's and 80's instead of high 80's and 90's, so we have a little soup going on. But let's get to the menu, shall we?




What's on the menu?

Breakfasts: Yogurt & Honey; Hash with veggies and eggs; Eggs & toast.

Lunches: Lunchmeat sandwiches; Bacon Cucumber Tomato sandwiches; Pizzadillas.

Snacks: Yogurt; fruit; veggie snacks.

Dinners:
Monday: Sunny, 84 degrees. Mr. Moon works the early shift, I have some errands to run, and then we are spending some time with a friend in town for the evening.
Parental Units: Split Pea & Ham Soup (already made, reheat from the freezer) [pork; soup; freezer; easy]
Me: Meatloaf and mashed potatoes [beef/turkey; freezer; toaster oven; traditional]

Tuesday: Sunny, 88 degrees. I have an appointment in the morning and afterward we are having some friends over for Plum Processing.
Parental Units: Green Salad [salad; easy; vegetarian]
Me & Mr. Moon: Pizza with our plum guests. [take-out]

Wednesday: Sunny, 81 degrees. I have an appointment in the afternoon, before and after which I think we will be doing the final plum processing. Though truthfully we could finish Tuesday. If we do, Mr. Moon and I get a date night!
On Your Own Night! Mr. Moon and I will make something delicious and spicy. I'm thinking chicken wings for me, he has some spicy Indian sauce to do something with. [OYO]

Thursday: Sunny, 79 degrees. Mr. Moon works the late shift, so we need something for the 'Rents to eat whenever they're hungry and to stop Mr. Moon and I from the temptation of eating out.
Tuna Macaroni Salad [fish; pasta; cold; easy]

Friday: Sunny, 77 degrees. Mr. Moon works a double, so something that the 'Rents can make for themselves is key, and also again keeping us from eating out.
Parental Units & Mr. Moon: Potato Leek Soup [vegetarian; soup; freezer; easy]
Me: Chicken and rice [chicken; rice; freezer; traditional]

Saturday: Sunny, 78 degrees. Our plans for the day are so up in the air, because we don't know what will happen with the plums. I expect we will be done by then, but just in case we are leaving the day open. Backup plan is probably re-arranging our storage unit.
Stuffed Baked Potatoes--we can always add a roast to this if we decide to later. [delicious starchy goodness. I seriously don't know how to classify this meal.]

Sunday: Sunny, 83 degrees. Mr. Moon works the late shift.
On Your Own! I'm having chili for dinner. [OYO]

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What's on your menu this week? Need planning ideas? I'll be linking up at orgjunkie.com, if you need other ideas!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Garden Update: Lack of water = lack of seeds sprouting, & plum tree explodes!

I know I promised a garden update ages ago. I even took pictures! On June 22. Let's see what we have here...


Yes, let's start with an epic fail. I have no idea what was supposed to be in this planter. Badly cropped in the original photo, you can see a scrap of the plastic wrap I put over these to try to get some greenhouse effect on my seeds. Fabulous! All nice and warm and cozy inside there. Problem is, there were apparently no drainage holes in these herb planters. Oops. So no drainage + no ability to evaporate + a gap for watering that allowed the rain in = SWAMP BUCKET!

We since took a drill to the bottoms of these buckets and added a few drainage holes. Having mud fling out at you from the drill bit? Not as delicious as one might expect. Actually it probably is, if you expect it to be kind of gross.


So here in this little failure, you can see again the swampiness, the label that is half washed off from the condensation of the greenhouse canopy, AND the scraggly chives from too much water. Lesson learned, learn from my fail, folks!


This looks a little better! On the left: The smaller, darker leaves are the basil I grew from seed, much happier than anything else I planted. larger stems with the lighter, splotchy leaves are the start I bought from the nursery in hopes of getting a couple kinds of basil to stick around. On the right: The result of buying starts and forgetting about them for days, this dill started to dry up but hopefully will rally in the damp soil it got planted in.


Once I got the plastic off, this cat grass has been happy! Maybe I can get more than one stalk growing at a time...


Oh, these raised beds. From left to right in all rows here: 1) Cucumber, may or may not have sprouted, adding a start in there. 2) Leeks, didn't start, threw some more seeds in. 3) Zucchini sprouted! Bottom: 4) Strawberries didn't start, I put onion starts in here instead. 5) Yellow Zucchini didn't sprout, threw some more seeds in. 6) Butternut squash sprouted! Two of them!


Second verse, same as the first. Top: 7) Should have been tomatoes, didn't sprout. That's a beefsteak I'm planting. 8) Should have been tomatoes, didn't sprout, but I got a marigold in there! And lots of nasturtiums. 9) Should have been tomatoes, had a couple sprouts,  but they're too shaded by the nasturiums. I pulled the big bush of them back and gave the sprouts some room, hopefully they fill in. Bottom: 10) Carrots didn't sprout either, I put some new seeds in there. 11) Got one sprout from my black/purple one! Threw a marigold start in there too. 12) Of course, with the four Bush Bean seeds I planted, two on one side had to sprout. Transplanted one to be kitty corner from the big one, and put the tomato/marigold sprout into a different home--actually that could be the one that's in #8.

Apparently I didn't get pictures of the mint or the berries by the fence, but they're all doing fine. There's a mysterious plant growing into one of the blueberry plants, no idea what's up with that one. 

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Jump to July 3. We woke up nice and late, since the heat for some reason makes me nocturnal. Went outside to check the plums on the tree and this is what we find:


Branches from the tree, broken from the weight of the fruit. I guess cutting out the saplings really did a number on its ability to fruit this year! Not visible here: A huge branch of the tree broke off at the trunk, and enough was left that rather than splinting the remaining two broken branches and bandaging them in hopes of survival, we just cut them off. Half the tree gone. Poor tree. 


But this most-of-a-three-gallon-bucket was what I harvested in less than 10 minutes from one seated position. Intense. And those are just the good ones! With the squirrel-eaten ones, it would have been full!


Two hours later... The equivalent of six three-gallon buckets. That's 18 gallons of plums. I see jam in our future!


And this is the result of missing one "empty-refill" cycle on the dishwasher due to urgent harvesting issues. Making dinner with this mess was a huge test of my OCD and anxiety, it was exhausting and nerve-wracking and my brain still feels like it is misfiring from the attempt. Mr. Moon got it all sorted out rather quickly after we were done eating though. He's so good to me. 

I'll be sure to take pictures of the storage process when we get there. Looks like I will be getting to use my pressure cooker for canning finally too! 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day, America!

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our victories and failures, our blessings and our faults. Today we celebrate the good things our country has accomplished, take a break for a moment to appreciate the freedoms we are afforded by our citizenship, and renew our promise of stewardship of the American Dream. 

Today we are thankful. 

Tomorrow we wake up, alive another day, rested and free to roll up our sleeves to get back to the work at hand of bettering ourselves and our nation. Some people say we should be this patriotic every day. I say if we did this every day, we wouldn't appreciate it as much because it would be the new normal. Heck, some days I don't want to live in this country, let alone claim it as my own. Take a moment to appreciate the good parts, because we still have a lot of work to do on the parts that are still a bit broken. 
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