Archive for March, 2012

Lavender Coconut Milk Bath

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

 I don’t usually post about work, because this blog is supposed to about my spare time, and honestly it’s also about how I handle stress. Work causes me some stress, and when I’m stressed I cook, garden, clean, or scream. Usually, if I do one or more of the first three, I never make it to the last one.  However, my business is a part of who I am, and most of the time it’s all good.

If you’ve never run across what I do for a living while reading this blog, I own a small company that supplies raw materials for making soaps, lotions, and any number of other handmade personal care products.  It’s a completely separate body of knowledge which I should probably try to share from time to time.

Today I’m going to shamelessly plug my business, The Original Soap Dish, and show you how to throw together a really super quick and easy bath product.  It’s a great project for kids and beginners. This is the type of project I’d help my boys do when they were in elementary school, and suddenly decided they wanted to give gifts to teachers for Christmas.

Bath and body products are usually formulated by weight, but for the sake of kids and newbies, I’m going to give  common volumetric kitchen measurements.  Also, each of the ingredients is linked to my website where the ingredients are available.  If you have access to the things you need locally, that’s great!

Lavender Coconut Milk Bath
Before getting started, gather a few common kitchen items:

Measuring cups
Measuring spoons

You will also need the following items:

2 cups coconut milk powder
1/2 cup lavender flower buds
2 Tablespoons lavender fragrance or essential oil
Large heat sealable tea bags

Place coconut milk powder and lavender flowers in the bowl and whisk together until evenly mixed.

Add fragrance oil to the mixture and whisk until thoroughly incorporated.  It’s sort of like making biscuits and cutting oil or butter into flour.  You’ll know it’s done when you have an even consistency, and no clumps of the fragrance oil and powder.  Next, spoon some of the mixture into the empty tea bags.  Each bag will hold about 1/4 cup.

Once the tea bags are filled, simply seal them with a hot clothing iron.  Make sure the iron is set to a high temperature, and the steam is turned off.  The teabags won’t seal properly if the steam is on.

Once sealed, package your bath tea bags for gift giving.  Here I’ve packed a few in a cello bag and made my own labels using clear laser jet labels.  Packaging is a great creative activity in itself.  Your kids may want to get busy with brown paper bags and crayons. You could place the tea bags in decorated recycled jars. Recycle an old tea tin or Altoid tin.  Recycle cardboard tea boxes by stamping, or using some of your scrap book materials.


BLT Soup

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

I love homemade soups in general. They tend to be quick, versatile, and nutritious.  Soups help me economize both time and leftovers. Some can be thrown together quickly when crunched for time, others can be simmered in a slow cooker to be ready and waiting at the end of a long hard day. I do have a few soup recipes requiring quite a bit of prep, and not for the faint of heart cook…. like my Hot & Sour Soup. I like to freeze leftover soups, which provide a quick solution on those days when things don’t go as planned, or I suddenly find myself with a house full of unexpected guests (usually hungry teenage boys).  Today I was in the mood for soup, but we’re having unseasonable, record-setting 85 degree weather. I’m still in winter food mode, and having a difficult time switching culinary gears.  It’s simply too warm for something like my Fire Roasted Tomato and Wild Rice Soup, and Chilled Avocado Soup is just all wrong for March.

My BLT Soup recipe, with its light potato soup base and fresh raw veggies,  is perfect for transitioning seasons. This recipe was inspired by a similar soup I had in a restaurant years ago.  I did find a few BLT soup recipes online, but not like the one I ate all those years ago.  After some tinkering this is what I ended up with.

BLT Soup
4 or 5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
2 Tablespoons flour
3 cups chicken broth
1 heaping tablespoon corn starch
Salt & Pepper

BLT Toppings
Crumbled bacon
Shredded lettuce, or other greens
Chopped Tomatoes
Croutons (Zesty Tomato Garlic Croutons recommended)

If you make your croutons and bacon ahead of time, this soup can be relatively quick to put together.  Here’s my bacon technique (I get some really great bacon made from organic pastured pork, and no added nitrates). I cut the bacon into pieces using my kitchen shears, and then toss it in the pan to cook. I try to keep a jar of crumbled bacon on hand in the refrigerator as a quick salad topping.

See my earlier post for making Zesty Tomato Garlic Croutons …. or use store-bought if you prefer.

Melt butter and olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add diced potatoes and cook until tender.  Don’t worry about the potatoes sticking to the bottom of the pan a little.   Once the potatoes are tender, add flour and stir until all oil and moisture is absorbed.  Next add the chicken broth and stir until the broth starts to heat up.  Mix the heaping tablespoon of corn starch with 2 or 3 tablespoons of water, and add to the broth.  Continue to stir until the soup thickens. Salt and pepper to taste.

This is one of those soups that does not have to be served piping hot.  In fact, I like to wait for it to cool a little before I assemble my bowls.

Assemble by ladling soup into bowls and then topping with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and croutons.

Zesty Tomato Garlic Croutons

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

You’re going to need these croutons for the next recipe I post.  I suppose you could use store-bought, but these are better…. at least I think so!

Sometimes I’ll whip up a batch of my Honey Whole Wheat Bread just so I can let it go stale for making croutons.  My family loves croutons. We throw ’em in soups and salads.  Of course they go into French onion soup.  I’ve even caught my 17 year old munching on them like popcorn.

Croutons are a snap. Coat stale bread cubes in flavor bombed oil, toast in the oven, and viola! Croutons! I just throw it all together (not the bread cubes) in my food processor, and taste as I go.  I use tomatoes I’ve dried myself, which don’t have as much moisture as store-bought sun dried tomatoes.  I have to soak them in a little water before I get started, or they won’t pulverize properly in the food processor.  This recipe makes up a batch of flavored oil which is more than needed to make a batch of croutons.  It can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 weeks, and can be used in a variety of ways: croutons, tossed with pasta, or spread on sandwiches for an extra punch of flavor.

Zesty Tomato Garlic Croutons
Cubed stale bread
1 cup sun dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 or 5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
3 teaspoons dried basil
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2-3 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup olive oil

Place all ingredients (except cubed bread) into a food processor and let ‘er rip. Process until the mixture is relatively smooth.

Place bread cubes in a bowl and spoon some of the tomato-oil mixture onto the cubes.

Toss until the bread is completely coated with the tomato mixture, adding more if needed.

Spread the croutons on a baking sheet and toast in a 350° oven.  Check the croutons about every 5 minutes and give them a quick stir.  Because of the sugar content of the tomatoes, the croutons will tend to caramelize, and you want to be careful not to burn them.  My croutons took approximately 15 minutes.

Potato Towers

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Today the weather decided to cooperate with my day off, and I was able to spend some time gardening.  A few days of 70 degree weather has me feeling like I’ve awaken from a long deep sleep. I don’t know if I can remember the arrival of spring making me feel as relieved as it has this year.  My case of the blues seems to have passed with the arrival of the sun and warmer temperatures.

I’m a recent convert to Pinterest, where I found this idea for potato towers.  In the past, I’ve chosen not to grow potatoes because of the space they require, and bought them from my neighboring organic farmer.  It’s true I have lots of space on the farm, but I have huge time constraints. Conventional gardening requires more weeding than I have time for, so I garden vertically and in raised beds….. small space, high yield, and virtually no weeding.  Given the way I like to garden, it’s easy to see why I was attracted to this method of growing potatoes.

I had everything on hand to complete this project, and didn’t need to spend one single penny. The last time I brought potatoes up from the well pit, I brought a few more than I should have.  Thanks to warmer temperatures I ended up with perfect organic seed potatoes that were beginning to sprout.  I also scrounged a roll of rusty fencing from a junky corner behind our barn where my husband likes to stash materials of that sort.

Armed with my rusty fencing, a small roll of flexible wire, and wire cutters, I cut the fencing and wired it up.

I have a utility area near some of my raised beds where I maintain a pile of compost used to amend my soil. Since I do make the effort to keep this area weeded, I thought it would be the perfect location for my potatoes.

I formed a straw “nest” in the bottom of the fencing and filled it with compost for the first layer of potatoes.

I placed the potatoes around the outside edge of the tower, sprout side outward.  I covered the potatoes with several inches of compost, adding more straw around the outside as needed.

I continued with additional layers until I reached the top. I ended up with 4 layers, the top layer about 6 inches below the top of the fence line. I didn’t water the tower yet, because rain is predicted for tonight.  If we don’t get the rain, then I’ll water it tomorrow.  Yes, I know my tower is leaning in this picture, although it looks worse in the picture than in reality.  I fixed it later by driving a couple of hefty stakes into the ground around the outside to provide some stability.  I’ll try to remember to take pictures throughout the growing season, and give a couple of progress reports.


Honey Whole Wheat Bread and a Few Bunny Trails

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

Before I get on with this, I’m warning you my motivation is on its way back,  and I was a little camera happy this morning.

I realize bread making is a little time consuming, but I think it’s worth the effort. You’re probably wondering how I manage to bake bread several times a week when I work a full time job.  Here’s the beauty of working from a shop located on the same property where I live.  I can head to my kitchen on my lunch break, and mix up a batch of dough and knead it.  It’s not uncommon to find a batch of dough rising in my office.  At the end of the work day, I take it back to my kitchen, ready to pop in the oven.

I don’t know why I haven’t blogged my bread recipe before.  I make it so often I could do it in my sleep.  I’ve fiddled around with different ways of making bread over the years. The resulting conclusion of all this fiddling….. the books, famous chefs, food network, etc….. they’ve made it WAY too complicated.  No wonder so many people are intimidated by homemade bread.  Seriously folks, bread has been the staff of life, successfully feeding and nourishing mankind for thousands of years….. it can’t be that complicated!  Of course, in the last 100 years, we’ve managed to corrupt the stuff beyond what our ancestors would recognize as bread.  However, that’s a whole ‘nuther conversation.  Anyway, I’ll show you how I make bread, and I’m warning you…. I break a lot of rules.

I don’t have a convenient local source for bulk organic grains and flours, so I have them shipped from Heartland Mill out of Kansas.  You can shop online, but I tend to phone my orders so I can have them ship on my business’ UPS shipper account.  I’ve got a negotiated volume discount with UPS. Heartland’s prices are fantastic, and even with shipping I’m paying less than if I bought 5 pound bags of organic Bobs Red Mill from the local grocery.  I purchase in 25 or 50 pound quantities, depending on the type of flour.  I tend to use about twice as much all-purpose flour as I do whole wheat flour.  I’m still working on that. I keep my flours and grains in 6 gallon buckets stored under some of my canning shelves in the basement.

Yes, I’m a little OCD.  Yes, I know the shelves are bowing a little. Drives me nuts!  I’ve got a bunch more shelving on the opposite facing wall.  Everything in the buckets is organic: durum semolina for pasta, rye flakes, steel cut oats,  arborio rice, wild rice, green coffee beans, whole wheat flour, unbleached all-purpose flour. The wooden crates are where onions, squash, and sweet potatoes are stored. The large jars on the shelves are dried herbs, spices, dried fruit, and other things of that sort.  I have an arsenal of herbal witch doctory on that shelf. Top shelf is elderberry juice, jams, salsa, and assorted pickled veggies and relishes.  If you’ve ever received a food gift from me, it’s a good bet it came from the top shelf.

So, on to bread making. This is my base recipe for bread, and I vary it depending on what I’m making. If I’m making raisin bread I’ll add more honey, a little cinnamon and some raisins.  I’ll form it into focaccia and slather it with olive oil and olives, artichokes, or roasted red peppers. I’ll form it into bagels, boil, then bake them. This recipe produces one average  sized loaf.  I don’t like to make 2 loaves at a time, since I prefer fresh bread and there are only 3 of us in the house these days.

Honey Whole Wheat Bread
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vital wheat gluten
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
Up to 1/4 cup honey
1 egg
1 to 1 1/2 cup warm water

I usually just throw my ingredients into the bowl without measuring: one part each of whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour, about 1/2 palm full kosher salt, a scant palm full active dry yeast, and a palm full vital wheat gluten.  I decided to be kind and give you some measurements.  I warned you I break rules.  No messing with extra containers, softening yeast in water ahead of time.   I just dump all the dry ingredients together and give them  a quick stir with my spoon.

A little bunny trail here with some information on ingredients.  Bread does not taste good without salt. (period).  Most recipes don’t call for enough.  I use more salt.  Salt does tend to slow down the activity of yeast, yeast feeds on sugar, and this recipe includes plenty of honey.  See where I’m going with this? I’ve never had a problem with the salt preventing the yeast from doing its job.

I include vital wheat gluten when using whole grain flours because I get a better rise from the dough as well as a lighter crumb in the finished bread.  You can choose to leave it out, but you’ll probably end up with a heavier more dense loaf of bread.

Next, combine the honey, egg, and warm water. A quick aside on water amounts.  The amount can vary depending on your flour.   My current batch of flour needs about a cup, but I’ve needed to use as much a 1 1/2 before.  If your dough is a little too wet, just work a little more all-purpose flour into it when you knead the dough.  I’ve developed a sense for how the dough should feel, and know when I need to use more or less water.

Don’t worry if the warm water causes the egg white to get a little hazy, because you’re just going to mix it up like this.

And then dump the wet into the dry.

Stir it until it forms a rough dough.

Dump it onto the lightly floured counter top and knead for about 5 minutes.  At this point I walk away from it, and let it rest for 5 minutes while I do something else.  I took the time to refill the nearly empty flour canisters I keep on my counter. Knead the dough for a few more minutes, until it feels smooth and elastic.  Drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom of a bowl and turn the dough in the oil to coat it.

Cover the bowl with a cloth and set it in a warm draft free place to rise until doubled in size.  Rising time will vary depending on too many factors to list.  Expect anywhere from 1 to 2 hours for the first rising. This batch took 2 hours because the house was cool this morning.  This is one of my favorite vintage tea towels.  It’s too pretty to use for any messy kitchen work, so I use it as a proofing cloth.

Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down, knead it a few times, and place it back in the bowl with a drizzle of oil to rise a second time.  The dough will rise more quickly the second time.

After the dough has doubled a second time, punch it down, knead it a few times, form it into a loaf, and set it aside to rise for the last time.  I love crusty free form loaves, but my guys don’t care for crust, so I bake the bread in loaf pans.  I do whatever it takes to keep them from requesting that soft, tasteless, chemical laden, plastic wrapped stuff that passes for bread these days.  This last raising will take as little as 30 minutes. 

Once it has doubled, place the loaf in a 350 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes. Yet another bunny trail….. baking time and temperature.  350 for 30 minutes is what works for me.  My oven is not properly calibrated, so I bought an oven thermometer to make sure my oven is properly preheated.  As I mentioned before, my family likes a less crusty, soft crumbed bread.  If I had it my way, I’d make a crusty free from loaf baked at about 400 or 425 for about 20 minutes, on a stone, and with steam for the first few minutes of baking.  My point being, do what works for your quirky oven and personal taste.

I know you’re supposed to let the bread cool before cutting if you don’t want to mangle your loaf.  Mangling be damned! I wanted a piece so I cut it right away, slathered it with some homemade strawberry vanilla jam, and made myself very happy.