Friday, September 30, 2011

APPLES! Picking, Saucing, Canning

This summer I have been a bit like a squirrel saving as many summer foods as I can to last us through the winter.  I have been filling our freezer with gallon bags of berries and nectarines for smoothies and baking.  Now that the air is crisper I have been fixated on canning apple sauce.

When I was little my Mom made berry jams in the summer.  I remember picking, slicing, and mashing fruit, and boiling everything; all the while being hot and sticky.  I also remember insane amounts of sugar going into each batch.  I wanted to try canning but I just can't in good conscience make a food with that much sugar for my family.  It's not that I am anti-sugar as much as I am opposed to masking the natural flavors of food.  All of this thinking led me to apple sauce.

A couple weeks back I received an invitation from my aunt and uncle to help myself to their tree's bumper crop.  They have two beautiful trees.  One tree is just bursting with rusty red apples and the second tree has fewer apples but they are big, golden and gorgeous.

I didn't want to be greedy, since they weren't home when we were picking, so I filled half a grocery bag between the two trees.  While I was picking my son entertained himself with foraging for fallen fruit.  He is generally happy to entertain himself with eating (think The Very Hungry Caterpillar).  I try to make sure the food he has access to is wholesome so chomping through a bushel of apples is okay by me.

I'm not sure if I have picked apples in any quantity before but it was surprisingly quick.  In no time at all we were back in the car and headed to the farm stand.

While I was researching canning methods for apple sauce I noticed many recommendations to use an array of apples varieties to achieve the best tasting sauce.  I have driven by this farm stand many times but never checked it out.  I was glad I stopped because it had beautiful produce at great prices.  I picked out three more types of apples to round out my blend.  I didn't weigh them but I am guessing when I had them all mixed together I probably had about thirty pounds of apples.

When I got home and dumped them all into a basket I was excited and a little overwhelmed by the volume of fruit.  So I took some artsy pictures while I worked up the nerve to dig in.
If you have never made apple sauce before I encourage you to give it a try.  It is simple and not particularly time consuming and can be done in any size batch you want.  I have made just a small pot with three or four apples just to have with dinner.

There are varieties of apples that cook down better than others.  I, however, generally use whatever type I have on hand.  I do not recommend using tart apples.  I have found tart apples do not cook down as nicely and need to be sweetened.  For my canning project I used five varieties the two I picked plus Gala, Honey Crisp, and Golden Delicious.  Admittedly it is a bit starchier than I would like. I think it may be from the Golden Delicious but I am not sure.

Here is how I make my apple sauce: 

  • Peel all the apples by hand
  • Slice them in half and use a melon baller to remove the core
  • Using a paring knife, trim the ends to remove any remaining peel or stems
  • Quarter the apples
  • Toss into large sauce pan or pot depending on the quantity you are making
  • Add a cup or two of water
  • Squirt with lemon juice, about 1 TB
  • Top with 2 or 3 tablespoons of cinnamon
  • Cover and cook over medium heat
  • When it starts to bubble and boil, turn the heat down to medium low or low
  • Stir occasionally and add water as needed to keep the sauce the consistency you would like.

I like a chunkier more substantial sauce to be more like a side dish or a snack so I just stir with a wooden spoon to break up the apple pieces.  For a smoother texture mash with a potato masher, blend or put through a food mill.  If you would like it to be sweeter, add a pinch of brown sugar or honey.

Taking the extra steps to can apple sauce was completely new territory for me.  I don't want to give misinformation on proper canning technique so I recommend doing a little research.  I found good information at a website called Simply Canning.  True to form I fudged their instructions a bit.  I don't have a canning pot, funnel or canning tongs so I put a stone trivet on the bottom of a large pot and used my standard tongs and a pot holder to move my jars around.  Honestly it would have been better to use the proper equipment but I was impatient so I just went for it.

I was super excited when my jar lids sealed properly.  My first batch yielded three quarts of apple-y goodness.  The next batch was a bit bigger and I added some chopped ginger.  I still have another batch worth of apples on my counter.  If you have any suggestions for spices to add, post them in the comments.  It would be fun to have several flavors in the pantry to get us through until next apple season.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Slow Cooker, Fast Food

School is back in full swing, the leaves are turning golden and today at my house the weather is deliciously rainy and gray.  Time for some warm hearty dinners that won't derail my weight loss goals!

Last week I pulled out my slow cooker and got busy making one of my favorite easy dinners, Slow-Cooker Lasagna.  The recipe is from Cooking Light Superfast Suppers.  This book is full of quick, tasty, and best of all light recipes.  The book is organized into sections that are printed on the bottom of the pages, I can flip through and quickly find what I am looking for. I also like the way they frame each recipe with suggestions for creating a complete meal in a snap.  The nutrition information is included for each dish as well as the estimated preparation and cooking time.  This book was a gift from my brother-in-law a couple of years ago, so a big "thank you" to Chris!

Here is the recipe:

Slow-Cooker Lasagna

prep time: 12 minutes, cook: 6 hours


  • 1 pound ground round
  • 2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • (26-ounce) jar chunky garden-style pasta sauce*
  • 1/3 cup water
  • uncooked lasagna noodles
  • Cooking spray
  • (4 1/2-ounce) jar sliced mushrooms, undrained
  • (15-ounce) carton part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided


  • Cook beef, garlic, and Italian seasoning in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until beef is browned, stirring to crumble. Drain; set aside.
  • Combine pasta sauce and water in a small bowl; set aside.
  • Place 4 uncooked noodles in a 4-quart electric slow cooker coated with cooking spray, breaking noodles to fit. Layer with half each of beef mixture, pasta sauce mixture, and mushrooms. Spread ricotta cheese over mushrooms. Sprinkle with 1 cup mozzarella cheese. Layer with remaining noodles, meat, pasta sauce mixture, and mushrooms. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese. Cover with lid; cook on high-heat setting 1 hour.
  • Reduce heat setting to low; cook 5 hours.
  • *any flavor or brand of pasta sauce will work in this lasagna - just make sure that you use a comparable jar size.  A 26-ounce jar had about 3 cups of sauce.  If you're trying to increase your fiber and complex carbohydrates intake, use whole wheat lasagna noodles.
  • Calories 361 (30% from fat); Fat 12.2g (sat 6.5g, mono 3.7g, poly .6g); Protein 28.6g; Carb 31.1g; Fiber 3.2g; Chol 61mg; Iron 2.9mg
  • Cooking Light Superfast Suppers,  2003
I rarely make a recipe as printed so here are my personalizations:
.7 lbs of ground sirloin in place of the 1 lb. of ground round
I browned the meat with a small diced yellow onion for extra flavor
fresh crimini (baby bella) mushrooms in place of the canned
chopped yellow squash and small zucchini to bulk up the veggie content (spinach or kale would be good too)
a can of diced Fire Roasted Tomatoes with Garlic (my new favorite ingredient)
3 layers instead of 2

Due to an oversight, (I forgot to buy the noodles) I cooked the onion and ground sirloin a day a head of making the lasagna.  The good news was assembling the dish was really fast and if you are putting this together in the morning before leaving the house I highly recommend browning your meat the night before to save time.

The next day, noodles ready to go, I mixed the fire roasted tomatoes in with the pasta sauce and water.  Then combined the diced mushrooms, zucchini, squash and meat to make them easier to layer.  

Before I started layering my assistant volunteered to taste test some of the ingredients.  He was pleased to be making a meal using "crackers," other wise known as whole wheat lasagna noodles.

Within a few minutes the lasagna was assembled and ready to cook.  I paused to take a few shots for this blog post.  

This is what was going on when I turned around.

Several hours later the house smelled great and the lasagna was ready to eat!

I have to admit I have not been able to make this dish look pretty on a plate but smell is mouth watering and it tastes great. Hopefully your table will be surrounded by hungry loving people and not cranky food critics.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Be, Do, Have

Have you ever seen this image?  I hadn't before Monday when our Weight Watchers leader drew it on the board.  Now I have to admit my attention was divided between what she was sharing and my son throwing cereal on the floor so I may have missed some key points, but, let me give it a whirl.

After a quick internet search I discovered the "Be Do Have" model is used in many different self improvement arenas.  Basically the point is to visualize what or who you would like to be, do the things that person would do and have the results that person would have.  I think it is a really neat tool.

Isn't it easy to sit around and think about who we could be if only we could have different things.  We would have more money if we had a different job, we would go more places if only we had a better car, we would be tidier if only we had a nicer house to keep clean or we would wear nicer clothes if we had a better body to dress.  If only we had these or any number of other things, then we could finally stop rushing and fighting with life and just be happy.

Remember when all the buzz was about "The Secret"?  Just tell the universe what you want and if you really want it things will begin to go your way.  There was a scene in the movie where one of the narrators talks about going to the mailbox day after day only to have more bills appear.  He started to visualize money and suddenly there were checks and no bills.  Here is my conclusion.  While this person was telling "the universe" what he wanted he was thinking more about what he wanted to become and started to act like that person.  I think he may have been a writer.  He probably started sending out articles, meeting with publishers, revamping previous projects and low and behold it began to yield results!  I don't doubt that he was working before the visualization but when he started thinking about how to have money by being a writer he began to do more about it.

The real secret is action with a goal.

You can spend a day, week or year visualizing and telling the universe whatever you want but unless you get up and take action it is highly unlikely any amazing change will come into your life.  (I never say never though, just in case)  You can also be going and going trying to do things that you are supposed to but if you don't know what your goal is all your efforts may wind up being a lot of wasted energy.

Bringing the idea back to diet and exercise.

At the same Weight Watchers meeting my husband shared that he feels like he holds himself back because he wants to have all the right gear or gadgets before he can engage in an activity.  This seems to me like a common trap.  Do you need to have running shoes to be a runner, a roasting pan to cook a chicken, a nicer car to be on time to work or your dream house to pick out furniture you love?  Imagine for a moment that you will never have the thing you think you need.  Think about it.  Now what?

I am absolutely guilty of this behavior myself.  When I started going to the YMCA on a regular basis I really wanted to say that I couldn't get in a good workout because my sweats were not right and my shoes were worn out.  Then I stopped and thought about how dumb that would sound to me if I heard someone else say these things.  So I started working out and after a few weeks I did begin to upgrade my athletic gear but only after I built a habit of going to the gym.  It turned out getting started just took me making the effort and following through again and again.  My shoes were fine and my baggy sweats still allowed me full range of motion on the equipment.

I do not disagree that some activities require specific tools.  If you have a boat but no oars it would not be wise to push out into a lake.  My point is if you look out the window and think, "it's a beautiful day to be out on a boat, but I have no boat," it will still be a beautiful day and you can still spend time outside.

Here's the flip side to the coin.  Raise your hand if you or someone you know owns exercise equipment.  Keep your hand raised if the equipment is used as an extension of your closet or a layer of dust on it.  I am guessing there are a large number of hands raised.  We have a treadmill and I actually use it, occasionally.  See the thing is just having things does not get me any closer to my goal.  I have to be in the mindset of using the treadmill.  I really enjoy going to the Y so when I use the treadmill I feel like I am cheating on the gym.  (please don't tell me I am alone in my wackiness)  When I don't use the gym or the treadmill neither is doing me any good.

The visual of the triangle will be really helpful to me.  As I make choices and changes I can set a goal to be different, imagine what I would like to have, and plan what I need to do to achieve the goal.  Simple and hopefully effective.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bringing our food to the table

Often as a part of our before dinner prayer I include a request to, "bless all the hands that brought this food to our table."  When I started saying the words I didn't stop to think about what they really meant.  I suppose I thought about farmers, ranchers, and grocers but it wasn't until about a week ago that I began breaking the process of food down further.

I really like the bucolic simplicity of eating farm to table but, my reality is, we are a busy suburban family that takes advantage of processed foods.  I don't make my own bread from wheat I grew then ground into flour, nor do we have meat only when our livestock is grown and ready for butchering.   When the option is available I always prefer to purchase food for my family as close to where it was grown as possible.  However - after a quick look through our cupboards I found items produced and shipped from all over the world including Canada, England, Sweden, Vietnam, and Thailand.  We buy national brand foods particularly cereals, snack foods, and condiments and weave them into a diet of commercially grown produce, meat and dairy products.

So, what does it mean to pray for "all the hands that brought this food to our table?"  
I do believe that first and foremost it means the growers, the shippers and the distributors.  Many of those companies have recognizable public images created by marketing and advertising agencies so I am praying for them as well. 

I watch television and listen to the radio where there are commercials for the national brand companies and the grocery stores I shop in.  Those commercials may influence my purchases, so I am praying for script writers, actors, directors, editors, sound technicians, lighting and camera operators, cable companies, radio stations, electronics manufacturers, and others working in communications.

Looking further, there are the agencies who's job it is to regulate growing, packaging, shipping and selling, so when I pray for our food I am also praying for the USDA, FDA, EPA, customs agencies, lawyers, PR firms, lobbyists, and even some politicians.  

The web of people who have a hand in what arrives on our dinner table is more complicated than a family tree.  Layers and layers of millions of individuals with direct or indirect influence over our food.  I will continue to include all of them in my mealtime prayer.  I am usually the last hand between my family and the food we eat but I absolutely couldn't do it alone.