Friday, April 29, 2011

Frugal Food #2 Start the Garden!

A great way to get excellent quality fresh food at the peak of ripeness, is to grow your own.  You don't have to have a bazillion acres of land in order to have a garden.  What used to be a flower bed in a small city lot can be turned into a vegetable bed and contribute to the food supply.  In fact, you don't actually have to own any land at all.  A little piece of outside and a bucket with dirt in it will do.  I know of college students who have bucket gardens on their apartment balconies.

I am lucky (lucky, until it comes to weeding, lol) enough to have a ginormous garden.  It is approximately 80' x 120'.  Yeah, that big.  That's a lot of weeding to do. I'm not so hot in the weeding department. . .  I think I need an apprentice to train in gardening, particularly in weed identification and removal.

When I had just a small garden, I think it was 20' x 20' back in the day. . .the day when DD2 was still small enough to strap into a back carrier (she'll be starting high school this fall and is as tall as I am. . .), I used to buy my tomatoes and peppers as seedlings.  But with a ginormous garden, buying enough seedlings to fill it is rather expensive.  And half the point of gardening is to cut costs (cuz it sure ain't the enjoyment of weeding!).  So for the last handful of years, I have started my own plants from seed.

This begins, oh, usually sometime in February when I can no longer resist the urge to plant something, anything!  By then I have all ready perused all the seed catalogs that appear in my mailbox as soon as Christmas is over, and ordered enough seeds to fill my garden for the coming growing season.

"Garden in a Box".  My 2011 seed order, plus a few seed packets from the store.

I have several of the plastic 'greenhouse' trays that I just refill with peat pellets each year. The lids are numbered for easier recording of what is planted where.  In addition to that,  I put colored stickers on the outside of the tray and in a notebook to keep track of what is growing in what row in what number tray.

Tray #4, newly seeded with 4 kinds of peppers.

Having radiant floor heat makes my living room an excellent place to start seeds.  I just set the trays on the (warm) floor in front of the sliding glass door.  We don't use that door in the winter anyway.  The heat makes the soil in the peat pellets warm up, condensation appears on the tray cover, and the seeds sprout quickly.

Once the seeds have sprouted, I take the lids off the trays to prohibit damping off, and let the seedlings grow until they have their first set of true leaves.  Then I transplant them, peat pellet and all, into little peat pots.  Those go into foil roaster pans (they were free, what can I say?  And they last for years. . .), with tape labels on the outside of the pans to identify what variety of what vegetable is contained within.

The trays then sit in front of the sliding glass door in my  living room,

and on the ledge in the study,

until the weather is right for them to be hardened off outside (usually on the covered porch--seen through the study window, then the not-covered deck--on the other side of the slider in the living room) before being planted into their designated rows in the garden.

Currently I have about 400 little tomato, pepper, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprout, celery, basil, and parsley plants growing nicely.  Also recently seeded into the trays are cucumbers, watermelon and cantaloupe.  Like I said, I grow a ginormous garden.  There are five of us to feed (at least until DS2 heads for college in mid-August), plus I have a booth at the local farmers' market where I sell baked goods and extra garden produce.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Long-awaited Maple Syrup Post

I'm a bit hesitant to even post this now, three weeks since I finished making syrup.  I mean, syrup season is done here, mentally I've moved on and it's time for early gardening.  However, there are still maple syrup festivals going on in my part of the state, so I guess I'm okay and not totally too late.

I made maple syrup for the first time in 2010.  I'd been thinking about it for several years, since we'd bought this little place here and found some nice sized maple trees back in the woods.  When I found out Mother-in-Law still had spiles (she is a wonderful source of antique and homesteading type things) and was willing to let me use them, well, that was all the little nudge I needed to jump into yet another grand adventure (aka crazy idea, depending on if you're asking me or DH to define it).

The first year was slim; I only tapped the two biggest trees, a total of six spiles, and evidently the weather wasn't too cooperative (I later heard it was a really bad year for syrup).  I also really didn't know what I was doing, having never actually seen tapping done or syrup being made; only what I'd read in books and online.  So it was a comedy of errors that netted me about 3 pints of pretty expensive syrup!  When you're trying to boil down sap over a turkey fryer, outdoors, in the wind, you go through rather a lot of propane (about 2 twenty pound cylinders worth). 

2010 Maple Syrup "harvest"

But, it was also the most absolutely delicious syrup I had ever tasted.  And DH and the kids concurred.  No more pseudo-maple syrup from the store for us.  No, our palates had been enlightened.  From there on out, only the real deal would do.

So, for the 2011 season, I was determined to make more syrup with less propane!  A real evaporating set-up would have been nice, but the price tag on an honest-to-goodness sap pan gave me sticker shock.  So, back to the turkey fryer, but with improvements.  Like getting it out of the wind, and lowering the pot much closer to the flame.

During the summer of 2010, while in the woods to pick blackberries, I identified more maple trees and marked them by tying baling twine around their trunks at eyeball height.  That way I would be sure to know which trees I wanted when late winter came and it was time to tap again.

I also figured out an improved way to secure my collection 'buckets' (aka empty, clean milk jugs) to the taps so that they would not blow off on windy days and spill (ie. lose, waste) sap like had happened my first season.

When the beginning of March came this year, I was ready!  I had my collection 'buckets', I had my spiles (okay, Mother-in-Law's spiles, but I'm pretty sure they're mine now), I had an improved fuel-efficiency plan for boiling down sap.  All I needed was for the weather to break from cold cold to warm days with freezing nights.

Before the first week of March had ended, the weather forecast looked promising.  As a trial, I tapped just one tree, with two spiles.  Sap slowly oozed from the tree and down the spile even as I was gently pounding the spile into the tree.  A thrill of excitement ran through me.  Sap was definitely starting to run. It was time!!

Through the next week, I added a few taps a day, making my way further into the woods (the side nearest the house seems to warm up first) and using the trees I'd marked back in July.  I got much more sap than last year, and much faster.  I was all ready boiling off the first 15 gallon batch of sap when DS2's 18th birthday came just four days after I'd tapped the first tree.

My new and improved 'bucket' attachment method made an enormous difference in the amount of sap I was able to capture.  It was pretty simple, really:  running a short piece of baling twine through the two holes on the side of the spile, through the handle of the milk jug, and tying it around the mouth of the jug.  Voila!  No buckets blew down this season! 
New and improved 'bucket' hanging method.

Sap collecting in the jug on a sunny day.

For 2011, I had 14 taps in 11 trees.  In about five weeks (which included a cumulative 8 days that the temps were too warm, then too frigid for the sap to run), I collected approximately 115 gallons of sap.  By hand, toted to the house in 5 gallon buckets, through a thawing wheat field (uphill both ways, yadda yadda yadda.  ;0)  The tractor was broken still.  Next year, it will do the toting for me.) 

All that sap boiled down to 2 gallons, 6 3/4 pints of syrup. 

The boiling off was definitely faster and more efficient this year, done in the garage with the overhead doors cracked open about 3" for ventilation, and by prewarming sap on the stove in the house before adding it to the boiling sap in the fryer pot.  Each 15 gallon or so batch took about 18 hours start to finish, mainly because I couldn't stay up all night boiling.  I'd start the boil at noon, shut it off at midnight, and restart again about noon the next day when I got done with my morning horse farm chores.

What I found very interesting this year was seeing how the color of the syrup changed as the season went on. Since I'd only done one batch last year, I was surprised to learn first hand how syrup changes grade from the beginning of the sap run to the end.

2011 syrup "harvest".
Seven batches of syrup, noting color/grade change.

My first batch was very light golden brown.  As time went by, and the weather warmed, the syrup changed to a red-brown, then brown, then a dark brown.  The taste was still maple syrup deliciousness, no matter what the color. 

The 2011 syrup season changed me from a casual syrup maker to a syrup making addict.  I will definitely  be making maple syrup for many years to come.  I all ready have customers lined up for next year (several people have asked to purchase syrup from me, should I produce more than what our family can consume in a year), and I am scoping out more maple trees for an expanded operation.  :0)

And best of all, DH is now thoroughly on board for this grand adventure.  Which means it really is a grand adventure, not just a crazy idea.  He's working on designing a wood-fired evaporator set-up (free heat from the woods + free sap from the woods = free syrup!) and talking to the local farm repair shop about welding up a sap pan from sheet steel for 2012. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter at This Little Place Here

Easter requires planning ahead.  I'm not just talking about buying the candy and hiding it from the kids; no, it's so much more planning than that.  Besides, the kids are past the Easter Bunny stage.  They know darn well that the candy comes from Mom.  :0)  I did manage to surprise them this year with homemade chocolate bunnies though. . . finally found a set of bunny molds!  Now if I could only find a recipe for making chocolate totally from scratch instead of the melt-and-pour chips.

But, I digress. . .

Planning for Easter begins in the fall, when Mother-In-Law gets her pig butchered.  She gifts us with pork every year.  Of what we are gifted, I need to make sure I save one ham for Easter dinner.  It must go into the deep freeze and everyone at this little place here must know that it shall not be eaten before Easter arrives, or else (insert ominous music here)

It's not just the ham that needs to be set aside ahead of time.  Eggs also must be designated for Easter and set aside in the Beer Fridge (aka the extra fridge retrofitted with a tap for dispensing Homebrew) to age at least three weeks.  Less than three weeks and they don't make hard boiled eggs that peel cleanly for the most aesthetically pleasing deviled eggs.  (I also annually contribute deviled eggs--roughly six dozen of them--to our church's Palm Sunday Potluck dinner).

And then there are the pies.  The pies need to be made the day before, mainly because Easter morning is full of church, and by the time we get home from church and construct pies from scratch we wouldn't be eating until evening.  Which doesn't work when you are hosting relatives that have a bit of a drive, who want to be back to their own homes at a reasonable hour.

The ham also needs time to cook after church and before being served as the main meal of the day sometime around 2:30-3:00 p.m.  The rolls need enough time and warmth to rise before cooking, and everything orchestrated so the ham is sliced, the potatoes mashed, the gravy made (always homemade gravy, canned gravy from the store would be a sacrilege!), and the veggies hot and ready to serve when the rolls come out of the oven hot, fresh, and golden brown.  It is the chef's ballet.

My particular ballet had a few rough spots this year, due to the electricity going out on Saturday afternoon shortly after I put the apple pie into the oven.  I also had our weekly bread to bake (dough rising and timed just so it would be ready to bake when the pie was done cooking) and a lemon meringue pie to finish.  The pie shell for that one had been baked prior to the apple pie going into the oven, and was cooling as it waited to be filled, meringued, and put back into the oven.

The power was out for about three hours (gusty winds had toppled a tree a couple miles down the road; the tree had pulled down the power line).  Just when I was begging a neighbor on a different electric trunk line to let me use her oven, my electricity was restored.  Hallelujah! 

I had to estimate how cooked my apple pie had gotten based on it's appearance, and guess how much longer to cook it.  Evidently I guessed right, because this is all that was left of it after Easter dinner:

The lemon meringue pie came out well too. It was completely from scratch, no boxed lemon pudding mix.  The DDs zested and squeezed the lemon for me (and licked the spoon used to stir the filling as it cooked).  As you can see, it was pretty tasty!

I had to laugh when the day was over and the relatives gone home.  My brother's girlfriend I've only met twice.  They've been going out for about two years, but don't live nearby, and last year holidays were really messed up due to work schedules, our Grandma's emergency surgery cancelling Thanksgiving, Brother having kidney stones at Christmas. . . So Brother's Girlfriend hasn't been fully exposed to my non-typical-ness yet.

When they arrived on Easter, I was just getting ready to make my rolls and put them into the muffin pans I was using to shape and cook them (I was feeling lazy and cutting corners on shaping fancy rolls).  I took the bowl of risen dough (white bread recipe, easy, easy!), removed the cloth covering it, and gave the dough a poke, then a good punch. 

Brother's Girlfriend's eyes flew open and she said "What did you just do?!?"

I explained that I was making the rolls and had just tested, then punched down, the dough.  As I spoke, I divided it in half, then each half into half again, and then half yet again, and each small piece into three pieces.  From there I rolled twenty-four balls and put one ball into each greased hole of my two muffin pans.  Then the cloth went back over the dough, and I set them aside to rise again.

Brother's Girlfriend looked at me like I was crazy, and asked, in all seriousness "You do know they sell bags of rolls at the store, right?"

I just smiled.  When those rolls came out of the oven smelling like heaven, I smiled more when I heard the exclamations over the delicious aroma.  Much later, after the relatives were gone, DD1 informed me that when Brother's Girlfriend had buttered one of those rolls and bitten into it, she had said "This roll is awesome!"  Of two dozen rolls, this was all that remained after the meal:

I have to show you pictures of our Easter eggs.  We still love to dye and hide the eggs even though two of the kids have reached adulthood and the other two like to think they are.  It's been eons since I've bought an eye-dyeing kit (so long, in fact, that the two little wire egg dippers I have saved from kits are considered sacred heirlooms by my kids!).  Kits aren't necessary.  All you need is some cider vinegar, some food coloring (I use gel, for nice strong colors), some water, and coffee mugs.

For each color, I put 1 Tbsp cider vinegar and a bit of gel coloring into a coffee mug.  Stir with a plastic spoon to distribute the color (the spoon can also be handy for removing the dyed egg from the mug), then add 1/3 to 1/2 cup cold water.  Put in your hard boiled, cooled, dry egg.  We like to vary the time the egg sits in the color to get different shades.  Also, the natural color of the egg (ours are various shades of brown with the occasional light green or olive Ameracuana egg) affects the color tone.

Our eggs remind me of jewels once they are dyed.  The colors are just beautiful and deep.  I only made five colors of dye: yellow, red, green, purple and sky blue.  Here's pics to show you all the variations we got using just those five colors and our naturally shaded eggs.

The chocolate looking egg near the top left side of the photo was my girls blending all the colors together and using that muddy colored mix to dye the last egg.  Kinda cool; really makes me want to add some Marans to the flock!

(please draw your attention to the two eggs near the top of the photo)Ooh, I wish I had a chicken that laid golden eggs!  Wouldn't that be nice!

The giant blue w/speckles one in the carton at the top of the picture is a turkey egg.  :0)  They are good eating, too.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Turkey Tale

We have five turkeys.  We were supposed to have four turkeys in the freezer last November and one on the table for Thanksgiving.   But the day before butchering day, me and the two DDs were in a car accident.  No one was hurt other than some seat belt bruises, but our little red car was rather crumpled on the front end and undriveable.  That made us a four-drivers-and-only-one-car family, which just didn't work well considering DH works about 35 miles away and the two teen drivers both play sports and other after school activities, all requiring transportation at varying times each day.  So instead of butchering out turkeys on butchering day, we were car shopping for something cheap (had a limited amount of cash on hand and not looking for a car loan), reliable, and available NOW!

Which meant the turkeys would have to wait.  And, truth be told, I was a little sore from the accident and didn't really feel like wrestling with 20-30 pound turkeys to get them plucked and dressed.  My back-up plan was to make them an appointment for as soon as the small local poultry processor (about 15 miles away) had an opening and just pay someone else to get my birds freezer-ready that year.

Until I found out the small local poultry processor had gone out of business.   :0(  There is not another processor within an hour's drive.  Supposedly another is opening soon, but isn't open yet.

Now it was December, and too cold to be messing around outside for hours without warm gloves on.  Warm gloves not being possible attire during the butchering process.  I decided to stick my five turkeys in the chicken coop with the chickens until the weather warmed up enough that we could process the turkeys ourselves without the risk of frostbite.

Not having raised turkeys past about 5 months old before (spring through pre-Thanksgiving butchering time), I did not realize two things:

1) How much they poop!!  Oh my goodness, that coop sure got dirty a whole lot faster once the turkeys were installed!  When I raise them in the summer they live outside with a shelter, never in a building that requires cleaning.

2) How much they eat!!  Without plants and bugs to eat in the cold, snowy, winter, they gobbled the food I put out for them and the chickens.  My poultry feed bill went way way up.

Now that spring has finally sprung, I need to find an afternoon that I have helpers available, and get my five turkeys packed off to freezer camp.  They are huge, especially the tom.  I think he's going to dress out over 40 pounds.  That's a lot of turkey!

The need to get them butchered was driven home this past Saturday.  On Friday, one of the turkey hens had decided to copy the chickens and make use of the nest boxes to lay eggs in.  She was in there when I went to gather eggs that day.  I didn't think a whole lot of it.  Until she was still there Saturday morning, and looking like she wasn't real happy to still be in that nest.  Evidentally she didn't fit--she had her entire body stuffed into the nest box, with her head sticking out the back (DH built my row of six nest boxes out of scrap lumber, so the backs are not solid, but rather have a 2-3" gap between the backside and the 'roof'), and she couldn't go in any direction.  Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me to get a picture of my stuck turkey, and I sure wasn't thinking about asking for it to be brought out from the house when I yelled for DS2 to come help me unstick her.

I had all ready attempted to release her myself, and it just wasn't working.  I needed another set of hands.  When DS2 arrived in the coop, rolling his eyes and wishing we didn't have birds and looking very forward to going off to college in the fall where he will not have to deal with chickens and turkeys of the avian variety, I instructed him to reach around the back of the nest box and gently push down on the turkey's head while I grabbed a leg in each hand and tried to walk her backwards out of the nest box (which has about a 2" lip on front to keep the eggs from getting knocked out).

I got both of her legs up over the lip with DS2 pushing her head (and upper body) down through the opening in the back of the nest box.  But I couldn't get her any further.  Not sure how much a full grown Bronze Turkey hen weighs, but it was enough that I wasn't making any headway trying to pull her body backwards and up over the lip of the nest. 

DS2 and I switched positions, he took the back end and the pulling, and I took the front end and stuffing through the nest box.  Except I couldn't push her far enough gently enough reaching through the back, so I had to try to put both my arms into the nest box with her, one on each side, to hold her wings down and assist in the pulling.

With several minutes of gentle pulling, slight rotating, and hugging her wings to her body, we were finally able to free her from her wooden straight-jacket.  Did she tell us how thankful she was and give us her undying gratitude?

No!  As soon as she came loose of that nest box, those huge wings unfurled and started whacking at us!  She pushed her big drumsticks against DS2's chest, and launched herself away from us.

grumble grumble. . . blasted turkey. . .  grumble grumble. . . date with destiny. . . grumble. . . turkey dinner soon. . .

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Walking in Sunshine

The sun came out this morning!  For the first time this week, the sun is actually shining on this little place here.  The air is still very crisp (in the 30's so far), but the sun is beautiful, bringing out all the green shades of spring.

So, after the critters were fed, the kids were off to school, and I'd had my morning egg (free range, from the home flock) and  toast (from homemade bread) , I took off with the camera for some around-the-homestead spring photos. 

Here is what I found growing this morning:

Little pale blue perennials that I forget their name, in with the irises near the driveway.

Daffodils on the south side of the house (iris shoots in the foreground).  Quite a testament to micro climates:  all the daffodils on the other three sides of the house are just small shoots still, while the ones on the south side have been blooming for about a week all ready.

I couldn't resist a close-up of this daffodil :0)

Hops shoots.  The white ones were covered in mulch that I pulled back for the photo.  The reddish ones are the ones that had poked around/through the mulch and reached sunlight.  These are Cascade hops, for brewing with.  We planted the rhizomes in 2009, and they have gotten very well established.  This particular group needs some serious thinning.  Next week.

Centennial hops (also for brewing), beginning to stick up through their mulch.  This rhizome was just planted last year.

The strawberries are growing!  (And so are the weeds, darn it!  Will have to get out to the strawberry patch after Easter and do some weeding.)  I'm not sure what kind of strawberries these are, aside from being junebearing.  The original dozen plants were given to me by a neighbor almost 14 years ago when she was thinning her own strawberry bed.  I brought over 'descendants' of those when we moved to this little place here in 2003, and these are a few generations later. . .  So I guess the variety is This Little Place Here strawberry.

Horseradish coming up (and picture loaded wrong, ARGH!!  Confession: I am not computer savvy.  This photo was the right way in my files, but won't upload that way.  Anybody got any suggestions?)  My original horseradish root cutting was acquired from a homesteading minded mother of a girl in DS1's senior class in 2007.

Garlic shoots poking up through the mulch in their bed.  I can't wait until summer to harvest!  I loooove garlic!

Rhubarb.  It has grown alot this week (must have been that poor man's fertilizer on Monday, lol).  Now I'm dreaming of pie, muffins, bread, and strawberry-rhubarb coffee cake.  Mmmmm.

Columbine.  This was not visible at the beginning of the week, now it's about 4" tall.  Loving the sunlight today.

Despite the rain earlier in the week (*ahem*, the two days since Sunday morning that it didn't snow), DH and I have been working each evening on planting some spruce seedlings.  The local garden club was selling them 2 for 50 cents, and they are nice sized little trees; most being 12"-18" tall all ready.  We only got 4 dozen this year; usually we get about 100 annually, but the original order info said they would be delivered right before Spring Break, and I couldn't see planting 100 trees all by myself while DH and the teens were in Arkansas.  The day after they left, I found out that the trees weren't actually coming in until this week (for Earth Day), but it was too late to add to our order.  Oh well. There's always next year.

 One of our new spruce seedlings.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Spring is here?

Woke up to snow this morning. Not just in the air, but accumulating on the ground!  Yesterday was extremely windy and cold, and there were snow flakes in the air that disappeared once they touched down on anything.  That was okay.  It happens now and then in April in this part of Michigan. 

But this morning, now that's another story!  Yes, we do often get a late season snow storm around about these parts.  That doesn't mean I have to like it!  I do have to admit, the bright green of the wheat field together with the white snow did make a pretty backdrop when I looked out my window.

Snow this time of year is known as poor man's fertilizer, for the nutrients it brings to the soil and how much it greens everything up when it melts.  So I guess I can be thankful for the 2-5 inches the weatherman is predicting for this little place here today.

I don't think the robins are too happy about it, though!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"No, but I've seen my Mom do it a few times. . . "

You all have read how my teens were gone on Spring Break the week before last.  They arrived home in the wee hours Sunday morning, while I was blissfully sleeping.  Well, blissfully sleeping until they pulled in the drive and made more noise than I'd heard in 10 days!!

So Sunday was filled with lots of pictures and stories about what a great time they'd had visiting their great uncle, his daughter and granddaughter.  Hiking, canoeing, and kayaking in Arkansas. Their dinner on Beale Street in Memphis on the way down. Their stop at the Arch in St. Louis on the way back. . .

And cooking!  DD1, who will be 17 in a few short months, laughed as she told me about some of her cooking adventures while in Arkansas.  Now, she's been cooking at home for several years.  By the time they hit high school, I call on my kids to make quick and easy dinners on the days when I'm running with a younger sibling and won't be home in time to make the meal.  So she does have a repertoire of recipes and cooking skills.

However, in Arkansas, she didn't have my cookbooks or written directions to refer to.  Nor could she just call me up and ask "Mom, how do you. . .?"

I'm proud to say that instead of just saying "Hey, let's go out to eat" when there wasn't anything quick and easy in the cupboard to whip up, she rose to the challenge of going it on her own and figuring out how to feed herself (and dad, siblings, cousins, and great uncle.)

First, was rice. As she told the story, it went something like this:

All the adults are busy or off doing something, and it's about time to get dinner going.  My girls and their cousin are rummaging around in the cupboards looking to see what's there that they can put together for a meal.

DD1 "Cousin, do you know how to cook rice?"
Cousin "No.  Do you?"
DD1 "No, but I've seen my Mom do it a few times. . ."

Rice and water into pot.  Add some butter and salt.  Heat to boiling.  Cover and turn down heat.  Guess how long it usually takes Mom to cook rice.  Test rice.  Sticky, but edible.  SUCCESS!

Then the next day came chicken.

DD1 "There's chicken in the fridge we could cook tonight.  It's been in there a few days. . . "
Cousin "Do you know how to cook chicken?  I don't know how to cook chicken."
DD1 "No, but I've seen my Mom do it a few times. . . "

Rinse chicken.  Stir up a couple eggs.  Dip chicken in eggs and crushed cracker crumbs.  Put chicken in baking dish in oven with some melted butter.  Guess what heat Mom cooks it on.  Estimate cooking time.  Test w/fork to see if chicken juice runs clear yet.  Serve.  SUCCESS!

I'm so proud (obviously) of DD1 that she has watched me enough that even though I have forgotten to teach her some things so far, she was able--and brave enough--to try them on her own, from memory.  It has always been my goal that by the time my kids leave home to go out into the big wide world, they be able to feed and take care of themselves without having to rely on drive-thru meals.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring sports = granola bars!

Wednesday was DS2's first track meet of the year.  Being that it's time for Spring sports, it's time for me to get busy making granola bars again.  That's what my kids take in their bags to their meets and games for a healthy pick-me up snack.

Tuesday afternoon I made up the first batch of 2011, and actually remembered to take pictures as I went so I could share the recipe and the process with you.  Granola bars are super easy to make.  I have to confess mine aren't quite as sturdy as the ones from the store; they tend to crumble if not handled carefully, but I like to think they are cheaper and definitely healthier (no HFCS!!).

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup honey
1 egg
2 Tbsp canola oil (or oil of your choice)
1 tsp vanilla
3 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup peanut butter chips
1/3 cup miniature semi-sweet chocolate chips (I was out of minis so I used 'regular' sized ones)

The ingredients

In a large bowl, stir together the peanut butter, honey, egg, oil & vanilla.

(Not sure why this picture uploaded like that, but it's not supposed to be vertical!  Anyway. . .)
In a medium sized bowl, add together all dry ingredients, except for the chips, and stir.

Add the mixed dry ingredients to the large bowl of wet ingredients, and stir.

This is what it looks like when it's all been mixed: kind of sticky!

Now add the peanut butter chips and the chocolate chips.
Stir those in to distribute well.

Spread into a greased (or lightly buttered) 9"x13"x2" pan.
I use my fingers to make sure it's spread out evenly and firmly pressed in the pan.
Then bake in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Cool for several hours, then cut into bars. 
You'll want them to be completely cool before cutting, or else they will crumble and not hold their bar shape.
I usually cut down the center of the long way of the pan, then about every 1.5-2" on the short way.
Wrap the bars individually (for packing in sports bags) or, if you're not toting them around, just store in an airtight container.
And that is how I make granola bars.  They are such a favorite that if I intend them to be solely for sports events, I have to wrap and dole them out to their intended recipients.  Otherwise they disappear quickly and won't be around on the day of the meet or game for my athletes.

Oh, and DS2's times were so well at Wednesday's meet that he will be running in today's Invitational.  His senior track season seems to be off to a great start.  :0)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Nest of Robins

I've been watching the annual progression of the return of the summer birds.  First it was flocks of starlings, then the Canadian geese, then sandhill cranes.  Shortly after the cranes arrived, the robins started to reappear, along with the redwing blackbirds. The first kildeer followed about a week later. Recently the ducks have been arriving in numbers, and turkey vultures were spotted, as well as a great blue heron.  Then last week it was bluebirds, yay!  I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of the major bug-eaters: the swallows (and bats, I do like bats too, even though they aren't birds).  Then  my list will be pretty much complete and we can move on to summer.  :0)

For the last several years, we've had robins and meadowlarks build nests under the deck on the back of the house.  We have a walkout basement there, and they seem to like building on top of the posts, but below the floor of the deck.  Which is kind of odd, since my bird books say that both eastern and western meadowlarks are ground nesting.  Oh well, guess I have 'not typical' larks, lol.

Last spring, a robin built a nest at the front of the house, right on the railing of our covered porch.  It was the first time one had built a nest that was accessible to me, and I took advantage of any absence from Momma Robin to snap some pictures.

Two babies hatched (face down in pic) with third egg unhatched.

 A face only a mother could love!

 "Feed me!"

 Several days old, starting to get feathers.

Two weeks old.

The day after I took the last picture, the babies fledged.  I'm wondering if any of them will return to the porch railing to make a nest this year.