April 29, 2012

Let's Talk About Blocking

Up until about 5 months ago, I had never blocked anything in my life.  I didn't really have a reason to.  The bulk of my knitting had consisted of scarfs, mittens, socks, hats and cowls.  Many may disagree with me, but I don't consider these items to be "block worthy".   If you're making garments such as sweaters, vests or anything that's going to require seaming then that's a different deal.  It wasn't until the holidays when I was making sweaters for the moms that I had a reason to do it.  Since I'm always trying to do things on a budget, I didn't purchase a blocking board.  I had heard somewhere that if you have a mattress or ironing board, than that will work just fine.  Lucky for me that I have a king size mattress that is not in use in our spare bedroom.   This has been the perfect platform for the 3 sweaters I have recently made. 

Blocking isn't too difficult, however, done incorrectly it can be the death of your garment.  Last week, I finally got around to blocking the beautiful Aidez.  To start, I took a 16 gallon storage bin and filled it with cool water and a packet of Soak.

Then I put the 5 pieces of my sweater in the bin, submersed them fully in the water and walked away for 15 minutes. 

This would be a great time to vacuum your house or fold that laundry that has been sitting around for days.  The great thing about Soak is that there is no need to rinse, so after it has sat for the full 15 minutes, very gently remove each piece and squeeze the excess water out of it.  DO NOT WRING!!  This is one of the critical points where if you're not careful, you can stretch the garment so it's big enough to fit a sumo wrestler.   Next, take the most absorbent towels you own and lay them down on your freshly vacuumed floor.  Make sure that the towels have absolutely no chance of transferring it's colors to the garment you're blocking.  I would hate to see you make it this far and have something like color bleeding mess things up. 

Lay the pieces next to each other but not overlapping on the towel and start rolling it up like an enchilada.

Step on the towel a bit so you get out any excess moisture. 

From here you want to move the party over to your blocking board, aka "mattress".  I laid down another large towel so the sweater wouldn't be lying directly on the mattress.  Once you have all the pieces laid out, take some t-pins and carefully pin them to the edges.

You only want to in them to where they naturally lay.  You don't want to stretch the garment at all during this.  Place a pin every couple of inches and on each corner.  After this is done, walk away for the next 24 hours or as long as it takes for everything to dry completely.  For me, once everything is dry and it doesn't look like I've stretched the bejesus out of it then I'll give myself a pat on the back and a large glass of wine!  Sometimes I'll even jump up and down and do a happy dance.  Now comes the best part.  Seaming.  Try not to stab someone in frustration during this part and you'll be golden.  Wanna see how it turned out??

So dang proud of this one.

April 13, 2012

Homemade Chicken Cordon Bleu

If you're like me, you had a ton of leftover ham after the Easter holiday.  I'm not the biggest fan of ham sandwiches so I needed to figure out what to do with all of it.  I was searching through my fridge and found some chicken breasts, and swiss cheese.  Chicken Cordon Bleu's anyone?  I absolutely love the frozen ones you buy at the store, but I've never made them myself.  It can't be that hard, can it?  Turns out it was pretty easy peasy.

All you need is chicken breasts, ham, swiss cheese, panko crumbs, flour and eggs. 

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. First, with the flat side of a mallet, I pounded out the chicken breasts until they were about a 1/2" thick.

Then, I added 3 slices of swiss cheese. I would have gone with 2, but these were the super thin slices and I love me some cheese. Next, I added the ham. I would have added some salt and pepper for some seasoning, but the panko that I had was already pre-seasoned.

Tightly roll the chicken into, well, a roll. If you have some toothpicks on hand, you'd want to insert them at this point. I didn't and it still worked fine.

Lay out3 separate shallow dishes. In the first one put 2-3 tablespoons of flour, in the second dish, crack two eggs and lightly beat. In the third, pour in the panko crumbs.

Now, take your chicken and go down the line. Lightly coat in the flour, then get a good coating of the egg wash and finally roll that sucker around in the panko until you can't see your chicken anymore.

Place onto a cookie sheet that has been lined with foil and lightly sprayed. Repeat with the other chicken. Bake in the oven for about 25-35 minutes depending on the size of the bird you started with.

These turned out really delicious and they only took about 10 minutes to prepare.  I paired mine with a baked potato and a glass of Cabernet.  Upon further thought, it would be really easy to take one hour of your day and knock a bunch of these out to keep in your freezer for a later meal.  I may have to do that soon.

Chicken Cordon Bleu
Serves 2

2 chicken breasts
2-3 slices swiss cheese
4-5 slices ham
3 Tbls flour
2 eggs - beaten
1 cup seasoned panko crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a cookie sheet with foil and lightly coat with cooking spray.  Between 2 pieces of saran wrap, pound the chicken breasts to 1/2" thickness.  Remove top layer of saran wrap to add the cheese slices and ham.  Wrap these 3 ingredients tightly in a roll.  In 3 separate shallow containers add the flour, eggs and panko crumbs.  Coat the first roll with flour, than move to the egg wash until coated completely.  Next, dip it into the panko crumbs until generously covered.  You don't want to see the chicken anymore.  Place on the cookie sheet and repeat with the other chicken breast.  Bake for 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the chicken until it is no longer pink in the middle.

April 10, 2012

I Be Jammin'!

Have you ever put something off for a really long time because you were so intimidated by it?  Up until this weekend that was me with canning.  I really don't know why I waited so long.  It was so simple!  A few years ago, I had tried it under the strict supervision of my friend Molly and her father, but going at it alone was a scary thought!  I'm not going to lie, I did a TON of research before I even started.  There are so many factors that could go wrong, with things not sealing properly, or you don't get the correct amount of acid so you're food will spoil before you eat it.  With all the research I did, I felt more than confident going into my first solo canning experience.  I picked an easy Strawberry Jam recipe that I saw The Pioneer Woman make on her show a few weeks back.  The ingredients were simple.  Strawberries, sugar, pectin and lemon juice. The recipe called for 5 cups mashed strawberries.  So, how do you figure out how many pounds that is?  A quick Google search of "mashed strawberries to cups" and I had my answer.  There is about 1.75 cups per pound, so I needed about 3 lbs of berries.  Gotta love Google.

First, you start by putting your jars in the canning water and bringing it to a simmer. 

In a small sauce pan, do the same with the lids and bands. The jars will become sterilized when you do the water bath at the end, but you want to get your jars hot so when you put in your boiling jam, your jars won't break. As far as the lids go, you want the rubber to get softened up so it will seal properly.

Next, hull and mash the strawberries.  I did this about a pound at a time in a large bowl with a  potato masher measuring along the way. 

Place the berries that you've measured in a large pot and add the pectin and lemon juice.  A couple of things to note.  I bought the jar of powdered pectin, because it seems to be more cost effective than buying it one box at a time.  The cost of the jar was the same as 2 boxes of pectin and the jar holds about 2.5 boxes.  Not a huge cost eliminator, but every little bit helps.  Also, I read somewhere that buying the bottled lemon juice is better than buying actual lemons because that way you can control the acidity better.  I guess all lemons are not created equal.

I placed the berry mix on the stove over medium high heat and brought it up to a hard boil. 

Then, I added 7 cups of sugar, while stirring constantly. Keep stirring until all the sugar is dissolved and the berries form a "violent" boil. This part gets a little messy so maybe keep the kiddos away from the pot during all this. It was during the "violent" boil, that I added my secret ingredient of Grand Marnier. Only a couple of tablespoons are needed. Now its time to remove the jam from the heat and get to canning!

I formed an assembly line of sorts by first removing the jars from the water and placing them on a clean towel. Next to those, I put the pot with the lids and bands. Then I placed the jam so I could go down the line to fill the jars with ease.

I should probably stop and back up the train for a second to show you all the supplies that are needed for this. First, you need a large pot for your water bath and a canning rack. I got a kit with all the stuff in it for Christmas, so if you can find one of those then you'll be golden for all future canning endeavors. Otherwise you'll need a wide mouth funnel, jar lifters, a magnetic lid lifter, bubble remover, jar wrench and a good pair of tongs.

Place the funnel over one of the jars and using a ladle or measuring cup, carefully scoop your jam into the jars leaving at least 1/4" head space at the top.  Continue down the line and fill all remaining jars.  I only sterilized 9 jars for this and ended up having some extra so I found an extra jar to put the rest in and am now using that as my current refrigerator jar.

Using a clean, damp rag, wipe the rims and sides of the jars to remove any jam that may have gone rogue.  Next, take the nifty magnetic wand and carefully lift the lids from the pot and center them on the jars. 

Screw on the bands until you get resistance.  You don't want to make them tight at this point but rather tightened enough so that the lid won't come undone in the water bath.

Once all the lids and bands are on, place as many jars as you can in your canning rack.  I think I'm going to need a new rack because the one that came with my kit will only hold 5 half pint jars at a time so I had to do two batches.  If I wanted to to can pints or quarts, I'd be hosed.  Place the rack with the jars carefully into boiling water and place the lid on. Make sure you have at least 1-2 inches of water covering the jars.

The water should be at a rolling boil for the duration of the canning period which for this jam is 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes, turn the heat off and let them sit in the water for another 10 minutes.

Remove the canning rack from the pot and using your jar lifters, carefully move the jars from the rack to a clean, dry towel.  Repeat these steps with the remaining jars.  It wasn't long after I removed the jars from the canning rack that I started to hear the magical "ping" to know that the jars sealed properly.  I'm not sure there's a more satisfying sound in the world.  Now as tempting as it is to mess with the jars and putz with the tops to make sure they sealed, don't touch them for 24 hours! 

I read an interesting tip online that said when storing the jars you should not keep the bands screwed on.  That way, any gases that may still be released can escape without any issues.  When you're ready to use it or gift it to someone, than place the band back on.

How about a cost breakdown for this little canning adventure?  We all know I love those!

10 jars @ $.67 each = $6.70
3 lbs strawberries on sale for $1.88 each = $5.64
Jar of Pectin @ $5.00.  But I only used about $2.25 worth
2 lemons @ $.50 each = $1.00
Sugar bought on sale for $2.49

For a total of $18.08 I got 10 half pints of jam which breaks down to $1.81/jar.  Not too shabby and it tastes really good too!!  If you've been intimidated by canning, you shouldn't be.  It was so much easier than I ever thought it would be.  Happy canning!

April 07, 2012

Pin of the Week: Homemade Laundry Soap and Fabric Softener

I think I'm going to try out a new thing on The Fishermans Widow called the Pin of the Week.  I spend so much time on Pinterest and I really do end up making all different kinds of stuff that I find on there.  So I figure I can test stuff out and report back my findings.  My most recent experiment was with the homemade laundry soap and fabric softener recipes that have been floating around out there.  For the laundry soap I used a recipe provided by the blog Being Creative To Keep My Sanity.  Boy do I know the feeling!  Any-whoo, I stopped by my local Walmart hoping to find all the ingredients I needed and realized this recipe must be catching on because every ingredient I needed was sitting next to each other on the shelf in the laundry isle.  I picked up all the ingredients for about $18.50.  According to her blog this is supposed to last me for about 9 months so we'll see if this ends up being a bargain or not.  What's in this magical concoction you ask?   The ingredients are simple.

1 - 4 lb 12 oz box Borax
1 - 4 lb box Arm & Hammer Baking Soda
1 - 3 lb 7 oz box Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda
3 bars of Fels-Naptha soap - grated
2 small containers of Oxy Clean
I lined a 5 gallon container with a garbage bag and combined everything together.

Since I don't feel like digging into a big bucket every time I do a load, I've been using one of the Oxy containers and re-filling as needed.  Using the scooper provided with the Oxy, on average I've been using about 1 1/2 - 2 scoops per load.  I must say, this stuff seems to actually work really well.  I've been using it for the past 2 weeks for about 5 loads/week and already I can tell a difference.  The true test happened over the weekend when I gave a friend a facial (in another life I was an esthetician).  Normally when I'm done, the towels need to be washed through a couple of loads to get all the oils and masques off.  After one load with this stuff there was absolutely no trace of anything.  After that I was sold.  But I am curious how long this batch will last me to see if it truly is a better deal.  Stay tuned.
The next experiment was the fabric softener, recipe courtesy of The Frugal Girls.  I just love those ladies, so many good ideas.  All you need is 3 simple ingredients. 
6 cups HOT water
3 cups white vinegar
1 - 15 oz (about 2 cups) of Suave Conditioner
Mix the conditioner and water until the conditioner is completely dissolved.  Add the vinegar and mix well.  I poured all of this in an old Downy bottle and use the same amount that I would normally use for each load.  Total spent was about $1.50.  Can't beat that!  At the moment, we use a top loading machine, but I've been reading some of the comments for both recipes and have discovered that these can be used in the new fancy HE machines too.  The only downside to both of these recipes is that you're clothes don't come out as fresh smelling like when you use the name brands.  It's not that they smell bad, it's just that they don't really have a scent at all.  And considering that one of my favorite smells is clean laundry, this is one that will take some getting used to.

April 03, 2012

Prepping For A Tournament

The season of The Fishermans Widow is in officially upon us and while my husband has been spending countless hours prepping for his upcoming tournaments, I have been doing some prep work myself.  Although his idea of prepping and my idea of prepping are two different beasts.  While he is busy spending all of his time studying maps, getting his tackle together and making sure his boat is ready to rock, I am busy in the kitchen making sure he has the food and supplies he will need while he is away.  Last weekend, Josh was down in Branson, MO on the beautiful Table Rock Lake practicing for the next Bassmaster Central Open.  To prepare for this, I do my best to make sure has as many meals covered as possible.  He is on the road alot, so it becomes very easy to succumb to eating out often.  This is not only unhealthy, but it also becomes quite costly.

There are a few things I need to consider before I start making food for him.  First, where will he be staying?  Will he have a refrigerator/freezer or microwave?  Do they have a grill?  Second, how long will he be away?  I don't want to make food that will go bad by the time he gets around to eating it.  And lastly, is it boat friendly?  Anything that involves a plate/bowl and utensils are usually out of the question.

For breakfast, I like make him breakfast burritos.  They are easy to freeze and he just pops them in the microwave in the morning before he heads out to the boat.  I buy an 18 pack of eggs which can make about 20 burritos.  We are big fans of buying all kinds of meat when they are on sale and keeping them in our downstairs freezer until we are ready to use it, so we typically have a pretty good assortment of sausages to choose from.  For this batch, I went with 1 lb of spicy italian sausage.  In my dutch oven, I sauteed the sausage in a little olive oil and added 1 chopped yellow onion, 1 chopped green pepper and a couple of jalapeno peppers.  While those are cooking away, I cracked open all the eggs in a large bowl and mixed them with some milk and pepper. 

Once the sausage and veggies were cooked I added the eggs to the mix with about 1 cup of cheddar cheese, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula making sure to scrape the sides of the dish. When the eggs are cooked to the desired consistency, I start building the burritos.

I find the soft taco sized shells to be perfect for these.  I also grab my large ice cream scooper (not sure the exact size, maybe 1/4 cup??) to fill the shells. 

Next, I rip about 20 pieces of parchment paper large enough to wrap the finished product in.  Finally, I can get to wrapping.  Take your tortilla, put 1 scoop of eggs in it and wrap it up like a burrito.  Than wrap it up again in the parchment paper.  Continue on in this fashion until you run out of eggs or tortillas.  Which ever comes first.  If I have leftover eggs, I like mix it up with a little dog food and give the pups a snack.  Put all of your burritos in a freezer bag or tupperware and toss 'em in the freezer. 

When you're ready to eat them, microwave them for about 45 seconds - 1 minute while still wrapped in the paper and your good to go!  Josh likes to bring a bottle of the Chipotle Tobasco Sauce to dip it in while I, personally like to go the ketchup route.  These work great for a grab and go breakfast for him and I like to keep some in the freezer for me for when I head to work in the morning.  And, they're cheap too!

For a snack, I watched The Barefoot Contessa make some delicious granola bars a while back so I thought I'd give those a try.  The initial investment was a little costly, but most of the ingredients are enough to last you through a few batches.  All you really need to buy for each batch is some new dried fruit.  The bars were quite easy to make and I was surprised at how delicious they were.  Plus, they lean more on the healthy side so that was an added bonus.  It worked as a great pick-me-up for him while he was on the water.

Now comes lunch.  Like I said before, we buy meat when it's on sale and freeze it.  Like turkeys around Thanksgiving.  About a month ago, I made a 20 lb bird and we took all the meat off of it, put them in individual 1 lb bags and and vacuum sealed those bad boys for later use.  I bought a loaf of bread at the store with some cheese slices and now he's all set for lunch!  He says he doesn't mind not having any condiments on his sandwiches (which I find bizarre) but when I'm in the boat I make sure to grab some mayonnaise and mustard packets from the many gas stations we visit and keep them in a ziploc baggie for future use.  Just make sure you start with new condiments for every season.

And lastly, there's dinner.  This one can get tricky since at this point he is normally so pooped out from his long day, the last thing he wants to deal with is dinner.  We got lucky on this trip because his dad went with him so when they first got down there, they stopped for some barbecue and picked up enough of it that would last them the rest of their trip as left overs.  However, this doesn't always happen so if the place he's staying has a grill, than he will stop at the store when he gets to where he's going and pick up some meat to grill.  Or he'll go out to eat.  You can't win 'em all, I guess!

Between entry fees, tackle, gas and lodging his career as a tournament angler can get pricey quickly.  We've learned over the years that the little things like pre-making as many meals ahead of time can really make a difference on the wallet as well as his overall health.  I realize not everyone is in the same position I am, but hopefully I've been able to help give you some ideas that will save your family time and money too.