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Birdfeeder bonanza

Hanging a bird feeder

The Kiddo decided he’d rather make the bird feed cakes than the homemade playdough, so that’s what we went with. Since I wasn’t sure which he’d pick, I hadn’t bought the supplies yet, so we made a quick run to the closest grocery store. Basically, all we would need was a bag of bird feed, unflavored gelatin and cookie cutters. We left the store with one out of three, and ironically, it was the one thing I’d expected I might have to make another stop for–the birdseed. Turns out the pet food selection was better than the people food options, since they no longer carried gelatin. Likewise, there no cookie cutters in the kitchen supplies.

Since the other stores most likely to carry the gelatin and cookie cutters were Walmart, which makes me want to cause bodily harm to myself and/or others, or Harris Teeter, which is completely on the other side of town, we decided on Plan B–using a mix of peanut butter and shortening to hold the bird seed together, and making them into simple circles instead of fun cookie cutter shapes.

We melted equal parts of the peanut butter and shortening (probably about half a cup each) over low heat, then stirred in about as much bird seed as the mixture could handle. I likened the result to rice crispy treats for birds.

Per the suggestion in Prudent Baby’s post, we subbed out mason jar lids for the cookie cutters. But, our mixture of PB, shortening and bird seed was way too much for the few lids I had, so pulled down a muffin tray and filled it up too.

Homemade bird feed cakesHomemade bird feed cakes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once our molds were filled, we put them in the freezer overnight to firm up. The sun came out nicely Sunday for the Guy to hang them:

Hanging a bird feeder

We ended up with about 15 bird feed cakes, so after hanging a couple of them, I wrapped the rest in plastic wrap and tossed them in a gallon-sized freezer bag–now we’ll be feeding the birdies all spring! And yeah, I labeled the bag–these bad boys look too much like the baked oatmeal cups I’ll share with you soon to take any chances.

Homemade bird feed cakes

Homemade bird feed cakes

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Friday Favorites: Kid Krafts to Fight Winter Doldrums

Friday Favorites is a new weekly feature on MyOvergrownZenGarden, with my favorite finds from across the web.

The balance we’ve looking for with the Kiddo the past few months is between tech time (read: playing Minecraft or watching YouTube tutorials on Minecraft) and non-tech time. He bought the Minecraft game for his Xbox 360 right after his birthday this fall, which fell conveniently at the time when the weather was getting colder and nastier, so there were less options for outdoor activities.

It’s easier to limit his tech time and make sure his brain doesn’t turn to mush by offering some other fun indoor activities that will hold his interest. Among some of our go-to to-dos are board games (chess is the game du jour), reading and Lego construction. I’m trying to add some crafty projects in the mix. For Thanksgiving, we tried these unique fall leaf candle holders, with mixed results–they were harder than they looked and not as pretty as the pictures, but lots of fun.

This weekend, I’m hoping to try one of the following:

Jello playdough. A quick online search finds lots of homemade playdough recipes. This particularly recipe piqued my interest because of the pretty colors and the built-in olfactory bonus.

Cookie Cutter Birdfeeders. It’s getting close enough to spring that the birds are starting to come out, and we have a tree in the backyard that would be perfect for these!

Whichever of these we tackle, updates on the success (or dismal failure) of said adventures are sure to follow!

And now it’s sharing time–what are your favorite winter activities for bored kiddos?

 

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It’s not all about food

There are hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of food blogs out there. This isn’t necessarily one of them.

Although it might seem that way. Right now.

Nearly all of my posts so far have been food/cooking related. When it comes to “finding balance” in my life, food plays a big role. That’s not a bad thing–food is our fuel for living, so what we put into our bodies is important. A lot of the food that’s readily available today, particularly in our fast-paced lifestyles, is pretty poor fuel. At the same time, delicious food can bring a lot of enjoyment–as an indulgence for our senses, through the creative expression of preparing it and through the togetherness of friends and family that it can create during shared meals.

Because food is so essential, complicated, time-consuming, expensive and, yes, even addictive (hello, Reese’s Peanut Butter cups), finding a balance among all these elements is a never-ending endeavor. I love enjoying hearty, satisfying comfort food, but it’s also important to know that I am giving my body what it needs to be healthy, and setting an example of nutrition and moderation for my stepson. So I use creative, low-fat substitutes for my favorite homestyle meals, to balance my cravings with my health needs. The health angle has become increasingly important to me as I see what our eating patterns have to done to the health of those I care about, and even to my own health a few years ago.

So, yes, there have been a lot of posts about food, and there will continue to be plenty more–about how to make it healthier and still tasty, about how to feed your family well without emptying your back account or spending all day in the kitchen, and, sometimes, just about how to, once in awhile, indulge. I also love learning how to take on new challenges in the kitchen, so if I learn to do something new, I’ll probably share it.

But there are other areas of life that call for balance, and I plan to address those too–balance between work and home, family time and “me” time, exercise and a little R&R. Right now I’m looking for ways to balance the Kiddo’s love of all things technology,  particularly Minecraft, with an appreciation for the low-tech, like board games and weekend camping trips.

This blog is a work in progress. The blog itself is a balancing act, since it’s one more commitment of my time and energy to balance among all the others. I have some ideas for ways to expand the focus from just food, and would love to hear your thoughts. One thing I’d like to do is to add some regular, themed features. My first idea is to have a “Friday Favorites” feature, where I’ll share some of my favorite tips, tricks and insights from other bloggers.

If you have topics you’d like to see on here, or just thoughts you’d like to share, please comment below. You don’t even have to register–just play the little “drag the right picture” game so I know you’re a real person and not a spam machine!

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Organizing the chaos

Organizing recipes
Organizing recipes
My chaotic recipe collection–part of it.

At one time, I had an organized recipe collection. It was a pretty basic system–handwritten recipes on  note cards in a small plastic card file box. But both the number of recipes in my collection and the sources from which I pull recipes have grown significantly over the years, and my neat little file box is not so neat anymore.

In the file box itself are the note card recipes, along with small clipped recipes (from product packaging, etc.), and several recipes that were written on whatever paper was handy at the time by the person passing along the recipe, which have now been folded to fit into the box.

There’s also an overflowing file folder of recipes I’ve printed on letter-sized paper, recipes that I have save in my “recipe box” at allrecipes.com, and recipes from all over the web, for which my sole reference for locating is the pin I’ve placed on my Pinterest account. Oh, and I also have a few recipes on my phone’s photo gallery–sometimes when I find a recipe in a magazine that isn’t mine, I just snap a pic of it with my phone.

It’s time to organize the chaos. The internet is a great resource, and I’ve been known to set up the laptop or our cheap little tablet computer on the kitchen counter to reference a recipe, but I still think the index cards are hard to beat. The laptop takes up a lot of space, the tablet is kind of slow (hey, I said it was a cheapo one), and there’s something to be said for a medium that can’t be easily damaged by food drips. Hint–if you’re browsing someone else recipe collection, the recipes with the most stains are probably keepers, since they’ve obviously seen a lot of use!

So my new project is to figure out the easiest method to convert all my favorite recipes from their current form to a neat little index card, short of transcribing them all myself. Allrecipes.com has a printing option for note card size, so that one should be easy. I’m wondering if there is some kind of text conversion program for images that I could use to convert the cell phone pic recipes, and maybe even the clipped recipes and those that are on letter paper?

Then again, maybe I could just convince some optimistic college student to take on the whole project as an “marketing internship” at this great new entrepreneurial blog I’ve launched? A girl can dream, can’t she? Anyway…I’m open to suggestions. Leave ’em in the comments!

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Crepes!

Crepes
My first attempt at crepes–success!

I admit it. I was scared. Scared to try my hand at crepes.

Though I consider myself a pretty avid cook, there are few simple dishes I sometimes have issues with. My scrambled eggs usually end up sticking to the pan, and my fried eggs are kind of scary-looking. Pancakes are another issue. Mine taste great, but I have trouble with the flipping technique, so they’re very rarely the perfectly round stacks you get at IHOP. The Guy is much better at the actual cooking part than I am, so our standard pancake arrangement is for me to make the batter and then let him cook them. He’s even perfected Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes for the Kiddo.

Somehow I made it to my early 30s before I ever tried eating a crepe. I’m not sure why, but then a couple years ago, I had this amazing stuffed crepe at a fair–it was enormous, like an oversized tortilla, and they had stuffed it with chicken, peppers and onions, like a giant burrito. Best fair food I’ve ever had, hands down.

But the thought of making my own crepes seemed intimidating; if I can’t handle pancakes, how I would I ever master crepes? They’re so wafer-thin that surely they must take a feat of magic to accomplish, right? Still, after having the stuffed crepe at the fair and realizing how versatile this little dish could be, I really wanted to give it a shot. A couple weeks ago I did an internet search and found a couple tutorials on crepe-making. They were nice step-by-step pictorials, but still it seemed daunting.

Yesterday morning, the Guy and I slept late and I woke up hungry. Still in bed, talking myself into crawling out of the warm covers, I considered options for a hearty breakfast. I had some delicious leftover crock pot ham that would be great in an omelette. Oh, but omelettes also fall in the category of simple dishes I’m not very good at. Well, maybe, if I was going to make something and potentially mess it up, I should just go ahead and try the crepes?

So I did. Yep, yesterday morning I lost my crepe virginity. And they were surprisingly easy. They didn’t turn out perfectly round and beautiful like what you’d probably get eating out, but they certainly weren’t deformed, as I expected they might be. Actually, I think they looked pretty darn good. And because I was ravenous, I didn’t even take the time to reference my nice tutorials I’d found previously–just pulled out my trusted Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and went to town.

Here’s the basic recipe:

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup flour

1 1/2 cup milk

1 T. oil

1/4 tsp. salt

Whisk together all ingredients until well-combined. Heat a very lightly-greased, nonstick skillet to medium. Note–my cookbook said a 6-inch skillet, but I sent with slightly larger because I was planning to stuff them with my leftover  ham and a little feta cheese (result: delicious!). Eventually, I’m going to be brave and try to make giant crepes like those I had at the fair. Lift skillet from heat and hold at a slant while you pour slightly less than 1/4-cup batter (recipe called for 2 tablespoons but that was for the smaller version) onto the highest edge of the skillet, so that the thin batter runs down and covers the entire skillet. You’ll need to tilt and swirl the pan around a bit to coat the bottom with a very thin layer. Return the pan to heat. Cook for only about 20 seconds. You’ll see air bubbles start to form and the batter will begin to appear dry. Flip and cook for 15-20 more seconds. The flipping part was what I worried about, but as long as you’ve used just a little bit of grease in your pan, they don’t stick at all and flip quite nicely. I used vegetable oil and would recommend cooking oil over nonstick spray for these. I tried one with spray and did not have good results.  Once cooked, just turn the skillet over to flip the crepe onto a serving plate.

Now that I’ve conquered my fear, I’m excited to try these again and see exactly how versatile they can be. The recipe made about a dozen crepes. Since we were eating them stuffed, they were pretty hearty, so we only had two each. We put the leftovers in the fridge, and they reheated well later in the day when we got the munchies. Actually, I had one for a mid-afternoon snack, stuffed with ham again, didn’t even bother to heat it, and it was still yummy! According to my internet research, these also freeze well (layer wax paper between each crepe and place in a freezer-safe container), so I might need to do some batch cooking and keep some on hand in the freezer.

Stay tuned–I feel sure there will more crepe variations, recipe ideas using crepes and maybe even my own pictorial to come on this blog!

 

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Produce Pre-Prep

ProducePrep

Yeah, I know. I’m a little alliteration happy. But on to my post…

I know I need to include lots of fresh veggies in my diet, but there are some challenges to reaching that goal. One, I try to do grocery shopping no more than once a week, so sometimes I end up stocking up on veggies and just don’t eat them before they go bad. Two, sometimes I’m just too lazy to do the prep work that comes with them–cleaning, slicing and dicing. And three, produce is often, unfortunately, expensive. Since I  have no green thumb at all, I haven’t come up with any great ways to overcome that third obstacle, but I have some strategies for the first two.

To keep from wasting food (and prevent extra trips to the grocery store), I’ve been working on planning out menus for the week ahead a little more solidly. Sometimes it’s tough to find the time to do that, but it really doesn’t take that long and winds up saving me time in the long run. When I do that, I try to factor in my veggies by planning meals that incorporate those foods that spoil more quickly for the first few days after a grocery run. Veggies that last longer are used for meals later in the week. I also plan meals that have some vegetables in common on their ingredient list, so I’m don’t end up overbuying (particularly for things that are cheaper by the bag and/or hard to buy in small quantities).

To overcome the laziness, I try to consolidate all the “produce prep.” I usually have a lot more ambition (and time) to tackle this work on the weekends than I do after a long day at work. So instead of getting out the cutting board and knife each night to cut one onion, one pepper, or whatever I need for the night, I’ll take an hour and chop all the onions, peppers, etc., that I brought home, according to what I need for my recipes. By investing a little extra time on the weekend, I save a lot more time during the week. “Batch” prepping or cooking, as it has come to be known, can be a great time saver, and you’ll see mentions of “batching” opportunities in posts to come. Added bonus–the cut veggies seem to last longer once cut than they do in their whole state.  Also stay tuned for tips on cutting techniques that make the slicing and dicing process easier.

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Simply Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers with cheese

My mom used to make stuffed peppers from time to time when we were growing up. Back then, I loved eating the stuffing part, but wasn’t too keen on the peppers themselves. Oddly, although it was a dish she made with reasonable frequency, and although I now actually like the peppers too, they aren’t something that I normally make. Or at least they weren’t until about a year ago, when for some reason, out of the blue, I thought, “hmm, I haven’t had stuffed peppers in a while—I should make those for dinner.”

I started searching my recipe books and trusted web sites for a good stuffed pepper recipe. I found a lot of variety, but nothing like what I was looking for. I remembered the kind my mom made having ground beef, rice and some kind of tomato-based sauce. The recipes I found did not sound very similar. Some were more like a mini meatloaf inside a stuffed pepper, and many involved tomato soup as a base ingredient and just sounded very bland. Most of the tomato soup-based ones also involved an ingredient list a mile long and sounded like an all-day cooking adventure. I was pretty sure I could come up with a tasty alternative that would take less time at the grocery store and in the kitchen.

So I did what I often do in such situations, and used the recipes I found for some base information to get me started—in this case, primarily how long and at what temperature to bake the peppers. I also learned the trick to getting nice soft peppers (I don’t care for crunchy) is to boil them for a bit before you stuff them. As for the filling, I decided to just do my own thing. I stuck with the basics of ground beef, rice and, for the sauce, I used salsa with a packet of taco seasoning mixed in. For a little variation from my mom’s style of peppers, I mixed in a bit of feta cheese. The verdict from the Guy—well, after not making stuffed peppers in years (if ever), they’re now one of my most frequent dishes. Kiddo’s verdict was essentially the same as mine at that age—loved the filling but passed on the peppers.  I love them with a bit of fat-free sour cream, but the Guy eats them just as they are.

I won’t claim these are the world’s best stuffed peppers, but they are pretty darn good, and they’re a lot simpler than most recipes you’ll find. After the second or third time, it finally occurred to me that I could simplify the process even more, simply by cutting the peppers in half to seed them, rather than delicately trying to cut out the tops and dig out the seeds. The halves stuff just as nicely, you don’t have to worry about them toppling like you do with a whole pepper that has an uneven bottom, and they’re easier to cut up and eat on your plate, too.

Halved bell peppers

Simply Stuffed Peppers

6 bell peppers (you can use green but the red/yellow/orange sweet peppers are tasty too)

1 pound lean ground beef or turkey

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups cooked brown rice

1 ½ cups salsa

1 packet taco seasoning (I have also used onion soup mix when I was out of taco seasoning; it’s a noticeably different flavor but just as delicious)

½ cup reduced fat feta cheese

4 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about one cup after shredding)

Fill a large stock pot about ¾ full with water and 1-2 tsp. salt and heat on high to a full boil. While water is heating, slice peppers in half. Carefully cut out stems and remove all seeds. Once water is boiling, use tongs to drop pepper halves in pot; cook for about five minutes. Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to boil the peppers in two batches. Remove pepper halves with tongs and transfer to a large colander in sink; invert halves so excess water can drain.

Making stuffed peppers

Brown ground beef or turkey in a large skillet, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Drain excess grease. Stir in rice, salsa, seasoning packet and feta cheese.

Spray two 9×13 baking dishes with nonstick spray, and arrange pepper halves, cut side up. Spoon beef and rice mixture into peppers. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove peppers from oven and sprinkle tops with shredded cheddar cheese; bake for additional 5 minutes or until cheese is melted.

Stuffed peppers

Stuffed peppers

Nutritional notes–I limit the fat and calories in this recipe by using lean meat and reduced fat feta. When using cheddar cheese in a recipe, I usually stick with the full fat version but try not to go overboard with quantity, since I find most reduced fat cheddar cheese varieties a little lacking in the taste department. Bell peppers are a good source of fiber and are packed with essential nutrients and antioxidants, including folate, and Vitamins A, C and K.