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Friday Favorites: Apps to Organize

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

I finally upgraded my phone this week, to a Samsung Galaxy S3. I love high-tech gadgetry, but I’m not fond of the high-tech prices. Since the new version of this phone is launching, the S3 just dropped significantly in price, even though it’s not that old, and the new version doesn’t offer much in significant changes–perfect time to make the switch.

Needless to say, I’ve spent the last few nights piddling around on my phone–backing up everything on my old phone, activating the new one, restoring all the contacts, etc. And then there’s the whole process of getting the phone settings to your liking, downloading favorite apps, etc. While I have some set apps that I used regularly on my old phone and knew I had to re-download, I did a little exploring for other new apps I might love. I’d given up looking for new apps on my Droid Incredible, because it was having memory issues.

So here’s the app I think I’m going to get hooked on–Cozi. It’s a “family organizer,” and you set up one account for the whole family, with each person able to log in individually with their email address. There’s a shared calendar, with color codes for the person(s) involved in each given activity/appointment, a shopping list that anyone can add to, a to-do list (as the Guy said, it’s high tech nagging) and a family journal that lets you store pictures and memories from family activities, trips, etc. In other words, it’s awesome.


The app goes hand in hand with the Cozi website, which is a little more feature-rich. There’s a meal planner that integrates with the shopping list, a recipe box (hmmm….this might help with my recipe organization challenge) and additional calendar options, including syncing other internet calendars. This worked perfectly for me, because I could add the Kiddo’s Cub Scout pack calendar automatically (especially nice because they tend to change things up frequently). I may be addicted already.

One of my longtime favorite apps to stay organized is the Checkbook app by Digital Life Solutions. This is a standalone app (no integrated website) and fairly simple, but it works well and does exactly what you need it to do–helps you manage your checking accounts and avoid overdrawing. It’s not synced with your online bank accounts, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you need to go elsewhere. But that’s what I like about it–no security issues created by automatic log ins to financial accounts. It’s basically just an electronic version of the check register that comes with every box of new checkbooks.

My next mission in app organization is to find something that manages my bills. I want something very simple, similar to my Checkbook app, that just lists out the bills, due dates, amounts and paid status. Most of what I’ve found is more than I need, with cash flow analysis, synced log ins to account websites (no thank you!), etc. If you’ve got a great app for managing bills that you love, please feel free to share in the comments!

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Make Your Own: Perfect Cold Brew Iced Coffee

cold brew iced coffee

Cold Brew Iced Coffee
I don’t drink a pot of coffee a day like the Guy does, but I do need a cup of joe to get me started in the morning. And, unlike the Guy who can drink hot coffee all year long, when the weather warms up, my coffee has to cool down. Spring has been unseasonably late arriving this year, but it’s finally time to make the switch from hot coffee to iced.


I used to spend way too much money on coffee, because I was too lazy to brew my own just for my one solitary cup each morning. So I’d drop a buck and half every morning on a cup from Starbucks. As much as I love Starbucks, I also love saving money. So when I married the coffee-guzzling Guy and there was good reason to brew a whole pot each morning, I stopped sharing my money with Starbucks, except for the occasional treat of a caramel macchiato or a Frappucino on a hot day.

But in the summers, they were still getting my money on a consistent basis, because I just hadn’t had any luck making GOOD iced coffee at home. Late last summer, I finally found the secret: the cold brew method. It really couldn’t be easier, and it’s just as good as any iced coffee you’ll find at your local coffee house.

Brewing coffee with hot water speeds up the brewing process, but it creates a more acidic, bitter drink. For some reason, that’s more palatable when you’re drinking the coffee hot; if you take that same coffee and pour it over ice, it just doesn’t taste good. Cold brewing uses cool or room temperature water to steep the coffee grounds over a longer period of time–about 12 to 24 hours.

You can find specially designed cold brew coffee pots, but a good French press works fine. Coarse ground beans also work best. If you don’t have a French press, you can actually just use a Mason jar or pitcher and a paper coffee filter at the end of the brewing cycle–it’s just a little messier and more time consuming than the French press.

French press for cold brew coffee

Use about twice the coffee-to-water ratio that you would normally use to brew a hot pot of coffee, since you’ll be diluting the final product with ice–I use two tablespoons per cup of water. Spoon the grounds into your press or jar, then fill with water. Use a long ice tea spoon to stir the water and grounds together, since the grounds will just float on top and not steep otherwise. Cover with plastic wrap (if you’re using a French press, leave the lid and press off for now), and let set overnight at a minimum, up to a full day.

If you’re using a French press, filtering the coffee when it’s done brewing is easy–just put the lid on and slowly and smoothly press down on the plunger until the filter is at the bottom, then pour your filtered coffee into a new container–or directly into your waiting cup. If you’re not using a French press, you can manually use a coffee filter by holding it over another container, or pouring it through the filter basket of your coffee maker. I usually end up with a bit of a mess when I’ve tried this, so it’s really worth getting a French press. They are not terribly expensive, and it’s definitely worth a couple extra bucks to get a good one that doesn’t let extra grounds through.

 

French press for cold brew coffeeNow we’ll use your cold brew coffee to make a perfect cup of iced coffee. Cold brew coffee doesn’t require as much sweetening as hot coffee, since it’s less bitter to start with. But I do like to add a little something sweet, and sugar doesn’t dissolve well in cold water. You can always buy the expensive flavored syrups, but it’s very easy (and cheap!) to make your own simple syrup as a sweetener–just heat equal parts water and sugar slowly over the stove until all the sugar is dissolved. Let cool, then pour your syrup into a handy plastic squirt bottle (the kind you get for about a buck, right next to the refillable mustard and ketchup bottles in kitchen supplies), and you’re all set. If you really want gourmet flavors, you can make your own versions of those too, without too much more work–check out these recipes from Annie’s Eats.

Once you’ve got your sweetener (remember, it doesn’t take much), blend it together  with a bit of milk or cream, your cold brew coffee and plenty of fresh ice, and you’re set to conquer summer with a ready morning caffeine supply. Refrigerate any of the remaining coffee–it will keep nicely for several days.

 cold brew iced coffee

 

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Friday Favorites: Birthday Best

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

Today is the last day of the Guy’s 20s. I’d love to celebrate tomorrow by baking an amazing cake, decorated to the hilt with the new cake decorating tools he got me for my birthday last month. Unfortunately, I have a big work event tomorrow, which I’ve been working like mad all week to get ready for, so there’s no time for homemade. 🙁 I am making him a surprise meal on Sunday, but for tomorrow it will be dinner out and store-bought cake.

Even though I can’t do the homemade thing this year, I thought share some really cool cake decorating/cake alternative ideas–and hopefully I’ll get to test one of them out next year.


I’m not very skilled yet with the decorating part, so I’m going for ideas that look great but don’t require much talent. This art cake from Makoodle fits the mark, with icing dripped along the cake edge to look like abstract paint drips. It’s also got a rainbow of cake layers underneath. Jackson Pollock a la birthday cake. The paint drip frosting technique would also be fun on a polka dot cake (in my opinion, a more fanciful version of the old-fashioned poke cake I remember growing up).

In the “birthday cake you can eat with your hands” category are these delicious-looking birthday cake egg rolls from I Wash…You Dry. And if you’ve got a non-cake enthusiast and are looking for an alternative way to celebrate, Skinny Scoop has some tasty cake-inspired options for you.

That’s all for now folks, since I’ve got an early morning tomorrow. Watch for a new Make Your Own feature coming in a couple days.

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Easy way to dice an onion

I cook with onion quite a bit. One of my absolute favorite food smells is onion as it carmelizes in the pan. Dicing onions, though, has always been a venture that put my fingertips in a bit of danger, because I used to start by slicing my onions into rings, like so:

slicing an onionSee those fingertips just waiting to be sliced off? I’ve tried using a little onion holder do-kicky to keep my fingers safely away, but it didn’t keep the onion that stable and was kind of a pain. But then I discovered, unless you actually need the rings (say for a burger or sandwich), there’s a much easier way to dice onions that doesn’t endanger my fingers.

First, cut the stems off both ends of the onion, then peel the skin. On a cutting board stand your onion up on one of the flat sides you created when you cut the stems off, and cut down the middle from top to bottom. Put both halves cut side down on your cutting board, with the top of one half butted up to the bottom of the other half.

how to dice an onionNow, cut strips lengthwise across both halves, from top to bottom.

how to dice an onion
Rotate your cutting board 90 degrees and start cutting strips across the grain of the onion. Ta-da! Diced onion, with all your fingers still in tact!

how to dice an onionSide note–it’s best to use a sharp chef’s knife to do this, which is NOT what I have pictured here (my chef’s knife needs a little sharpening, so I went with an alternative).

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Freezer to Crock Pot Meatballs

Freezer to crock pot meatballs

I love meals I can make ahead and freeze. And I love cooking with my crock pot. So it’s a safe bet that I really, really love meals I can make ahead, freeze and then throw in the crock pot. That’s one reason I really, really love these meatballs. The other reason is that they’re amazingly delicious. Or awful, according to the Guy. But awful is Guy’s code word for, “Will you please make these every night for the rest of my life?”


If you do a Google search for meatball recipes, almost all of them will call for you to mix up the meat madness, form it into balls, then either bake them or cook them in a pan. That’s where this recipes is deliciously different, and why it’s so simple. Instead of baking or pan-frying the meatballs, you let them simmer in a crock pot full of marinara sauce for six to eight hours, meanwhile absorbing all the rich tomato-ey goodness of the sauce. And since you’re slow cooking them, you can go straight from freezer to crock pot without thawing first.

I’ve also included a recipe for marinara. Of course, feel free to substitute your favorite jarred sauce if you’d like, but it really is very simple and much cheaper to make your own.

Freezer to crock pot meatballs

Freezer to Crockpot Meatballs

Meatballs

  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 lb sausage
  • Small onion, finely diced
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 tsp. oregano
  • 1 tsp. basil
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 to 2 tsp. hot sauce, to taste
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Marinara

  • 2 cans crushed tomatoes (28 oz.)
  • 2 cans tomato paste (6 oz.)
  • 1 small onion, finely diced (1 T. minced dried onion if you’re in a hurry)
  • 2 T. minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1 T. dried oregano 
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste

To make the meatballs, mix all but last three ingredients in large bowl, then work in half and half, breadcrumbs and parmesan. You can use a spoon if you’d like, but it really works better just to get in there with your hands and mix it all together…you’re going to get “meat hands” when you shape the meatballs anyway, so you might as well dive in, right?

Once everything is well-blended, shape into meatballs. I tend to make my meatballs gigantic, but you can downsize ’em a bit. Lay the meatballs out on a cookie sheet or parchment paper and put them in the freezer for an hour or two, until solid. Once they’re solid, you can put them in a freezer safe gallon storage bag and label them for later use.

Freezer to crock pot meatballs

To make the marinara and cook the meatballs, mix all of the marinara ingredients, except bay leaves, in your slow cooker. Add frozen meatballs to sauce one at a time, making sure that all the meatballs are covered by sauce. Add bay leaves and cook on low 6-8 hours (the larger the meatballs, the longer they will take to cook).

The one downside to this recipe is that, even if you use extra lean ground beef, the sausage produces a lot of grease, so you’ll have to take a few minutes after your meatballs are done to skim the grease off the top of the sauce. Don’t worry–the taste is worth it! And make sure to remove and discard your bay leaves while you’re at it.