Monday, August 25, 2014

Broadleaf Plantain

Now is the time of year when I'm really starting to get into putting food by. I always feel a little more secure knowing that my food stores will see us through the roughest weeks of winter. I don't currently put up enough food to not have to shop for groceries at all, but I try to keep enough on hand to keep grocery bills modest and provide a bit of safety in case of winter weather emergency. Any time I can get free food to put by, I'm thrilled.

Broadleaf plantain  (plantago major) is such a food. It's nutritious, versatile, free and easy to preserve. The seeds are rich in fiber and are a great way to add back some nutrition to white-flour based baked goods. They make a nutritious tea and can be added to a variety of dishes.

It's insanely easy to harvest and preserve. The day before you mow your lawn (so the stalks have plenty of time to mature and you get the largest stalks possible), simply walk around the yard and yank up any large stalks that are mature. What you are looking for is green stalks with the slightest bit of brown on the tips of the seeds. If it's pure green, they aren't fully mature and will be harder to strip. If it's pure brown they are also harder to strip and may be too old. Get at least a huge handful to make it worth the effort. It's best to let them sit for a couple of days on the counter before stripping the seeds. This lets the stalks dry out just a little so they don't break as easily.

I like to watch gardening videos on youtube while stripping them. It's mindless work, and gives me an excuse to sit down and relax with another Wisconsin Vegetable Gardeners video. To harvest, simply grasp the stalk at the top and pull your fingers towards the bottom while holding the stalk over a large bowl or cookie sheet. You'll end up with a small handful of tiny seeds. Some seeds will scatter, so it's best to do this at a table so you can sweep them up. 

After you have them stripped, you can air dry them. I simply put them in a thin layer on a cookie sheet, and throw them in a cabinet for a couple of weeks (or a couple of months by the time I remember). When they are fully dry, put them in an air tight jar. If you want to speed things along, use a dehydrator on a low-medium setting and check after a few hours, or use a low oven. 

To use them, you can either make a tea by pouring a cup of boiling water over a heaping tablespoon of the dry seeds.  This has a grassy flavor, but it is not unpleasant. My favorite way to use them is to add fiber and nutrients to baked goods. I replace up to 1/5 of the flour in a recipe with ground up plantain seeds when making pizza dough, highly flavored muffins, or even pancakes. If using a smaller amount, the taste isn't noticeable, but if you want to use a larger amount, make sure that there are other strong flavors to outweigh it. I've even mixed a small amount into granola.

If you are making tea, you can leave them whole. If you are adding them to baked goods, it's best to grind them up. I usually just pinch a small amount and smash them with my fingers a bit. If you want a more uniform grind or want to grind a large amount at once, use a blender or coffee grinder and then work through a sieve, regrinding the larger pieces as needed. These store really well over the winter. The longest I've kept some in storage was a year and a half, and they weren't rancid at that time, so feel free to put up a lot.

The leaves are also edible, but are best when young and tender. Harvest them while small and use like you would spinach. You could also dehydrate some of the leaves to add to your veggie powder jar. You can also use leaves of any age as a poultice for wounds. Just mash/chew up a leaf or two and place on the wound. Place a bandage or cloth over the area to hold in place. The young, softer green shoots can be steamed or stir-fried.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

World's Longest Yard Sale Adventure, and tips

Late last night Trucker and I got in from our annual adventure to the World's Longest Yard sale. This yard sale runs from Addison, MI to Gadsden, AL for a total of 690 miles. Some regions there are only a few sales per mile, and some regions go all out and have festivals, city-wide yard sales and church rummage sales. At some point over the years we've gone, we've covered 150 miles of it.

Bottles were $.50 apiece. Bottle cappers/stoppers were $.10-.50 each
I worked a short morning shift on Saturday, and Trucker met me at my job so as soon as I got off work, we headed out. I'd packed a lunch for us and we ate before heading out. We arrived at 127 at 1 PM and had about 5 hours of shopping before most of the vendors were closed for the evening. We visited several yard sales, a few barn sales (always my favorites), and many church rummage sales and flea market style sales. The latter two are wonderful because you park once and hit a dozen yard sales at once. It's time efficient and saves on gasoline.

Half apron for $1.
Around 6, most of the vendors were covering their tables with tarps, so we just drove to the hotel. I knew that generally we cover 30-760 miles in a day, so I made reservations at a hotel that was 55 miles from our starting point. We were about 8 miles from the hotel when most of the sales had closed for the day, so we didn't miss much. There was a pool at the hotel so we took a short swim. Since I'd packed all of our food and drink for the trip, we went out for dinner (When travelling we do one meal out per day and eat from the cooler for the other meals). I'd found BOGO coupons for a Mexican restaurant that was located a half mile from the hotel. The next morning, we got a free continental breakfast at the hotel which, while not the healthiest, was good enough to start the day.

Before we headed out in the morning, we took everything out of the car and rearranged it. We packed small items in multiple bags into fewer bags, and played tetris with the wine cabinet, barbell set and garden tools we'd purchased the previous day. The car had seemed to be almost full since everything was tossed in haphazardly the previous day. By rearranging, we freed up over twice the space. We filled our travel mugs with coffee from the hotel room (terrible though it was) and we were off!

We were a little early getting started at 8 AM, so we drove past several sales that were still covered up. We hit a lot of community sales on Sunday and most places were ready to haggle. We would both wander around and pick up everything we wanted from a particular sale, then go together to pay so we could offer a slightly smaller amount for the lot. We were rarely turned down. The only time I had a bad experience was when a woman snapped at me for not wanting to pay the price she stated for a wooden crochet hook. I hadn't needed one, but thought if the price was low, I'd buy it to put in my gift stash. Oh well. Otherwise, I didn't have any bad experiences.

$5 for 6 lbs of Kentucky Wonder beans and $1 for 3 lbs of squash
Most of the people were lovely. I talked with one person on dehydrating. One woman's grandmother had recently passed and they were selling the contents of her house. She told me a couple of endearing stories about her grandma. A little boy had set up a stand to sell his garden produce, but he was off petting a puppy someone else was trying to sell, so I talked with his dad and grandpa as I loaded up on chemical free, homegrown squash and green beans (I paid $5 for 6 lbs of green beans and $1 for 3 lbs of squash)

Driving through the back roads of Kentucky, I fell in love with the hills. It seems every half mile we were hitting a spot with a view. At one point, Trucker pulled over to hit a yard sale and when I got out of the car, I gasped and called him over. We stood at the top of a hill overlooking a meadow with a pond tucked away off to the side and a view of rolling, wooded hills. I told him, "Now THIS is what I'm talking about when I say I want to move away to the country."

I bought this dehydrator for $5. It's
older and cheap, but it will help as I
preserve the harvest this year.
Socket set for $15 and was on Trucker's list.
All told, we spent $50 on the hotel ( deal, along with swagbucks points earned, along with credit card cash back), $40 on gas (And how I love the gas mileage our new car gets compared to the truck!), and $150 in cash for all food purchased out, yard saling, and incidentals. We had budgeted $300 in cash, but were picky in what we purchased. Some of the purchases were to resell or to use in crafts to sell online this winter. Other items were on our list to purchase at some point within the next few months. We spent some money on books and CDs and a couple oddities, but the non-essentials totaled around $40.

Two of my sisters work for a nursing home.
I found these scrubs for $1 each.

I like to keep an eye out for things that friends and family members need. This year, I was looking out for yarn for one friend, a giant stock pot for a coworker, an industrial mixer for my boss (I knew it was a long shot, but I was sure hoping) and scrubs for my sisters. I found some yarn and scrubs, and loved being able to find a good deal for the people I care about.

Bench Scraper for $1.
$1 for a book by my favorite author? Yes please!
* Make a list, but don't stick to it. I always make a very detailed list to carry with me. On it I list everything I need for the house or projects I'm working on with measurements and other items needed such as seasonal clothing, items for hobbies, or the last few Ray Bradbury books I don't have yet (he's my favorite author). I have a missing drawer pull on my desk, so I wrote down that I needed 7 drawer pulls (so they'd match) and the measurements needed. However, I didn't find any drawer pulls or the fluted pastry wheel I was looking for. I did find Bradbury's Zen In the Art of Writing, so the list was useful. Generally, make the list, and read over it in the morning before heading out and perhaps again in the afternoon. This will remind you to look through the boxes of kitchen utensils or tools for items that you might forget to look for otherwise. However, don't be a slave to the list (this is one of the few times I will ever say this). Sometimes you'll find something perfect that you just wouldn't think to add to the list. Case in point, I found reusable bottle caps. I never would have thought to put that on the list, but now that I ferment water kefir and am going to start home brewing beer, these will save me a lot of money.

This small cast iron skillet cost me $3.
* Clean out the car before you go and pack light. Take out an items that you absolutely don't need and don't pack extra stuff if you are planning on making a multiple day trip of it. Every item you bring takes up space that you might need for a big purchase. You don't want to have to pass on the bargain wood burning stove that you need for the house you're building because you packed a second bag for the overnight trip and now have no room in the trunk. Packing light will also save you on gas, at least for the first half of the trip.

Cloth napkins for $.25 each.
* Budget. Figure out how much you are okay with spending and pull that much out in cash. Lock your credit/debit cards in the glove box. Spend only the cash you have (exception, if there is an item that you need to purchase that you find at a fantastic bargain, you could always hit an ATM). If you are going for multiple days, divide your cash into an envelope for each day so you practice self control the first days and don't blow the entire trip's cash right away.

$1 for the tea ball; $.25 each for the jacks and thimble.
* Bring small bills and coin. It's easier to haggle when you have small bills than to ask someone to come down from $20 to $15 for an item, then hand them a $20 bill and ask for change. I like to have a roll or two of quarters to avoid having to fuss with change.

Outlet covers for $.50 each for the bathroom redo.
* Bring all of your tote bags. A lot of folks come prepared with a year's supply of plastic bags for their yard sale, but some people don't have bags on hand for you. Plus, you may not want to bring any more plastic into your house than you have to. Sometimes you'll park the car and walk around a town-wide sale, or a flea market style sale. At these times, it's really helpful to have a tote bag to slide small purchases into so you don't have to walk around with armfuls of stuff while trying to shop. When it's full, you can just toss it into the trunk and grab another. It's also helpful to have some larger totes so you can place medium-sized items in them to keep items from rolling around.

* Bring your own food and drink. It will save you money over going to a restaurant or buying from one of the stands set up. It will also allow you to stay on the road and not have to stop and wait for your food to be prepared. Since these sales only last a few days, you don't want to miss a moment! We bring travel mugs and a thermos with coffee for the morning and a small cooler of iced drinks for the afternoon. Don't bring too large a cooler or you'll waste valuable space that could allow you to purchase that bulky item. Bring a lunch that won't go bad like pasta salad with a non-dairy salad dressing. Bring some dried fruit, trail mix, granola bars or easy-to-eat fruit like bananas or apples.

Lavender scented candle, free the last few hours
of the sale.
* Be prepared to haggle. Sometimes people are weird about their items and think that because they paid $20 a decade ago, you should be willing to pay $15 for it. Most people will consider reasonable offers, so it can't hurt to ask. The best times to haggle are Saturday evening right before closing because some people aren't going to set up on Sunday and all day Sunday is fair game. The last couple hours of the sale, some people are willing to take pretty much anything. Last year I was at a sale at closing bell where a woman wouldn't consider even budging on her $15 cookbooks, but this year there were many sales where people were saying "All items on the tarp are 4 for $1" or "Everything except the furniture is free."

* The first day of the sale is the best for selection. The last day of the sale is best for bargains. Plan accordingly.
I found this leather purse in a $.50 bin.

* Make it fun. In other years, we'd go for one day then come home in the evening. This year we made a trip of it. There was a pool at the hotel, we went out for dinner (using a BOGO coupon I found online) and enjoyed relaxing in a new city for the evening. The next morning we headed back out, refreshed and ready to go. If you start to get burned out, take a break. Just drive for a bit, or stop at a park for an hour to just relax. Stop at a coffee shop.

$5 for three medium sized woven rugs.
50 lb scale, $10.
* Control your spending for the first few sales. At first, you may get excited and think you're finding some great deals and spend a lot right away. However, I've found that a lot of items pop up at many yard sales at various prices. By not buying right away, you leave yourself open to finding the same item in better condition or at a lower price. For example, I have been passively looking for a vintage scale for awhile. I wanted to be able to weigh my garden produce to see what varieties are powerhouses and which ones aren't pulling their weight. I saw a couple for $50 and that was too much for me. I was at another yard sale when I saw another, right before a woman picked it up. I heard her haggle with the vendor and she bought it for $30. I was disappointed, but two yard sales later, I found one for $10. I knew that it was a great price since I'd been comparison shopping all day long and didn't hesitate to scoop it up. Another time, I was looking at some woven rugs, but didn't buy them because they were a higher dollar amount and would take up the rest of the cash I had for the day. At the very next sale, I bought 3 smaller woven rugs that were equally beautiful for 1/4 the price of one larger one.

Knives were 2 for $5; wrench was $.50
* Be careful when going off route, especially later in the sale. While you drive the route, you'll see signs for yard sales off the beaten path. These can be fantastic. Since most people don't go off-route, you may find a better selection, and since they haven't gotten as many customers, they may be more willing to haggle with you. On the other hand, sometimes you'll follow signs for 8 miles before hitting the sale only to find a few odd items. When deciding whether to go off-route, opt for "Huge sales", "Barn sales" and "Multi-Family sales" as these are more likely to be worth the time and effort. If you are going on the last day, don't go off road for any sale that doesn't list that day as many people don't have sales on Sundays, but don't take down their signs.

Cast Iron pan, $3.

Here are some of the weird things we found that didn't come home with us.

To find a long yard sale near you, check out the list at Frugal Living.

Have you ever gone to a long yard sale? Any tips you have that I missed? Any fun stories or fantastic finds?

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Homemade Chocolate Syrup

Do you crave chocolate milk? How about a sundae with chocolate syrup drizzled over the top? As for me, I love chocolate syrup in my morning peanut-butter-and-banana smoothie. What I don't love are all of the scary ingredients in a bottle of the store-bought stuff. Fortunately, whipping up homemade chocolate syrup is not only doable, it's ridiculously easy and tastes just as wonderful as anything you can buy. Here's how!

» 1 ½ cup organic sugar (You can use white, raw, brown, or a mix, although brown makes for the richest flavor.)
» 1 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
» 1 tsp salt
» 1 cup water
» 2 tsp vanilla extract (Make your own using the Homemade Extract 101!)
» Whisk
» Pot, large enough to leave 2 inches of headspace for expansion
» Storage container (mason jar, old syrup bottle, empty vodka bottle, etc.)
» Funnel

Sift together the sugar, baking cocoa, and salt, breaking up any clumps.

Put those dry ingredients in a medium pot then whisk in the water until the consistency is uniform. Heat the pot over medium low heat, stirring frequently to keep from burning and occasionally scraping the sides.

Boil until the syrup reduces by a quarter or so—about half an hour. You want the syrup to be thick, but don't worry if it still seems a little runny. It will thicken considerably as it cools.

Remove the pot from heat and let cool 10 minutes before stirring in the vanilla extract. Pour the results into your storage container, using the funnel to avoid a hot, sticky mess. Allow the syrup to cool completely before putting a lid on your container. Your syrup will keep in the fridge for several months.

I don't like wasting a single bit, so after I have scraped as much syrup from the pan as I can, I add some milk and heat the reamainder for a wonderful hot chocolate.

This recipe is flexible, and after you've made it a time or two, you might want to experiment. You can try using honey or agave nectar instead of granulated sugar; just be sure to decrease the amount of water. You can mix half white sugar with half brown sugar. You can add orange extract for a chocolate-citrus syrup or mint for a HOMEGROWN peppermint patty effect. Make it your own!

I originally published this on Homegrown.

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