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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Gingerbread Cookies, Frugal Holiday Treasure

I stumbled upon what may be the perfect holiday cookie with more perks going for it than dietary downfalls.

Busy days have always deterred me from doing cut-out cookies for Christmas since rolling out dough usually became a frustrating experience. Drop cookies were so much less of a mess and took half the time, so I thought till now.

Gingerbread cookies have to be the one holiday treat that is guaranteed to lighten the mood and produce a smile.  No matter what a person's age, he or she cannot eat one without murmuring an "ahhhh, I remember when..." moment from childhood.

Most cut-out cookie recipes are made up of the ingredients we are usually trying to avoid: white flour, white sugar and solid shortening. This recipe I discovered is a gem. It is probably from the lean years of the Great Depression or the rations of war time because it doesn't contain any white sugar or eggs. Years ago such simplicity was out of necessity or availability, but today it can be seen in a more positive light:

A nutritional boost of iron
No white sugar
No eggs or milk
Very easy handling dough
Perfect for those who want a not-so-sweet cookie.
Ideal for dipping in milk, tea or coffee.
They are a crisp cookie so hold up well for packing into tins as gift ideas or shipping.

By Helen E. Goodwin 
"Yankee Church Supper Cookbook"

1 Cup baking Molasses (Blackstrap if want the nutritional boost and not as sweet)
1/2 Cup Butter
1 Tbsp ground Ginger spice
1 rounded Tsp Baking Soda
3 Cups Flour

Boil together the molasses and butter.
Let cool.
In a large bowl, sift together the ginger, baking soda and flour.
Add the molasses, butter mixture and blend well.
Roll dough thin (about 1/8 inch thick) on a floured board or surface.
Cut out with cookie cutters.
Space out on greased cookie sheet so fit from 9 to 12 cookies, depending on their size.
Add desired decorations, such as raisins for eyes or cinnamon hearts for belly buttons.
Bake at 350 degrees F for 8 - 10 minutes
Makes 2 - 3 dozen gingerbread men or 4 - 6 dozen smaller cookie cutter shapes.

Yankee Church Supper Cookbook


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Holiday Wreaths, Reused, Resurfaced Memories

Craft stores and holiday bazaars abound with beautiful home decor to beautifully decorate your home for the holiday season. But you can create your own work of art even if you don't believe yourself to be all that crafty. We all have an imagination, it just seems to get buried over the years with the load of everyday responsibilities leaving little time to revisit that part of us.

If you have a love for thrift shops, yard sales and bargain bins, try to get in the habit of collecting stuff for the "possibilities" of what can be done with it. You can often find wreaths you may not like as is, but they can be taken apart to reuse the base wreath.

This wreath started with one of those wire wreath frames. Wrapped around that frame is burlap that you can get on a roll. Wrap the burlap around the metal frame, overlapping the edges as you go and do it tightly enough to eliminate any bulges. Use a safety pin to secure the end or glue it down with a hot glue gun. What you do from there is up to your own creativity, but for this one I had one of those artificial berry garlands that are used to drape mantels and doorways. This one was about four foot long. I tucked the wire on one end under the gaps from wrapping the burlap and then wound the garland around and around the wreath and tucked the other end under the burlap as well. Add a loop of fabric or ribbon around one of the vines for hanging.

Plastic canvas is a fun needlework project that requires time and patience but once done, these craft projects are very rewarding to know you made it yourself. Digging them out at the holidays can bring back memories on what was happening in your life at the time you were working on them.
If you don't have time or interest in making your own, these little sewing creations can be found at craft shows and thrift shops. Someone put a lot of time and loving energy into creating these types of sewing kits and it is a shame to see them end up at a thrift shop. So if you can bring a new life back into someone's work that would be great.
The chickadee seen above on this burlap wreath had been a gift to my mother-in-law and holds a special place in our hearts now that it has been returned to us so many years later.

This wreath was another thrift shop recycle project. I bought the green wreath as it was and took off the trimmings it already had. I wrapped the whole thing with a 50 bulb string of the tiny white lights. Use the string with a bulb on one end and a positive plug on the other. If you use one of the end-to-end types of lights you'll have to hide the negative plug so it doesn't show.

Next, use whatever trimmings you have to decorate your wreath. A hot glue gun works great for lightweight balls, ornaments and ribbons. The Rudolph plastic canvas was done when my children were small and to now have it pulled out again and added to this wreath means it'll  bring back fond memories every year when the kids come home for Christmas.

So have fun and let your imagination soar as you decorate your home with a little piece of who you really are!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Expectations and First Impressions with Natural Skin, Hair Care And Household Products

Slick advertising, the displays at cosmetic counters, the array of items in beauty supply stores, are all geared to convince the consumer that if they use this or that product it'll enhance their looks, confidence, love lives, even careers.

Take shampoo and conditioners for example.
The purpose of shampoo is to clean the hair. But in order for the consumer to choose one product over another, the shampoo must meet certain criteria. It has to be creamy and thick when poured from the bottle, it has to lather nicely and rinse out sufficiently. The ingredients must remain blended and have an appealing color and scent. The results have to leave a clean head without drying out the hair or irritating the scalp. Conditioners are expected to help comb out the tangles of wet hair. They are expected to add volume, body and shine without making the hair look greasy. Manufacturers don't expect consumers to understand the chemistry behind balancing the pH of our skin, hair and our water with the product, so they add what is needed to adjust the pH so their products don't cause hair to feel gunky.No one thinks about a soap product going bad but wherever you introduce water there is the risk of bacteria and mold growth. No one thinks about how long a bottle has been sitting on the store shelf. Manufacturers don't want the customer to think about those things, much less worry about it. Preservatives are added so there isn't a reason to think a personal care product would have an expiration date. Finally, the shampoo and conditioner have to be accomplish all that and still be affordable.

Let's face it, we as consumers have a lot of expectations and first impressions stick!

The decision to steer away from commercially made beauty products usually stems from scalp or skin sensitivity, allergies, the frustration with not getting the results promised from the product labeling, or from the growing awareness of the potentially toxic chemicals added to skin and hair care products.

Watch this eye opening documentary which reveals just how dangerous chemicals are in our personal care and household products. Stink It all started with a father inquiring as to why the pajamas he bought for his daughters had such a strong chemical smell. He suspected it was more than just the usual advice to wash before wearing new clothing.

Emulsifiers, preservatives, solvents, stabilizers, thickeners, humectants, foaming agents and fragrances are all used to achieve what we've come to expect in our products. So when we go the all natural route we still expect the product to look, smell and function the same way, which is where attitude has to change.

A perfect example is with the castile soap so often used in homemade shampoos and body washes. Soaps and detergents are not the same thing. Both are what are called surfactants, which means a washing compound that mixes grease and water. The purpose is to act as a solvent in removing oils and dirt. Soap is made with fats originating from either animals or vegetable sources. This fat is combined with an alkali to create what is called saponification. All soaps are made with some form of alkali (Potassium Hydroxide). Soaps are made of natural materials and have much less impact on the environment (and our skin). Detergents on the other hand excel at removing oil and dirt but in doing so can strip hair and skin of its natural oils. Detergents are synthetic, therefore have a much greater impact as they accumulate in the environment.

People expect their shampoos, facial cleanses and body washes to lather. A foamy lather is what we associate with clean. Castile soap is an olive oil/coconut oil based soap made without additional chemicals, coloring agents, preservatives and artificial scents. This soap is not a detergent, and although it is without foaming agents and will not form a billow of suds, it will give you a creamy, very sufficient lather,. Without thickening agents, though very concentrated, it doesn't have the thick pouring consistency we may expect. Being a soap product, the pH is more alkaline than our skin (which is more acidic between 4.0 and 6.0). Therefore, using only castile soap the consumer may have better results with a water softener which helps balance out the chemistry involved. Or else, as with this shampoo, the pH is better balanced out with the addition of aloe vera gel.

Castile and Aloe Shampoo

Castile and Aloe Body Wash

Don't expect homemade, holistic-geared facial washes to be like what you may be accustomed to in a cleansing face wash. Without potentially irritating ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate, the wash won't have much of a lather. Since suds and clean are correlated, the customer may feel her face isn't really clean. That assumption is not the case. Detergent based cleansers do such a good job at cleaning oil and dirt that they may leave the skin feeling taut and dry afterwards. Clean does not mean the natural oils need to be stripped away. In doing so only results in upsetting skin pH and sedum production. Too oily or too dry hair and skin are often the result of this imbalance.

Many homemade, natural skin and body care items will instruct the user to "shake before use". This is because of another lesson in chemistry. Anyone who makes their own salad dressing knows that oil and water just don't mix. You can shake it to temporarily blend them but they will separate within a short time.This incompatibility of water and oils can be overcome by agitation which disperses the molecules and generates what is called an emulsion. Emulsifiers help to stabilize those molecules so they don't separate and the product stays blended. The technical terms are molecules consisting of a water-loving (hydrophilic) part and a water-hating but oil-loving (lipophilic) part. Emulsifiers can be natural or synthetic. A very common type used in shampoos, toners and lotions is Polysorbate 20. This starts out natural but has added ethylene oxide. The Skin Safe Database rates it as a low risk but it can be irritating to people with skin problems.

Aloe/Rosewater/Olive oil Facial Cleanse
Honey/Glycerin Facial Wash

Most consumers have the belief that if an ingredient in a product passed by the FDA is harmful than it wouldn't be allowed in that product. The problem is that while it may be true that the amounts used in the products are not at a high enough level to pose a threat, the fact that we use a multitude of various body care and make-up items on a daily basis is where there is reason for concern. Our kidneys and liver do their best to eliminate toxins but those stored in the fatty tissues accumulate over time, and that accumulation may have long term negative affects. The body reacts by way of allergic and inflammatory reactions.

Anyone who has gone through the frustrations of figuring out the cause of skin rashes and itchiness knows how overwhelming it can be to start eliminating foods or deciphering topical skin care products to find out what is to blame for the problem. Atopic dermatitis is the diagnosis code often given to people for their misery, which is a vague way of saying something is irritating the skin but we have to find out what is that something. Steroidal creams and prednisolone are used to calm down the inflammation and itch but until the origin of the problem is pinpointed the cycle will continue.

Unlike the food industry, labeling laws for the cosmetic and perfume industry are very vague. There are no legal standards for even products labeled as natural and organic. This is where consumers need to take it upon themselves to be knowledgeable in their choices. By seeking small business owners and companies that believe simple is best and go back to basics with their products, consumers can feel much more comfortable with the things they use on themselves, children and pets.

So as in many things in life, attitude is everything. It isn't that big a deal to shake a bottle before use to reblend the oil and liquid portions or to remix the essential oils floating on top of that body or air spray. If your all natural shampoo or body wash isn't as thick as you'd like for pouring, request a foam pump dispenser be used instead of the usual pump top. Even those lotions that may look spoiled because the oil has separated out and is floating on the water portion can be given a good shake to reblend them.

As far as preservatives needed, no product put onto or into your bodies should be formulated to be able to sit on a store shelf for months on end. Items should be made as needed and used within a few months. If care is taken such as using clean fingers, kept out of the sun, keep out water, your creams, lotions, body sprays, massage oils, bath oils all should be fine until used up. Though not antimicrobials, natural preservatives such as vitamin E to help keep oils from oxidizing, Grapefruit Seed Extract to help keep bacterial growth at bay and the antibacterial and antifungal properties of essential oils are usually sufficient. None of us need formaldehyde in our bodies.

 Below is a great link to help you learn about chemicals added to common everyday products.
Get the scoop on the different chemicals in your everyday household and personal care products!

Meadow Muffin Gardens
Etsy shop
Zibbet shop

Monday, November 9, 2015

A bittersweet find is the Bittersweet Vine for Autumn Decor

 Gathering natural plant material for fall craft decorating ideas can be a fun and rewarding time spent outdoors. The materials are the real thing rather than craft store imitations, and cost us nothing except the time and energy to collect them. Acorns, pine cones, grapevines, milkweed pods, teasel cones and dried grasses are just some of the treasures you may discover. There is another that is a bittersweet find... the Bittersweet Vine.

Bittersweet is an ornamental climbing vine that is running rampant across the United States, strangling anything in its path that it can wrap itself around.

Celastrus orbiculatus

There are two types which look very much like. The one that is native to North America is called "American bittersweet" or "false bittersweet", Celastrus scandens. This plant has smooth stems and is well-behaved.

Celastrus scandens

The other is called "Oriental or Asian bittersweet", Celastrus orbiculatus, an exotic invasive brought over to the United States in the 1860's as an ornamental. It was purposely planted for years as a form of erosion control and for wildlife food and habitat. Discovered a little too late was that this vine literally takes over anything in its path. It looks different from the American bittersweet in that it has stems with blunt thorns and its flowers and fruits appear in small clusters along the branches where leaves are attached, whereas the American bittersweet has larger flower clusters but they are only at the branch tips.

The reasons why the Oriental bittersweet is so successful at displacing the endangered American bittersweet is because:
The bright orange/red berries are more appealing to birds who then spread the seeds around wherever the birds eliminate.
The seeds of the Oriental bittersweet have a higher germination rate than the American.
The Oriental bittersweet is better at photosynthesizing therefore grows very rapidly.

From the picture above, it is understandable why people would want to gather this plant in the fall. It's berries burst open in late September and are very pretty with the red/orange centers surrounded with the yellow skins. People like the vines for crafts for the seasonal color but also because the vines are easy to conform to almost any shape, allowing them to be a part of whatever craft project, wreath or floral arrangement in mind. 

Keep in mind two things if you are going to use them for fall decorating. Once brought indoors into warm temperatures, the flowers and fruits will eventually fall off and create a potential mess on the floor if stepped on. If used for outdoor decorating, remember that wherever the berries end up on the ground you may discover a vine growing come spring. Seeds germinate best in low light environments.It spreads by both the seeds and the sprouting roots.

The problem with Oriental bittersweet is that it doesn't distinguish among plants to climb over. It'll smother herbaceous plants on the ground as well as climb the tallest trees. 

It's sprawling growth monopolizes light and water and literally forms a canopy over shrubs and small trees, eventually becoming top-heavy and causing the tangled mess to collapse on itself. Its vines can reach four inches in diameter and as it wraps around other plants, it literally strangles them to death. 

 Yes, there are small trees under there

For light infestations the vines can be pulled or dug out by the roots and removed. Fruiting vines should be bagged and removed. To leave them lay is just going to result in the seeds resprouting. 
To deal with large, established plants, there are two ways to do it.  Cut the vines close to the ground and apply a foliar spray later when they resprout.  Or, cut the vines close to the ground and chemically treat the stumps. Cutting the vines without removing the roots or chemically treating the stems will stimulate regrowth. 
 The best time to treat is in early spring or fall when the native plants are dormant and there is much less chance they'll be affected. 
Check with your County Extension Office for advice on what herbicides are the safest to use.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hornets, Feared yet Fascinating

My dogs have brought me some interesting gifts over the years, but when our Marley came up from the field with a hornet nest in his mouth it got my attention pretty quick. By late October, the bee activity is slowing down and since he didn't look any worse for wear, perhaps he didn't pay a price for disturbing the nest. Below is what was left of it, and I have to admit, its construction is pretty interesting. It looked like several paper wasp nests stacked upon one another. The outer covering was missing which is a protection that the nests of paper wasps don't have.

There was one solitary wasp still in one of the cells. From the looks of it, it appears to be a bald-faced hornet. In the picture below it is in the center, a bit to the right. Just the back end is showing.

Bald-faced Hornet
Dolichovespula maculata
cosmopolitan family Vespidae

There is confusion when identifying these insects. The only species of a true hornet in the United States is the European or brown hornet (Vespa crabro). The insect that is really a wasp, but usually thought of as a hornet, is the bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata). The bald-faced hornet is actually a yellow jacket. All of the yellow jackets in the genus Dolichovespula build nests in bushes, trees and sides of buildings, and produce the grey papery nests.

The insect we usually think of when we say yellow jackets build both above and below ground nests, underground more often. Other differences include:
Hornets are 1 - 1 1/2 inches long, whereas yellow jackets are an inch or smaller.
Hornet nests can have 100 to 500 workers, while yellow jacket nests can have up to 5000 workers.
Hornets are black and white, jellow jackets are a variety of coloration.
Hornets feed on other insects and are not attracted by sweets, yellow jackets prey on insects too but are scavengers and like sweets.
Hornets are very aggressive and will sting over and over, but usually do so only if the nest is bothered or they are provoked.
Yellow jackets are also very aggressive, but paper wasps are not likely to sting unless threatened.

Paper wasp

Yellow jacket

The Bald-faced hornets have an interesting life cycle. All the workers die off by November, except for the fertilized queens. In the spring, queens that have overwintered in areas of protection such as hollow trees and rock piles, become active and begin to build a nest. She collects cellulose from rotting wood, chews the wood and by adding her saliva, she makes a paste. With that paste she makes a papery material to construct the nest, starting with the stem and enough brood cells to begin egg laying. She feeds the hatching larvae and these young will take over the duties of nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest. The queen then never leaves the nest and her purpose is to lay eggs. As the colony grows there may be from 100 to 400 workers.

The chosen spots for the nest can be a few feet off the ground in shrubs or way up in the trees. They are a grey color and can reach two feet in height and a foot across. There have been several occasions where towards the end of the summer season and the leaves are starting to die back, I'll suddenly notice a huge nest in an area I've been mowing past or working around without incident all summer long. A little unsettling to think what could've happened had they felt threatened.

Bald-faced hornets can be considered a beneficial insect in that they feed on insect proteins, therefore reducing the populations of unwanted insects.
As the season progresses and there are fewer larvae to feed, the workers will take nectar, so do help with pollination.
With the arrival of fall and the first hard frost, all the workers die off except for the fertilized queens that will leave the nest and seek protection for the winter. The nests are not reused the following spring.

It is wise to have the utmost respect for hornets and unless the nest is in an area where there is a good chance of disturbing them, it is best to just leave them alone. Here is a good post about the subject of whether or not to destroy hornet nests. The good information is in the comment section.

If you do discover a hornet or wasp nest there are a few ways to handle them. Since the workers will die off with the arrival of the cold season, if it is already near fall, try to just use caution around the nest and leave it alone. If the nest is high up in the trees, there is little chance it would become a threat anyway.

If the decision is to remove the nest there are options:
Commercial sprays can be used to kill them. If you choose this route and try to do it yourself, wait until evening when the wasps are all back in the nest and are quiet. Follow the instructions on the can. If over the next few days you still see activity, you may need to repeat the application.

A way to get rid of the nest without using chemicals is to wait until evening and very slowly and carefully cover the nest with a plastic bag. Leave as little opening at the top as possible and cut the branch holding the nest. Moving slowly, relocate the nest to an out of the way area or to kill them, place the bag in the freezer or lay it in the hot sun. They'll die within a day or two.

Information for this post came from:
Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Extension Office

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Warming Power of Ginger

Ginger root
Zingiber officinale
Tropical perennial
Native to East Asia and tropical Australia

When it comes to preparing Asian food, there is no comparison between using fresh ginger root and the dried powdered ginger. The spicy, warming, yet sweet taste adds the touch you want in oriental cooking. The powdered version is hotter and spicier. One of the oleoresin compounds, gingerol, is why this rhizome is so spicy.

Traditionally, because of its antimicrobial properties, ginger has been used in cooking to help preserve food against Shigella, E. coli, and Salmonella.
But since it has such a variety of uses, it is one of the most popular herbs and with such positive studies behind it, it is one of the more accepted herbs in Western medicine.
Ayurveda calls ginger the "universal medicine" and it is one of the most prescribed hers in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).

As a hot tea, ginger is a very healthy tonic and one of the best for improving digestion. Served with lemon and honey, ginger tea is a delicious way to control any type of nausea. Motion sickness, morning sickness and medication induced nausea can all be relieved with ginger. When you sip the tea, you can feel the heat from the tea warm up your core and then spread to your limbs. The term energetics is associated with ginger, which means the distribution of energy. Often circular, the release of heat is followed by a coolness.

At the onset of a cold or fever, start drinking hot ginger tea. By warming you up from the inside, it can stop the shivers.  Ginger stimulates fluid loss by way of sweating or getting stuck mucus flowing again, therefore great for loosening phlegm and relieving sinus congestion.
For headaches, stir two tablespoons of ginger powder into hot water at the first sign of pain.
Sore throats and coughs can be relieved by drinking ginger tea, sucking on ginger candy, taking ginger infused honey right off the spoon or adding it to your hot tea.

Honey, Lemon & Ginger Syrup
Here we have a syrup made up of raw honey, lemons and ginger root. Taken as is or made into a tea, this can be a winning combination to feel better. Honey actually absorbs moisture, called hygroscopic, so it is helpful for cold symptoms as it can bring moisture to tissues in the throat. Being antibacterial, it helps to kill infection causing bacteria.

Lemons have both antibacterial and antioxidant qualities. Rich in vitamin C, the antioxidants in lemons help with the common cold as free radicals are destroyed within the body.

Ginger candy is a great thing to have on hand to suck on when nauseated, have a belly ache, a cough or a sore throat. It makes a sweet, spicy snack on its own or can be added to a cup of hot tea.
Ginger candy can be found at most health food stores but here is a recipe to make your own:
Ginger candy found in the store is usually a pale yellow color because sulfates were added to keep the nice color. Unsulphured is available and the color will be a more tan color.
Recipe by Rosalee de la Foret

1 lb of fresh ginger root
1 lb of sugar
kitchen scale
wax paper

Use a spoon to gently scrape off the papery sheath on the ginger. Wash the root.
Slice it fairly thin or cut into chunks.
Place the ginger pieces into the sauce pan and cover with water.
Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until the ginger looks translucent.
Drain off the liquid which is really ginger tea but reserve 1/4 cup.
If you want to save the tea to drink later, dilute it since it'll be very strong.
To figure how much sugar you'll need, weigh the ginger. You'll be using the same amount of each.
For example, if you have 8 oz.volume of liquid, you'll need 8 oz. by weight of sugar.
Return the ginger pieces, the measured amount of sugar and the 1/4 cup of reserved liquid.
Turn the stove to medium high and stir frequently.
The sugar will quickly dissolve.
Turn the heat down and let it simmer until the liquid is reduced and crystalizes.
Stir frequently, you don't want the ginger to scorch.
Once the mixture looks a bit dry, lay the ginger pieces out onto a sheet of wax paper and let it cool.
Store in a covered container in a cool place. 

Ginger speeds up the delivery of healthy plant chemicals into the bloodstream. Working as a blood thinner, it increases blood flow throughout the system. This helps to relieve cramps and menstrual discomfort, cold fingers and toes from spasms, even helps prevent blood clots.  Symptoms of stagnant blood often results in pain. Ginger helps to relieve these symptoms as it dilates blood vessels and increases circulation.

Anti-inflammatory actions make ginger widely used for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid pain.
Taken internally as a tea is wonderful, but also take advantage of hot ginger compresses.
Muscular aches, abdominal cramps, kidney stone attacks, bladder inflammation, back ache, neck pain, neuralgia, etc. can be relived using a hot compress.

Directions for making a hot compress:
Bring a gallon of water to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Meanwhile wash but don't peel a ginger root. Grate the root by hand using a rotating, clockwise motion instead of the usual back-and-forth movements. This helps keep the tough fibers from building up on the grater. Put the grated in the center of a clean muslin cloth cut into an 8-inch square. Draw up the corners and tie with a string. Once the water is no longer boiling, squeeze the grated ginger bag so some juice drops into the water, then lower the bag down into the pot. Cover and let simmer for about 7 to 10 minutes. Press the bag along the side of the pot to help release the juices. The water should turn a golden yellow. Remove the bag and set aside.
Holding a hand towel by the ends, dip the middle part into the pot to get it hot and wet. Carefully squeeze it out and lay it over the site of pain. Lay the ginger bag on the towel and cover this with another dry towel to help hold in the heat. Keep in place for 45 minutes, rewarming the towel in the hot water to keep the compress hot. Repeat every 4 hours or as needed.

Fresh grated ginger infused in olive oil creates a wonderful, warming oil to be used as a pain relieving massage oil, a post-workout muscle oil to prevent cramping, a chest oil for congestion, a bath oil or as a foot or hand rub to bring back circulation to cold fingers and feet.
To make your own, you'll need a bit of patience:
 Shred enough ginger root to give you 2 cups. Add to a small crock pot and cover with 3 cups of olive oil. Turn the crock pot onto the lowest setting, you don't want the oil to boil. Leave the cover ajar to allow the moisture from the ginger to evaporate. If the moisture cannot evaporate your oil will easily mold. Keep an eye on the pot. Should it begin to bubble, turn off the crock pot for a bit and then turn back on. The process will take about two days. The greenish color of the olive oil should turn a golden color and you'll be able to smell the zing of ginger in the oil. Once done, strain the oil by stretching a cheesecloth over a bowl held in place with a rubber band around the bowl. After the oil has strained through the cloth, gather up the ends and press the remaining juices out with a wooden spoon. Allow the oil to sit for a day so any moisture left in the oil will settle to the bottle and you can pour the oil into a jar, leaving the water behind.
If you don't want to make your own ginger oil, you can purchase it through the given link.

ginger oil
Too often we'll buy a ginger root and end up throwing part of it away because we don't use it fast enough. Here are a few ways to store it:

Don't frustrate yourself trying to peel the knobby thing with a potato peeler. Here are a few methods:

1. Use a spoon to remove the papery sheath. Use circular motions to grate it so the fibrous and stringy root doesn't get hung up on the grater. Lay the shredded ginger out onto a piece of plastic wrap, roll up and twist the ends to close. Put into the freezer and snip off a piece when needed.

2. Slice the peeled root into thin slices, lay out onto a tray or plate and freeze. Once frozen store the pieces in a ziploc plastic bag. Handy to have on hand to add a piece to a cup of tea.

3. Freeze the whole root without bothering to peel first. Frozen ginger will grate smoothly without all the strings.

4. Use alcohol to preserve:
Puree it with a little vodka and store in the fridge
Cover ginger slices with sherry and store in the fridge
Peel the whole root, put into a glass jar, cover with vodka and store in the fridge.

Information for this post came from Rosalee de la Foret and John Heinerman

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Saving Seed, Here we have the Zinnia

September is the time of seasonal change when plants near the end of their cycle and set seed. Perennial flowers go to seed and then die back to a dormancy state for the winter. The above the ground parts of the plant are cut back after frost to about six inches above the soil surface and the root system rests till the following spring. Annuals grow to maturity, go to seed and die, as the life cycle is over in one growing season.

The rules for gathering seed are generally the same for most of our annual flowers but here we focus on the zinnia.
Zinnias will reseed themselves, so it you like where they were located or just don't get to gathering any of them, let them alone to dry on the stalk and clean up the old plants in the spring. Between the wind and the birds those seeds will be scattered here and there without any efforts from you. But if you want to choose certain colors or want to have seeds to put in another area, then here is how to do it:


Zinnias are a favorite for anyone wanting a flowerbed to attract butterflies, hummingbirds and insect pollinators. They are easy to grow, come in a wide array of colors, bloom all summer long, are drought resistant, pest hardy, not fussy about soil and if you choose, you can get varieties up to five feet tall. These beauties from Mexico do love the sun and warm weather so it is important to wait till the soil warms up in the spring to plant the seeds.

Only save seed from open-pollinated varieties. There are some hybrid zinnia types that won't grow true to the parent from saved seed. Here is a list of varieties that are open-pollinated:
Green Envy
Bright Jewels
Canary Bird
Candy Cane
California Giant
Lilac Queen
Miss Wilmott
Persian Carpet
State Fair Mix
Cut'n Come Again

Choose the strongest, biggest blossoms for seed saving. Though cutting off the spent flowers is tempting because of their unsightliness, resist the urge if you want the seed. The only way to get the seeds is to let the pods dry out on the plant. 

These flowers are drying but not ready yet to cut off:

The flower head has to be completely dry. It'll be dark brown and dry when ready to cut. Trying to harvest too early will result in immature seeds that won't germinate. Choose the ones you want and deadhead the rest. You won't need to save every flower unless you plan on selling them or giving them away. For your own use you'll be surprised how many seeds come from just one flower head.

Cut off the dried flower heads and choose one of two ways to prepare to save them:

Some people just put the entire seed head, petals and all, into a paper bag and store them in a dry, cool, dark place for the winter.
Other people like to do the work now rather than in the spring.
The dried petals need to be pulled off and the seed cone torn apart to gather the seeds. It'll be messy so do it over a tray or something to catch the seed and separate them from the dried petals. Once you pull off the dried petals, what you'll be looking at is an arrow-shaped base which is the seed bundle. This bundle is torn apart to expose and separate all the seeds.

There are also two ways to save your seeds:

Put them into a paper bag or envelope and store in a dark, cool, dry location away from heat and moisture. The bag needs to breathe so don't use plastic. If stored in a sealed plastic bag there is the risk of condensation from moisture and heat. Seeds stored properly have a good germination rate that will decrease at about 10% per year.

The other method of storage is refrigeration or freezer. This eliminates the three risks to seeds which are heat, air and the problem of condensation. The deterioration process is halted and seed can last for years with little drop in germination rates. Put the seeds in ziploc plastic bags or tightly sealed containers and store in your refrigerator or freezer till needed. In the late spring when you pull out those seeds, don't take more than you plan to plant at the time. You don't want the seeds defrosting and then putting those you don't need back into the cold.

Seed saving can turn into a really fun hobby, not just for flowers but for your garden vegetables as well. Depending on the vegetable, the seed saving process may differ from annual flowers.
Here is a good book on the subject of seed saving:

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Blackstrap Molasses...Good-bye Fatigue, Cramps

Starting a conversation with the phrase "back in the olden days" may immediately cause eyes to roll, with the thought being "here we go again", but many times those old days had the right idea.

Earl Mindell's Food as Medicine is a firm believer that what you eat can help prevent everything from colds to heart disease to cancer. The words "food" and "medicine" are once again being said in the same breath as physicians realize that it is necessary to treat the "whole body" rather than thinking that each bodily system needed its own specialist without the need to collaborate with one another to understand what is really going on with a patient.

Years ago before white sugar was the norm, blackstrap molasses was the principal sweetener used in cooking and baking. Cost and availability are usually the reason behind peoples' eating habits. The more processed a food gets the nutritional value usually decreases. Sugar is no exception.

Molasses is made from the sugar cane, a tropical grass that has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. Light and brown, powdered and granulated white sugars are all highly refined with little nutritional value. The natural sugars we see in health food stores are made with fewer steps in their processing. The fewer the steps, the less impact on the environment as well as more of the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals will remain in the final product.

Blackstrap molasses contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals. It is the syrup that remains after the sugar cane is made into table sugar. Blackstrap is the most concentrated and carmelized type. There are three different types of molasses: unsulfured, sulfured, and blackstrap.  To make molasses from sugar cane there are two tasks required. First the sugar cane juice has to be separated from the pulp, and then the sugar (sucrose) has to be extracted from the juice. To do that there are what they call "rounds of processing".

After a first round of processing, which involves spinning the juice and heating, the remaining syrup is the light molasses seen in the grocery store. It is light in color and has a mild taste. A second round of processing is done to extract more sucrose and that result is what is processed and sold as table sugar. The resulting syrup from that round is the dark molasses seen in the grocery store.

Finally, with a third round of processing, the result is known as blackstrap molasses. This syrup is dark, thick and the most nutritious. 

Significant amounts of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium and selenium are all found in blackstrap molasses.
Adding blackstrap molasses to the diet is like adding a source of power to your system. 

Anyone needing a boost in iron intake should consider working molasses into their food intake. Iron is critical for the proper transport of iron to all bodily tissues. Proper levels of hemoglobin and the formation of new cells in the body are maintained with ideal iron absorption. Compared to red meat, blackstrap molasses is lower in calories and doesn't contain any fat. 

Other health benefits of molasses include relief from diabetes, obesity, stress, acne and other skin problems, constipation, headaches, arthritis, anemia and even cancer. Bone health, electrolyte balance, hair care, the nervous system, stronger immune system and wound healing are all helped along with the nutritional benefits of blackstrap molasses.

It has also been found that blackstrap molasses is one of the best remedies around for menstrual cramps!
This is another one of those old-fashioned remedies our grandmothers swore by and fortunately such knowledge is making a comeback. 
Once a day, combine a tbsp of raw apple cider vinegar and a tbsp of blackstrap molasses in a glass of water. Raw Apple cider vinegar and raw honey is another combination that has survived the test of time for maintaining vitality. But being blackstrap molasses is so high in vitamins and minerals, it is ideal for helping with anemia, a real problem for menstruating women. Get the nutritional needs back in balance and a lot of those PMS symptoms will resolve themselves.   

Sulfur dioxide is often added to lighten the color of the molasses and extend its shelf life by preventing it from fermenting. Being there is a relationship between sulfur metabolism and sulfur dioxide and sulfites, the potential problems with allergic reactions to sulfites in foods may be good enough reason to look for unsulfured molasses. Another reason for that choice is that sulfur dioxide is a component in the production of acid rain.

It is doubtful you will find anyone today slathering their morning toast with blackstrap molasses as was done in Colonial days, but below are two great ways to sneak it in:

Iced Blackstrap Molasses (Earth Clinic) 

1 tbsp blackstrap molasses
hot water
3/4 cup milk or dairy substitute

Add the molasses to a glass and add just enough hot water to cover the molasses. Stir until dissolved. Add the ice and top off with the milk, soymilk, almond milk or whatever you choose. Vanilla or chocolate almond, soy or coconut milk are all tasty additions.

Ginger Molasses Muffins (Marlene Falsetti from Taste of Home magazine)

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar

Beat the above three ingredients in a large size bowl.

1 egg
1 cup blackstrap molasses

Beat in the molasses and the egg.

In another bowl combine and sift together:

3 cups all-purpose flour or 1/2 all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup wheat flour 
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt

Stir the dry mixture into the molasses mixture alternatively with 

1 cup water

Fill greased or paper lined muffin cups 2/3 full.
Bake at 350 degrees for 18 - 20 minutes.
Cool in pan for 10 minutes and remove muffins to a wire rack.
Makes about 20 muffins

Another hearty muffin recipe:

Molasses Raisin Muffins

Blackstrap Molasses Cookies (the hungry hounds blog)

3/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
1/4 cup corn syrup

Using a stand mixer or a hand mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar together at high speed for 3 minutes for stand mixer or 6 minutes with hand mixer.

Add egg, molasses and syrup
Mix to combine

2 1/4 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt

In another bowl, sift together the above dry ingredients.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter egg mixture. Mix only enough to blend together.

Refrigerate for at least an hour. Allows the dough to firm up for easier handling.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees 

Make a sugar topping using:
1/2 cup sugar

Make dough balls with your hands and roll in the sugar
Place on greased cookie sheets
Bake 11 minutes
You are looking for the edges to be done, but the middles to appear under-cooked, this slight under baking helps cookies achieve the wanted soft texture yet crackly appearance

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Nicotine Habit, Why Smoking is so Tough to Give up

 As with many medical issues, people often don't change their lifestyles until faced with their own mortality by losing their health. So what is in tobacco anyway? 

Tobacco plants evolved the ability to make a nerve gas against insects. That ability is called nicotine, an alkaloid pesticide that plants evolved to defend themselves against insect pests. 

Cigarettes are the source of many irritants and poisons such as: reactive metal fragments, ammonia fumes, the paint stripper chemical acetone, hydrogen sulfide, methane, hydrogen cyanide, nitric oxide and formaldehyde. That certainly is not an inclusive list. According to David Bodanis in his book, "The Secret House", the reason cigarettes are the source of all these is because once lit the cigarette makes them itself.  During inhalation the glowing tip of the cigarette can reach 1,700 degrees F. That heat rips the tobacco and paper compounds into their constituent parts and from those basic parts, builds them up again into the poisonous, complex chemicals we started with. This is possible because under the intense heat hydrogen and oxygen come together to form water, which then superheats into steam and condenses as it cools. The chemicals have time to form in between the puffs on the cigarette which starts that process again and again. All that is going on just inside the cigarette, the dim glow behind the red hot tip.

Now imagine what is really in that smoke stream anyone around you has no choice but to breathe. The newly created chemicals of poison clot together in extremely small balls. By the time the cigarette is burned half-way down those little hydrogen cyanide balls are falling, ready to stick to whatever or whomever they land. In addition to that, the exhalation from the smoker is spewing out ammonia, cyanide, formaldehyde and mucus constituents from the nasal lining. 

According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, "Nicotine is one of the most toxic addictions-especially because of its physiological effect on the rest of the body. But the addiction itself is manifested in not only an emotional need for the drug but also a physical need; your brain tells your body it needs nicotine to prevent the symptoms of withdrawal. One reason that nicotine is addictive is that it creates pleasure in the brain, causing a feeling of relaxation. Over time, nicotine keeps your brain from supplying these chemicals that create these good feelings, and you end up craving more nicotine and the feeling it produces."

Everyone is told not to smoke. So why do people continue with such a harmful habit?  In his book, "The Secret Family", David Bodanis claims that nicotine works on the limbic system cells in the brain. By giving a boost in self-confidence many people crave, they soon think they need the stress relief cigarettes appear to offer.  Another reason that people, especially girls, enjoy their smokes is because the nicotine slows the stomach's usual movements which diminishes an appetite. Supposedly ideal for anyone trying to stay slim or lose weight. Women don't seem to realize that their idealistic body image could become an oxygen starved, wrinkled figure with thinning bones prone to fracture. Little is more harmful for maintaining a youthful facial complexion than the damage from free radicals caused by cigarettes.

The tobacco industry understands human nature. Young people vulnerable to peer pressure and normal insecurities are at a higher risk for poor decision making. Once the addictive properties of nicotine take hold, often people smoke for years until they can finally break the habit. Truth be told, many smokers claim to actually enjoy their cigarettes. Reaching for a cigarette while under emotional stress can be like having a good friend. Only true friends don't haunt you down the road.

A little encourage from popular herbalist Susun Weed:
"Tobacco is highly addictive and you can beat it. Get an extra edge on quitting by nourishing yourself with a handful of freshly toasted sunflower seeds and a cup of nettle or oatstraw infusion daily for 4-6 weeks before you stop smoking. Sunflower seeds reduce cravings for nicotine by filling nicotine receptor sites. Nettles and oatstraw strengthen nerves and cushion the impact of withdrawal."

Susun recommends the following book to help quit the habit:

The No-Nag, No-Guilt, Do-It-Your-Own-Way Guide to Quitting Smoking by Tom Ferguson, MD, Ballantine, 1987.