Containing Strawberry Freshness

It’s strawberry season!  Those lush, first fruits of summer are starting to appear in home gardens, farmer’s markets, and u-pick patches.  How do you keep them fresh and enjoy them at their prime?

There is nothing worse than having fresh strawberries go bad within a day or two.  Because it happens all too frequently, consumers have shared their ‘secrets’ or methods to thwart this disappointing situation.  Any number of recommendations on keeping strawberries fresh can be found by perusing the web.  One site, thekitchen.com [1], put seven popular methods of storing strawberries to the test with the hopes of find the best method of storing strawberries longer.  The test findings revealed that rinsing the strawberries in vinegar water prior to storage proved to be the best.  Having heard that method several years ago, I tried it and did not find it to be as successful as touted.   According to food scientists, moisture is the enemy of strawberries.  So what do the experts recommend?

Rinse the berries and remove caps when you are ready to eat or use them.    

University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension [2] says that “strawberries are like small sponges and soak up all the water they come into contact with.  Once they have soaked it up, they are quick to turn to mush and mold even if they have been thoroughly patted dry.” This is also the reason that strawberries should not be picked when they are damp.  The same holds true for berries that have experienced heavy rain or several days of wet weather even though they are dry at the time of picking; they are on moisture overload and will not keep long regardless of how they are cared for or stored.

Therefore, strawberries should only be washed before eating or using to remove dirt and any potential bacterial contamination.  To wash, rinse the berries thoroughly under cool running water, drain in a clean strainer, and pat dry with paper towels.  For any berries showing signs of dirt, gently rub the berry under running water.  Linda J Harris, Food Safety Expert at UC Davis [3], says “Washing strawberries in a sink filled with water is not recommended since the standing water can spread contamination from one berry to another.  The use of soap or detergent is also not recommended or approved for washing fruits and vegetables because the produce can absorb detergent residues.”

Refrigerate if not used right away.

Strawberries do not ripen after picking so putting them in the refrigerator does not slow the ripening.  It does, however, slow the progression of mold growth on or between the berries if they will not be used for eating or cooking shortly after picking.  If they will be used or eaten after picking, they will not deteriorate sitting on a counter for a couple of hours at room temperature.  Cold temperatures suppress the flavor of the berries so they will taste sweeter if you let them come to room temperature before eating.

The optimum storage temperature for strawberries is 32⁰ to 36⁰F with humidity at 90 to 95 percent.  Therefore, the refrigerator fruit crisper drawer is the best place to keep them.  Purchased berries can be stored in the plastic clamshell containers they are usually sold in. However, the containers should be opened and the berries checked for any that are crushed or spoiling and removed before refrigerating.  For fresh picked berries, consider placing them in layers between paper towels in a covered container.  The purpose of the paper towels is to soak up excess moisture from the strawberries and to allow air circulation between the berries.  I’ve had very good luck storing my freshly picked strawberries in clamshell containers that I’ve saved from purchased berries.  Stored properly under optimum conditions, fresh strawberries should last 7 days but their shelf life also depends on how ripe the berries were when purchased or picked.

Berries that have been cut or sliced should be covered and refrigerated if they are not eaten or used within 2 hours of preparation. [3]

For longer term storage, freeze, dry, or preserve (jams and jellies). 

For best quality, strawberries should be preserved on the day they are harvested.  Select berries that are firm, brightly colored, sweet-scented, and have hulls (green caps) attached.  On average, 1 pound of fresh berries yields 1 pint of frozen berries. One pound of fresh berries is approximately 2/3 – 1 quart of fresh berries. A quart container of fresh strawberries is approximately 1½ pounds or 4 cups sliced berries.  Wash the berries as indicated and remove the caps.

Freezing strawberries is quick and easy and perfect for making smoothies, sauces, and jams at a later date.  Frozen berries are also great for baking.  Further, a lot of berries are not needed at any one time to freeze.  There are different methods for freezing—sliced or whole, sugar or no sugar, container or bag—all are acceptable personal choices.  What is important is that the berries are protected from freezer burn.  My favorite method is to spread whole prepared berries on a tray and freeze.  When frozen, remove them from the freezer, package (I like the zipper bags), and quickly return to the freezer.  The fruit pieces remain loose and can be used in whatever quantity is need. 

Drying strawberries reduces the amount of space needed for storage.  Berries can be left whole but dry better if sliced ¼ to ½-inch thick; they can also be pureed for a fruit leather.  A food dehydrator produces the best quality dried strawberries.  Strawberries should not be dried in a microwave oven as they are prone to scorching and burning.  Proper drying temperature is 135⁰ to 140⁰F. The amount of time it takes to dry strawberries depends on their initial moisture content, the volume being dried, the size and thickness, humidity of the ambient air, and the dehydrator. Berries are dry when they are pliable but not sticky or tacky.  Cool the dried berries thoroughly and package quickly.  Dried strawberries can be rehydrated.  I like themas a snack food; they can also be added to yogurt and cereal.  For additional information on drying strawberries, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has a publication, Drying Fruits and Vegetables.

Preserving strawberries in the form of jams, jellies or fruit spreads are rewarding ways to use ripe strawberries.  Preserves made with commercial pectin products are quick and easy to do; package directions should be carefully followed for success.  Jam can also be made without added pectin.  A good recipe can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  Freezer jam is another option.  It is made with a modified pectin as freezer jams do not require cooking.  Freezer jam tastes more like fresh strawberries.

Enjoy those succulent strawberries while at their prime!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Dealing with Sport Stains

Spring youth baseball, softball, football, and soccer games are in full swing—rain or shine!  While it’s fun to watch the kids play and give it their all, it’s not so fun for the moms and dads who clean the uniforms after the game.  Parents know that just one base slide or a slip and sprawl on the grass will result in some serious laundry room time. Add to that, wet fields!

While attending one of my grandson’s baseball games, I noted a mix of emotions among the side line of parents and grandparents as they watched their player make a successful base slide or an outfield fly caught as the fielder slid on his bottom across the damp grass to make the catch.  An eruption of clapping and cheering was followed by a low murmur of comments and ‘teasing’ about the dirt-caked or grass-stained pants.  That was followed with a sharing of advice on “best methods or products” to restore the pants to white and bright.

It’s been many years since I had to tackle the job or getting my son’s football pants clean after a game.  There were fewer laundry products then compared to those available today. The usual cleaning method was soaking and scrubbing with the famed Fels-Naptha bar [1][2].  

Today there are many options and it was interesting to hear the chatter on how to get the stained clothing cleaned quickly and ready for the next game.  Since most of the kids on the team have been playing since they were 3-years old, it comes as no surprise to these veteran parents that basic laundering techniques are useless for cleaning soiled uniforms, especially for anything white. While their methods or go-to products may be different, they all agreed on four things:

  • get to the stains ASAP,
  • avoid using chlorine bleach,
  • wash alone or with like colors, and
  • air dry.

Stain Types

Textile experts would concur with the “mom” advice.  Further, they would recommend that any stain removal should begin by 1) identifying the fiber type, and 2) determining the stain type. Depending on the fiber or stain type, the stain removal process is different

Most sport uniforms are made of polyester, nylon, or a blend of cotton and polyester, with polyester being widely used for youth sport uniforms.  Polyester uniforms are extremely durable and also exhibit moisture wicking properties which allows sweat to wick away from the skin for more efficient evaporation. Polyester’s downside is it’s affinity for oil-based stains and shrinkage with heat.

Most sport-induced stains are either protein stains or dye stains.  Protein-based stains include things like blood, sweat, grass, mud and most dirts; protein stains can be time-consuming to remove as they usually involve some soaking time. A common dye stain in baseball uniforms is discoloration from red clay; red clay is the dirt combination used to skin the infield made of clay mixed with sand or silt and topped with brick dust. The reddish color of the dirt comes from iron oxide or rust.

Protein Stains

Pre-soak protein-stained clothing in cold to lukewarm water. Protein stains will set if exposed to hot water, an iron, or a dryer. Heat cooks the protein, causing coagulation between the fibers in the yarns of the fabric, making the stains more difficult to remove.  Enzyme based products (presoaks and detergents) work best as these cleaners contain enzymes that “eat” protein stains.  When shopping for an enzyme laundry product, pay attention to products that have “bio” or “enzyme action” somewhere in their name usually indicating that it likely contains enzymes.

Red Clay Stains

Red clay (rust) stains are allergic to both chlorine and oxygen bleaches. Chlorine bleach may make them permanent.  The University of Illinois Extension [3] offers several methods for removal with products found at home. Rust stains can also be treated with commercial rust removal products; label directions should be carefully followed and care should be taken to not inhale the products.

Parent and Grandparent Product Suggestions

However, in the fast paced world of youth sports and weekend tournaments, parents have found ‘once and done’ methods and products to cut the laundry time and have their player(s) start their games looking their best.  For those who deal with deep, ground in dirt, it starts with power washing at home or the car wash followed by some soaking and washing. Below are some of the products* suggested by parents, and even a great-grandmother, at my grandson’s game.  As always, products should be used per label directions and tested in an inconspicuous spot prior to use. 

DIY 1:1:1 mix of hydrogen peroxide, blue Dawn dish detergent, and baking soda spread or sprayed on the stains and allowed to soak for 4+ hours before laundering as usual.

BIZ Stain and Odor Eliminator

Fels-Naptha bar [1][2]

Iron Out Rust Stain Remover

Krud Kutter Sports Stain Remover

Lestoil (suggested by a great grandmother)

OUT White Brite Laundry Whitener

OxiClean™ Versatile Stain Remover or White Revive™

Zout

And a final “mom” recommendation – Wash uniforms inside out to reduce potential peeling of letters or numbers and dye transfer.  “HATS OFF” to all the moms, dads, and grandparents that support youth and their activities with their time, encouragement, and laundry duty! And thank you to the moms and dads who helped this grandma learn more about laundering today’s sport uniforms.

*Reference to any commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporate name is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement, recommendation, or certification of any kind. Persons using such products assume responsibility for their use and should make their own assessment of the information and whether it is suitable for their intended use in accordance with current directions of the manufacturer.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Keep Memorial Day – Honor Our Fallen Heroes

Memorial Day is just around the corner and for many Americans it is about a three-day weekend and the “unofficial” start of summer—barbecues, swimming, camping and lake trips.  However, Memorial Day is more than all of that. Since 1868, it has been a national holiday dedicated to the men and women who have died while serving in a branch of the United States military. Learn more about this national holiday that memorializes our fallen heroes and how to respectfully honor them with flags and tribute flowers.

History

Prior to 1971, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th regardless of what day of the week it fell on; it was also known as Decoration Day. The very first Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30, 1868, when General James A. Garfield gave a remembrance speech to thousands of onlookers at Arlington National Cemetery in memory of those lost during the Civil War. [1]  However, before the Civil War, women’s groups had been decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.  The name Memorial Day would be used with or in place of Decoration Day over the next decades, and after World War I, the day came to honor veterans from all wars, not only the Civil War. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day the official name for the national holiday and set the last Monday in May for observing a day of “National Mourning.”

Poppies have long been a national symbol of remembrance and hope beginning with the end of World War I when the bright red flowers bloomed on war-torn battlefields. The flower became associated with Memorial Day in 1915 when Moina Michael, inspired by John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” [2] penned the poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith” [3] and vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war.

The true meaning of Decoration or Memorial Day has gradually been lost or mixed with other holiday traditions. Since the early 20th century, Memorial Day gradually became an occasion for more general expressions of remembering loved ones, as people visit and decorate the graves of their deceased relatives in church and city cemeteries, whether they served in the military or not.  Even though this is not the intention of Memorial Day, it does make for beautiful cemeteries as fresh or artificial flowers and wreaths adorn the graves. When the 1971 Congressional act established a three-day Memorial Day weekend, it also became vacation time for many and opportunity for businesses to cash in on Memorial Day savings.

Ways to Correctly Observe Memorial Day [4]

While there are dozens of ways one can honor America’s fallen on Memorial Day, here’s some ideas to get you started:

  • Wear a Memorial Day button or poppy.
  • Visit cemeteries and place flags or flowers on the graves of our fallen heroes.
  • Fly the American flag at half mask until noon.  Per the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the flag is to be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon only, then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset, in honor of our fallen heroes. This goes for all flags on government buildings, grounds, and naval vessels, as well as flags flown by private citizens.
  • Observe a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 pm.  The National Moment of Remembrance Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, asks all Americans to observe a national moment of remembrance at 3 p.m. local time on the afternoon of Memorial Day.
  • Attend local Memorial Day services, parades, concerts sponsored by VFWs, American, Elks, Boy/Girl Scouts, government, business or educational groups, or religious services of choice.

Honor with Cemetery or Grave Marker Flags

Check in advance if a local group is planning a flag-placing event.  If a flag-placing event has been planned, extra hands may be welcomed.

  • Correctly place flags.  Flags placed at graves should be erected in a uniform matter, usually one foot, centered and in front of the headstone or grave marker according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration.
  • Use correct flag types. Cemetery or grave marker flags of appropriate size (8×12” or 12X18”) should be mounted on a wooden dowel of appropriate diameter and length.  Flags should be made of a durable material and exhibit no fraying or wear.  Flags made from fabrics which fray must have a rolled hem for more durability.
  • Be respectful and observe US Flag Codes. [5]
  • Place and remove flags at the appropriate times.  Cemetery or grave marker flags can usually be placed three days prior to the holiday and remain up to one week afterward. Make sure to check with the cemetery director to determine when to place and remove the flag.

Honor with Flowers or Floral Tributes

Cemeteries usually have rules and regulations for flowers and floral arrangements.  If you are not familiar with the rules, check before making a purchase to avoid disappointment. 

  • Choose hardy, long-lasting flowers. Flowers that are currently in-season and sourced locally will last longer than those that have been imported from another country. Chrysanthemums and carnations are both known for being hardy and long-lasting, even in outdoor conditions.
  • Place cut flowers in floral foam or a vase. A bouquet laid on the grave will not last long without water. Cut flowers in a well-soaked floral foam or a cemetery-approved vase with water will ensure that the flowers look beautiful for as long as possible.
  • Choose a potted plant. A correctly chosen potted plant may create less of an impact than cut flowers, but will last for a very long time.
  • Plant flowers on the grave. Some cemeteries allow planting of flowers on or around a grave. Peonies are a common choice when allowed as they are often in bloom for Memorial Day. 
  • Artificial flowers.  High quality silk flowers can look stunning, add color and beauty for a very long time, and require very little maintenance.
  • Be sure that any and all tributes are anchored properly.  Wind can be a real menace to grave-site tributes.  Some artificial arrangements come with wires or cones that can be poked into the soil.  Headstone saddles are designed to clamp on the top of the stone and hold arrangements in place, but may not be ample for our Midwest wind; the metal arms of the saddle have been criticized for not being strong enough to clamp tightly. A third option is a headstone flower anchor. The flower anchor is designed to be used on saddle arrangements to secure them to the stone, but it could easily be used to secure a wreath, a cross, or other style of arrangements.  Cemetery rules should always be observed.

Yes, Memorial Day has come to signify the “unofficial” start of summer as well as to memorize veterans and loved ones. In whatever way one chooses to observe it, do take time to keep Memorial Day and remember and honor the fallen heroes who made it all possible. 

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Eggs are Egg-cellent

May is a month to celebrate the arrival of spring, mothers, graduations, the men and women who have died in military service, and the incredible EGG!  

May is National Egg Month and an opportunity to not only recognize the qualities and versatility of the egg, but also to acknowledge our egg farmers! Did you know Iowa ranks No. 1 in the nation for egg production? Each year, Iowa egg farms produce more than 17.1 BILLION eggs and is home to more than 58 million laying hens. Together with Ohio and Indiana (2nd and 3rd producers), the three states produce a third of the total US eggs.[1]

Here is a reminder of ALL of the egg-cellent reasons to celebrate eggs.

Nutrition

Eggs are among the most nutritious foods on the planet.  They are loaded with nutrients, some of which are rare in the modern diet.  One large egg has varying amounts of 13 essential vitamins and minerals and 6 grams of high-quality protein containing all the essential amino acids that humans need.  For as many nutrients as they have, eggs are a relatively low-calorie food with just 70+ calories in a large egg. There are no carbohydrates or sugars, and only 5 grams of healthy fat (7 percent of your daily recommended intake).  Eggs are a source of choline, a nutrient that most people don’t even know exists, yet it is an incredibly important substance used to build cell membranes and produce signaling molecules in the brain along with various other functions.  A single egg contains more than 100 mg of choline.  Eggs are also an important source of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin which are very important for eye health and can help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts in older adults.

It is true that eggs are high in cholesterol. In fact, a single egg contains 212 mg which is over half of the recommended daily intake of 300 mg. However, it’s important to know that numerous recent studies show that cholesterol in the diet doesn’t necessarily raise cholesterol in the blood for the majority of people.  In fact, egg consumption consistently leads to elevated levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and appears to change LDL (bad) particles from small dense harmful particles to large particles. Elevated HDL lowers our risk to many diseases and large particle LDL reduce risk of heart disease. 

Not all eggs are created equal. Egg nutrient composition varies depending on how the hens are fed and raised and is usually reflected in the color of the yolk.  Eggs from hens raised on grass and sunshine and/or fed omega-3 enriched feeds tend to be higher in omega-3 fatty acids.  Studies show that consuming omega-3 enriched eggs is an effective way to lower blood triglycerides. 

The color of an egg’s shell has nothing to do with the nutrition; all eggs, no matter the color, are packed with the same protein and nutrients on the inside.   The different colors, or the presence of spots or speckling, come from the genetics or breed of the hen.  All eggs start out as white.  Eggs that are not white have pigments deposited on them as the egg travels through the hen’s oviduct. Brown eggs tend to be more expensive which leads people to falsely believe that they are more nutritious or better in some way. Actually the high cost is due to the maintenance of the hens.  Brown chickens are usually larger than the white breeds and require more food to make an egg justifying an increase in cost over white eggs.

Inexpensive and Easy to Prepare

Eggs are pretty much nature’s perfect food. Beyond the nutritional benefits, they are also cheap, easy to prepare, go with almost any food, and taste awesome.  Eggs have gained the reputation of a go-to breakfast food but can be enjoyed in so many different ways throughout the day as a protein source in other meals or as a snack; they make an excellent breakfast or anytime food as they not only provide nutrition but also increase satiety thereby reducing the hunger craving.

Eggs can be prepared in many ways – fried, scrambled, soft boiled, hard boiled, poached, baked, or microwaved.  Cooking eggs makes the protein in them more digestible. It also helps make the vitamin biotin more available for your body to use.   (Raw eggs should be avoided unless they are pasteurized according to the USDA; raw eggs may contain Salmonella, a pathogenic bacteria, which can cause food poisoning.)  When cooking eggs, avoid high heat and over-cooking to prevent denaturing of the protein and retain as many nutrients as possible.

Essential Ingredient

Eggs are an essential ingredient in baking and cooking, too, as they serve many functions in recipes. While there are alternatives to eggs for baking and cooking, the unique structures of the yolks and whites make eggs the perfect ingredient for baking and cooking functions. Depending upon how they are used in a recipe, eggs can provide structure, leavening, tenderizing, moisture, flavor, color, nutrition, or thickening properties to baked and cooked foods.  They also act as an emulsifier bridging waters and fats.

One doesn’t have to look too far to find alternative uses for eggs or eggshells. They are used in the cosmetic industry and at home as a hair conditioner and face mask.  They also make a great DIY glue, fertilizer, seed cup, cleaning agent, pest repellant, and more. 

Use May’s 31 days to celebrate the easily served treat that contributes to muscle strength, brain function, eye health, and weight management. Whether hard-boiled, poached, scrambled, or over-easy, a healthy egg dish will always leave you feeling “sunny side up.”

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Vinegar Shelf Life and Safety

Dear AnswerLine, I found several jugs of unused vinegar in my pantry with old “Best By” dates on them.  Can I safely use them for canning, pickling, and other general cooking?  Does vinegar spoil or become less acidic over time? Are they still good for cleaning?  Should old vinegar be disposed of?

Almost Indefinite Shelf Life

Vinegar is a fermented product and has an “almost indefinite” shelf life according to the Vinegar Institute [1].  “Because of its acid nature, vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration.  White distilled vinegar will remain virtually unchanged over an extended period of time.  And while changes can be observed in other types of vinegars, such as color or the development of a haze or sediment, this is only an aesthetic change.  The product can still be used and enjoyed with confidence.”  The main component of vinegar, acetic acid, is relatively stable under the right conditions.

Because there are few organic compounds to cause random reactions affecting the quality of white distilled vinegar, StillTasty [2] concurs that commercially prepared white distilled vinegar keeps indefinitely.  Like white vinegar, commercially prepared cider, malt, balsamic, rice, wine, and flavored vinegars are also safe indefinitely. However, over time, the appearance and flavor of non-white vinegars may start to change.  Most of these changes are harmless if the vinegar has been stored properly.  Due to the changes that may take place, StillTasty recommends that these non-white vinegars are of best quality if used within 2-3 years of purchase.  The “Best By” date is not a safety date, but rather the manufacturer’s estimate of how long the vinegar will remain at peak quality.  The “Best By” date, by convention, for most manufacturers is two years from the production date. 

To maximize the shelf life of all vinegars, store them in a cool, dark cupboard away from direct heat or sunlight. Vinegar should only be stored in glass, plastic, or non-reactive containers.  It is important that the lid is secured and replaced immediately after use to reduce the amount of oxygen coming in contact with the vinegar.   The acidity of vinegar does not change unless moisture or water gets into the container.

Common and Harmless Changes in Vinegar

Cloudiness – Once opened and exposed to air, harmless “vinegar bacteria” may start to grow. This bacteria causes the vinegar to cloud.  Cloudiness does not affect the quality of the vinegar or its flavor.  Straining cloudy vinegar through a coffee filter may clear it.

Color – Red wine vinegar may become a pale red if sulfites are not added in the manufacturing processes.  Other vinegars can change color by a process known as the Maillard reaction. Residual sugars and amino acids in many fruit vinegars may cause a browning over time similar to the browning of baked food. This reaction is long time (likely years) in coming.  A change in color likely indicates a change in taste as well.

Sediment – Vinegars are usually filtered to make them clear.  Those that are less filtered can form sediment over time as the particles settle.  To deal with sediment, simply strain the vinegar through a coffee filter set inside a fine-mesh strainer before using it.

Mother – Most vinegars are pasteurized unless stated otherwise. When pasteurization is incomplete or the vinegar is re-inoculated with vinegar bacteria from the air after opening, a slimy, amorphous blob or substance will form and float near the bottom. This is a vinegar mother and is just bacteria that feeds on alcoholic liquids.  If one develops, it simply means that there were some sugars or alcohol that weren’t completely fermented in the vinegar process.  Mother can be strained out using a coffee filter.  Some look on a mother as something beneficial to health or to restart their own batch of vinegar.

Canning and Pickling

When considering vinegar for canning and pickling, it is always best to use fresh ingredients as they are very important to the process. If you start with good ingredients, your product will likely be successful.  As previously stated, acetic acid, is relatively stable so any vinegar with 5% acidity is safe to use regardless of age for canning and pickling.  However, non-white vinegars may lose flavor so for that reason, fresh vinegar may be advisable.  Also, if any vinegar is showing any of the harmless changes mentioned, it would be best to not use the vinegar for canning or pickling as such changes may cause unwanted darkening, cloudiness, off flavor, or sediment in the product. Further, should there be any sign of condensation in the container or the container was left open for a period of time, the vinegar could possibly be less than 5% acidic and therefore, should not be used for canning or pickling.

Past Its Prime – No Need to Toss

Contrary to “when in doubt, toss it out,” there is no need to toss out older vinegars.  They are safe to use but may change over time.  If the change is too bothersome for food preparation, vinegar past its prime can still be used for cleaning, weed control, fabric softening, and dying to name a few.  There are a plethora of websites touting the many uses of vinegar.  You may wish to begin with tips from the Vinegar Institute [3].

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

May 5—five of May–Cinco de Mayo—the day Americans heartily celebrate Mexican food, culture, and traditions. People across the country, whether of Mexican heritage or not, embrace the day as an excuse to eat Tex-Mex cuisine, drink Mexican beer, prepare pitchers of margaritas and platters of nachos, and party!

However, in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday.  It is not Mexico’s Independence Day (Dieciséis de Septiembre, September 16) as many incorrectly think, but rather marks the day the Mexican army defeated France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862. It is also known as the Battle of Puebla Day and is celebrated in Puebla with a military parade and mock battle.

So why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the United States? As with many other U.S. holidays, it’s all in the marketing.  However, Cinco de Mayo initially started in the U.S. because of its historical ties to the Civil War, making it, truly, an American-made holiday.

At the time of the Franco-Mexican War, the US was in the midst of the Civil War.  The French desired a presence in Mexico to support the Confederate Army and hopefully regain possession of the land sold to Thomas Jefferson in the famed Louisiana Purchase.  With the French defeat at Puebla, the Confederate Army lost the French support and the Union Army was able to advance.  “The rest” as they say, “is history.”

Cinco de Mayo was first celebrated in Southern California in 1863 as a show of solidarity with Mexico against French rule. Celebrations continued on a yearly basis giving way to larger celebrations with corporations sponsoring events.  By the 1980s, Cinco de Mayo had become commercialized on a wide scale as alcohol and food companies used the celebrated day to promote their products as well as to celebrate Mexican food, culture, and tradition.  All giving Americans an excuse to throw a party.

Cinco de Mayo is for celebrating!  It is a day to celebrate our Mexican-American friends’ traditions, culture, and food.  It is a day to celebrate America’s connection to Cinco de Mayo. It is a day to celebrate diversity.  It is a day to celebrate opportunities to promote ethnic consciousness and build community union. By all means, have a fiesta!

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Tips for Preventing Gardening Injuries

I love spring and can’t wait to get my hands in the soil to start gardening.  I love being outside and moving again after a winter siesta.  The healthy benefits of gardening are many with physical exercise being at the top of the list.  Whether gardening to grow food or flowers or landscape and maintain a yard, gardening offers low- to moderate-intensity exercise depending on the task according to the American Heart Association.  Digging, lifting, raking, mowing, pruning, and planting all produce whole-body movement increasing endurance, strength, balance and flexibility as well as burning calories. Getting out in the yard for just 30-45 minutes can burn up to 300 calories. Other benefits of gardening include lowering of cholesterol, blood pressure, and mortality, better hand function, higher bone density, and better psychological wellbeing.   

For the most part, gardening is a safe, beneficial activity but can lead to injury if precautions are not taken.  The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that ERs treat more than 400,000 injuries each year related to gardening.  Therefore, it is important to take note of garden safety to prevent injury.

Regardless of age, experts [1], [2], [3], in an AARP article, warn against jumping into gardening activities without preparing and warming up a little bit.  Rather, they recommend pre-gardening preparation to build strength, stamina, and aerobic power to prevent injury as well as talking to your doctor before beginning any new regiment.   The following exercises are recommended to strength garden muscles prior to gardening:

  1. Walk to warm up the muscles and build core strength.  Stand tall and concentrate on core muscles as you move to support the back.
  2. Sit-to-stand exercises (raising from a chair to stand position without using hands) help to strengthen the thigh muscles and the core muscles for stability and improve mobility.  Set a goal to see how many can be done in 30 seconds several times daily.
  3. Hamstring stretches help to keep the muscles loose and prevent lower back, knee, and foot pain.There are numerous ways to stretch hamstrings so it is best to find the stretching exercise that is personally best.
  4. Planks are great for building body strength as well as stretching and building strength in the arms, fingers and hands.  Planks can be done on the floor or against a wall.
  5. Practice balance by standing on one foot to build stability and prevent falling.

Once one has properly prepared for gardening, safety should always be first and foremost in the way we use our body and tools in the garden. For your comfort, safety, and the good of your back and knees, keep these tips in mind: 

  • warm up and stretch prior to activity;
  • begin with light movements;
  • stand tall occasionally to stretch the legs and roll the shoulders to relieve tension;
  • lift with one’s legs instead of back to prevent back injury;
  • avoid repetition; switch up activity every 15 minutes;
  • practice caution when raking and shoveling; learn safe use of rakes and shovels from the University of California Agricultural Resources [4] to prevent strain to the back, shoulders, and wrists;
  • kneel instead of bending; consider wearing knee pads or using a cushion;
  • apply sun screen with a SPF of 30 and ultraviolet A and B protection;
  • consume plenty of water while working to stay hydrated;
  • wear a hat or other protective clothing as needed; mask when using chemicals;
  • wear gloves to protect hands from blisters, chemicals, sharp tools, etc.;
  • use the correct tool for the job;
  • maintain your tools and use them properly.

Gardening not only provides physical activity but can also be a great source of happiness. You may garden to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables or beautify your world. Whatever your reason, enjoy your gardening chores but keep your body fit and work safely to prevent injury.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Celebrating Animal Crackers with DIY Animal Crackers

My granddaughter loves to celebrate every significant day possible.  As I was peeking ahead in the April celebration calendar, I saw that National Animal Cracker Day is April 18.  While I was immediately hit with nostalgia remembering the times my grandmother allowed me to pick out a box of Barnum’s Animal Crackers in that well-known circus train box with the string handle, I knew it was a great opportunity to share a fun activity with my grandchildren–DIY animal crackers. 

Animal crackers were originally made at home in England and known as animal biscuits (biscuit being the British word for cookie).  Keeping with tradition, we, too, made our animal crackers at home.  We used a recipe from the King Arthur Flour (KAF) website [1]. (While the KAF recipe worked perfectly, it is essentially a shortbread recipe.)  The KAF site suggested using small, spring-loaded, plunger cookie cutters to make the animal cutouts more realistic.  (The cutters are available on the KSF site as well as from other online vendors.) Any small cookie cutter could be used but we liked the imprints on the animals so we purchased a set of the cutters and found them to be amazing!  With two plunges of the spring, the cutters cut the shape, imprinted the animal details, and popped out the cut shape.  It really was that easy—even for young children! The crackers came out perfect nearly every time!  After we cut the shapes, we froze them for 15 minutes before baking.  They came out of the oven picture perfect!

It was also fun to share a little of my animal cracker nostalgia with the kids and a little history of the famed crackers.  As already noted, the English made animal biscuits at home. Animal crackers, as we know them today, are thought to have originated in England in 1889 when PT Barnum toured England with his famous circus. Inspired by the ‘circus in town’, several companies began manufacturing circus packaging for the animal biscuits and called them Barnum’s.

Across the pond, Stauffer’s in York, Pennsylvania, was also making animals cookies. Stauffer’s began making their version of animal cookies in 1871 and is still using their original recipe today but making them much smaller.  However, the English Barnum’s migrated across the Atlantic and were an instant hit with Americans. The demand for these crackers grew to the point that other bakers began to produce them domestically making their own version along with changing ‘biscuit’ to cracker.  Most of these early animal crackers were sold in bulk from cracker barrels or in tins.   

It was the ingenious marketing of the National Biscuit Company (Nabsico) in 1902 that put the animal treats on store shelves as “Barnum’s Animals,” named after the famed showmen, P.T. Barnum, in small, snack-size boxes.  A circus-theme box was designed for the 1902 Christmas season with the innovative idea of attaching a string to turn gift into ornament using the string to hang the box on the Christmas tree. These small cartons, which retailed for 5 cents at the time of their release, were a big hit and have remained so to this day.  In 1948, the product became Barnum’s Animal Crackers.  The circus train theme with caged animals in box cars was continued in various versions until 2018 when a new box design was created freeing the animals from the cages [2].

While we weren’t able to make our crackers on April 18 or have circus boxes for our crackers, we enjoyed making and eating them.  And, yes, we ate the heads first!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Cashews, Not Really a Nut

If I were to ask you how cashew nuts are grown and harvested, or what they look like in their shell, would you know?  Since I’ve always been curious about where my food comes from and how it grows, I was stumped when I got this question from one of my grands.  However, what we learned together was fascinating.

Cashew nut fruits growing on tree

Cashews are not really nuts in the true sense, but rather a drupe seed.  They grow on fruit producing trees which produce a ‘false fruit’ known as the cashew apple.  The fruit resembles a small bell pepper being yellow to red in color.  At the base of the fruit is a kidney-bean-shaped hard shell with a single seed inside–the cashew nut.

After reading and watching YouTube videos about cashew farming and harvesting, the process of separating the nut from the fruit, and the steps in production, we had a whole new appreciation of the snack we enjoy, so easily purchased at the supermarket and eaten without a thought.

Cashews are gown in many parts of the world with origin in Brazil.  However, Vietnam is the largest producer of cashew nuts followed by India; cashews are a valuable agricultural commodity for both counties.  The cashew nut industry in these countries (and other producing countries) provide vital year-round employment to millions of people, especially women.  Extracting the nut from its shell is labor intense and requires a skilled workforce of which 90% are women who are paid meager wages. 

Following harvest, the shells are roasted and dried to make extracting the nut easier.  Removing the nut from the shell is the most difficult step in processing.  It is either done by hand or machine, but in either case, it is one shell at a time.  When done by hand, the workers beat the shell with a mallet in just the right way to release the nut unscathed.  If mechanical shelling machines are used, the shells are feed into the machines one at a time to split the shells; however, since the shells vary in size and shape, there is breakage so machines are not a perfect solution.  As a result manual processing is generally favored for nut perfection.  However, Vietnam has been successful at mechanizing the process and, thereby, have increased production rates and decreased the labor force.

Another concern in cracking the shell, is the reddish-brown oil that oozes from the shell composed of various phenolic lipids.  It is an irritant like that found in poison ivy causing skin burns and sores and other health issues if workers come in contact with it.  Following splitting, the nuts require tedious peeling and cleaning before moving along to grading, quality control, fumigation, and packaging.

And what about the cashew apple?  The apple has a sweet flavor but a limited shelf life so it is not a marketable commodity in its fresh state.  However, it is available in local markets and has value as a fresh food, cooked in curries, fermented into vinegar and used to make preserves, chutneys, and jams.  In India, it is fermented and distilled to make an alcoholic drink known as feni.  The apples are also used for medicinal purposes.

Even though cashews are not technically nuts, we use them as such.   Cashews are rich in nutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats, plant protein, and fiber; they may be used interchangeably with other nuts in a variety of culinary applications, including trail mix, stir-fries, granola, nut butter, and nut dairy products.  Like most nuts, cashews may also help improve overall health. They’ve been linked to benefits like weight loss by boosting metabolism, improving blood sugar control, strengthening the immune system, and contributing to heart health.

Cashews are generally a safe addition to most diets.  One should keep in mind that roasted or salted cashews contain added oils or salt. For this reason, it may be best to opt for unsalted, dry roasted instead.  People with tree nut allergies should avoid them as they are classified as tree nuts along with Brazil nuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and hazelnuts.  Some people have trouble with bloating; soaking nuts overnight will help with nutrient absorption and digestibility.  When eaten in large quantities, cashews can cause kidney damage due to a relatively high oxalate content.  However, in moderation (true of all nuts), such is not likely.  One serving of cashews is 1 ounce and contains about 18 nuts, 157 calories, and about 9 grams of carbohydrate largely in the form of starch1.

I am so glad the question about cashew nuts was asked!  I will continue to enjoy them but with a new and profound appreciation for the people who grow, harvest, and process them.

1 https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/17283-nutrition-nuts–heart-health

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Spring means it is time for rhubarb!

A sure sign that spring is arriving is rhubarb starting to grow! Although it is technically a vegetable, it is used as a fruit since it is highly acidic which gives it the distinctive tart flavor. It is delicious combined with strawberries for a pie, made in bars or crisps, or a sauce poured over ice cream or cake.

According to our Iowa State University Extension Horticulturists, if you want to establish a rhubarb bed, early spring is the best time. Rhubarb plants can be purchased at garden center or if you are lucky enough to know someone dividing their plant, you can start your patch with that. Each division should contain at least two to three buds and a large piece of the root system. Replant in your own spot as soon as possible. Select a site that will receive at least 6 hours of direct sun each day. Plants prefer well-drained, fertile soils that are high in organic matter.

If you bed is newly planted patience is required since you should not harvest it until the second season to allow for good root development. During the third year, harvest for a four- week period. In the fourth and following years, rhubarb can be harvested for eight to ten weeks, ending in mid-June in Iowa and late June in Minnesota. It is a good idea not to remove more than one-half of the fully developed stalks from any plant at any one time. An old wives tail that we hear often from callers is that rhubarb is poisonous if eaten later in the summer. Rhubarb does not become poisonous, but harvesting later in the summer may weaken the plant and make it less productive the following year.

Spring weather can change quickly in the Midwest and fortunately, rhubarb is a sturdy plant that can withstand cold temperatures after it has started to grow. If a frost occurs, check your plant in a few days. If the leaves and the stalks are blackened and soft, remove them. Any new growth will be safe to eat. If the stalks do not show any sign of damage from the frost those stalks are safe to eat.

If your plant is producing more than you can use you might want to freeze some to enjoy later in the summer or next winter. Here are the directions to freeze yours successfully:


Preparation – Choose firm, tender, well-colored stalks with good flavor and few fibers. Wash, trim and cut into lengths to fit the package. Heating rhubarb in boiling water for 1 minute and cooling promptly in cold water helps retain color and flavor.
Dry Pack – Pack either raw or preheated rhubarb tightly into containers without sugar. Leave headspace. Seal and freeze.
Syrup Pack – Pack either raw or preheated rhubarb tightly into containers, cover with cold 40 percent syrup. Leave headspace. Seal and freeze.


Rhubarb is easy to grow and a treat to eat! If you would like more information on growing rhubarb, the University of Minnesota Extension has some very helpful tips on watering, controlling weeds and harvesting.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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