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Animal crackers were originally made at home in England and known as animal biscuits (biscuit being the British word for cookie).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

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 a 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

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 Hanging Pictures Perfectly

Figuring out where and how to hang a picture is an art in and of itself. There isn’t just one correct way to do it.  A quick Google search will reveal any number of ‘how tos” along with video for hanging pictures.  Whatever method is chosen, the object is to get our photos and artwork on the wall satisfactorily to make a visual impact and enjoy our pieces. 

Here are my best tips for how to hang pictures successfully.

Decide on Placement

Deciding on picture placement can be difficult.  Making paper templates of the pictures or pieces to be hung helps with this process.  Any kind of paper or cardboard will work but something of color is nice if one is working with white walls.  Trace around the frame, cut out, and name the cut out to identify the piece.  It is also helpful to note on the template with arrows whether it is to be hung vertically or horizontally. Place the template(s) on the wall using blue painter’s or green FrogTape®. (Painter’s or FrogTape® will not damage or leave marks on the walls.)  Placing the template(s) on the actual wall helps one visualize if the space works, space needed between groupings, best height, and overall placement.  This also allows for lots of ‘playing’ or moving various pieces around without any wall damage.  The template(s) can also be left in place for a day or two for help in deciding if the placement feels right.

There are no hard and fast rules, but some aesthetic principles to consider in placement include:

  • The center of the piece should be at eye level, approximately 60” from the floor.
  • Allow at least a 3” to 6” space between the top of a sofa and the bottom of the frame, and 4” to 8” inches from a table top.
  • A grouping of pictures should be treated as a single unit.
  • Center the piece or grouping within the available wall space or over the piece of furniture below it.

Check the template’s final placement with a level or ruler or tape measure, measuring from a corner, doorway or ceiling.

Choose Appropriate Hardware for Hanging

Once the placement has been determined, it’s time to decide how the piece will be hung or the type of hanger that is appropriate for the piece. The weight, size, and shape of the piece to be hung as well as the wall material needs to be considered first and foremost. There are various options for hanging including screws, nails, picture hanging hardware, pins, or adhesive strips.  If the piece is small and light weight, pins or adhesive strips may work.  Pieces with more weight will require something more substantial.  If the weight is not too great, it might be possible to use a small nail or picture hanger hardware put directly into drywall.  Larger or heavier pieces may require a drywall anchor to adequately support it.  If the piece is really heavy, consideration should be made to placing the piece where there is a wall stud.  While you can nail or screw directly into drywall, always drill a pilot hole first in plaster to prevent cracking. Brick and concrete walls also require drilling a hole with a special masonry bit then either hammering in a masonry nail or using a plastic anchor and screw.

Determine the Hanging Point

Before putting any type of hanger on the wall, the hanging point needs to be determined.  Locate the frame hanging apparatus on the back of the frame.    Some pieces may have two hanging points on each side of the frame. Measure the distance from the point of hanging to the top of the frame. If the hanging apparatus is a wire or a loop below the top of the frame, pull the wire or hook taut towards the top of the frame to get the correct measurement. In some cases, the hanging apparatus may be decorative and extend above the top of the frame.  In that case, the measurement is taken from the hanging point above the frame to the frame top.

Mark the Spot, Apply Hardware, and Hang

With the template still in place on the wall, mark on the template the distance from the top of the frame to the hanging point centering the mark from side to side.  If the hanging point is above the frame, make a small pencil mark on the wall or on a piece of tape; make sure the mark is centered. Apply the chosen hanger to the wall.  If a pin, screw, or nail will be used, the marked point is the designated location.  If picture hanging hardware is used, the point will have to be raised appropriately for the hanger size so that the loop of the hanger lands on the marked point. Remove the template and hang the piece.  Grab a level and check the work. Voila!  A picture perfect hang! 

If over time, you notice that the piece moves slightly from right or left with vibration in the home, pins pushed into the wall directly under the frame near the corners or on the lower sides will prevent this from happening and be nearly invisible, too.  To prevent frames from marring the wall, apply self-adhesive rubber bumpers to the bottom corners on the back of the frame before hanging. Sometimes the rubber bumpers are also enough to keep the piece from moving on the wall.

To save frustration, time, and unnecessary holes in your wall, take time to consider placement and appropriate hardware for the piece and the wall. And lastly before taking hammer and nail to the wall, grab a tape measure.

Marlene Geiger

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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Time for Spring-Dug Parsnips

This past week, we dug the last of our parsnips.  Spring-dug parsnips are characterized as ‘the cream of the crop!’ and I couldn’t be more of an advocate.  The seeds, sown nearly a year ago, grew into healthy plants over the summer and were left to die back in the fall.  After a frost or two, a few were dug; the remainder of the row was left to winter over in the ground. They are a great roasted vegetable in the fall, but nothing like those left in the ground for a winter deep freeze.  The extreme cold converts the starches into sugar and allows the flavor to mellow.  The timing is critical for spring-dug parsnips; they need to be dug as soon as you can get into the ground with a shovel or fork and just as their tops start to show new growth.  If they are left in the ground too long in the spring and the tops start to grow out, they become woody. 

Never had parsnips?  Some mistakenly refer to them as white carrots, but while they may be related to carrots distantly, they are actually part of the parsley family.  They are a cream-colored, gnarled, carrot-shaped root vegetable.  They can be eaten raw but are best prepared by roasting, frying, grilling or steaming to bring out their distinct succulent flavor and nutty sweetness.  They have a tan peel that is typically removed before use; peeling also removes their gnarly surface.  The flesh is cream-white.  They are a very versatile vegetable with recipes ranging from roasted side dishes, soups and stews, mashed, turned into fries, and even made into wine.  They pair well with other root vegetables, too.  Like potatoes or an apple, parsnips oxidize when exposed to air after their peelings are removed. If not prepared right away, cut parsnips should be placed in water to reduce the effect.

Being white in color, one would tend to believe that they offer little nutrition.  Quite the opposite is true.  According to the USDA [1], a half-cup serving of parsnips are high in heart-healthy fiber providing 3 grams of fiber and only 55 calories. They are a low-fat food yet a good source of numerous vitamins (especially C and K), minerals (especially folate and manganese), and antioxidants.  (Note that the level of vitamin C is somewhat reduced with the cooking.)

Besides the home garden, parsnips are available at the supermarket and likely can also be found at the late fall and spring farmer’s markets. Spring is the best time to give them a try if you are new to parsnips.  If you are lucky enough to find this once-a-year spring treasure, choose fleshy, fresh, firm, medium-sized and even surfaced roots.  Avoid woody, over-matured, long, thin, and tail-like roots as they are off-flavored and have tough fiber.  Also avoid soft, pitted, shriveled, knobby, or damaged roots. 

Fresh parsnips should be stored in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator where they should last three to four weeks [2]. Use cooked, refrigerated parsnips within three days.  Parsnips can also be frozen [3] for later use by cutting into 1/2-inch cubes, water blanching for 2 minutes, cooling promptly in cold water, draining, and packing and sealing into containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Fully cooked parsnip puree may also be frozen for up to 10 months for best quality.  Drying is another method for preserving parsnips as well.

For more information on parsnips, check out Growing Carrots and Parsnips in Home Gardens by the University of Minnesota Extension [4].

Marlene Geiger

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 Quilts and Crafts and Those Who DO IT


March might be the month of spring, but it is also National Quilting Month and National Craft Month! A time to celebrate and appreciate the two artistic forms.  Is it coincidence that the two commemorated activities come in the same month?  I have to wonder since they are so closely related.

National Quilting Month has been sponsored by the National Quilting Association (NQA) since 1991 when it designated the third Saturday in March as National Quilting Day; over the years it has expanded to the entire month of March giving quilters more time for shop-hops, shows, and classes.  In 1994, the Craft & Hobby Association created National Craft Month to help people rediscover and learn about the benefits of crafting.  While crafting may conjure up images of kids working with popsicle sticks and glue, crafters, in reality, are people of all ages who produce something tangible with their hands. 

I quilt and I craft.  Both provide me with joy and a sense of accomplishment but I have no idea if that makes me a quilter, crafter, or a kind of artist.  The word ‘craft’ is synonymous with the word ‘trade,’ meaning skilled labor in an area such as weaving, carpentry, pottery, etc.  Crafting also means creating anything by hand that has an artistic aspect to it such as knitting, scrapbooking, jewelry making, etc.

Whether one is quilting or crafting, there is skill and creativity involved.  Both are done with the hands and require supplies and equipment unique to the project.  Either can be an occupation with some earning a living by selling their creations or by teaching their skill.

Quilts and various crafts can be beautiful as well as useful or not.  It is for this reason that we have shows and museums to expose, share, study and enjoy the skill.  Whether quilt or craft, both adhere to aesthetic principles by the materials chosen, shapes used, or how the various pieces come together.  The completed pieces may be useful or have no purpose at all.  When they provide beauty or please our sense of aesthetics, the outcome is art.

Benefits of Quilting and Crafting

Regardless of how we see ourselves, quilting and crafting are intertwined and interdependent.  Crafting, whether quilting or otherwise, offers outlets for hands-on creativity and the benefits are numerous:

  • Relieves stress by turning on our endorphins, decreasing blood pressure and heart rate, reducing fight or flight, heart attack and stroke.
  • Increases mental acuity with problem solving, math or geometry, and critical thinking.
  • Meaningful work or sense of accomplishment provides pleasure rewards for the brain.
  • Increases appreciation, empathy and tolerance of others and other forms of creativity.
  • Builds confidence and inspires one to think ‘outside of the box’ in other aspects of their lives.
  • Brings people together as they enjoy and inspire one another.
  • Helps one learn about themselves and their values, beliefs, and attitudes.
  • Boosts productivity, resilience, concentration and focus by boosting neurons between the right and left brain hemispheres.

Celebrate Quilting and Crafting

There are any number of ways one can celebrate quilting and crafting in March or any other time. 

  • Rediscover a prior skill. 
  • Try something new or expand on a skill. 
  • Visit a museum or craft or quilt show to appreciate and learn more about the craft or art. 
  • Spend time with someone who quilts or crafts to learn more about their work. 
  • Take a class (virtual or in-person) in a craft that interests you. 

Do whatever it takes to get into the spirit of crafting or quilting.  Let your itching fingers, yearning heart, and skill set combine with your creativity to make something.  Reap the rewards that come with discovering yourself through hands-on crafting or quilting and celebrate and appreciate whatever your accomplishment may be! 

Marlene Geiger

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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DIY Corned Beef

Corned beef brisket sliced on a cutting board

Corned beef and cabbage has been the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal for my family and invited friends for many years. We are not of Irish descent, but do enjoy the St Patrick’s Day cuisine.   While St Patrick’s Day is celebrated around the world, corned beef is strictly an Irish-American tradition.  It isn’t the national dish of Ireland nor the food you would eat on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin.

The early Irish immigrants are credited for giving us corned beef, however.  In their homeland, St. Paddy’s Day was celebrated with boiled bacon.  Being too poor to afford the high price of pork and bacon products, they turned to a cheap cut of beef (brisket) and adapted Eastern European and Jewish brining methods to prepare the meat.  “Corned” has nothing to do with corn; instead it refers to the corn-sized salt crystals (saltpeter) used during the brining process to cure or pickle the meat.  Their new celebration dish was paired with cabbage as it was one of the cheapest vegetables available to them.

Corned beef is essentially beef cured in a salt brine, with some pickling spices for added flavor. It is readily available around St Patrick’s Day in ready-to-cook form and available at most delis year round. It can also be made at home using fresh brisket or any other cut of beef desired.

I decided that this year I would attempt making my own corned beef and in the process learn another food preservation technique first-hand.  After looking at a few recipes, it became apparent that while the technique was nearly the same from recipe to recipe, the seasoning for pickling varied and there was a learning curve regarding curing salts referred to as ‘pink curing salt’ for me. 

Salt (sodium chloride), in general, acts as a preservative and by osmosis action pulls water out of the meat cells as well as any bacteria, killing or preventing it from multiplying by dehydration.  Even though salt is a dehydrator, it also produces a contradictory reaction making brined meat moister and juicier by changing the shape of the cell protein to hold more juice.  Care should be taken in the amount of salt used in the brine.  1Ruhlman and Polcyn recommend a 5-percent brine, 5 ounces of salt per 100 ounces of water. Kosher salt is preferred but it is not absolutely necessary; table or pickling salt can be used.  Since kosher salt has larger crystals, a lesser amount of finer grained salts should be used.  (See this Morton Salt conversion table.)

Pink curing salts are a mixture of sodium chloride (93.75%) and sodium nitrite (6.25%) and serve as a preservative by inhibiting bacterial growth as well as giving cured meats their characteristic reddish color and savory, sharp flavor. Pink curing salt used for brining have such names as InstaCure #1, Prague Powder #1, DQ Cure #1 and Modern Cure #1.  I had to order a small packet online as none was available in my supermarkets.

Pink curing salt should not be confused with Himalayan salt which is also pink; the two salts are only similar in color and sodium chloride content. Curing salts are colored pink so that they are not confused with table or pickling salt as, if used in quantity, they are toxic. The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends that consumers use 1 ounce of curing salt for every 25 pounds of meat or one level teaspoon of cure for 5 pounds of meat.

There is some controversy over the use of sodium nitrite in curing meats as with frequent consumption of cured meat, some studies have shown a risk of certain types of cancer. (Per University of Minnesota scientists, “based on available evidence to date, nitrite as used in meat and meat products is considered safe because known benefits outweigh potential risks.”2) Because nitrites are also found in vegetables, it is estimated that around 90 percent of the nitrite in our bodies comes from vegetables, while just 10 percent comes from processed meats.2   If curing salt is not used, the brined meat must be cooked immediately after curing and one should expect grey meat; salt used in the brine turns the meat grey.

Regardless of recipe, making corned beef is a three-step process and is easily done. The biggest difference in recipes is the pickling spice mix.

Step 1.  Make a salty curing brine of water, kosher salt, and pickling spices with any combination that appeals in flavor. Pickling spice, mustard seed, allspice berries coriander seeds, peppercorns, juniper berries, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cloves, and ground ginger are just some of the pickling spice suggested.   The brine for corned beef usually contains a small amount of sugar (white or brown) and pink curing salt. Sugar helps to cut some of the harsher effects of salt and enhances flavor.  The brine is boiled and chilled.  Boiling activates the pickling spices to flavor the brine and insures that the sugar and salt are fully dissolved.

Step 2. Add meat to the chilled brine and marinate in the refrigerator. This is perhaps the most difficult as it involves finding a sealable, non-reactive container big enough for brisket and brine to marinate for 5-10 days and a space large enough in the refrigerator. The container should be plastic, glass, or stainless steel. Other metal containers will react with the brine solution and give the meat a metallic flavor.  A large zip bag on a tray is a good option if the brisket is not too big and both will fit in the refrigerator. The brisket should be turned daily during this time to insure that it is cured evenly and thoroughly.

Step 3.  Rinse and simmer in the same way as a prepared corned beef brisket from the supermarket.  The brisket is rinsed to remove the brine and simmered in water covering the meat with more pickling spices for at least three hours or until tender.  Once the meat is tender, it should be sliced against the grain for serving. Cutting through the muscle fibers shortens them and makes each piece easier to chew. 

Obviously, DIY’ers need to start early.  Since this is my first attempt, I started extra early giving me time to purchase a prepared corned beef should I fail.  I’ve gathered by ingredients, made the brine, and am currently marinating the brisket.  Assuming I am successful, I will slice the cooked brisket/corned beef and freeze it for use on St Paddy’s Day.  I will also defat the cooking liquid and freeze it for cooking the cabbage, potatoes and carrots to accompany the brisket for the once-a-year meal.

With any luck, this DIY adventure will end well with a “Ta-Da! Corned Beef from scratch!” and we will enjoy the flavoring derived from the combination of spices chosen.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

To learn more about corning, curing, and salts, I used the following resources:
1Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, 2013. 
Joy of Cooking, by Irma S Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, John Becker, and Megan Scott, 2019.
National Center for Home Food Preservation:  Curing and Smoking Meats for Home Food Preservation
2Nitrite in Meat by Richard J Epley, Paul B Addis and Joseph J Warthesen, Minnesota Extension Service, University of Minnesota Agriculture
The Ultimate Guide to Curing Salts from the Smoked Barbecue Source website

Follow up to blog: “Ta Da!!!” The corned beef adventure was a total success! The meat is tasty and succulent with a lovely pink/red color; I would not hesitate to do it again. There will be no need to purchase a prepared corned beef for this family.

Marlene Geiger

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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‘Celerybrating’ Celery

March is National Celery Month.  Even though celery may not be one of the most exciting foods to blog about, there are plenty of good reasons to. Celery is an amazingly versatile vegetable that can provide so many benefits for you and your family. Besides, it is a favorite food of mine and has been since my Grandma introduced it to me as a snack with peanut butter and raisins in my childhood.

Celery is native to the Mediterranean and is considered a marshland vegetable.  It really is quite easy to grow in the home garden as long as it has plenty of water.  Celery adds crunch to salads while adding lots of flavor to casseroles, soups, stuffing and a variety of cuisines. And it is always a great snack with dips, cheese spreads, avocado, or peanut butter.  Don’t forget that celery leaves are as nutritious as the stalks; the dark green outer leaves have the most flavor but are often a little tough so they are great additions to soups and stews.  The tender and milder inner leaves can be chopped along with the stalks for any recipe that calls for celery or used as a garnish.  It is also possible to dry celery leaves and use them to flavor anything that needs a ‘celery lift.’

Celery is high in fiber and as such is filling. Per serving (2-3 medium stalks), celery has only 16 calories and is 95 percent water. While not a superfood, it is a good source of potassium and vitamins A and C.  Celery is also a source of sodium nitrate which our bodies convert to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps relax our arteries, which reduces blood pressure and improves blood flow throughout the body. Celery is known as a negative calorie food because it requires more calories to digest it than one consumes by eating it.  Plus, it’s low on the glycemic index, meaning it has a slow, steady effect on blood sugar.  Thus, it is a great food for dieters.

Celery has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. As far back as 850 B.C., celery seed was believed to have healing powers. Celery still plays a role in traditional Chinese medicine because it contains a plant compound called apigenin which is an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and antioxidant agent.  Celery also contains a flavonoid called luteolin that has shown promise in preventing the spread of cancer cells. Other benefits include preventing gallstones, aids in indigestion, and helps to lower blood pressure.  Because these nutrients occur in relatively small amounts in celery, eating celery alone is not likely to prevent or cure any disease.

In recent times, celery juice has become popular.  While eating celery stalks and using celery in recipes is healthy and important, drinking pure celery juice is more nutrient dense.  When celery is juiced, the pulp or fiber is removed so one is able to consume far more celery as juice than by eating it.  Moreover, it’s very hydrating and low in sugar making it a great alternative to sugary beverages.  While there are health benefits to celery juice, consumers should be weary of claims that celery juice detoxes the body as these claims are not supported by science. Further, celery juice has a high concentration of sodium nitrates which may be of concern to some. People on salt-restricted diets may wish to avoid celery juice as a single cup of celery juice contains around 215 mg of sodium.

Low in calories, packed with flavor, fiber, and crunch, celery is an amazing vegetable that can promote health and with good health, comes happiness—all reasons to celebrate! What are we waiting for? With so many benefits, we should be adding celery to our meals in whatever way chosen not only in March but always. How will your ‘celerybration’ look?

Marlene Geiger

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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Cleaning Your Iron

When was the last time you cleaned your iron?  Cleaning an iron can be one of those tasks that is easily forgotten or put off.  That is, until the iron seems to be sticking to fabric, spraying dirty water, or leaving black spots on your clothing.  It is not uncommon for dirt, dust, lint, detergent, and spray starch to build up on the soleplate of the iron or for water inside the water reservoir used for steam to cause dirty spots.  For those who sew or do fabric crafts, there is often the sticky residue from fusible interfacings or other fusible/iron-on products.

The frequency with which an iron needs to be cleaned depends on frequency of use and/or how it is used.  At any rate, a cleaning or maintenance schedule that meshes with the frequency or use is important to keeping the iron functioning properly.  If maintaining a schedule is too much, then a good rule of thumb is to clean as soon as a problem is detected—iron doesn’t glide as it should or steam doesn’t come out or sprays or spurts out rusty or black droplets onto the cloth.  All are signs that gunk has accumulated on the soleplate, the steam outlets are clogged, or tap water mineral deposits have accumulated in the water reservoir.

Fortunately, cleaning an iron isn’t that difficult.  If you’ve ever Googled “how to clean an iron”, you will find many shared methods.  And if you have a method that works for you, by all means continue on as the bottom line is to achieve a properly functioning iron.  If you are new to iron cleaning or unsure of how to proceed with your iron, the best route is to consult the owner’s manual as there may be specific guidelines for the kind of soleplate (stainless steel, ceramic, titanium, or non-stick), water reservoir, or self-cleaning feature unique to your iron. (If a manual is lost, often times they can be found online.)

Cleaning the Soleplate

Various options exist for cleaning the soleplate.  I will review the three most common recommended by iron manufacturers.  In all cases, never use anything that could scratch the soleplate.

Hot Iron Cleaners.  Cleaning pastes are found almost anywhere fabric or laundry products are sold and usually restore the iron’s soleplate to perfect condition. They are nontoxic, nonflammable, and nonabrasive.  When the pastes are applied to a very hot iron soleplate, they quickly and easily remove starch, detergent, and fusing residue. These cleaners dissolve the residue either by ironing over the cleaner on an old towel or by squeezing the cleaner onto the soleplate and wiping off residue with an old towel or cloth.   (Rowenta offers a product specific to Rowenta irons for consumers who choose to use it.)  One must be careful to remove the paste from the steam vents as well. (Cotton swabs work great for vent cleaning.)

Iron Cleaning Cloths.  Cleaning cloths (usually in packs of 10) are designed to be disposable and as an alternative to hot iron cleaning pastes for quick clean ups.  They dissolve and remove any residue by simply running the cloth over a hot soleplate. They usually work best for less soiled soleplates or for very regular clean up.  Because there is no paste involved, they do not clog the steam vents.

Baking Soda and Water or Vinegar.  Both baking soda and vinegar are common household cleaners.  They also work wonders as a natural scouring agent to remove grime from an iron’s soleplate.  One begins by mixing baking soda with distilled water or vinegar to make a paste (approximate 2:1 proportions of soda to liquid).  Apply the paste with an old tooth brush to a cool, unplugged iron.  Scrub gently with the brush to loosen the residue; wipe residue away with a microfiber cloth until the soleplate is cleaned. Like the commercial pastes, the steam vents must be cleaned, too. 

Hot vinegar applied to a microfiber cloth works like an iron cleaning cloth if the residue is light.

After cleaning, fill the reservoir with water, heat, and run the iron over an old towel or cloth, pressing the spray button several times to insure the soleplate and vents are clean before ironing clothing. 

Cleaning the Water Reservoir

When cleaning the water reservoir, discretion is needed.  Steam iron reservoirs need to be cleaned out often to ensure that the appliance doesn’t leave rusty or black water marks on clothing or fabric, performs properly, minimizes build up that may damage clothing, and, thereby, extends the life of the appliance.  Whenever possible, follow manufacturer’s directions.

Distilled water is commonly and safely used for cleaning the reservoir and vents.  While there are many distilled water and vinegar recipes suggested for reservoir cleaning, most manufacturers caution against the use of vinegar.  In a previous blog, AnswerLine suggested a method of filling the reservoir with distilled water and allowing the iron to self-steam out the minerals, lint, and other accumulations in the reservoir and vents.

A commercial iron cleaner is another option to decalcify and remove lime and mineral build-up from steam irons and vents. However, some iron manufacturers will void the warranty if you use them as they can be harsh and cause additional damage.

Keep the Iron Working at Its Best

Here’s some tips to protect and keep an iron working at its best.

  • Whenever possible, use distilled water.  Tap water, even when filtered, contains minerals that can clog, corrode, or damage the iron resulting in rusty or black steam or spray.
  • Fill the iron with water before plugging in and while cool.
  • Empty the reservoir before storing the iron—especially if it isn’t used frequently.
  • Store in an upright position.  This will prevent water from leaking if water is left in the reservoir and avoid scratching the soleplate.
  • Avoid pressing or ironing over zippers, snaps, decals, pins, or any screen printing without using a pressing cloth to avoid scratching the soleplate or adhering paint or plastics to the soleplate.
Marlene Geiger

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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Neighborhood Gardens

Using a vacant space in the backyard as a garden plot is by no means a new idea; in fact, it’s steeped in history. What if that space was to become a neighborhood pick-what-you-need garden? 

Last spring, my son-in-law (Guy) had just that idea. He enjoyed having a small garden and the fresh vegetables that came from it.  But as we know, sometimes even a small garden can produce more than a family can consume fresh.  Instead of simply sharing or tossing the excess, he reached out to his backyard cul-de-sac neighbors to see if they would like to participate in a neighborhood garden.  He volunteered to oversee the garden building and tending since none of his neighbors were familiar with gardening.  However, if everyone participated in the planting and care, anything that grew would be available to all for the picking.  The neighborhood enthusiastically accepted his idea and so the process began.

One neighbor with an oversized lot volunteered space where there was good drainage and plenty of sunshine.  Since this was a recently developed area with a lot of soil compaction, Guy brought in new soil and compost.  He designed the garden to have raised beds on three sides with a walk path in the middle for easy access to the raised beds.  The raised beds were covered with a weed barrier and a fence and gate were added for deer and rabbit protection. Everyone pitched in with the preparations as they were able.

Tomato, cucumber, pepper, and bean plants were decided upon and acquired.  On planting day, Guy invited all the neighborhood kids and showed them how to plant the various seedlings.  As spring became summer, the kids and their families watched the baby plants turn into maturing plants setting blossoms and fruit.  With the first sight of baby fruit, everyone waited impatiently for ripening and the first picking.

No one could have predicted the amazing effects of this garden.  The first of the fruits to be harvested was a cucumber picked by an adult who had never picked anything in his life; he was ecstatic and wanted to know if it could be made into dill pickles!  The children went into the garden for right-off-the-vine snacks; in fact, one little girl loved the garden so much that when she couldn’t be found any other place, she was in the garden.  The children also enjoyed searching for tomato worms and watching the moths and butterflies that visited the garden. Sometimes there was a bit of friendly competition of who was going to get the next ripe and ready tomato, pepper, cucumber or bean.  For others, it was the first time they had ever tasted a freshly picked vegetable.  In the end, even this small garden produced more than the neighborhood could use.  Everyone was grateful for the experience and is looking forward to another garden this year.

The comradery of this neighborhood is unique and special.  The same ‘loose’ organization might not work in another neighborhood; other neighborhoods may need or want a well-organized plan and established ground rules before they begin. When that becomes the case, neighborhoods or community groups should develop a garden plan, like a business develops a business plan, to address such issues as

  • How to pay for supplies?  Should there be a membership fee?  Who will handle finances?
  • Who will oversee or supervise?
  • Who are the workers and what are their tasks?   
  • What will be planted?
  • How will distribution of produce be handed?
  • Will fertilizers, chemicals, and pesticides be used?  Will the garden be organic?
  • Liability?

Other considerations and tips on starting a neighborhood or community garden can be found using these resources:

Start It Up – Eat Greater Des Moines
Starting a Community Garden – American Community Gardening Association
How to Organize a Community Garden – North Carolina State Extension

Regardless of how big or small, the benefits from a shared garden are numerous.  In addition to providing fresh vegetables, a garden can also be a tool for promoting physical and emotional health, connecting with nature, teaching life skills, teamwork, neighborliness, and security.  Spring will be here soon.  If a neighborhood garden is a consideration, it is time to start planning now.

Marlene Geiger

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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Recipe Makeovers for Healthier Versions

One doesn’t have to give up favorite recipes to maintain a healthy diet. Making a few simple changes can make most recipes more healthful without sacrificing taste.  It begins with preparing a recipe in a different way or by substituting ingredients.

Recipes can be altered to reduce or eliminate fat, salt, and unwanted calories in the form of sugar. Recipes can also be altered to increase nutrition or fiber. When modifying a recipe, it is best to make one modification at a time, reducing, substituting, or increasing an ingredient by a small amount at first.

Baked goods require careful adjustments as each ingredient has an important role in the outcome of the product.
– Fat provides flavor, richness, and texture.
– Eggs provide structure, act as a binding agent, and add volume.
– Sugar provides flavor, increases tenderness, and acts as a preservative.
– Salt provides flavor.

Below are suggestions for reducing fat, calories, sugar, and salt and/or increasing fiber in your recipes without changing texture, flavor, purpose or structure.  Be sure to keep a record of the changes that produce the best tasting and satisfactory product.

If your recipe calls forMake the following adjustments or replace with
Condiments and toppingsOmit or use fresh cucumbers vs pickles, cherry tomatoes vs olives, non-fat or reduced fat spreads, mashed fresh berries, thin slices of fresh apples, peaches or pears.
Canned fruit packed in syrupFresh fruit or canned fruit packed in water
Chicken stock or brothsVegetable stock/broth or refrigerated broth with fat skimmed off
Sour creamLow-fat yogurt or blended low-fat cottage cheese
1 egg2 egg whites
CreamWhipped non-fat dry milk or skim evaporated milk
RiceBrown rice
Sautéing in butter or oilNon-stick spray, chicken or beef broth
Cream cheeseNeufchatel cheese or light cream cheese
Gravy1 Tbsp cornstarch or 2 Tbsp flour added to 1 cup fat-free broth
Whole milkSkim or 1% milk
Ice creamLow-fat or non-fat yogurt
All-purpose flour½ whole wheat flour and ½ all-purpose flour
Ground beefLean ground turkey or chicken
BaconTurkey bacon
Ricotta cheeseNon-fat or low-fat cottage cheese
CheeseLow-fat or non-fat cheese or use only half 
PastaWhole wheat pasta

If your baking recipe calls forMake the following adjustments
Sugars – Brown, Corn Syrup, Honey, MolassesUse up to one third less sugar in recipes for cookies, muffins, quick breads, and pie fillings. Add spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg, or flavorings such as vanilla or almond extract to boost sweetness.
Fat – Shortening, Butter, Lard, OilReplace solid fat with vegetable oil using 1/4 cup less.  Or, use half the butter, shortening or oil and replace the other half with an equal amount of applesauce, mashed bananas, pureed prunes or commercially prepared fruit-based fat replacers.
SaltReduce the amount by ½ (except in yeast breads), use spices or herbs or light salt.

Other options to add fiber include adding whole oats or chopped dried/fresh fruit to cookies, muffins, waffles, and pancakes and beans to soups, casseroles, and salads. Using fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits whenever possible not only increases fiber, but also ups nutrition.

Cooking methods such as baking, boiling, broiling, grilling, roasting, or stir-frying whenever possible are the best choices for reducing fat intake. Along with fat reduction, the high heat associated with frying changes the chemical structure of the fat making it difficult for your body to break down which can negatively affect health.

Remember, make small modifications at a time. Be creative and, most importantly, have fun! Enjoy the challenge!

Marlene Geiger

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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