What is May Day?

May Day is celebrated on May 1.  It is an old day of celebration dating back to the Roman Republic.  Over its many years, there have been different meanings, festivities, and representations of May Day. Beginning as a day marked with ceremonies, dances, and feasting, it celebrated the rite of spring.  It also marks the half way point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solace.  In addition, it has been known as Workers’ Day or International Workers’ Day, a day commemorating the historic struggles and gains made by workers and labors.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, May Day traditions changed to leaving a gift basket filled with flowers or treats at the front door of a neighbor, friend, or loved one.  The giver would leave a basket or cone of treats, ring the doorbell, shout “‘May Basket!” and run away.  In some communities, hanging a May basket on someone’s door was a chance to express romantic interest.  If the recipient caught the giver, he or she was entitled to a kiss.  It has also been celebrated with dancing and singing around a pole laced with streamers or ribbons.  During my grade school days, we made May Day baskets filled with homemade treats, candy, or dandelions to exchange with school mates.

Today, May Day is almost forgotten. The sentiment of the day certainly has a place in modern society as a time to share a random act of kindness and celebrate spring and friendship—an opportunity to pay it forward. Baskets don’t necessarily have to be left at a front door.  Treats can be left for co-workers, teachers, children—anyone—anywhere they will find it. Earlier this spring, I was asked to make a May Basket for a group service project.  The directions were few—any kind of simple homemade basket will do; fill it with flowers, candy, or a baked and wrapped treat.

There are numerous ideas for baskets online—paper cones, styrofoam cups, fabric, tin cans, strawberry baskets—anything goes.  I decided on construction paper strips to craft a woven paper basket like I remembered making so many years ago. 

Since the basket had to be finished ahead of May 1 for distribution, I filled the basket with White Chocolate Strawberry Biscotti.  Compared to most baked goods, biscotti is very shelf-stable and will remain good for several days. Each biscotti slice was individually wrapped in clear plastic wrap and placed in the basket along with the recipe so the recipient would know the ingredients. The collection of baskets for this project will be delivered to service personnel in our community. 

Who says baskets have to be filled with flowers, candy or treats?  Don’t limit yourself.  Use imagination and creativity.  Baskets can be filled with anything appropriate for the recipient.  For example, the homeless may appreciate baskets filled with bath products, socks, non-perishable snacks or gift cards. Baskets for others could be filled with small office supplies, seed packets, cooking utensils, hair accessories, or craft supplies. The ideas are endless.  Add a little treat to brighten someone’s day with a piece of candy, a flower, or a pop of color with a piece of tissue paper.  And if making a basket isn’t for you, maybe buy a cup of coffee for a random stranger and wish them a Happy May Day. Get the kids involved; make it family activity or a youth group project (4-H, Scouts, Church).

So make a basket, ring the doorbell, and run! Spread some kindness! You’ll be glad you did! Happy May Day!

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 Spaghetti

January 4 is an unofficial holiday—it’s National Spaghetti Day—a day to celebrate the pasta that is commonly served with sauce, meat balls and Parmesan cheese.  American are great spaghetti lovers.  More than 1.3 million pounds of spaghetti are sold each year in American grocery stores.  If those packages were lined up, they would circle the Earth’s equator nine times.

Pasta is thought to have originated in ancient China being brought to Italy by Marco Polo during the 13th century.  The pasta form known as spaghetti has origins in Italy and Sicily.  “Spaghetto” in Italian means a thin string.  Prior to the industrial revolution, spaghetti was a luxury in Italy. Thomas Jefferson is credited with popularizing macaroni in America but it was the Italian immigrants that brought spaghetti to America.  Originally, 18 inches (50 cm) long, it is most commonly available in 12 inch (30cm) lengths today.

While there are numerous companies that manufacture spaghetti, the oldest pasta company and the biggest pasta factory in the world is Barilla located in Parma, Italy. Though the company manufactures 150 different pasta shapes, spaghetti remains the simplest pasta shape to produce and the Barilla factories produces miles and miles of the stuff every day. Nearly all Barilla pasta sold in the United States is made in Barilla plants located in Ames, IA and Avon, NY. To maintain consistency and quality, the recipe, wheat blend, and machines used in the Ames and Avon plants are the same as used in the Parma factory.

As part of the pasta family, spaghetti, is a fat-free, low sodium food made from hard wheat. More nutrition can easily be added to a meal by using whole grain pasta options.  Gluten-free pasta is also an option to those who cannot tolerate gluten. A plate of spaghetti and meatballs is the epitome of comfort food, but spaghetti is the perfect backdrop for all sorts of toppings and applications such as soups, stir frys, casseroles, and salads.

What is a serving of spaghetti?

When it comes to preparing spaghetti, knowing how much dry spaghetti is needed per serving is always a question. According to the USDA, the proper pasta portion is 2 ounces (56g) of dry pasta per person.  Because 2 ounces (56 g) of pasta is determined by the shape of the pasta, Barilla has charts to help determine the right portion of pasta to use.   For long shapes—spaghetti, angel hair, linguine, vermicelli, and fettuccine, you can measure the right amount using a scale OR use a dime (approximately ½-inch diameter) for thin shapes or a quarter (approximately 1-inch diameter) for thicker shapes. Once a bunch of long pasta equals the diameter of the coin, you should have the recommended 2 ounce serving which will yield approximately 1 cup of cooked pasta.  A pound of pasta is about right for 8 people with the recommended 2 ounces dry per person.

Tips for cooking and serving spaghetti perfectly

  • Salt your water.  Salt raises the temperature of the water so the pasta cooks a bit faster and adds flavor.
  • Use plenty of water and keep it boiling.  4-6 quarts water per pound of pasta is recommended.  Bring the water to a boil before adding pasta and return to a boil after adding pasta Using plenty of water helps prevent sticking and reduces the time it takes for the water to return to a boil when the pasta is added.  Keep the water at a rolling boil during cooking and do not cover.
  • Stir the pasta.  Stirring occasionally encourages even cooking and prevents the strands from sticking together.
  • Cook to al dente or firm to the bite.   Al dente is usually reached within 8-10 minutes of putting the spaghetti into the boiling water.  For recipes with extra cooking time, undercook the pasta by 1/3 of the cooking time.
  • Drain and reserve some pasta water for thinning the sauce if needed. 
  • Plate with a twist and drizzle.  Whether served in a sauce or alone, the key to plating spaghetti is to gently grab a serving of spaghetti with a tongs and give it a twist as it is placed on the plate causing the noodles to twist on themselves and pile upward.  Garnish, if desired, with a drizzle of olive oil and a little grated parmesan cheese.

Here’s to spaghetti and National Spaghetti Day!  Celebrate with a favorite spaghetti dish for dinner or head to your favorite Italian restaurant for a spaghetti entre.  Be sure to post your spaghetti pictures on social media using #NationalSpaghettiDay. Oh, and did you know that you should not break spaghetti? Length is needed to keep the Italian tradition of twirling spaghetti on a fork!

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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Prime Rib – “king” of Holiday Meats

Prime rib is perhaps the “king” of holiday meats. A prime rib roast makes an incredible presentation when it premiers with a well-browned crust encasing a tender, succulent, flavorful, and juicy rosy-pink center. Making your own prime rib may be a little bit scary. After all, it’s an expensive cut of meat; as such, you want it to be absolutely perfect. So what’s the best way to cook it?

Prime rib is not a cut of meat; rather, it is the name given to the preparation of a beef rib roast or ribeye roast. At the market, one would purchase a beef rib roast, ribeye roast, or standing rib roast to make prime rib. Regardless of name, it comes from the 6th through 12th ribs of a beef animal, sandwiched between the chuck and the short loin. Since this muscle is not well used, it yields a tender and deeply marbled roast with outstanding flavor.  The roast is usually covered by a fat cap that varies in thickness which also contributes to flavor and moistness.  

Preferred Doneness Temperature, Not Time Chart


Many people look for a chart that will tell them how long to cook their prime rib by pound. Because prime rib is not an evenly thick or shaped roast, timed cooking per pound is flawed. The best way to cook a rib roast (prime rib) is by temperature, not by time. Therefore, a digital meat thermometer is your best friend and most accurate, foolproof way to gauge the doneness or temperature of meat. To get an accurate reading, insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat.  Use the chart below to determine the preferred doneness temperature.  Because meat continues to cook after it is removed from heat, the pull from heat temperature should be 5-7⁰F (3-4⁰C) below the preferred temperature to allow for carryover cooking. As the meat rests, some of the heat energy from the outer layers transfers to the center, causing the center to continue to rise in temperature.

Preferred DonenessDegrees FDegrees C
Rare120-129⁰F49-54⁰C
Medium Rare130-134⁰F55-59⁰C
Medium135-144⁰F58-62⁰C
Medium Well145-154⁰F63-67⁰C
Well155-164⁰F68-73⁰C

Methods


While there are recipes and methods for grilling, slow cooking, and pressure cooking a rib roast, the best way to cook prime rib, or a ribeye roast, is by roasting it in the oven, fat side up, to the desired doneness.  Methods for oven roasting vary.  After reviewing numerous recipes for oven-roasted prime rib, it appears there are three different approaches—traditional, reverse-seared, or the 500⁰F/no peek methods.  Which is the best?  See the chart below to compare. (⁰F to ⁰C conversions in footnotes)

StepTraditional MethodReverse-Sear Method500⁰F/No-Peek Method*
1.Season 1-4 days in advanceSeason 1-4 days in advanceSeason 1-4 days in advance
2.Bring roast to room temperatureBring roast to room temperatureBring roast to room temperature
3.Preheat oven to 400-500⁰F (450⁰F most popular)Place roast in pre-heated low-temperature oven (200-275⁰F)Preheat oven to 500⁰F.
4.Sear for 15-20 min (450⁰F oven) in ovenRoast to desired doneness minus carryover cookingSear/roast 5-6 min/lb in oven
5.Reduce heat to 250-325⁰F (325⁰F most popular)Remove from oven, tent and let rest for 20 min.Turn oven off and leave door closed for 2 hrs.
6.Roast to desired temperature, approx. 13-15 min/lb (325⁰F) minus carryover cookingSet oven temperature to max, 500-550⁰FCheck temperature for desired temperature.  If appropriate, remove, slice, and enjoy
7.Remove from oven, tent, and restBrown meat 6-10 min until exterior is browned and crispIf under done, heat oven to 325⁰F and roast until desired temperature is reached
8.Slice and enjoySlice and enjoyIf additional heat and time required, remove from heat at desired temperature, tent and rest.  Slice and enjoy  
ProsTried and true methodEven cooking from edge to centerPredictable serving time
ConsUnpredictable serving timeUnpredictable serving timeOnly works if oven holds heat well

*Other names:  foolproof prime rib, no peek method, 500 degree method, closed oven method, oven off method. 

The Take-Away

  • Seasoning is optional.  Some do, some do not.  Seasoning can be simply salt and cracked pepper or with the addition of garlic or fresh herbs.
  • Most recipes allow the roast to come to room temperature beforehand. This helps the meat cook more evenly throughout. Depending on the size of the roast, allow 1-2 hours. 
  • Bone in or out? Most agree that if the bone is removed, it should still be tied back in for move even roasting.  Removing the bone makes it easier to slice.
  • Tying the roast is important.  When the string is removed after cooking, the roast will hold its shape for a more attractive presentation. Tying also aids in more even cooking. There are numerous online videos that show how such as this one: Prime Rib Prep and Butchers Knot – YouTube.
  • Sear or not to sear?  For some, searing is an important part of roasting a prime rib. Searing kills any possible surface bacteria and provides a Mallard-effect browned and crisp crust. It is also thought that searing helps to hold in the juices but some studies show that searing is not necessary for moistness when the meat is cooked low and slow.  Searing can be done either in a hot oven or a skillet. 
  • A meat thermometer is imperative; a digital thermometer with a probe can be placed in the meat prior to roasting to monitor temperature throughout the roasting process without opening the oven.
  • Most recipes suggest a well-marbled prime rib is at its best when it’s cooked to a minimum of medium rare and no more than medium.  This temperature range allows the fat to soften and render sufficiently to deliver flavor and juiciness. The pink color of the meat and/or juice may concern some fearing that it is blood.  To the contrary, it is not blood.  Rather it is oxymyoglobin, the redness in meat exposed to oxygen that has not yet had a chance to break down with light cooking. There is little to no blood present in commercially packaged beef.  Preferred doneness is an individual choice, however.
  • Remove the roast from the heat 5-7⁰F (3-4 ⁰C) before the preferred doneness to allow for carryover cooking.  Tenting helps to ensure temperature rise and hold heat for serving.  Meats roasted at low temperatures (250°F or lower) have very little carryover cooking because they tend to cook more evenly from edge to center. There is no carryover cooking when a roast is finished by blasting it in a 500°F+ oven for a few minutes to brown and crisp the exterior.
  • Resting or letting prime rib sit at room temperature for around 20-30 minutes before slicing gives the roast time to reabsorb the juices. Slicing into the meat right away will cause the juices to run out onto the cutting board.
  • Traditional and Reverse-Sear Methods appear to be the most successful for consumers.  500⁰F/No Peek method works well when the oven holds the heat; otherwise additional time is needed to get the roast to the preferred temperature.
  • As long as the roast has been handled properly prior to roasting, food safety is not an issue with any of the methods.

Preparing prime rib need not be scary.  Arm yourself with a meat thermometer and monitor it carefully; prime rib is more forgiving than you’d expect.  For additional tips, see Cooking Prime Rib.  Starter recipes can be found at Beef—It’s What’s for Dinner.

____________________________

Degrees FDegrees C
200-275⁰F93-135⁰C
250-325⁰F121-163⁰C
325⁰F163⁰C
400-500⁰F204-260⁰C
450⁰F232⁰C
500⁰F260⁰C
500-550⁰F260-288⁰C

Resources:

A Guide to Prime Rib, Cook’s Illustrated, cooksillustrated.com

All About the Prime Rib, Beef-It’s What’s for Dinner, beefitswhatsfordinner.com

Best Prime Rib, Americas Test Kitchen, americastestkitchen.com

Cooking Prime Rib, Recipe Tips, recipe tips.com 

Houser, Dr. Terry, Associate Professor, Smithfield Foods Chair in Meat Science Extension, Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Iowa State University

How to Cook Prime Rib Perfectly, the Temperature You Need, ThermoBlog, thermoworks.com

Oven Roasting Guidelines for Beef, Nebraska Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, UNL Food

Prime Rib—Its What’s for Christmas Dinner, Texas A&M AgrlLife Extension

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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Freezing Pumpkin Pie to Beat the Holiday Rush

Love it or hate it, there is no dessert that screams “Thanksgiving” louder than pumpkin pie! Whether you’re making your pumpkin pie in advance or dealing with leftover pie, pumpkin pie can be successfully frozen to beat the holiday rush or saved for future use.

Due to its high-fat crust and creamy filling, pumpkin pie of all kinds—homemade, store-bought, whole or slices–freeze well and can be frozen ready-to-bake or baked. The same is true of sweet potato pie. The secret to success with freezing pumpkin pie is careful wrapping, quick freezing, and thawing in the refrigerator.

The pumpkin pie custard (filling) can be frozen in the pie crust or alone. For a quick ‘how to’ on a homemade ready-to-bake pumpkin pie, see Freezing a Pumpkin Pie.   It is also possible to freeze just the filling; to do so, prepare the recipe and freeze the custard in an air-tight container or zip-top freezer storage bag.  When ready to use the filling, thaw in the refrigerator. Once the custard is thawed, pour into a pie shell and bake per the recipe directions. Make-ahead fillings due well for about five days in the freezer.-

Baked pies or slices should be cooled completely before wrapping and placing in the freezer.  Heat creates steam so if steam gets trapped beneath the wrapping, the result is a soggy pie.  If you’re baking a pumpkin pie to freeze whole, use a disposable aluminum pie pan.  Aluminum pans are thin and allow the pie to freeze quickly preventing ice crystal formation on the surface of the pie.  Tightly wrap the pie or pieces in plastic and aluminum foil to prevent freezer burn and odor absorption from other items in the freezer.  For best results, the pie should not be frozen longer than a month. Pumpkin pie that stays in the freezer longer than a month does not go bad or cause concern for food borne illness, but its taste and texture may start to degrade.

When ready to use, remove the pie from the freezer, strip the wrapping, and let it thaw in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.  Thawing at room temperature causes condensation on the pie resulting in a soggy pie crust.  Once thawed, the pie is ready to pop into the oven.  It may take a bit longer for the pie to bake if the custard mixture is still quite cold.

A pumpkin pie is done when it reaches 175°F in the center.  Short of a temperature probe, insert a small knife or skewer into the center and if it comes out clean, the pie is done.  Downside is that the insertion point leaves a spot in the beautiful custard top.  Another option is to gently nudge the outer edges which should be firm yet the center will be soft and slightly jiggly.

Once out of the oven, set the pie on a cooling rack and allow it to cool completely before slicing.  Custard pies continue to cook as they cool. Because pumpkin pie is a custard made with milk and eggs, it should be refrigerated within two hours of cooling where it can be stored for 3 to 4 days.  Fortunately, pumpkin pie is delicious served cold, right out of the fridge.  If the pie has any blemishes, remember that whipped cream makes everything better!

Note:  Commercially produced pumpkin pies often have shelf-stable preservatives, so read the instructions for how long it will stay good at room temperature and in the refrigerator—but do refrigerate a store-bought pumpkin pie after it has been cut.  

So whether you’re in baking mode, using pumpkins from the patch, or on a bake-and-freeze-now-eat-later mission for Thanksgiving, freezing pumpkin pie is an option to consider.

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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Holiday Simmer Pots

Simmer pots or simmering potpourri are one of my favorite ways to make our home smell cozy and warm throughout the year, but especially so during the holidays.  They truly bring out the best of the season with very simple natural ingredients such as spices, rinds, sliced fruit or fruit skins and water.  Simmer pots are affordable, sustainable, and an easy way to make your home smell like something good is cooking!

I prefer simmer pots over the many scented candles available on almost every store shelf because most of them are petroleum-based paraffin with dubious artificial scents.  Since it is my preference to steer clear of petroleum-based products in my house as much as possible, I turn to what my grandmother did: simmer a pot of spices. 

Grandma used her stove; I use a small crockette originally designed for warm dips as there is little chance of me getting distracted and ‘boiling the pot dry.’ Because the crockette does not boil, I start the processes by bring the mixture to a boil on the stove and then pour it into the crockette to simmer as long as desired.  To simmer on the stovetop, bring the ingredients and water to a boil, then turn the heat down to simmer. Water should be added about every 30 minutes to prevent ‘boiling the pot dry.’ A slow cooker can also be used to create a simmer pot.  To do so, fill the crock with water to at least half full, add the ingredients, put on the lid, and heat on high. When steam rolls off the lid, take the lid off and set the slow cooker to a low or simmer setting. Add water as needed to keep it at least halfway full.

Simmer pots are also a great way to recycle rather than compost or throw away orange rinds, lemon and lime peels, and apple and pear skins.  They can be used fresh or dried. (And, it is also possible to refrigerate the ingredients for a few days and reuse for simmering a 2nd time.)

Simmer pot combinations are more of an art than a science.  There are lots of potpourri combinations but really it boils down to personal preference or what you have on hand to work with.  Experimenting with combinations is fun. Some of my favorite holiday combinations include apple skins, orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, and whole cloves along with bay leaves, whole nutmeg, fresh or dried rosemary, and fresh or dried ginger.  Sometimes I use a drop or two of pure vanilla or an essential oil and even a little apple cider if there is some on hand. 

A simmer pot recipe can also be great when someone is sick as long as the smell does not upset their stomach. The combinations of citrus, rosemary, clove, cinnamon and eucalyptus are germ-fighting as well as comforting, soothing, and healing to the body as the vapors are breathed in.

Simmer pot ingredients make wonderful hostesses gifts, gifts for a teacher, friend, or neighbor, and lovely party favors for guests, too.  They are cost effective and everyone can use it.  To gift, start with dried ingredients.  Simply add the chosen ingredients to a clear treat bag or Mason jar, tie with a bow, add a gift tag and you’re ready to give a little a bit of the holidays to that special someone. 

There’s nothing like the smells of the holiday to create a warm and welcoming home.  With a simmer pot ingredient gift, you can give beautiful gifts that will help friends and family deck their halls, too.

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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Safe Homemade Food Gifts

Homemade food gifts are thoughtful holiday (or anytime) gifts. But how do you know if the food gift you are giving or receiving is safe to eat? Not everything that is made commercially can be made at home safely.  This is especially true when it comes to canned food gifts—jams and jellies, butters, soups, pickles, salsa, pesto, barbecue sauce, flavored vinegars or oils, and more. 

The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers these guidelines to evaluate the safety of home-canned gifts:

LOW RISK.  Fruit jams and jellies, fruit spreads, and whole fruits like peaches and pears are low-risk because their natural acidity and high sugar content provide an extra measure of safety.  Jams or jellies made with artificial sweeteners or with gelatin would be exceptions.  Those made with artificial sweeteners must be made with an appropriate gelling agent and stored per directions; gelatin based products must be refrigerated or frozen.

HIGH RISK.  Low-acid meats, vegetables and mixtures pose a higher risk because these products can support the growth of the botulism bacteria if improperly prepared and/or processed.  These products must be prepared with a tested recipe and processed in a pressure canner.

HIGHEST RISK.  Mixtures of acidic and low-acid foods such as salsas, some pickled products, pesto, soups, sauces, herb and oil mixes, and cream-based soups are of highest risk for potential botulism if they are not prepared with a tested recipe and properly processed in a jar of proper size. There are NO tested recipes for canning vegetable based butters, such as Pumpkin Butter, pesto, fudge/chocolate sauce, cream soups, or herb/vegetable oils. 

For any home canned product to be unquestionably safe, the product must be prepared using a USDA approved and TESTED RECIPE explicitly followed without exception.  Further, gifts canned in decorative, untested, jars or with unconventional lids should also be suspect. A sealed lid doesn’t mean a canned product is safe.

Another NO in the world of canned gifts are the so called ‘canned breads and cakes.  Referring to a previous blog, ‘Home-Canned’ Cakes and Breads for Gift Giving – A Big NO, these products involve no canning per say and are not safe in any way.  “Many cake and quick bread recipes often have little or no acid resulting in a pH range above 4.6, a pH level that will support the growth of pathogenic organisms that cause foodborne illnesses. Of greatest concern is the microorganism Clostridium botulinum (botulism) growing in the jars. Conditions inside the jar are ripe for hazardous bacterium given that cake and bread recipes may include fruits, liquids, or vegetables which increase moisture content AND the practice does not remove all the oxygen from the jar. The two factors create a rich environment for microorganisms to thrive.”

If you are the recipient of a food gift, be gracious and thankful for the gift as it is the thought that counts.  If you are comfortable, it is appropriate to ask a few kind questions if you know the giver well; it may seem ungrateful to ask the same of a lesser known acquaintance.  If there is any doubt, throw it out and don’t bring up the issue again. 

If you are the giver of a homemade food gift, particularly a home canned food, know without a doubt that the gift you are giving is explicitly safe—it has been prepared with a USDA approved and tested recipe and processed appropriately.  Jarred gifts should also include a clean, rust-free ring to avoid accidental loosening of the flat lid.

Handmade gifts are the best kind, particularly when they’re edible. They are very personal and truly an act of love.  Besides canned products, consider frozen or dehydrated foods, dry mixes in a jar or bag, sweet or savory nut mixes, candy, flavored popcorn, fresh breads or rolls, cookies, crackers, granola, gingerbread anything, or chocolate bark combinations just to name a few and, all of which, would be without the potential of harmful microorganisms to cause a foodborne illness or worse.  

Here’s to keeping the holidays ‘jolly’ with safe food gifts!

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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Getting the Oven Ready for Holiday Roasting and Baking

Baking for the holidays is about more than sugar cravings. It’s about passing along family traditions, singing or listening to holiday music as you mix, roasting nuts and special meats, and delivering fresh-baked cheer to family, friends and neighbors.

Whether this is your first time for holiday baking and roasting or you’re a pro with the butter-stained recipe cards to prove it, it is a best practice to have your oven ready for what you have planned for it. Because some of us despise the chore of oven cleaning, ovens often become a culinary crime scene!  So before whipping out the ingredients, get that oven in tip-top shape.

Manufacturers recommend that ovens be cleaned every three to six months depending upon how much they are used and spiffed up in between when spillovers of food or grease occur.  Regular oven cleaning improves the quality of the food prepared in it; the aromas of old grease and spilled food can taint the flavor of what is being baked or roasted.

While few look forward to the chore, with the right knowledge and a little elbow grease, oven cleaning needn’t be an overwhelming chore.  Depending upon how the oven will be cleaned a few tools may be necessary—gloves, eye protection, newspaper, paper towels or old towels, cleaning clothes, synthetic scouring pad, and a large garbage bag. I also like the nylon pan scrapers that fit into the palm of your hand as they are excellent for helping to remove those hard-to-remove aged grease spatters and scraping up burned on residue.

Oven Interior

There are three primary ways to clean the oven interior—self-cleaning, chemical oven cleaners, and DIY with baking soda, vinegar, and water.

Self Cleaning.  If you have a self-cleaning oven, check and follow your owner’s manual for detailed instructions. Make sure to wipe up any spillovers or liquid grease to avoid excessive smoking during the cycle and setting off your smoke alarm. Remove any oven accessories and the racks before starting the cycle. The self-clean cycle takes about two hours (exact time varies by oven type) during which the temperature reaches 800-1000 degrees F. Because the extreme heat has the potential to destroy the shiny chrome finish on the racks, it is recommended that they be cleaned outside of the oven (instructions follow).  The oven gives off a tremendous amount of heat during the cycle as well as some toxic fumes. You should stay at home while the oven is self-cleaning just in case anything goes awry but you and your pets should stay out of the kitchen and vent the room as much as possible. When it’s over, you’ll see a white ash on the oven bottom that you’ll need to wipe out once the oven cools. 

Chemical Oven Cleaners.  This is the easiest, fastest process and will remove serious amounts of grease and grime. The caveat is that oven cleaners can be quite caustic, so if you’re sensitive to harsh chemicals or prefer an all-natural approach this is not for you.  There are low- or no-fume products on the market that do work quite well. Carefully follow the directions on the product and be sure to protect the area around the oven with newspaper, paper towels, or old towels.  Remove the racks for cleaning (instructions follow) as well as any other items in the oven.  Spray the entire interior being careful to not get spray on the heating elements of an electric oven or the gas inlet of a gas oven.  Lift the heating element and spray under it. Gloves and eye protection should be worn when using oven spray cleaners. Also be aware that it is possible that using an oven cleaner could affect the surface of the oven; you may experience white or grey discoloration of the surface. Also, due to the porous nature of the oven surface, some of the product may be left behind after the cleaning process and fumes will be detected the first time the oven is turned on.

DIY.  While this may not be the fastest way to clean the oven, it is by far the safest and is appropriate for any oven type.  Begin by removing everything from your oven and protecting the floor beneath your oven with newspapers, paper towels, or old towels.  Mix 1/2 cup of baking soda with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water to make a spreadable paste.  Spread the paste around the inside of the oven using fingers, spatula, or brush covering the entire interior including crevices. Keep the paste away from the heating element of an electric oven and away from the gas inlet of a gas oven. It is also possible to lightly mist the paste with white vinegar in a spray bottle which will cause the paste to bubble and foam.  Close the oven and allow the paste to sit for 30 minutes to 10 – 12 hours, or overnight depending upon the depth of cleaning needed.

After time has elapsed, glove up and begin to rub the surfaces with a synthetic scrubbing pad dipped in vinegar or a plastic scraper to loosen baked on grime.  Wipe down all surfaces with a damp cleaning cloth. If the paste is dry, spray with vinegar to soften and remove.  After all of the paste and grime has been wiped away, spray the oven with vinegar and wipe dry.

A DIY recipe shared by an AnswerLine client is another option. Mix 2 oz of Dawn detergent, 4 oz bottle lemon juice, 8 oz white vinegar, and 10 oz water in a spray bottle. Spray the oven walls, top and bottoms. Let sit overnight or longer. Wipe clean with wet clothes to remove the residue.

Racks

Racks can be cleaned with either chemical oven sprays, ammonia, or with baking soda and vinegar.  If oven sprays or ammonia are used, the work should be done outdoors with rubber gloves and eye protection.  Once the racks are cleaned, washed, rinsed and dried, replace them in the clean oven.

Chemical Oven Sprays.  Lay the racks on a garbage bag that has been cut open, spray the racks with the cleaner, cover, and tuck the bag tightly around the racks and let them sit overnight.  Spray wash them with a garden hose to remove the chemical residue and then wash them with dish detergent in either the kitchen sink or bathtub scrubbing as necessary. Discard the bag used by placing inside of another bag and putting in the trash.

Ammonia. This is the most dangerous method but one that is frequently used.  Place the racks in a large trash bag. Add 2 cups ammonia to the bag. Tightly tie or seal off the bag so that the ammonia cannot leak out and let them sit overnight lying flat. The racks do not have to be coated in the ammonia because the fumes will circulate and do the job. The next day, open the trash bag being cautious of the ammonia and the fumes.  (Avoid inhaling the fumes.)  Spray the racks with a garden hose and then wash with dish detergent followed by a rinse.  Dispose of the ammonia by mixing with water and pouring down the kitchen sink or toilet.  If you have a septic system, the ammonia should be neutralized with baking soda, cat litter, and sand and disposed in the outside trash.  The bag should be sprayed with the garden hose, bagged, and also put in the outside trash.

Baking Soda, Vinegar, and Hot Water.  Place the racks in the bathtub. Plug the tub and sprinkle baking soda on the racks and then pour vinegar on top creating a foam. When the foaming stops, run hot water until the racks are fully covered.  Allow the racks to sit in the water for 10-12 hrs or overnight. Remove racks from the water and scrub with a cleaning cloth, pumice, or synthetic scrubber until all grease and grime is gone.

Pat yourself on the back when the job is done. You might want to reward yourself with a holiday gift by investing about $10 in an easy-to-clean non-stick oven liner that catches spillovers and crumbs and helps prevent the fore mentioned ‘culinary crime scene’.  Be sure to use the liner correctly in your oven.

Lastly, give yourself a break and don’t stress if the oven doesn’t turn out spotless.  The object is to get it clean enough that the grime doesn’t taint anything that is baked or roasted in the oven and the aromas coming from the kitchen are pleasant.  After all, ‘tis the season for a little fun, too!

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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50 Shades of Gra-vy

At this time of the year, we are usually talking turkey with lots of questions about how to make the perfect turkey gravy.  Gravy is often the star of a turkey dinner, the condiment that ties the meat, potatoes, and veggies together.  While making gravy is nearly the same for all meats, for the purposes of this blog, we’ll zero in on turkey gravy.

In its basic form, gravy is a thickened sauce made from meat drippings with perhaps the addition of stock and seasonings.  It starts as a roux or equal parts of fat and flour cooked in a skillet until it is golden brown and bubbly.  (Cornstarch and potato starch are other options for thickening gravy when flour cannot be used and will be addressed later.)  The best fat is found in the drippings rendered by the meat during roasting found roaming at the bottom of the roasting pan. Drippings are flavor packed and add a depth of flavor to any gravy.

When the turkey reaches temperature, remove it from the oven, tent, and let rest for 20 minutes.  During this time, the turkey will continue to rise in temperature and leak additional drippings.  Remove the turkey from the roasting pan and drain the drippings through a colander or strainer to remove the coagulated bits of this and that.  Discard the bits and save the strained drippings to make the gravy.

Separate the fat from the liquid drippings with a separator or with a spoon.  If there is sufficient fat, use the separated fat to make the roux.  If not, use butter or any other fat preferred (coconut oil, vegetable oil, olive oil, margarine, or bacon fat).  For each cup of gravy desired, use a ratio of two tablespoons of fat, two tablespoons of flour, and a cup of liquid to produce a rich and thick gravy. (This ratio can be doubled or tripled as needed.) In a skillet (or roasting pan), whisk the flour into the fat over medium heat.  Let the mixture bubble and brown slightly.  Slowly add the defatted drippings or a combination of drippings and broth or other liquid, whisking vigorously to dissolve the roux into the liquid and prevent lumping.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently until slightly thickened.  Stir in desired seasonings—salt, pepper, herbs (dried or fresh) such as sage and/or thyme.  Go lightly on the salt if salted broth is used or the drippings are already salty.  Taste as you go.  Allow the gravy to simmer and thicken for about 10 minutes longer adding more liquid to thin if needed. 

There are unlimited recipes for making turkey gravy; many family recipes have been passed along for generations and may be made with cream, giblets, cream soups, broth only, variety of seasonings, wine, cognac, and other unique ingredients.  There is nothing wrong with going outside of a basic gravy recipe.  Whether basic or otherwise, sometimes things go wrong and other than scorching, most gravy can be rescued.  Some quick cures:

Bland – add a little more salt or herbs, a drop or two of soy sauce, or sautéed onions or mushrooms

Lumpy – blend in a blender or with an emulsion blender until smooth

Too thick – add more drippings, broth, or even water to thin (I’ve even seen orange juice used.)

Too thin – make a slurry of flour and water and slowly add to gravy bringing it to a boil OR make a small roux (equal butter and flour) and add to the gravy

Too greasy – use a slice of bread to soak up the grease as much as possible; add a little more liquid, whisk briskly and serve quickly

Gravy is perishable. Bacteria grow rapidly at temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F. Therefore, homemade turkey gravy should be discarded if left for more than 2 hours at room temperature. To maximize the shelf life of homemade turkey gravy, refrigerate in airtight containers.  Properly stored, homemade turkey gravy will keep for 2 days in the refrigerator.  To further extend the shelf life, it can be frozen in airtight containers or heavy-duty freezer bags.  In the freezer, turkey gravy will maintain best quality for about 3 months, but will remain safe beyond that time.  When reheating homemade turkey gravy, always bring the gravy to a slow rolling boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, before serving.

When flour cannot be used, cornstarch and potato starch are the best options for gravy.  Avoid arrowroot and tapioca starches because they can get “stringy” and look artificial in gravy.  Cornstarch gravy is more translucent than flour based sauces. Potato starch gravy is more opaque than cornstarch, but less opaque than flour. Gravy made with starches require less simmering than flour based sauces. Avoid boiling as overcooked starch based gravy will lose some of its thickness.  Keeping time in the refrigerator remains the same but know that starch based gravy does not freeze well.

A delicious homemade gravy is easy to make but shouldn’t be hurried even though it might be the last item made to complete the menu.  Some like to make their gravy ahead of time. If made ahead, bear in mind refrigerating, freezing, and reheating precautions.  An electric gravy boat, thermos, or slow cooker (warm) is a great way to keep gravy at serving temperature and consistency after reheating or while waiting for dinner to be served.

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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Pie Baking – Simple Ingredients and Equipment

Who doesn’t love a piece of pie?  Pie has been a proverbial favorite beginning with the ancient Egyptians according to the American Pie Council. The history of pie is quite fascinating and while I love to share the history of food, I will reserve pie history for another time—perhaps National Pie Days (December 1 and January 23 not be confused with Pi Day, March 14).  Pie is such an act of love that I think it should be celebrated whenever one is given the chance to enjoy a piece.

 While there is not a designated time to bake a pie, late fall seems to bring out the pie baking instinct in many.  Perhaps it is the combination of bumper crops from our gardens and fruit trees with the anticipated holiday season and cooler weather enticing one to turn on the oven that brings on the urge to tie on those apron strings and get baking.  I’ve felt it myself.

I’m hardly an expert when it comes to pie baking.  There are countless books, articles, and videos written by real experts on how to bake the perfect pie providing endless tips and recipes each offering their own ‘how to’.  While all of the information is helpful, some may still find pie baking intimidating. Sometimes the best teacher is that person in your life who truly loves to bake pie; for me, that would be my mother-in-law who in her younger days needed no occasion or excuse to bake at least one pie ‘just because’ as any day was a pie day. Needless to say, I learned a lot from watching her nonchalant approach to making pie.

Making pie is easy and need not be intimidating. Using tips from my mother-in-law, let’s get into the art of pie baking beginning with the ingredients and equipment needed for the foundation, the pie crust.

3 Basic Ingredients and Simple Equipment

Pie crust starts with three basic ingredients—flour, fat, and water.  Some recipes will add salt, sugar, eggs, milk, vinegar, leavening and other ingredients which can enhance a pie crust, but the ‘basic three’ are the only ones necessary. The recipe is as easy as 3-2-1–3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part cold water.  Here’s a brief description of how they work together to create pastry.

  • Flour.  All-purpose flour is all that is necessary; it has the perfect amount of gluten (11% protein) to provide structure yet create a tender, flaky crust.  Protein content is directly related to the gluten structure; the higher the protein, the stronger and faster the gluten structure forms as the dough is worked. Cake flour has too little gluten and bread flour has too much.  Unbleached flour is slightly better for pie crust than bleached but either will do. Pastry flour is another option but all-purpose is sufficient and readily available.
  • Fat.  Lard, butter, shortening, vegetable oil, or some combination are fat options.  Everyone has their favorite.  Fat has a dual purpose:  1) it coats the flour particles to prevent excessive gluten formation; 2) during baking, the pea-size fat pieces melt releasing steam which lifts the pockets to create a flaky, tender layers. Solid fats result in a flakier crust than melted or liquid fats.  Chilled fats provide the best results.
  • Water.  Think of water as the glue that holds the flour and fat together. Always start with small amounts and gradually add more as needed to just moisten the flour. Like fat, liquids should be ice cold.  If water is not used, milk (regular, evaporated, or reconstituted dry milk), egg, vinegar, or combinations are other liquid alternatives.

The equipment needed to make a pie crust is also quite basic–bowl, measuring cups, rolling pin, hard surface, pie plate and knife or scissors. However, one can upgrade from the basics as much as desired by adding a pastry blender, mixer, food processor, fancy rolling pins, pastry clothes, dough scrapers, pastry wheels, and metal pie crust shields to name a few. In all humbleness, a suburb pie crust can be made with the basic three ingredients using a bowl and fingers. A rolling pin is necessary to flatten the dough but wine bottles have been used in a pinch. There are many kinds of pie plates and any of them will work. Of all, the simple clear glass pan is probably the best choice. Glass pans produce wonderfully brown, crisp crusts that are usually not soggy on the bottom. (It may be necessary to reduce the baking time or oven temperature with a glass pan.) No matter the material of the pie pan, it is more than possible to bake a great pie in it with a little practice and possible tweaking of time and/or temperature as each material is different. The disposable aluminum pans create the most challenge to even baking, but many have mastered that challenge with admirable results–beautiful golden-brown, fully cooked, no-soggy-bottom pies.

I will continue with pie baking in follow up blogs.  Next up, tips or keys to pie crust perfection!

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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