Slow cooker tips

There is something special about coming home after a long day of work and smelling something delicious in the slow cooker. Without a lot of effort, supper will be ready in only a few minutes. I blogged about using a slow cooker a couple of years ago. It is surprising how many people have discovered that blog post and asked questions. I have done a bit of research recently and thought that I could share just a bit more information about cooking with a slow cooker.

We blogged recently about fire safety so it is good to know that while a slow cooker will get hot while in use, it is considered safe to use on the counter top. A well-maintained slow cooker is not a fire hazard due to the low wattage of the appliance.

Typically, a slow cooker takes about 7 or 8 hours to reach 200°F on low or 4 to 5 hours to reach that same temperature on high. This temperature should be enough to kill any bacteria that might be present. As the food reaches that temperature, the meat will become done enough for meat to fall off the bones and for the flavors of the foods in the slow cooker to meld together. Remember not to open the lid of the cooker as that allows heat to escape. Removing the lid later in the process has less effect than removing it during the first hour or two. Use an instant read thermometer to know if meat has cooked long enough.

Your recipe may call for some special ingredients. Here are some tips for using those special ingredients.

  • Pasta: If your recipe calls for pasta, pre-cook the pasta until it is just slightly tender. You can then add it to the slow cooker during the last hour or two of cooking.
  • Rice: Simply add the rice and an equal amount of water to the slow cooker when you are adding ingredients at the beginning of the cooking time.
  • Dry beans: Dry beans must be softened completely. Once the beans contact sugar or an acid, they will remain hard. If you must put all the ingredients into the cooker at once, consider using canned beans.
  • Vegetables: Root vegetables (things like potatoes and carrots) require a longer cooking time than some meats. Be sure to place them at the bottom of the cooker when adding food.
  • Liquid: your recipe must include some liquid. At the very least your need ½ to 1 cup of liquid. The foods in the cooker will contribute additional liquid during the cooking time. This liquid aids in transfer of heat from the cooker to the food.
  • Thickeners: You can add a thickener at the beginning or the end of the cooking time. Not all thickeners work equally well. Flour can be added at the end of the cooking time but will require additional cooking time to thicken the food. It can take up to 15 minutes of cooking on high to remove the uncooked flour taste from the dish. Cornstarch works in a similar way, but will thicken after the food returns to a boil. Cornstarch, too, must be added at the end of the cooking time or it will break down. Tapioca is the only cooking starch that you can add at the beginning of the cooking time. Typically, you would use the same amount of tapioca as flour to thicken a dish.
  • Milk, cream, sour cream: These foods will break down over a long cooking time. Add these during the last 15 to 30 minutes of cooking.
  • Fish: This delicate food should also be added during the last 15 to 30 minutes of cooking time.

Use these tips to convert any favorite recipes that you have into a slow cooker recipe. Enjoy a healthy, fast dinner tonight.

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Beyond Pumpkin Spice and all Things Nice

If your love for “pumpkin spice” and all things pumpkin nice is beginning to wane or you were never a fan to begin, perhaps it is time to pigeon-hole those sweets and lattes and look at different ways to use the vitamin rich pumpkin (or squash).  The bright orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that pumpkin is loaded with beta-carotene, a plant carotenoid which converts to Vitamin A in the body.  Current research indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene reduces the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and some degenerative diseases.  Besides beta-carotene, pumpkin is also packed with Vitamins C and K, fiber, and other important nutrients while being low in calories.

Pumpkin is a surprisingly versatile product with a smooth, warming quality that lends itself well to creamy textures.  Squash, such as butternut, can be substituted for pumpkin.  Since all recipes do not use a whole can of pumpkin or the flesh of a whole pumpkin or squash, you may need to think of multiple uses for it.  Pumpkin/squash puree is good for 5-7 days in the refrigerator or 2-3 months in the freezer. Here are a few of the ways I use pumpkin/squash puree or a can of pumpkin that are an alternative to pumpkin spice and traditional desserts along with some recipes from my recipe box.

Drinks, smoothies, and yogurt parfaits

Hummus

Thickening for chili soup, marinara sauce, or curries

Yeast breads and rolls

Soup

Pancakes or waffles

Vegetarian burgers (can also be used in meat burgers)

Risotto

Ravioli or lasagna filling

Crackers

Pumpkin Orange Smoothie
½ cup Greek yogurt (or substitute)
¼ cup milk or substitute
3 tablespoons pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate
1 tablespoon honey
Blend until smooth; serve cold.

Black Bean Pumpkin Burgers
½ cup pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 garlic cloves
1 small onion
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 14-oz can black beans, drained, rinsed or 2 cups cooked black beans
Place all ingredients and half of the beans in a food processor.  Pulse until smooth.  Add remaining beans and pulse until just slightly chopped.  Form into patties.  Place patties on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 325F for 40-45 minutes.  Makes 4 burgers.

Pumpkin Hummus
2 cloves garlic
1 can (15 oz) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin or 1 ¾ cups puree
2 tablespoons almond or peanut butter
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon olive oil
Dash cayenne pepper or smoked paprika
Ice water
Pumpkin seeds (optional)
Puree all ingredients in a food processor.  Add ice water until desired consistency is achieved.  Garnish with pumpkin seeds.

Cheesy Pumpkin Crackers
1 cup gluten-free flour blend
½ t salt
½ t pepper
3 tablespoons coconut oil (melted)
½ cup pumpkin puree
½ cup grated cheese
1 tablespoon water
Mix all ingredients together.  Roll 1/8” thick on parchment paper.  Cut into squares or designs with a cookie cutter.  Use a fork to poke holes in top.  Bake on parchment lined baking sheet for 15 minutes at 400F.

Let’s spread the word. Pumpkins are not just for baking into pies, bread, or bars, displaying on your stoop, or carving into jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkin is a delicious addition to many kinds of food.

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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Making Scones

One of my favorite things to make are scones. I like to make them enough that I have even purchased an official scone pan that makes 16 small scones from one batch. The scone pan is not necessary but it makes all of the scones the same shape and size so I look like a professional even though I am not! I have experimented making many different kinds including orange, vanilla, chocolate chip and lemon but my favorite one is a mixed berry scone that I found when looking at recipes on the internet. Through trial and error, I know that adding sour cream to a recipe makes them extra moist and delicious so I like to add some to all of the recipes I try. I know that the dough will be very crumbly and that if I over mix it will cause them to be tough. I thought I would share with you some of the techniques so you can try making some at your house.

 

 

 

First measure your dry ingredients into a bowl. This includes flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

 

Grate butter into the flour mixture and blend into flour with your fingers.  Be sure that your butter is very cold!

Grating the butter makes it blend into the four much easier than cutting it into small pieces.

Mix wet ingredients together in another bowl. This includes milk, sour cream, egg and vanilla.  Add the liquid ingredients and the frozen berries (I used frozen blueberries, raspberries and blackberries). Don’t let the berries thaw or they will color the dough and you will not have any whole fruit pieces in your baked scone.

Mix until just combined. Do not overmix or the scone will be tough.

Shape into a square on a floured cutting board. I then cut it into 16 pieces (four squares with four triangle shapes).  If you wanted larger scones you could cut them into 8 instead of 16.

After putting the pieces in the pan I sprinkle with a course sugar before baking.

Bake at 400° F. for about 18 minutes until the scones are just starting to turn light brown. I cook mine in my convection oven at 375° F. for approximately 15 minutes.

If using a pan, allow to cool for 10 minutes then remove from pan and place on a cooking rack.

Making scones is easy and fun!  Try it out for yourself!

 

 

 

 

 

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Beth Marrs

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

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Can your own pie filling!

Callers have been asking for recipes to make their own canned pie filling a lot lately. It can be frustrating for a home canner to hear that the only recommended starch in pie filling recipes is Clear Jel. This product is not typically available in a local grocery store. The best option for purchasing Clear Jel is the internet. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has the following information on their website.

Clear Jel® is a chemically modified corn starch that produces excellent sauce consistency even after fillings are canned and baked. Other available starches break down when used in these pie fillings, causing a runny sauce consistency. Clear Jel® is available only through a few supply outlets and it is not widely available in grocery stores. Find out about its availability prior to gathering other ingredients to make these pie fillings. If you cannot find it, check Internet stores, or ask your county Extension family and consumer sciences educator about sources for Clear Jel®.

We do have a way for home canners to work around the Clear Jel problem. Sliced apples can be processed in a medium or heavy syrup. When you want to bake a pie with your home canned apples, simply thicken them after taking them out of the jar and then put them into your pie crust. It adds another step but is the best way to make apple pie filling without Clear Jel.

Enjoy a “fresh” apple pie any time.

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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The Power of Blue . . . berries!

If you haven’t heard it before, red, blue, and purple fruits are packed with good stuff that help your body flight disease!  These fruits contain anti-oxidant compounds like anthocyanins and polyphenolic flavonoids.  These powerful compounds help to protect the body from stress and diseases while boosting the immune system.

Blueberries are believed to be the KING of the blues as they contain the highest antioxidant capacity of all commonly consumed fruits and vegetables.  They are also among the most nutrient dense berries.  One cup of blueberries has only 84 calories with no fat; of the 15 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams are dietary fiber.  That one cup of berries also provides 24 percent of your daily-recommended (RDA) serving of Vitamin A, 36% of Vitamin K, and 25% of manganese.  Study after study has shown that blueberries are incredibly good for our health.

I was in North Carolina recently to visit family.  While there, we went to one of the regional NC Farmer’s Markets and I was reminded of North Carolina’s prominence in the US blueberry industry; blueberries were freshly picked, plentiful, and delicious!

With blueberries now in season, this is a good time to stock up.  Studies have shown that blueberries’ good qualities survive freezing.  Antioxidants found in fresh foods are typically very delicate, but research finds that 3 to 6 months of freezing has little to no effect on the antioxidant qualities of blueberries.  These findings are great news for anyone who grows, buys, or picks fresh berries in season and wants to enjoy them year round.  This is also great news for anyone who has restricted access to fresh blueberries but can find them in the freezer section at the market.

Blueberries can be enjoyed in numerous ways.  If you need ideas, check out the assortment of recipes at the US Blueberry Council website.  My preschool grandchildren enjoyed making their own snack; we dipped them in yogurt and froze them for an hour on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet.  The fact that blueberries are sweet, colorful, and can be enjoyed fresh and frozen is a tasty bonus.  So whether you are popping a handful into your mouth for a snack, topping off a favorite dish or a green salad, or trying them in a recipe, blueberries are a simple and healthful ingredient that brightens just about any dish.  I hope you will enjoy getting to know blueberries by exploring all the fun and simple ways to use them.

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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Pizza on the Grill

Summertime brings the grill out at our house and with it comes one of our favorite foods made on the grill—PIZZA!  Making pizza on the grill may seem like making a soufflé in a rice cooker, but it actually makes a lot of sense and works very well.  The key to pizza is high heat and that is something a grill specializes in. In addition, the kitchen stays cool. It’s a great party food or a fun way to feed family that just happen to stop in on Sunday night. But most importantly, it is the delicious, slightly smoky and not-too-charred-just-enough-for-taste crust that makes it the best grilled food.  All you need is a robust pile of charcoal or a gas grill and an optional pizza stone.

Here’s some tips to help you get started with pizza on the grill:

Get everything ready to go—all the toppings, the sauce, the cheese, whatever you wish.  This is key because you have to move fast once you start. Use grated melting cheeses like Mozzarella, Fontina, or Jack.  Toppings (meats and veggies) must be pre-cooked or pre-grilled as there is not enough grilling time to cook them as in an oven.   I like to have everything in individual containers on a table right next to the grill.

Make the pizza dough or use prepared pizza dough.  I like to make my own.  My recipe is at the end of the blog.

While the pizza dough is rising, prepare the grill.  Give the grill plenty of time to get hot. Once the grill is hot, season the grates or put your pizza stone onto the grates.  To season the grates, dip a tightly folded paper towel (or silicon brush) in olive oil (seasoned if you like with garlic, chilies, or herbs) and use a tongs to wipe the grill grates.  If you are uncomfortable with putting your pizza directly on the grates, disposable wire mesh grill toppers work well.

Shape the pizza dough on a slightly floured surface.  I like to use my hands.  My recipe will make one 12-inch round or 4-6 individual rounds.  We like to do the individual rounds so everyone can personalize their pizza.  Do not put a raised rim on the rounds as it will be too thick to grill properly.  The rounds should be rather thin.  Place your round(s) on a floured or parchment lined rimless cookie sheet and let the dough rest for 5 minutes, then poke around on the dough with a fork. (This will keep the round from puffing.) If you are preparing for a party or larger number of guests, you can make the individual rounds ahead, stack them separated between parchment paper, and keep in the refrigerator for up to two hours before grilling.

With everything ready to go, brush the top side of the round with olive oil (or seasoned olive oil).  Lay the oiled-side of the round onto the hot grill grates (omit if using a pizza stone).  Close the lid of the grill and grill for approximately two minutes.  After two minutes, open the grill and check the bottom side of the round to see if it is getting brown.  If nothing is happening, use a tongs to move or rotate the round.  Grill for an additional minute if needed.  By this time, the top of the pizza should be bubbling, too.

Once the round has browned or slightly charred on the bottom, remove the round and flip it over.  Close the grill to retain the heat.  Brush the grilled surface with a little olive oil and then spread on a little sauce.  Less is better with grilled pizza.  A thin spread of a thicker sauce is better than a thinner sauce so you don’t end up with a soggy pizza.  Sprinkle on the toppings, cheese, and then meat (meat should be fully cooked).  Again, keep it light as grilled pizza is not panned pizza.

Slide the topped pizza back onto the grill, close the lid and grill for 2-3 minutes more or until the bottom begins to brown or char slightly and the cheese is melted.  Remove the pizza from the grill and finish with a light sprinkle of sea salt, if desired.

Pizza combinations are endless.  Keep it simple.  The best grilled pizzas have two or three toppings max.  Consider texture, flavor, and color when picking toppings that go together. (Photo pizza is a combination of leeks, asparagus, and smoked pork without any sauce.)  Try it, and I think you’ll be convinced that the grill is an excellent pizza maker! 

Pizza dough recipe:  1 cup light beer or water, 1 tablespoon or package active dry yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 ¾ cup bread flour.  Heat beer or water to 120-130F.  Combine the beer or water, yeast and sugar in a mixer bowl.  Stir to combine.  Let stand until the mixture foams, about 5 minutes.  Stir in olive oil, salt, and flour.  Mix until dough comes together.  Knead on a floured surface, adding additional flour if necessary, until smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes.  Allow to rest 20 minutes.  Punch dough down and let rest a few minutes before forming round or divide dough for individual pizzas and then let rest for a few minutes before forming rounds.

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 saver meals

As we spring morphs into summer, one of the things that seems to disappear is time. Kids’ track meets, sports practices, and ballgames become more frequent and family dinner time seems impossible.  We all know that a drive-thru dinner is not good for our health or our wallet. At AnswerLine, we looked at the subscription meal services as an option and we know that various grocery stores are offering help making freezer meals.  The trick is to find something that works well for your family and the time you have available.

One summer the parents of my daughters softball teammates banded together to make pot luck dinners. She had a game nearly every weeknight and Saturday.  The JV team had to be there by 5:30 pm. which didn’t leave much time to get the family fed and our daughter ready and to the ball diamond.  Our solution was to take meals to the ball diamond that parents and siblings of the players could enjoy before the games.  Parents took turns providing the main dish and side dishes.  It wasn’t too hard to make one dish or to pack the portable gas grill on game days.  Everyone enjoyed the meals because when you only need to prepare one dish it is easier to make something special.  But even a simple picnic can be packed when the timing of a game or practice makes meals at home impossible.  Enjoying a meal together, even just sandwiches and fruit, after a game or practice can make it seem special.

Another possibility would be to make a list of the quick and easy meals that your family enjoys. Some families love the breakfast at dinner time meals.  It doesn’t take long to scramble some eggs or make omelets.  Add some fruit, vegetables, or toast and you can have a balanced meal ready in a flash.  If you make a list of the simple meals you enjoy, you are able to shop so that the ingredients you need to have on hand will be there when you need them.

You can also take advantage of some quick tips to make preparing those meals faster. Consider chopping and freezing some onions in advance.  The thawed onions will be soft and really best used in cooked dishes, but if you chop and freeze them in thin layers in a freezer bag, they will be easy to measure and use when cooking in a hurry.  You can also double the amount you make on a night when time isn’t a factor and freeze the extra.  Defrost in the refrigerator during the work day and enjoy on a busy night.

Don’t forget the slow cooker during the spring or summer either. Sometimes we think it is only for making some great soup or stew on those cold winter days.  The crock pot can make your dinner while you and the family are out for the day and it can keep the house cooler when used instead of the stove.  Our friends at Spend Smart. Eat Smart. have some great recipes. Check out their entire website for some great information.  They even have an app for your smart phone to make grocery shopping easier.

Just a little bit of planning in advance can keep your family and your wallet healthier. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Cauliflower Crust Pizza

Recently I wrote a blog post about cauliflower and mentioned I was looking forward to trying cauliflower pizza crust. Well, I tried it! And I really liked it! I will definitely make it again. The cauliflower was very easy to grate manually. Once it was grated and after doing a little more research, I opted to dry it out in a pan on the top of the stove rather than microwaving it and squeezing it dry. I was very pleased with how that worked. The cauliflower was not browned but nice and dry and easy to work with. I added one egg as I didn’t want it to taste too “eggy” and some parmesan cheese. I pressed it out onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet being careful to keep the thickness as even as possible so there would be no areas that were over browned or burned. After baking it separately for several minutes, I removed it from the oven and added my toppings then returned it to the oven for several more minutes. It turned out to be a very healthy and flavorful pizza entrée that did not leave me with that “oh so full” feeling you can get with a traditional carb crust. Another AnswerLine colleague is trying the cauliflower crust and is also experimenting with zucchini and eggplant crusts. We’ll keep you posted!

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Smoothies

 It seems, for me at least, life gets busier and busier yet I still want to eat healthy. I have decided to add more smoothies into my diet to help boost my intake of veggies and fruit. I prefer them over juicing fruits and vegetables as you get more fiber in a smoothie. I would not typically eat spinach for breakfast but I really enjoy it in a smoothie!

Depending on what your smoothie ingredients are, you can probably make them in your current blender. The average blender will usually hold enough to make two servings. There are “smoothie” blenders on the market that are narrow at the bottom thus sending a small volume of foods up and then down toward the center of the blender blades rather than up the sides and back down and there are also the bullet type blenders, i.e. Magic and Nutri. When adding liquid to your smoothie try to have the amount come about half way up on the ingredients in the blender. That will help everything “blend” properly and if it is too thick you can always add more liquid or pour the smoothie into a bowl and top it with additional fruits, nuts, oats, etc.

A basic smoothie recipe would include ½ cup fruit – fresh or frozen; ½ cup veggies – fresh or frozen; 1 cup dairy; and any “extras” you want to add as flavor boosters. The advantage of using frozen fruit is you don’t need to add ice. Frozen fruit also helps thicken the smoothie without diluting the flavor. It is easy to have berries, peaches, bananas, etc on hand in the freezer which are all common smoothie ingredients.

It is best to use dairy – milk or yogurt – as the liquid to add some protein to the smoothie. Many people, me included, add protein powder as well. Juice has a lot of sugar in it that is not necessary to add. Some protein and a little fat will fill you up longer, take longer to digest, and slow your sugar consumption. Greek yogurt, unsweetened almond milk, avocado, nuts, and nut butters all are good choices to add protein and a little fat.

Smoothies should be consumed immediately after making rather than making them and refrigerating  for a later time. Some fruits, because of their acid content, can curdle the milk if left too long before drinking. If you have leftovers, you can pour them into popsicle molds, or other containers, and freeze for a treat.

Smoothies may not always satisfy me the same way solid food does but I find they have a place in my diet. I can control the portion size depending on if I use them as a meal replacement or a snack and they encourage me to eat more fruits and veggies!

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Making Granola Bars a Healthy Treat

Crunchy, chewy, chocolatey, fruity Granola Bars are an American snack and breakfast staple and favorite.  In fact, granola bars are so popular, they even have their own annual day of celebration in January.  Pitched as a healthy food (and they can be), the nutrition label often tells otherwise—most are little more than candy bars in disguise!  Many are loaded with sugar and high fructose sugar and short on fiber and protein.  The satiety value is low—in a short amount of time, hunger sets in again.

So how can you enjoy your favorite snack without leaving you hungry or wanting more?  Here are a couple of ideas to up the granola bar game:

  1. Look for a better bar.  Check the ingredients and nutrition label.  Specifically look for bars that are high in fiber and protein, sweetened with honey or natural syrups, and include nuts, grains, seeds, and fruits.
  2. Make or concoct your own. There is an abundance of recipes to choose from.  Groovy Granola Bars from Oregon State University is an easy recipe to get you started.  Not only is it packed with fiber and protein, it also provides half of your daily value for Omega-3’s.  Change it up with other dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and even a few dark chocolate chips. Coconut palm sugar can be used to replace the brown sugar without altering the flavor.  However, the American Diabetes Assn cautions that coconut palm sugar but should be treat the same as brown sugar for those needing to count calories and carbohydrates.

We’d love to hear your granola bar story.  Please share in the comments!

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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