2016 Dirty Dozen & Clean 15

Every year the Environmental Working Group publishes their list of the 12 'Dirtiest' and 15 'Cleanest' fruits and vegetables grown in today's market.  Strawberries top the list this year as the dirtiest fruit, putting Apples now in second place.

They cite strawberries, a whopping 98% of them tested, had detectable pesticide residue with 40% containing 10 or more pesticides and some having upwards of 17 different pesticides. Some are considered benign but others are linked to cancer, reproductive damage, developmental damage, hormone disruptions and neurological problems.  You can read their full findings here.

The saddest outcome of these findings is none of the pesticides found are against any laws or regulations governing our food production.  Shame on you America!

Unfortunately, eating 100% organic is sadly not part of most people's budget (certainly not mine). However, allowing for organic fruits and vegetables in accordance with these guidelines should top your list and be factored into your food budgets.  The higher cost of organic food far outweighs the benefits of saving a few dollars.

How can you buy organic on a budget?  I've found that buying frozen organic vegetables are only 30 cents more per bag where we shop and actually cheaper when they are on sale.  Plus, they are frozen immediately after picking which means they also have the highest nutrition content.  I typically won't buy open bin vegetables, even organic.  Have you ever seen someone touching every piece to find just the right one?  No thanks, you can keep your germs.  I am a bit neurotic about that.

Visit Farmer's Markets in your area.  You have the opportunity to talk directly to the farmer about their growing practices.  If it's not an organic farmer, ask if they are 'no spray'.  You may not know how expensive it actually is to be an organic farmer.  Not only are the materials more costly, but the government issues so many permit, classification, etc. fees on these farmer's, they literally can't afford to be labeled organic.  Many follow organic practices but chose not to get the certifications for this very reason.

Visit Farms directly.  Often they have produce stands or their own market where prices might be a little lower.  They also tend to put out bushels of fruits and/or vegetables that are getting past their prime.  Making applesauce? How does an entire bushel of Apples for $5 sound to you?  If you are into canning, these are wonderful finds!

Finally, search the internet for coupons.  Organic food coupons are not in abundance, that's for sure, but you can find them on occasion.

My bottom line...do what you can.  That's how we do it.

Click on photo to enlarge and print

Growing in the Shade

Not everyone is blessed with open space, plenty of sunlight and perfect soil.  If you're one of the 'unlucky' ones but still yearn to have a robust garden, this post is for you.

Let's start off with the soil.  In our nearly 30 years of gardening, we have never tested the soil. Perhaps that was to our determent but I don't believe so.  Our gardens typically produce well without any intervention except the following;
  • Properly till the garden area with either a shovel, pitch fork or rototiller.  You want the soil to be loose so plant roots have the freedom to take hold and prosper. Not everyone believes in tilling, but we found it to not only be beneficial but makes planting easier.
  • Adding leaves in the Fall.  They will break down over the winter and be ready to till into the soil in the Spring.  Gardener's Supply Company explains "Leaves are packed with trace minerals that trees draw up from deep in the soil.  When added to your garden, leaves feed earthworms and beneficial microbes.  They lighten heavy soils and help sandy soils retain moisture".
  • Compost.  We compost year round.  It's either put into the compost pile or directly into the garden.
  • Rotate plants every year or every other year.  Wikipedia puts it very simply; "Crop rotation is the practive of growing a series of dissimilar or different types of crops in the same area in sequenced seasons.  It help in reducing soil erosion and increases soil fertility and crop yield."  What the means is don't put your tomato plants in the same place every year.  Change it up and reap the benefits.
  • Our best weed fighter is grass!  Take your clippings and put them right in the garden. We pile it up in between the rows.  Be sure NOT to directly cover any plants, it will kill them. Another bonus, you're adding nutrients that can be tilled into the soil every year. I would however caution you, if you use chemicals on your grass, don't use it in your garden.  If your goal is growing heirloom or organic fruits and vegetables, then adding chemically treated grass will defeat your efforts.

Let's talk about shade and determining what you have and will be able to grow.  Penn State Extension has a guidance on determining your specific conditions.  Here are the basics:
  • Heavy shade; no direct sunlight reaches the ground (such as under dense evergreen trees).
  • Moderate shade; mostly reflected light (such as a typical hardwood forest).
  • Light shade; there is partially filtered sun (such as under birch trees).
Finally, you will need to determine just what type of shade you have; Heavy, Moderate or Light. Take a few days to note where the sun reaches and for how long.  Once you have an area chosen and determine how many hours of sun vs. shade it gets, you're ready to plant.  ALWAYS keep in mind, gardens are temperamental, not everything grows when or how it's supposed to.  Most successful gardens go through several years of experimentation.

I agree, you don't have a whole lot of options when dealing with shade, but you do have some and that's always better than none.

If you'd like to research more before diving in, check out these additional, informative posts.

Mother Earth News:  40 Gardening Tips to Maximize Your Garden
Smiling Gardener:  Checklist for Growing Nutrient-Dense Organic Food
Penn State Extention:  Vegetable Planting and Transplanting Guide
Planet Natural:  Vegetable Gardening Tips and Tricks
Gardener's Supply Company:  Vegetable Gardening for Beginners

Now that you've harvested your garden, it's time to enjoy!  There are a wide variety of recipes on our Pinterest Boards; choose the right one for you.

DIY Outdoor Games - Go Have Some Fun!

Spring is at our doorstep and Summer is not far behind.  Soon we'll be spending more time outside with friends and family.  What better way to enjoy that time together than outdoor games?  How about your favorite childhood games GIANT sized!   DIYing your outdoor games also gives you the freedom to personalize and use quality, lasting materials.  We all know, most outdoor games are made of flimsy plastic that won't hold up for more than a few seasons.  

HERE you can find pins for more than 70 DIY games, from simple to extreme. 

Ever wonder WHEN these games we play today were originated?  I did, which led me to some research.

Cornhole. The history of the game is mostly unknown.  One story claims the game was first played during the 14th century in Germany, then rediscovered in the hills of Kentucky.  The game is generally considered to have originated in America on the west side of Cincinnati.

Pick-up Sticks.  The date when Pick Up sticks was invented is unclear, but it has been traced back to the Native Americans, who played it with straws of wheat and passed it on to English settlers back when the United States was still known as the "the 13 colonies".

Checkers. The history of checkers can be traced back to an archeological dig in the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq, carbon dated 3000 B.C.  No one knows the exact rules from that time.  A similar 5x5 board, call Alquerque, is known to have existed in ancient Egypt as far back as 1400 B.C..

Plinko.  The most popular pricing game on The Price is Right, Executive Producer Frank Wayne debuted the game on January 3, 1983.  It's name came from the "plink" sound as the chips came down the board.

Angry Birds.  This franchise was created by Finnish computer game developer Rovio Entertainment and released in 2009 and has been downloaded more than 3 BILLION times!

Hopscotch.  The earliest recorded reference was in 1677.  In 1707, the game was titled 'Scotch-Hoopers' by Poor Robin's Almanac and was an all boys' game.  Other names include 'Scotch Hobby', 'Hop-Score', 'Peevers', 'Pabats' and 'Stapu'.

Tetherball.  Invented in England about 1880, it was initially played with a tennis ball and racquet and referred to as 'tether tennis'.  By 1912,  it was changed to use just your hands but still using a tennis ball.  Some time between then and the early 1950's the game was changed again to just a rubber ball on a rope and your hands.

Irish Bowling.  Tracing back to the 1600s, one story tells of Dutch soldiers bringing it to Ireland in 1689.  In 1969, the first international championship was played in the Netherlands and continues today.

Ring Toss.  Dating back to the late 12th and early 13th centuries in England, there have been many variations and names for Ring Toss including Wallhooky, Hook and Ring and BiminiRing.

Yahtzee.  Invented by a Canadian couple in 1956 as "Yacht Game".  They approached Edwin Lowe, who made his fortune with Bingo in the 1920s who then purchased the rights and renamed it 'Yahtzee".

Tic-Tac-Toe.  As early as the first century B.C., the Roman Empire called it Terni Lapilli where players had only three pieces to move around.  Chalked grid markings for the game have been found all around Rome.  Different names have included "Noughts and crosses" and "Tit-tat-toe". 1884 was the first print reference calling it "Tick-tack-toe".

Scrabble.  In 1938, Alfred Butts, an American architect, created the game based on an earlier version of his game Lexiko.  His new invention, which he called "Criss-Crosswords" added the 15x15 board and crossword-style play.  He created a few games but couldn't find a manufacturer until 1948 when James Brunot bought the rights and royalties for every unit sold. Brunot made a few simple changes to the original but it wasn't until 1952 when the president of Macy's played the game and wanted it sold in his store that it took off.  Over the next 30 years, the game changed hands several times and finally landed with Hasbro in 1986.  Today, Scrabble is sold in 121 countries in 29 languages with over 150 millions sets sold worldwide.

Bowling.  Artifacts dating back to 3200 B.C. were found in Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Roman Empire.  Balls were made from husks of grain covered in leather and held together with string.

Jenga.  Created by Leslie Scott in the 1970s and launched in 1983.  To date, over 50 million games have been sold worldwide.

Kubb or Kobb.  Kubb first appears in 1911 in a Swedish Encyclopedia and called "Skittles War". The first commercial sets were manufactured in the late 1980s.  In December 2011, Wisconsin declared itself to be the "Kubb Capital of North America" where the US National Kubb Championships have been held since 2007.

Connect Four.  It is believed Connect Four has it's roots in Tic-Tac-Toe and popularized in 1974 by Milton Bradley.

Kerplunk.  Ideal Toy Company introduced Kerplunk in 1967 and although it gets low ratings on game sites, is still sold today for upwards of $15.

Scavenger Hunt.  Markus Montola, a noted game scholar, theorizes scavenger hunts derived from ancient folk games.  In the early 1930s, gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell popularized the game through parties.

*Research via Google, Wikipedia and various game and historical sites.

Dessert....the best part of the meal

Easter is just around the corner which means we're busy planning our day filled with faith, family and fun.  If you're like me, dessert is the best part of the meal!  

Healthy desserts can be full of flavor and not full of fat and artificial ingredients.  Most recipes here fit that description and, of course, you always have the option to substitute.  For example, when a recipe calls for Brown Sugar, I substitute Sucanat.  If it calls for butter or oil, most times I can substitute applesauce.

This substitution list from Greatlist lists 83 healthy substitutions.  They also have an infographic if you prefer a visual reference.

So, dig in the Pins!  There's nearly 200 to choose from on my Desserts on the Homestead page. 

Homemade Bourbon Vanilla Extract

If you're a fan of Vanilla Extract, you're a fan of this post!  We all know how expensive PURE vanilla extract is in stores.  I'm not talking about the little $1.99 bottle of imitation flavored extract, I'm talking about that $6.99 and up of REAL extract.

Forget about paying those prices anymore.  Do yourself a favor and make your own like I have for years now.  Here's what you need....ready....concentrate......

  • (5) Gourmet Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans (whole)
  • Any decent Vodka
  • Glass bottle with tight fitting lid

Whew, did you get all that?  All kidding aside, you really only need those two ingredients.  It really is that simple. I buy my beans from Beanilla (not an affiliate link).  I like the quality, pricing, and free shipping.  Of course, you may find them at local health food stores or cheaper elsewhere online but be careful, you don't want subpar beans.

Here's what do to....

Split beans lengthwise, leaving the seeds.  Put it in the bottle.  If whole bean is too long, simply cut it to size.  Then fill with vodka.  That's it!

If this is your first time making it, store the bottle in a cool, dark place (like the pantry or cabinet) for 4-6 months.  Give it a little shake when you notice it sitting there.  There's no rule of thumb, just a shake here and there.  And yes, it's a long time to wait but once you've started the extract, you won't have to wait as long next time.

When it's about half empty, simply add more vodka and wait a couple of weeks before using it. There's no need to replace the beans, they will continue to produce flavor for up to 7 YEARS! That's not a typo, I did type 7 YEARS.

If you use a lot of extract, simply start two bottles and rotate them. 

So let's compare.  I'm using the pricing from Banilla for comparisons.

  • A 16oz bottle of real vanilla extract is $44.95 from Banilla.  A true gourmet extract will easiily run you in that price range.  But remember, when it's gone, it's gone.
  • Purchasing 5 whole beans is $9.95 plus another $15 for a 1.75-litre vodka (depending where you live) and if you have to buy the bottle, let's add another $5 for a total of $30 initial investment.  Keep in mind the beans will last up to 7 years, the bottle lasts forever and if you only use that bottle of vodka for the extract, that 1.75-litre will make 5, 12oz bottles.  Bottom line: 5 bottles of extract will cost you about $5 per 12oz bottle (beans & vodka) for pure, gourmet extract.
  • Banilla also sells a starter kit for $18.95 but does not include the vodka so add a few more dollars.
  • If you have a HomeGoods store near you, they also sell starter kits for around $13 but I can't attest to the quality of the beans or how long they've already been sitting.

Bottom line....making your own will not only have superior taste, it's also cost effective AND you know EXACTLY what is in it.  

Granola Simplified

Love granola?  I do!  It is probably the fastest, easiest, healthiest snack you can make at a fraction of store prices right in your own Kitchen!

It really is that simple; rolled oats and brown sugar (I personally use Sucanat) or local honey, accompanied by ANY filler you choose.  The benefits of granola include fiber, may help to control blood sugar and lower bad cholesterol.  You feel fuller which means you'll eat less calories throughout the day and have more energy. 

Base Ingredients & Fillers

There are just THREE ingredients for your granola base; Rolled Oats, Honey, Butter.  That's it.  Of course, you don't need to add fillers, you can enjoy just the base too!  We like to add fun combinations of fillers and some added grains to boost the health benefits.

Base Recipe:

1 stick Butter combined with 1/2 cup Honey.  Over low heat, melt the butter completely, stirring often, then add the honey until it's a loose consistency.  Honestly, this takes about 2 minutes.

Pour butter/honey mixture over 2 cups uncooked Rolled Oats and thoroughly combine.  (Gently toss together until it all looks coated.) using a 9x12 casserole dish for baking.

Bake at 350 degrees for a minimum of 15 minutes.  Remove from oven, stir thoroughly, then bake another 5 minutes.  You can continue to bake longer if you want to brown it up for a crisper granola. 

Fresh from the Oven

Remove from oven and let cool.  Every so often (there's no rule), stir the granola to keep it loose and expedite cooling.  You can also transfer it to a cookie sheet to cool even faster, just be sure it has a 1/2" or higher side so it doesn't spill while stirring.

That's it!  That's the basic granola recipe.  No added harmful fillers or sugars! YOU know every ingredient you're eating.  That's reason enough for me.

If you want to jazz it up:

Add to the dry granola (before mixing in the hot butter mixture);
  • 1 cup coconut, 1/2 cup ground Flax, 1/8 cup Chia Seed and 1 cup Cranberries (or any dried fruit)
  • 1 cup coconut, 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1 cup nuts (your choice), 1 cup chocolate, 1 cup coconut
  • 1 cup coconut, 1 cup dried fruit (your choice)
  • .....the possibilities are endless!

Yogurt, Granola, Apple
Ways to enjoy granola:

  • Have it plain
  • Yogurt Topping
  • Yogurt Topping plus any fresh fruit such as apple, banana, mango, peaches, pears, etc.
  • Mix together (or layer) Yogurt, Homemade jams and Granola
  • Slice Bananas, top with Peanut Butter, finish with Granola
  • Ice Cream Topping
  • Add milk, warm, and enjoy as a hot cereal
  • or don't warm and enjoy as a cold cereal
  • Layer yogurt, granola, fruit like a parfait
  • Bake into cookies, breads or muffins
  • Bake on to muffins for topping
  • Add to salads
  • Mix in nuts
  • ...Google "Ways to Enjoy Granola" and tons of great suggestions will pop up

The beauty of granola is you can add ANY DRY INGREDIENT to this recipe. For example, I always add flax and chia to any combination I bake.  I like the health benefits.  If you need more ideas than above, simply read the boxes of granola bars in the store for combination ideas!

*Note:  My favorite uncooked oats are Bob's Red Mill or Trader Joe's. My favorite honey is always from a local farmer for the highest medicinal benefits.  I always buy Stonyfield Organic Yogurt.  I always add Flax and Chia seed for additional health benefits and often add to that coconut and sunflower seeds.

Download a printable PDF of this page for easy reference.