Country Moon


Garden Rotation My Way

Country MoonThe seed catalogs have been piling in and, as they do every year, their colorful pages entice me. They do their job well, the pages burst with pictures of vegetables and fruits that look so succulent that I want to plant them all, even knowing fully well that mine won’t look or grow anything like theirs.

Here lies the problem; I always do try to have it all. I think that is the case with most gardeners, especially here in the north where we have such a short growing season. We dream during the long winter days, especially when the seed catalogs show up, place our orders for a wide variety of produce and hope we can make it work when planting season actually gets here.

We even try to be creative by doing two or three different plantings of vegetables and ordering varieties with different maturity dates so everything is not ripe at the same time. I also think that the garden gods laugh at this method every year because, invariably, everything seems to ripen at the very same time, year after year.

Here lies the frustration. I am tired of trying to can, freeze and dry all vegetables and herbs all within a two or three-week span each year. So much of it goes to waste before I can get it all preserved no matter how hard I work.

rotation1b

Well, this year I have a new solution to the problem…I hope. I am going to try a garden rotation plan, and I don’t mean for the soil. This one is for me to make better use of the produce and my time.

It follows the same philosophy as being good stewards of the soil. Because certain crops deplete the soil of some nutrients, it is always a good idea to rotate crops each year. When I grow tomatoes on the north side of the garden one year, then the next year they move to the south side. I do this with most vegetables, taking care to plant companion style since some crops like to be planted by certain other ones.

So, last year I concentrated on growing tomatoes, lots of tomatoes. I canned tomato juice, stewed tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, salsa and everything tomato-based. I knew when I was canning, that I would have more than I needed for one year. I also preserved an abundance of peppers, onions and dried herbs like rosemary, oregano and others that compliment tomatoes in dishes like spaghetti, lasagna, pizza, etc.

As it nears planting season this year, my pantry still has ample jars of tomatoes and tomato products. Looking at these leftovers is what inspired me to try this new gardening plan, a plan of rotating family of crops from year to year.

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I will start the rotation this year by having a few tomato plants to eat fresh and not concentrate so much on canning them. Instead, I will dedicate more garden space to a few different varieties of green beans, lima beans, etc. and plan on canning more than one year’s worth of them.

Next year the rotation will go to various varieties of cucumbers and canning dill pickles, bread and butter and a couple other varieties.

My theory is to concentrate on preserving a different family of vegetables each year. Of course, Mother Nature will have something to say about this. Just like the Chinese New Year recognizes a different animal each year, I truly believe crops have their “glory” years too. You can fertilize, water and do everything the same and yet some years tomatoes (or any other crop) will be better and more prolific than others.

I always notice this phenomenon particularly in flowers. There is usually always one variety that steals the show whether it be zinnias, marigolds, hydrangeas, or a number of different ones. Vegetables are no different. So, in some ways, this method will be a gamble that will, hopefully, pay off in the end.

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This plan of specialized planting each year should yield some advantages such as:

Natural Crop Rotation

If half the garden space is planted with different variety of beans, it will give the soil a break from tomatoes and the nutrients that they pull from the soil. The next year the garden can rest from what it takes to grow beans while something else is produced.

Ease of Fertilization

Each vegetable has its own nutrient needs. Sometimes it is like a puzzle trying to get the right combination of nutrients to each species of plant. This method would simplify the process.

Ease of Preservation

Although different varieties of each crop would probably still be ripening at the same time, the same equipment and processes would be used instead of trying to wrestle all crops in the kitchen at the same time.

Extra Reserves

With this method, you would actually be canning or freezing at least twice as much as the usual amount for one year. Since canned goods are shelf-stable for more than one year, you would be guaranteed enough for the following year in case of crop failure or other circumstances prevented that produce being put up the following year. It would take at least two or three years of using this strategy to ensure that the pantry was stocked with enough of all of the food groups for more than one year’s consumption. After that, it would be easy to stay on a rotational basis. This method would benefit everyone with a special emphasis on homesteaders.

Compensating for Bad Years

Even if there were a bad year where one crop did not produce at all (the year the squash bugs devoured my entire squash crop), you would just plan on doubling that crop the following year, thus still only losing that crop for one year.

This is the trial year to see if this method works as well functionally as it does on paper. I just remember previous years with tubs, boxes and baskets of tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and a host of other vegetables all waiting to be processed at once. Now, when I do one species, the cleaning and processing will all start the same making initial preparation more streamlined. Adding different spices and herbs will dictate the final product.

Hopefully, Mother Nature will give us a good gardening year to either prove or disprove my theory…to be continued.

Buckwheat Should Be a New Pantry Staple

Country Moon

Growing up I remember many a morning waking up to the smell of buckwheat pancakes. Those stacks of sweet, nutty wholesomeness slathered with rich maple syrup made for the best breakfast ever.

That was over 40 years ago and today buckwheat is making a comeback into folks’ kitchens. A lot of this renewed interest is because of the gluten free movement. It is more readily available than other non-wheat flours. Wait a minute, did I say non-wheat? Yep, buckwheat is literally in a class of its own.

Buckwheat is a pseudo-cereal, neither grass nor grain and has nothing to do with wheat. Instead, it is a fruit that is related to wild rhubarb. Its name came from the Dutch which means “the fruit of.” It is a popular plant to grow in many parts of the world because it is hardy and survives difficult conditions without requiring many pesticides or herbicides.

It matures quickly and is often planted as a cover crop. The entire plant is harvested and allowed to dry before removing the outer husks. The inner part of the fruit is what is used to make flour.  Buckwheat flour can be either light or dark, depending on how much hull is preserved. Light buckwheat flour is made from hulled kernels and the dark is derived from un-hulled and has dark specks in it. As it stands to reason, the dark has more fiber than the light.

Besides being gluten-free and high in fiber, it has a host of other health benefits to offer. Buckwheat is rich in, potassium, phosphorous, iron and calcium. It is one of the best sources of protein from plants and contains all of the essential amino acids.

It’s so good for your heart, you love it and it loves you right back. Buckwheat will lower blood pressure and also lower the risk of developing high cholesterol because it is rich in flavonoids, which are phytonutrients that act as antioxidants.

As if this weren’t enough good news, buckwheat has high levels of magnesium which relax blood vessels, which in turn improves blood flow. The nutrients in it also help control blood sugar levels, making it a great choice for diabetics.

Buckwheat can be purchased as whole groats (little pyramid-shaped seeds) and ground into flour or it can also be purchased as milled flour. Either way, there are many ways to use this versatile plant.

Groats can be toasted or eaten raw. When toasted, buckwheat groats are crunchy and flavorful like tiny nuts. They add a distinct flavor when topping salads or added to granola. They can be cooked and used to make a kasha side dish which is similar to pilaf or porridge. Some folks add them to cookie or cracker dough for a little extra crunch.

They can be purchased pre-toasted or you can do your own. To toast, place them in a dry skillet over medium heat and stir constantly until they are a shade darker than when you started. Just be careful not to toast until the hulls burst or they will taste burnt.

When the groats are ground, they produce a crystalline flour that is slate and lavender to brown in color and is flaked with darker bits of hull.

Baking with buckwheat flour can be rewarding and yield amazing results or the experience can be quite the opposite. The key is knowing how buckwheat flour performs with other ingredients. When switching from an all-wheat flour to a non-wheat, folks tend to want to go whole-hog, so to speak. When you switch out all the flour, it is a recipe for disaster unless other changes are made so the outcome doesn’t fall apart, taste like sawdust or otherwise misbehave. Excessive mixing or beating may make it taste bad and have a denser texture.

Pancakes, waffles, crepes and other baked goods that you don’t desire to rise a lot are the exception to the rule. All of these call for just enough mixing to blend the wet and dry ingredients without beating or whipping. They get plenty of structure from eggs, so 100 percent of the flour called for can be replaced with buckwheat or other gluten-free flour.

For other baked goods that need to rise more, the general rule is to replace 25 percent of the flour in recipes with buckwheat and leave the remaining 75 percent all purpose flour instead of other gluten-free varieties. Some cooks prefer to go with a larger percentage of buckwheat and some even go 100 percent. If you follow this path, the rule of thumb is to add extra eggs and extra baking powder for “lift.” In this case, add an extra one-half teaspoon baking powder for every half cup of buckwheat flour used. These rules will make for a better outcome when baking cookies, muffins, scones, cakes and quick breads.

Although buckwheat pancake mix is readily available, it can be a challenge to find plain buckwheat flour. Be sure and check local flour millers in your area because that will ensure that the flour is fresh. However, it can also be purchased in natural food stores, in the natural foods sections of some grocery stores and on-line.

It is certainly worth the extra bit of effort it takes to include buckwheat in your recipes and make it a staple in your pantry. More folks are falling in love with the robust, earthy, grassy, slightly bitter (in a good way) flavor with a hint of rose that is buckwheat.

buckwheat-array

Buckwheat Bread

Ingredients

  • 2-1/2 cups buckwheat groats, rinsed
  • 1-1/4 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp. Salt

Directions

  1. Place rinsed buckwheat in large glass bowl. Cover with water until it is 2 inches above the buckwheat. Loosely cover with a towel. Soak at least 2 hours or up to 24.
  2. Drain off liquid through a mesh strainer until most of liquid is out, set strainer over bowl and continue to drain for a minute longer. Liquid will be gooey. DO NOT RINSE
  3. Place drained buckwheat and 1 ¼ cups water and salt in food processor or blender. Blend just until it still has some texture.
  4. Pour in large glass bowl, cover with towel. Let set for 8 to 24 hours. It will rise slightly and be bubbly.
  5. Spray or grease a 9 x 5 bread pan, pour in batter, taking care not to deflate bubbles
  6. Bake in 425* oven 35 to 40 minutes or until browned at edges and firm in center
  7. Cool completely, toast or eat as is

The Uncollector

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Image by Sbringser from Pixabay

Stuff. It’s what makes a collector’s world go around. They go to shows, garage sales, search online and a host of other places to acquire “stuff.” Then they put the “stuff” on shelves and in display cases and it sets there…forever.

I have never understood this. I am not a collector, but rather a creator. I paint, I take photographs, I make new “stuff” so it can set there. Even though the end means is the same, this part I understand.

Finding a Buyer

Now I have ventured into the new realm of the un-collector. Instead of stuff, I want space. That means getting rid of stuff. This is not the same as just not collecting, instead it is not buying but rather, finding a buyer.

Easier said than done. No matter what the projected value of an item is, it is really only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, a fact that changes with the times. A collectible item when purchased does not mean it will always be a collectible item.

So, what are my options? I tried the yard sale route…never again. People come to yard sales with the intention of getting something for a buck or two which is fine for what-nots but not so good for true collectibles. Then there is the issue that, even though 99% of the people are respectful, there is always that one percent that feels they are free to pick up anything in your yard, go in barns and look around and basically make themselves to home. I don’t think so. On top of this, you always end up with stuff no one wants, including you, that has to be hauled away. Nope, no more garage sales.

So, I tried the route of hauling it away in the first place…to an auction. The only saving grace here was that I got rid of stuff, but with very little to show for it. It’s like rolling the dice, you take your chances on who is going to show up and what they want. Many collectibles sold for a little of nothing because the true collectible crowd wasn’t there. Nope, done with that too.

After going through these trials, I have found a better way. Be warned though, the new way can be addictive. It is Marketplace through Facebook.

Using Social Media

It is about the easiest thing I have ever done. You research the item that you want to sell on E-bay and get a general price range, depending on condition, for your item. Then you go to Marketplace, choose a category, upload a picture and name a price. Basically, anyone on FB can see it.

Then, to make sure that even more people see your item, you list it in more groups and more groups. There are local groups in each town and city that has their own online selling groups, the list basically goes on forever.

Then you wait. Folks message you about the item, you bicker sometimes on price and when you agree, both parties decide on a meeting place (usually a public one unless you know the buyer) and you get rid of the item and have cash in hand.

Now, there is a little more to it than that. Sometimes it means a couple trips into town in a day. Once in a while it means mailing it to someone further away. But, for these minor inconveniences, there is a bigger payoff. You actually get rid of stuff and have a little loot to boot.

Letting Go

Jim was the ultimate collector. Instead of choosing a select few categories, he would collect anything and everything. It was against his nature to part with anything. I even found plastic grocery bags inside of boxes tucked away in cabinets (you just never know when you might need one). He kept everything in pristine condition, in protective sleeves inside of hard plastics inside of showcases. Many collectibles had never been opened.

At first, I felt bad letting go of things that he had put his heart and soul into keeping. But some things I had no idea what they were or where they came from. They were just things. Then my niece Michelle made it all right. She told me that up until now the things were just setting in the basement, packed away neatly where no one could see them or enjoy them. When they went to a new home, they were bringing someone else joy. I like this outlook, the “stuff” could stay with someone who shared his passion for collecting.

A perfect example happened the other day. I had two decorative biscuit tins that were made in England. I had no idea where he even got them. Within an hour of listing them, two people messaged me. One was Ron’s cousin who had a similar one that she remembers her grandmother using for pineapple cookies. She had never seen another one. A friend from Minnesota saw the other one and she thought it would go perfectly with some of her Dad’s things on her mantle in her new house that she and her husband had built in the country. Needless to say, they both found new homes where they could be appreciated and bring others joy.

My snowmen are another example. At one time I had over 100 of them. It was Jim’s and my thing to set them out each year. It would take over two days just to unpack them and then two more days to pack them back up. This year I chose my special few and set them out in an hour’s time. The rest I let go to new homes. I’m OK with that.

Once in awhile I find something that I truly like. This is the case with a small crystal pumpkin bowl. It caught my eye, I like it. I will keep it.

I am liking this new addiction and it does work both ways. Not only do I list my stuff but I also check out what others are selling. You can find anything on Marketplace from collectibles to household items to services. There is an administrator somewhere out there in the cosmos that keeps an eye on what goes on there and there are some items that are not appropriate like guns and knives.

Sometimes I wonder why they flagged my salt and pepper shakers as being against their terms and yet someone list a pack of tampons…seriously! You just shake your head and move on.

I am liking this uncollectable person that I have become. For one thing, I have more space and the place is less cluttered. I also have come to realize that I am letting go of the stuff, not the memories. Less really is more.

Air Fryers Are More Than Hot Air

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If you bought every new gadget and appliance that hit the market, you would have to move out of your home to make room for the gadgets. Some actually do make your life easier and some…well some do just take up space.

Air fryers are one of those that I have been on the fence about. Fried foods are so good for the taste buds but so bad for your general health. Can you really have the best of both worlds with the air fryer by making French fries and other foods almost healthy?

How Air Fryers Work

First of all, what exactly is an air fryer? Basically, it is a smaller version of a convection oven. It cooks and crisps food by circulating super-hot air around foods using just a smidgen of oil or no oil at all. So, here is where healthy comes in; it cooks with up to 70 to 80 percent less fat than traditional deep frying.

From a safety standpoint, they are also safer than using hot oil for frying. There is no spattering or chances of getting burned by spilling hot oil on yourself. I have always thought it a shame when deep frying to use so much oil and then have to dispose of it all, usually only after one use. Air fryers are also less messy than traditional deep frying with no after smell nor needing to find a means to dispose of used oil.

They also cook faster than traditional ovens. There is no waiting time to pre-heat as you do ovens since air fryers reach high temperatures in minutes.

Should I Buy an Air Fryer?

If you are thinking of getting one, other than purely for health reasons, consider how much you will actually use it. Most of them are smaller, a three and a half to four-quart size, and will feed one or two people easily. However, it you have a bigger family, you will find yourself making multiple batches of food. You have to weigh the time of making multiple batches or waiting longer and doing just one batch in the traditional oven.

Price is another consideration. Most range between 60 and 200 dollars, depending on how fancy you want to get.

Also consider where you will store it. They take up a lot of counter space if you don’t have room in your cabinets. Because of their shape and size, they do require a lot of room. Like bread machines, many of them live their lives on closet shelves and in garages, which brings us to the point of out of sight, out of mind.

There is also the question of whether you need an air fryer if you have an Instant pot. Although Instant pots are hailed as being the latest and greatest, they don’t have the capability to fry foods unless you purchase a gadget called the Mealthy Crisp Lid which provides the attachments to allow your Instant pot to also air fry food. These sell for around $60, so that too is an added expense

Now, the big question, what about taste? Do air-fried foods taste like the real thing? Well, the answer is yes and no, depending on the food. Cheaper cuts of meat come out tender when air-fried. Air fryers are also great for re-heating leftovers and frozen foods like chicken nuggets and tater tots. Roasted vegetables, air-roasted garlic and other foods come out better in an air fryer. It can turn a can of chickpeas into a crispy, delectable happy hour snack. I remember my grandmother making doughnuts and how they sucked up so much oil. Air fryers make doughnuts that taste just as good, without all the oil.

Small whole chickens, three pounds or less, come out with crispy skin and juicy, tender meat, much like rotisserie chicken. The air fryer shines when it comes to small snacks like toasted nuts.

The big question here is French fries. The overall consensus is that they are not quite as good as the real deal. However, if you do choose to make them in an air fryer, they are better with the skins left on.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about an air fryer is that all it can do is fry. Far from it. You can also bake in it, turning out brownies and bagels, molten lava cakes and more. The good thing about this is that you can have a sweet treat that is only enough for a couple people so you don’t have temptation setting around.

What it boils down to is that air fryers make delicious food fast in small batches. They prove that you can have your cake and eat it too…or, in this case, you can have your French fries and still eat healthy.

Air Fryer Doughnuts (the quick way)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbs cinnamon
  • 1 tube Pillsbury Grands biscuits
  • 4 tbs melted unsalted butter
  • Olive oil

Directions

  1. Combine sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, set aside
  2. Lightly coat air fryer basket with cooking spray
  3. Remove biscuits, separate and place on parchment-lined cookie sheet
  4. Place 3 or 4 biscuits in a single layer in basket
  5. Set fryer for 350*, cook 3 or 4 minutes on a side, then turn
  6. Place on cookie sheet, baste with melted butter and roll in cinnamon/sugar mixture
  7. Serve warm

Air Fryer Molten Lava Cakes

Ingredients

  • 3-1/2 squares bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup flour

Directions

  1. Melt butter and chocolate together
  2. Mix in sugar, eggs and vanilla
  3. Add flour, mixing in thoroughly
  4. Grease or spray a ramekin or small pan
  5. Fill halfway with batter
  6. Place ramekin or pan in fryer basket and cook at 375* for 10 minutes or until edges are set
  7. Remove, let cool and loosen edges with a knife

The Christmas Flower

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Of all the symbols, sights and traditions of Christmas, perhaps the poinsettia is the one most taken for granted. It’s cheery red leaves (not petals, we’ll get to that in a minute) adds festive touches to homes, churches and businesses every holiday season, making it the most popular holiday plant.

False "Flowers"

Those bright red “flowers” on the poinsettia plant are actually leaves and not its flowers. The flowers are actually the yellow clustered buds in the center of the plant. The colored leafy parts are called bracts which are modified leaves that turn color in response to the plant’s forming flowers. Once the flowers are gone, the leaf bracts fall off. Eventually, even the green ones drop.

The poinsettia is a light sensitive plant. When you deprive the plant of light in its full leafing stage, the only chlorophyll used to turn the leaves green cannot be produced. As a result of this total darkness and lack of light, the only color that will be produced is red. This is called photoperiodism.

Red is the most popular color with pink and white trailing close behind. To date there are more than 100 varieties including salmon, apricot, yellow, cream and white. Several colors are blended together to produce speckled and marbled varieties. Homeowners and businesses are experimenting with these un-traditional colors to add a personal touch to different decors. The only color that is not produced, but rather is designer-created is blue.

Poinsettia Production

Every state grows poinsettias commercially. California is the top producer with over 6 million pots grown annually. North Carolina comes in second at 4.4 million, then Texas with 3.7 million with Florida and Ohio following them.

That’s a lot of poinsettias, but then, folks buy a lot each holiday season. Approximately 34 million are sold each year which is about 25% of sales of all flowering plants. That earns them the distinction of being the highest selling potted flowering plant with sales at $144 million. Easter lilies are second and bring sellers $22 million each year.

How the Poinsettia Got Its Name

Poinsettias are native to southern Mexico. They naturally bloom in December and they have been used there to decorate churches for centuries. From the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, Aztecs used the leaves to dye fabric for clothing and the plants were cultivated for that purpose as well as for using the sap as medicine. Red was considered a symbol of purity, so the plants became a popular part of religious ceremonies. In Mexico and Guatemala, it was referred to as the “Flower of the Holy Night.” Since, it has also been called the “lobster flower” and “flame-leaf flower.”

Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and first Ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant that would become known here as the poinsettia to this country. He discovered the plant with the brilliant red leaves growing on the side of the road in Taxco, Mexico in December of 1828. He was so taken with the plant that he sent cuttings home to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina.

Even though most botanists dismissed it as a weed, Poinsett kept studying and growing it. The poinsettia became popular despite its short bloom time. In the 1960’s researchers were to successfully breed the plants to bloom more than a few days.

Since the mid-1800’s, December 12 has been observed as National Poinsettia Day in the United States. It honors the man and the plant that he introduced.

Paul Ecke, Jr. is considered the father of the poinsettia industry since his ranch in southern California produced the majority of the poinsettia plants and cuttings bought in the United States and many that are bought worldwide. Initially, they grew tall stems that had to be bent back into a loop to keep them at a desirable height. He figured out how to get them to branch. It’s from this plant and firm that the football bowl game in San Diego gets its name.

Caring for Your Poinsettia

The big question surrounding poinsettias is how to get them to rebloom each Christmas season. With just a little work starting after Christmas you can help them live to see another holiday. They like temperatures to be between 65* and 75* and lots of direct sunlight which means a southern, eastern or western window. Keep the soil moist while they are still in bloom. When it feels dry to the touch, re-water but don’ let them set in water.

Spring is when you want to get snippy. Allow the plants to get a little drier and in May cut about 4 inches from each stem to ensure a lush, full plant next winter. Start fertilizing in the spring when the soil is moist so as not to burn the roots.

In June move them outside where there is plenty of sunshine. They are a little finicky and don’t like the intense hot sun, but rather, they prefer morning sun in partial shade. Be vigilant about insects and if the temperature drops below 65*, be sure and take them inside.

October is when the real work starts because that is when they need daylight for no more than 10 hours per day. Put them in a dark closet or room with no light at any time, not even cracking the door for a moment. Do this from 5 PM until 7 AM daily for eight to ten weeks. Don’t forget to bring them back into the daylight every day.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Depending on if you want the challenge or not, just remember that new and superior plants are available each year

A few fun facts about the “Christmas flower” are:

  1. In the wild or tropical climates, poinsettias can reach a height of 12 feet with leaves measuring 6 to 8 inches across. They are actually considered a small, tropical tree.
  2. They have had to overcome a bad reputation as being a poisonous plant. They have been cleared by the National Poison Center in Atlanta, GA and the American Medical Association. Even so, they are not meant to be eaten because they can cause stomach irritation and discomfort. Cats and children may choke on the fibrous parts.
  3. The best way to prolong their life is to keep them out of hot or cold drafts and to keep them moist. Once the leaves wilt too far, it is too late for them.
  4. Many make the mistake of not protecting them from the wind after purchasing them. They are highly sensitive to cold temperatures and even a few minutes of exposure to temperatures 50* and colder will cause them to wilt.

In their humble way, poinsettias bring color and joy to the Christmas season; it wouldn’t be Christmas without them. If treated right, they are a hardy plant that will give you joy for many seasons if you put forth the effort. As it has been said, “If cared for properly, they will usually outlast the desire to keep them!”

Good Golly Gertie, That's Good Gravy

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Gravy…it’s still what accompanies many dinners in many households. There is that certain something about gravy that puts that finishing touch on a meal. Having gravy at a meal was just a given staple for folks in my generation.

Ron remembers his Grammy having gravy sometimes three times a day. Yea, that may be a little excessive but it just shows how gravy was what pulled the meal together. It was also a way to stretch the food dollar when you had a lot of folks to feed. You could throw leftover meat, potatoes, veggies, etc. together, cover it with gravy and have a casserole to feed many for a couple more meals.

Although making gravy is an important kitchen skill for any home cook, it is still somewhat of an art form. The term “gravy” was actually used first in Middle England as “grave.” It is derived from the French since the word was found in many medieval French cookbooks. In the late 14th century, their interpretation of gravy was “it consisted of natural cooking juices from roasting meat.”

As any chef will tell you, there are certain distinctions between gravies, sauces and jus. A sauce is defined as a thick liquid served with food, usually savory dishes, to add moisture and flavor and is not necessarily meat-based. Gravy is a type of sauce made from the juices of meats that run naturally and are often thickened with wheat flour or corn starch for added texture. Jus is made from the same juices but have been refined and condensed to a clear liquid that is naturally thickened. Jus is a reduction and gravy relies on a thickening agent.

The usual thickening agents are flour, corn starch and arrowroot. They all make good gravies, but with different properties. Flour will clump when dropped into a hot liquid and, if not careful, will make a lumpy gravy unless it is added slowly and steadily. Corn starch doesn’t clump but will thicken over a course of a few minutes. It also thickens as it cools so, if too much is added, the result will be gel-style gravy. Being pure starch, corn starch is a more powerful thickening agent than flour so you only need half as much. The rule of thumb is to use one tablespoon of corn starch for each cup of gravy.

Arrowroot can also be used as a thickener. Obviously, corn starch is made from corn whereas arrowroot is made from tropical plants. Corn starch will leave the gravy slightly cloudy and adds a bit of taste to the product. Gravy from arrowroot is clear with no added taste.

Regardless of the thickening agent used, there are generally two different camps when asked how you make gravy. You either start with a roux or a slurry. The end result is the same, it’s just how you get there. Many families today still use whichever method that was passed down from earlier generations.

Ron’s Grammy was in the roux camp. Basically, a roux is a 1:2 mixture of fat to flour…and with this method, the thickening agent is almost always flour. The fat is often butter but oils, margarines and bacon fat can also be used and is melted and combined with pan drippings and simmered for a bit to let all flavors mesh together. Then the flour is added into the mixture. When that is all combined, the liquid such as milk, broth or water is added and whisked in until all is thickened, which makes the gravy.

I, on the other hand, was raised using the slurry method. This way uses a mixture of flour (or other thickening) and water or stock which is combined before adding to the boiling broth and fats. It is slowly added until the gravy reaches desired consistency.

Besides what you grew up with, each method works better for different applications. When making gravies from roasts and other cooked meats, the slurry method is the one of choice but, when making sausage gravy, steak gravy or others from pan drippings where the meat has been fried, the roux works better.

All gravies are not created equal and there are many variations from the traditional meat gravies that we think of when we eat mashed potatoes and gravy.

Southerners like their red-eye gravy. This is nothing like your traditional brown gravy. Black coffee is added to the drippings which creates the unique appearance of the gravy in a serving bowl. The dark coffee and meat sink to the bottom leaving a layer of grease visible on the top. This resembles the appearance of a human eye which is where this southern dish gets its name.

Sawmill gravy is another specialty. Another southern dish, it gained its fame in logging camps. It was made from bacon drippings, corn meal and salt which was browned in a pan before milk was added. Often it would be coarse and thick which made the lumberjacks accuse the cooks of substituting sawdust for cornmeal, hence the name.

Another specialty gravy will surely please all the chocoholics out there. Originating in Appalachia, mountain people prove that not all gravy comes from meat drippings. The name comes from an old southern practice of using the word “gravy” to describe any roux-thickened sauce that is made in a skillet. It can be sweet or savory. Some refer to chocolate gravy as “soppin chocolate” since it is usually served over fresh-baked biscuits which are used to “sop” it up.

Sometimes it is started from all dry ingredients with added butter for the fat. Other times, the fat comes from the drippings of fried bacon. Either way, it is a sincere chocolate experience that proves you can have your chocolate for breakfast!

Most of us never give gravy a second thought, it is just a staple part of our diet. Different regions of the country have their own variations which proves that gravy isn’t just gravy.  It has been said that a cook can make gravy out of nothing. No wonder then that, when it comes to gravy, Ron’s saying, “Good golly Gertie, that’s good gravy” rings true!

 gravy3a

Chocolate Gravy Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder                                     
  • 1 cup sugar                                                      
  • 3 Tbsp flour                                                      
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 cups whole milk, warmed
  • 4 Tbsp butter, cubed and chilled
  • hot biscuits

Directions

 

  1. Sift cocoa, flour, sugar and salt in large skillet
  2. Whisk continuously, adding warm milk in slow, steady stream until smooth
  3. Cook over medium heat, stirring continuously with heat-proof spatula until gravy thickly coats spatula, about 8 minutes
  4. Remove from heat, add butter, stir until butter is melted and serve over biscuits.

A Beautifully Simple Christmas Bucket List

It’s in the air again, that special time of year that is Christmas. Folks make plans to go home to family and friends, businesses wind down and, if only for a few weeks, it seems that everyone’s worlds turn just a little slower. At least that is how it is supposed to be.

retro-christmas
Photo by Pixabay/Janet Dahmen

Sadly, for many in this fast-paced world, Christmas only adds more pressures instead of relieving them. How many times have you heard, “I have to get the shopping done, I have to make cookies, I have to get the cards out,” and so on. Why do we “have to” do any of it? Today’s society makes us believe that we have to do all the traditional stuff plus a lot more.

Not this girl, not this year. I have a Christmas bucket list. For the most part, I want to go back to simpler times and really enjoy the season. If I get the cookies baked; if I get the cards in the mail; if I find that perfect gift, it will be great but none of those are on my absolutely have to do list anymore.

How many times have you picked up Christmas cards that depict sleigh rides, chopping down the Christmas tree or folks snuggled by the fire with hot chocolate? People yearn for an old-fashioned holiday but then jump right back into the rat race of the “holiday have-to-do list.”

It is great when folks decorate their homes for the season. However, it should be what you like to see, what decorations makes you happy. Sadly, especially in small towns, I have seen one neighbor trying to outdo another with a bigger, brighter outdoor display. Really, is this what the holiday is all about?

A couple years ago my sister Jean told me that she finally had the Christmas tree she had always wanted. It was a beautiful live spruce tree decorated only with tiny white lights and tin foil icicles. She has never liked the idea of putting ornaments on a tree just for the sake of having ornaments. I couldn’t imagine what it looked like but, when I saw it, it was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. There is beauty in simplicity.

That’s why I have tried to put the “reason for the season” at the top of my bucket list. I have always believed that the best presents didn’t always consist of the latest fad, but rather something that was special for the recipient. If it is homemade, that is even better because a lot more thought and work go into a gift from the heart than one that is just plucked off store shelves at random just for the sake of giving a gift. If I am going to give a gift, I want it to be something that will actually mean something to the recipient.

I remember when I collected snowmen. It got a little out of hand. We would spend two days setting out all the snowmen and Christmas decorations, inside and out. At last count, I had over 100. Enough. I put the special ones that the grandkids made and others that friends and family gave to me back on the shelf and sold the rest this year.

At first, I felt twangs of guilt of letting them go until Michelle, my niece, helped me to realize that they were bringing others joy instead of just setting in a box in the basement. That made it better and less really is more as I do enjoy the special few instead of having the house cluttered with all of them. I really like the idea of it only taking an hour to set them out as opposed to two days! There is beauty in simplicity.

sleigh-ride
Photo by Pixabay/trygd

So, back to my Christmas bucket list. I have always wanted to go on a real sleigh ride at Christmas time. There is a tree farm not far from me that offers rides through their Christmas tree fields, on wagons if there is no snow and sleighs if there is snow. I will be going this year. I am not going for a tree, instead I want to step back in time and go for the ride in the crisp air, drink hot cocoa by the fire and smell the scent of pine.

Caroling is another tradition that has basically gone by the wayside, which is sad. I remember one evening right before Christmas when I was still living at home, there was a knock on the door and a church group had stopped to carol. It is a treasured memory to this day, partly because of the tradition and partly because we never expected to have carolers in the country.

Many light displays today are synchronized to music and cities and towns are putting up huge displays that folks can drive or walk through. There is nothing wrong with these except many are charging megabucks to go through and see them. Are these really Christmas?

I much prefer the old-fashioned way of driving around the countryside and looking at individual homes. My Aunt Sharlene and Uncle Don used to decorate their home and barns with lots of lights and seasonal décor. They didn’t go overboard, but rather had just enough to be tasteful. He had an antique tractor that he would do one side in green for John Deere and one side in red lights for International. They had a large nativity display and the highlight was a large cross on their barn.

Star1a
Photo by Lois Hoffman

They no longer decorate since he has passed, but my aunt and my cousins still put the cross on the barn. Though I miss all the lights that they had, there is something regal and stirring about that cross by itself. There is beauty in simplicity.

So, this year and all years hereafter I will be working on my Christmas bucket list by simplifying. I did make a few Christmas cookies this year but I didn’t make three double batches like in the past. I did send Christmas cards and with each one that I wrote, I reminisced about times spent with that person. And it is all OK.

The best part of all is that I still have time to enjoy the season. I will be going to the tree farm and I will be stopping in to see a few people that I haven’t caught up with for a while and I will be curling up by the fire with some hot cocoa.

It is so ingrained in us that we always have to do the things that we are accustomed to doing every year. We feel the pressure but we do it to ourselves.

Instead of dreaming about an old-fashioned Christmas this year, I am going to live it. There really is beauty in simplicity.







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