Day 13 of 28 Days to Simplify My Life a la Pinterest: Cook Ground Beef in the Slow Cooker

Another one I’m skeptical of. I’m actually pretty skeptical of a lot of things involving the slow cooker. I don’t make much in mine, aside from the odd soup on a day that I’ll need dinner ready when I get home. Oh, and black beans – it’s handy for cooking dried beans (then I freeze them in quantities of two cups).

Also, the photo for this tip on the original blog post is quite off-putting. Hence, I am not including a photo. You can all imagine what a crockpot full of raw ground beef looks like; and then, a crockpot full of cooked ground beef – right?

Well, I wouldn’t say this one is a gamechanger. But it did save me from standing over a greasy stove for half an hour or longer, cooking six pounds of ground beef in a frying pan… wait. What on earth would I even put six pounds of ground beef into? My Le Creuset French oven, I suppose (oh my, that sounded snooty – she’s a loaner, folks!).

All in all, this was indeed easier than cooking all this ground beef on the stovetop, and once it was cooked, I put it into freezer bags in 1-2 lb portions and then used it for meat sauce, tacos and chili.

Okay, fine… this was a winner. I’ll do it again.

Check out the Pinterest board for this series.

Day 12 of 28 Days to Simplify My Life a la Pinterest: Prep Your Smoothies

As mentioned, I was skeptical of this one. The idea is to combine all the fruits and veggies in the quantities which you’ll need them, and then freeze together. But since we make smoothies that also include fish oil, water kefir, chia and hemp seeds and fresh fruit, it didn’t seem like this step would save us much time. Turns out I was wrong!

This tip comes from PopSugar‘s “DIY Smoothie Packs” post. The claim? “You can prep a whole week’s worth on Sunday night so a nutritious fiber- and protein-packed breakfast is just minutes away. It’s a great way to not only ensure a healthy start to your day, but you’ll save money since you can buy greens and fruit in bulk and won’t have to worry about them spoiling by the end of the week. Aim to use your smoothie freezer bags within a few weeks to avoid freezer burn.”

Well in fact, this was great timing! We are drinking green smoothies for breakfast every day, which means every morning one of us spends about 15 minutes gathering a couple different kinds of frozen berries and usually another frozen fruit (mangoes, peaches or pineapple); juice, coconut water, water or water kefir; hemp and chia seeds; spinach or lettuce; fish oil; as well as a fresh banana and avocado; then mixing those all up in the blender. The reason I was skeptical was that the frozen ingredients were such a small part of this equation. But this turned out to save us a lot of time!

Here’s what went into each large freezer bag: one banana, at least two cups of spinach (making it easier to buy large quantities of organic spinach and store without it getting slimy), a handful of raspberries or pineapple, and berries or other fruit to fill.

In the morning, we dump the bag in, add chia and hemp seeds (which we have pre-mixed in small jars near the blenders – less thinking!), measure out 2 tsp of flavoured fish oil (by NutraSea), carve out half an avocado and finally dump in at least half a pint jar of water kefir, which is also stored right by the blender, where it sits to ferment. It’s still a lot of steps, but now it takes 5 minutes or less. This is great!

Not the best photo, but aren't the colours pretty?

Not the best photo, but aren’t the colours pretty?

The easiest way is to make smoothies for breakfast on Sunday, and prep all the bags for the week at the same time. Healthy breakfasts for the week – check!

Tomorrow I’ll cook ground beef in the slow cooker. No photos, I promise!

Check out the Pinterest board for this series.

My Favourite Miso Gravy (Recipe)

I want to pin my favourite miso gravy recipe to Pinterest, but the page has no photos! So I’m reposting it here with photos just so I can pin it. Oh yeah, and maybe you’ll enjoy it, too.

This is good anywhere where you would use gravy (you know like… with a spoon. I mean, wait. I don’t EVER just eat gravy with a spoon. How about with french fries?!) – but we like to eat it over roasted root veggies. What a perfect fall meal! (Full disclosure – the kid doesn’t like the gravy, and the husband doesn’t like beets, so I’m the only one who ends up thrilled about this meal. But he eats around the beets and the kid eats all the veggies happily without the gravy.)

For the root veggies, you could use whatever your favourites are, but I toss together cloves of garlic (or sometimes pearl onions instead), parsnips, carrots, potatoes and beets and usually also mushrooms (yes I know those are neither a root nor a veggie) with apple cider vinegar, olive oil and nutritional yeast. Sometimes I’ll add thyme, or sea salt, or whatever else sounds tasty that day.

Potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, garlic and mushrooms roasted with ACV, olive oil and nutritional yeast.

Potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, garlic and mushrooms roasted with ACV, olive oil and nutritional yeast.

Healthy Miso Gravy (from Dr. Ben Kim – links to original site)

Ingredients:

1 and 1/2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, diced

1-2 cloves of garlic, minced

3 tablespoons of nutritional yeast

3 tablespoons of unbleached flour

1 and 1/2 cups of water

3 tablespoons of red or yellow miso

2 teaspoons of minced fresh basil or 1/4 teaspoon of dried basil

Directions:

1. In a medium-sized pan, bring olive oil to medium heat, then add onion and garlic and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until onion is tender and translucent.

IMG_1675

2. Reduce heat to low setting and add flour and nutritional yeast. Stir steadily for 1-2 minutes.

3. Add water in a slow drizzle while stirring briskly. Bring heat up to medium setting and continue to stir regularly for about 10 minutes, or until gravy begins to thicken.

4. Once the gravy has just started to thicken, reduce heat to medium-low setting and add miso and basil. Keep the pan uncovered and stir occasionally. It typically takes about 15 minutes for the gravy to fully thicken and become smooth.

Miso gravy thickening

And, granted, I know this doesn’t LOOK super appetizing, but if you’re looking for a tasty miso gravy (and a simple fall meal that is hearty and doesn’t make a ton of dishes!), here it is!

Roasted root veggies with miso gravy

Roasted root veggies with miso gravy

What We’ve Learned Lately: Compound Words, Regrouping, Harvest, Dewey Decimal

Compound Words

This week, one of Neko’s favourite games has been Compound Words. We’ve been having a lot of fun playing it in the car. I don’t remember how it started – for some reason, I explained to her what a compound word is, and before you knew it, she was brainstorming compound words. We chucked around compound words for days! Some were confusing – they seemed like compound words, but were actually two words. Some were only one word, but didn’t actually contain two words within. Others, I was unsure of and had to look up. It was actually fun to see how many we could come up with, and we congratulated each other regularly on our brainstorming. Compound words – check!

Regrouping

Neko also had a really good time with a worksheet on regrouping numbers in subtraction – what you do when you try to subtract 18 from 23, for instance (steal a one from the 20 place, creating a 13 from which you can subtract the 8…). She was confused at first but soon she was really pleased with herself and did the whole page. Regrouping – check!

Harvesting Root Vegetables and Winter Keepers

We were lucky to attend a free harvest at a local CSA. Neko and some of her friends spent a couple of hours digging potatoes, pulling greens, plucking carrots, playing hide and seek in the dill, and more. They had more fun that we expected, and we came home with so many pounds of produce! We’ve been eating them all week. I consider this a very important part of her education – knowing where our food comes from, what grows here, how to store it, and how to prepare it.

Dewey Decimal

At the library on Monday, I gave Neko an introduction to the dewey decimal system and the electronic catalog. I know she doesn’t get it yet, but she knows the basics of searching by subject, and a general idea of how to use the dewey decimal system to search for books on the topic she’s interested in. She’ll need help with it for a long time to come, but it’s nice to have introduced it!

Kitten Care

And lastly, our other ongoing project is kitten care. We adopted an 8-week-old kitten named Olive from my parents’ ranch last week, and Neko has claimed her as her own. She is a very sweet little kitten, but of course keeps us busy. Neko has seen her vaccinated and has seen deworming medicine administered, she has been attempting to litter train her, she has fed and watered and snuggled her, and learned how sharp those claws and teeth are. She has also learned a lot about kitten proofing, and facilitating a friendly relationship between a kitten and an older, very grumpy male cat.

Here’s What Happened While I Was Gone

Oops, bad blogger. So, Justan (that’s my husband) went away for about seven weeks. He came home for 1-4 days a couple times in there for a total of about six days, but mostly, Neko and I were on our own. I had all these work engagements scheduled (classes, speaking engagements, trade fairs and so on) during the first couple of weeks, so those two weeks were really stressful. But mostly I just didn’t feel like doing anything by the end of each day, after being “on” all day. So, I didn’t write blog posts. Sorry about that! I’ve got a little rundown here of some fun things that we did, some of which I wish I would have blogged at the time. In fact I might still do separate posts for some of these because there are lots of photos and I want to write more detail.

On February 10th, we made personalized muffins. Mairead and Finn were over, and I made a basic muffin batter and let them each choose two fruits to put in (we had a variety of dried and frozen).

The muffin making process.

We ended up with blueberry-strawberry, strawberry-apricot and blackberry-raspberry. Yum!

On the 13th we were up in Red Deer, where Justan was working on a Hellman’s TV ad. It was a TV spot about a Red Deer school that had decided to get rid of their deep fryers and only serve fresh foods in their cafeteria. If you’re not getting this, Hellman’s pitch right now is that they are mayo made with whole ingredients and therefore… a health food? Anyway. We won’t get into that. It was fun to see the commercial being filmed, because it featured a monster truck crushing a deep fryer, which is something that is, of course, on everyone’s bucket list. It was a neat morning out for Neko and for me. I would have done a blog post just about this, but my mother in law doesn’t have WiFi, so I felt a bit lost while we were there and didn’t get around to accomplishing anything online when we got back.

The deep fryer in its final moments.

I wanted a somber feel for this photo. This is immediately after they killed the deep fryer. Death by monster truck.

While we were at the school, Neko took the opportunity to play for a while. There was a big stack of strawbales that they had initially used to conceal the monster truck, and first she played on those. Then, she used the teeter totter to catapult her stuffed animal and we learned about levers and fulcrums.

Mid-air!

As some of you may have heard, winter skipped Canada this year. February 16th felt like April. So, we invited friends over and went for a walk. We have some really beautiful river parks in our neighbourhood, and we love to spend lots of time in them. We see wildlife like beavers, bald eagles, deer, assorted other birds and coyotes.

Can anyone out there tell whether this is a bald eagle? I find it easier to tell when they’re flying.

We checked out Homeschool Day at the new Telus Spark Science Centre, and I won’t include much on that here, because it deserves its own post, especially since there are lots of people out there interested in reviews. Sure, it was a month ago, but it’s still worth writing about. But here is my favourite shot from that day:

Neko watching the marble as she and her friends test the marble run they built. They did a great job!

Another favourite activity of late was Sharpie tie dye. A friend posted it on Facebook, and I’ve also seen it on Pinterest. It was a huge hit! We’ll definitely be doing this again. Find detailed instructions here: http://theartgirljackie-tutorials.blogspot.ca/2011/10/tie-dye-t-shirts-with-sharpie-markers.html.

The girls tie dyeing their shirts with Sharpies and rubbing alcohol.

Random Fun Round-up

I’m going through pictures today of fun things we’ve done lately and I’m feeling too lazy to group them into separate posts by topic. So, this is  a quick round-up of fun things we’ve done lately.

Last Friday, our friends Jessica, Madison, Annika and Emily came over while Mairead and Finn were here, and we all made meringues. It was a first for all of us, and lots of fun. Technically, we were doing it as a science experiment (learning about how beating the egg whites creates air bubbles which make the meringues fluffy), but it was a darn tasty one.

Beat egg whites, add sugar, and maybe some colour, and maybe even flavour.

They have to bake for a long time at a low heat, so the wait before we could enjoy them was difficult for the kids.

They had fun, though, hanging out with each other.

We all enjoyed them after they were cooked. Here is Finn trying a vanilla meringue.

From the truly random file: Neko staged an epic battle between good and evil in our bathroom, then laid it all out for me and explained just who was whom.

Best quote (as she was picking “teams”): “Spongebob: always evil.”

A big highlight of our month in January was when our great friend Andie stayed with us for a week, on a visit from her home in Australia. Neko loved having someone around who would play “store” with her, and Andie and I went out dancing and stayed out late too many nights on the weekend. We had a ton of fun and we were all exhausted!

We all played Just Dance 3 one night, and worked up a sweat. Andie went right home to Australia and bought herself a copy.

While Andie was here, we had to take her to my store, Babes in Arms, so she could see it. Neko got ahold of the camera and took some photos of me while we were there.

Talking about cloth diapers!

And then I tried Neko in the Boba to see how a 43 lb kid felt in it on my back. The verdict? Super comfy! (This photo, by the way, caused some controversy on the Babes in Arms Facebook page!)

Not that I normally wear her on my back… but hey, as the owner it’s my job to test these things out!

On Andie’s last night here, we learned to play Le Havre (we’re suckers for nerdy German board games). Not Neko… we were confused enough as 30-somethings.

Justan and I are a little befuddled over this shipping and receiving business.

And one last random, fun shot. Last week I realized that, because Neko has a loft bed, I could take two sheets and tuck them between the mattress and frame at the top, so they would hang down and make one giant fort. I had considered it before but for some reason thought that because it would just enclose the space under her bed, where they can always play, that they wouldn’t be interested. But they happily (and quietly!) played in there for a couple of hours! Awesome!! The only caveat? They demanded I keep delivering them carrots to eat. Consider it done!

My eager carrot consumers peek out from their castle.

Overnight Mixed Berry Raw Oats

I have to be honest here: I am SO not a morning person. I’m a night owl, and an insomniac much of the time, and when the sun rises in the morning, I just want to stay under the covers for another few hours. So needless to say, I get out of bed at the last possible minute – which doesn’t always leave a lot of time for morning yoga, or breakfast. On mornings that I’m at home, I just take my time and eat a late breakfast as I go about my day. But when we need to be somewhere, I have to either starve till lunch (not a good idea for my sanity nor my metabolism) or plan something quick, easy and nutritious in advance.

Last spring while I was participating in the X-Weighted Challenge, an online friend that I met there suggested dry oatmeal, covered with frozen berries and left overnight to thaw. She’d been turned on to the idea by a personal trainer friend. This is quick, easy, and quickly became a new favourite breakfast in our house! It takes less than five minutes the night before, we always have the needed ingredients on hand, and is ready as soon as you roll, bleary-eyed, out of bed in the morning. And it packs a big hit of fibre and antioxidants!

Overnight Mixed Berry Raw Oats

Ingredients

  • oats – I use slow cooking, rolled oats, but would love to try this with steel cut oats to see how it works
  • frozen berries – I usually use blackberries, blueberries and strawberries, but any mix of your favourite berries will do
  • maple syrup (can be substituted with honey or agave or rice syrup)
  • cinnamon

Step 1….

Fill cup about 1/3 with dry oatmeal (I use slow cooking oats).

Step 2….

Added frozen, mixed berries to about another 1/3.

Step 3…..

Add a drizzle of sweetener – preferably maple syrup, though clover honey is shown.

Give a generous dose of cinnamon on top of the sweetener.

Step 4….

Cover with more oats, leaving room to mix; cover and let sit until morning.

Step 5….

The next morning – Enjoy! Take a big spoon and really stab it down into the oatmeal to break up the berries and mix everything together. Make sure you get that dry oatmeal down at the bottom.

The finished product after mixing thoroughly.

What you’re left with is kind of a semi-cooked texture – like oatmeal but chewier, or granola but not as crunchy and sweet. It’s so good! Neko loves it, and so do I – and it gives me the energy to get through my day.

And Then We Learned To Make Cheese.

Neko and I took a cheese making class this week. It was quite neat! It had never been on my “to do” list to learn to make my own cheese, but when this opportunity came up for Neko to take a class, it seemed like it would be right up our alley. She has loved the different cooking classes we’ve taken in the past, and of course we love cheese.

The class was taught by Ella from Make Cheese here in Calgary. For $40 we got the two-hour class and the cheese-making kit with enough supplies to make cheese 30 times (minus the milk of course)!

Look how cute the little kits are! I really do love her packaging.

It was all quite easy, really. We started by having the kids dissolve some citric acid in water.

The kids mix the citric acid with water.

Meanwhile, we had heated our 4L (each) of milk on the stove. We then added the citric acid mix to the hot milk.

Neko and friends mix their citric acid into the hot milk.

We then heated the milk again, dissolved some vegetarian rennet in water and added that to the milk mixture. We had to count to thirty… we left this to the kids, and they did it very slowly and carefully. As we found out later, it may have been better to just time 30 seconds, as leaving this step too long can throw off the process a bit.

The kids count verrrrrry carefully (and slowly) to thirty.

We let our concoctions sit a while, and curds formed. These are quite gross looking. We strained out all the curds into separate bowls.

These curds would soon become mozzarella.

The process after this was: pack as much curd as you can into a slotted spoon. Lower the spoon into the heated whey for 30 seconds. Remove, and knead the curds about eight times. Reheat once more, and knead until shiny and smooth. And…..

Mozzarella ball!

Now, from four litres of milk, we only got this much cheese:

The whole of our fresh cheese.

Ella said that storebought milk is really hit or miss. She said if you’re using milk from your own dairy, you’ll get to know the qualities of it and what to adjust in order to make it work. At any rate, there are plenty of things you can do with even this small amount of fresh mozzarella.

By the way, it doesn’t taste like much. BUT…

It’s great on pizza!

We sliced it up and put it on pizza when our wonderful Australian friend Andie rolled into town. And just because I feel like bragging, the crust is made from my homemade bread dough, the sauce from my canned tomatoes, and while this one shown is asparagus with caramelized onions, the other had turkey marinated in my handmade harissa, with homemade, oil-packed, roasted red peppers. Yum!!

Irresistible Black Bean Hummus

This isn’t a pretty dip, but once you get one taste of it, you won’t be able to stop. Perfect with tortilla chips (we like Que Pasa Stone Ground chips), veggies or crackers, or as a spread, or in burritos or similar. Also delicious spread on a wrap and topped with grated cheddar or Monterey jack, then rolled up as a Black Bean Roll-up.

Irresistible Black Bean Hummus

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup canned (or well-cooked dried) black beans
  • 1 tbsp. Braggs seasoning
  • 1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 4 cloves roasted garlic (or replace with 2 cloves fresh garlic or 1 tbsp. garlic powder)

Combine all ingredients in food processor and process until smooth. If too thick, add some of the bean water (from the can) or tap water.

Solstice Celebrations

Happy, happy Solstice to you all. I’ve been excited for weeks about celebrating, officially, for the first time ever this year. Justan and I share the shortest day of the year as our mutual favourite, and of course Neko’s birthday is this week as well, so this time of year always feels special to us. Last year, as we stood outside at 12:30 am to watch the lunar eclipse through our neighbour’s telescope (we had woken Neko up to see it, as it would be her only chance to see a lunar eclipse on Solstice and her birthday), I regretted not having planned more formal or extensive celebrations. I planned out this year’s Solstice celebrations over the following few days, and this year, all the planning was done for me in advance!

I had included plans for a Solstice feast, ice lanterns to be lit at sunset, and a few different craft and activity ideas which we could choose from.

Preparations started earlier this month, with grocery shopping for the feast, and the making of ice lanterns. We found the instructions at Love in the Suburbs.

Gathering materials for the ice lanterns, and Neko standing beside some partially assembled lanterns.

We also made popcorn garlands that we could give to the birds on Solstice.

Then my friend Jen invited us to a Solstice party, where we could make prayer flags to set our intentions for the new year. Her inspiration was this post from Rhythm of the Home.

I spent the week before Solstice preparing any foods I could in advance, and getting the pieces of the prayer flags ready to assemble. I baked the fruit cake, cut out triangles of fabric, chose intentions, chopped onions, and measured spices for mead.

Jen’s party began Solstice, the night of the 20th. We drank sunshine punch and snacked while we painted, cut and sewed. The kids played for hours in the dim house.

Candles, sunshine punch, and prayer flags in progress.

Jen drew, then painted, beautiful Celtic knots on hers with Gaelic words beneath. I wrote my words on in permanent marker (I’m not a perfect crafter, okay…) and sewed up the edges of the flags by hand. My fabric came from a damaged nursing tank; fabric bags from prefold diapers; a clothing swap romper; and an old dress I had bought years ago to make beanbags as party favours for Neko’s third birthday party.

On the morning of the 21st, we lazed in bed for a bit, then Justan made us scrambled eggs (from our hens) while I had a nice, warm bath. We cleaned up around the house a bit, then headed out for a hike near the river to hang the popcorn garlands. It was a beautiful, sunny day (I always picture the Solstice as so dark in my head! But the daylight hours, of course, are just as bright as ever.), but the pathways were icy because we’ve had such variable temperatures recently, and there was a biting wind blowing. We hiked down into the river valley with our popcorn garlands and our warm drinks in hand (hot chocolate for Neko; homemade mocha for daddy; homemade vanilla cafe au lait for mom).

Neko shows off the popcorn garlands we’ve hung for the birds.

In the afternoon, Justan and Neko played Just Dance while I packed for Christmas. Okay, okay – video games are not my idea of something you do on Solstice. But, it was daddy and daughter time, and they had fun. There are worse things.

At sunset, we lit the ice lanterns. They were in kind of rough shape after a full week of thawing and re-freezing, so their candle-spots had largely filled in. I tried to fix this using water, containers, and our freezer, but it only partially worked. They still looked really pretty though. They were lined up right across our front porch, and I kept them lit until we went to bed, to welcome the sun back on the morning of the 22nd. As the sun set, we prepared ourselves for the longest night of the year.

I spent the rest of the afternoon putting the finished touches on the dinner. Our menu was:

I chose the menu to be as local as seasonal as I could, while including foods we don’t eat on a regular basis. I wanted to eat foods that we could have grown ourselves, and I wanted the meal to be special – not something we would have any other time. We ate by candlelight, which was really nice, and Neko loved.

After dinner, we played a co-operative game that we got from Riva’s: The Eco-Store, called Wildcraft. We felt this was appropriately hippy-ish for a Solstice celebration. There was a moment of hysterical giggling when Justan asked me a question about finishing the game and I answered him by shooting back, in a very serious tone, “No, Justan, we each need to gather two buckets of huckleberries before we go back to Grandma’s house!” Justan thought this was hilarious. It may have been the mead, though.

After Neko was in bed, our plan was to play board games, but Justan said he didn’t want to play with just me, because I always beat him. (Note to self: next year, invite friends to join us for board games.)

I finished up the prayer flags and on the 22nd, after the longest night was over, I hung them from the chicken coop in the backyard.

The intentions we set are: transcendence, security, intuition, expansiveness, prosperity, integrity and love.

I’m already taking notes for next year’s Solstice! I will change a few things about the menu – we didn’t love the barley bake, and the recipe for the Mashed Potato casserole made a ridiculously huge amount, even cut down to three portions (it would have fed ten!). I would leave the oven at 500 degree for 14 minutes for the bison before turning it off, as this roast was quite rare. And even though I think fruitcake is perfect for the occasion, maybe next year I’ll make a crisp or something. I also think we could plan more activities for the day – I didn’t, this year, because I didn’t want to pack the day and make it stressful. But next year, maybe a trip to a local pond to skate would be nice. I would like to incorporate friends more, next year.

All in all, it was really lovely to formally observe Solstice for the first time. Tomorrow will be six seconds longer than today, and after that the increase in light will accelerate daily until the summer Solstice, when we’ll be on our second annual Solstice camping trip. I hope that all of you out there are also celebrating the return of the light (or the waning of the light, for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere).