Sunday, November 20, 2011

Free Sale

There are several reasons a person will host a yard sale; first is that you really need some quick cash and you're selling what will make you the most money. The second reason is when you're trying to unload some stuff from your house to clear out clutter and you've finally realized you're never going to use that toaster oven with the broken knob you put in the basement to save for the 'cottage' you will probably never own. The third reason is death, divorce or threat of death or divorce if you don't get rid of some of your crap.

Our case was a mix of the second and third, if we did not get rid of some junk soon, divorce or death was bound to occur. We were to the point where if we were robbed and our home was vandalized no one would be able to tell cause it was such a pit of junk and despair. If we didn't do something about it soon there would be a knock on our door to be featured in the next episode of hoarders and you could all watch us cry and scream as we refuse to get rid of our really weird collection of toilet paper rolls that we insist we might need in 8 years when our child is in school and could potentially have an art project that called for nothing other than 1,000 toilet paper rolls.

I hate just throwing usable things away and there is no excuse for not being able to load up items that have life left and drop them off at any convenient Goodwill donation center where someone in need can get some use out of them; Goodwill is an excellent example of a way to help the local community and of course you get a tax write off receipt. Double win. I however was feeling very lazy looking at the pile of donations that I would need to load into the truck, load the kids up because apparently its illegal to leave a 2 year old and an infant home alone and drive downtown to drop them off - it was all built up in my head that the kids would be screaming and I would be cussing because I already didn't feel like dropping these things off. Light bulb goes on: lets just let Craigslist know were giving stuff away and see who comes to take it off our hands, I figured at least half of it would go which would make the few remaining items much easier to load up for Goodwill.

Don't try to make me out to some sort of saint here, I did this purely for selfish reasons and to attempt to avoid guilt because all I really wanted to do was load this stuff in a dumpster. But what ended up happening was really surprising and very rewarding. I posted a Craigslist ad Saturday night listing a few of the items we were giving away and letting everyone know they would be available for free starting at 10:00 am in our driveway - please don't knock, don't call, don't email, just take it all. We had an idea of what we were going to give away and both of us were holding onto a few things we just couldn't let go of because maybe we will need it even though it had been collecting dust in the attic for all three years that we have lived in the house.

I was busy tending to infant needs when my husband asked if I wanted to get rid of anything else because just about everything we had put out there was gone already, it was 10:15 am. I looked outside and there were about 15 people standing in the driveway taking the things that were out there and waiting to see what else we brought out. I felt somewhat overwhelmed, I felt like I had to keep giving things out since so many people showed up for the ad I placed. So I ran around gathering more things I thought I could do without, threw my hoodie on because I had done nothing to myself since waking up 2 hours prior and brought them outside to let the crowd pick through them. And then it happened, someone said something like, "thank you so much," and I looked up and looked in their eyes and saw real appreciation. Here I have bitching all weekend about having so much stuff I can't even step through my house without tripping and I realized a lot of these people don't have much at all. I gave a brand new unopened box of Victoria Secret perfume samplers that I really did appreciate as a Christmas gift from my mom last year but haven't had time to wear with kiddos and all, to a teenage girl that was there with her dad. She was so happy to get this that the ice melted off my heart and I felt like returning all the who-pudding and the last can of who-hash to Whoville with my little dog and Santa costume. We rummaged through the whole house pulling out things we thought people could use this winter that we just didn't need as much as we thought we would. Winter jackets with snow pants, small tables we had in storage, shoes, boots, high heels, books, toys, a desk, incredibly expensive bridesmaids dresses I wore once, vacuums, and more - literally at least a truck load of things, all good usable things we just didn't need anymore. We talked all day about how great it felt to see the people who came over to take these things. It felt so good, so much better than getting a tax write off receipt from a Goodwill drop.

We could of had a yard sale, we could have made maybe a hundred dollars, maybe even two. We could have marked each item with a price, and sat outside all day waiting for people to buy these items that we didn't want anyway. We could have bickered back and forth with someone trying to pay $3 instead of $5 for a dress I paid $180 for and will never use again. But by having a free sale, we got rid of all of the things we didn't need in our lives anymore and passed them onto someone who would use them, and maybe even cherish them. 'Tis the season for giving.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Dirty Dozen of Fish

Fresh caught Louisiana shrimp
On the 'safe' list of sustainable choices
Photo courtesy of eightylbs
I love fish, I love seafood, I love just about anything that is caught, netted or man handled out of that deep blue water. This was always the one exception to my 90% vegetarian lifestyle and as usual ignorance is bliss. At a restaurant I felt like I could safely order the grilled tuna without compromising our precious earth or supporting the practice of industrial farmed livestock. In my mind I would see a happy little tuna swimming through the wide open sea enjoying its tuna life and then it would gently be pulled from the water and brought fresh to my plate, always prepared rare and guilt free and delicious. And of course nothing is ever this simple. I did not know about the conditions in which many fish are farmed or caught and the regulations (or lack there of) of this industry. This simple and to the point '12 Fish You Should Never Eat' article on Rodale helped shed some light on the situation, a bright light that opens your eyes and makes you see things you didn't want to see, kind of like when you finally put a good light bulb in the closet and apparently there's a ton of dust, dirt and crusty socks that you overlooked before. The crusty socks part being the metaphor for I love fish and now I see that I shouldn't be eating the kinds I love most.

Most of us are familiar with the dirty dozen; what vegetables to buy organic, apparently there is also a dirty dozen in the fish world. 12 of the most over fished, mercury laced, over medicated and under regulated fish you probably eat on a regular basis.

  1. Imported Catfish
    Antibiotics that are banned in the U.S. are used regularly in Vietnam where nearly 90% of imported catfish come from. Swai and Basa, the two most popular types imported, aren't technically even catfish so inspection isn't as strict as it is for other imported catfish.

    Make sure you know where your catfish came from. Domestic farmed catfish is safe, farmed responsibly and is really tasty. 

  2. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
    Highest levels of mercury of any type of tuna and they are way overharvested to the point of almost extinct. Giving up tuna altogether is best, but if you must and I mean must, chose American or Canadian albacore tuna because they catch them young and it will contain less mercury.

  3. American Eel
    I really love bbq eel sushi, so I'm sad to see this info: highly contaminated with PCBs and mercury. There are also some problems with over fishing and pollution.

  4. Imported Shrimp
    Award for the dirtiest on the list and about 90% of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported making it pretty hard to avoid. 
    "Imported farmed shrimp comes with a whole bevy of contaminants: antibiotics, residues from chemicals used to clean pens, filth like mouse hair, rat hair, and pieces of insects," Cufone says. "And I didn't even mention things like E. coli that have been detected in imported shrimp." Part of this has to do with the fact that less than 2 percent of ALL imported seafood (shrimp, crab, catfish, or others) gets inspected before its sold, which is why it's that much more important to buy domestic seafood.
    Gross. Endless shrimp at Red Lobster looks even nastier.
    Buy Oregon pink shrimp, or U.S. Gulf Coast Shrimp.

  5. Atlantic Salmon (both wild-caught and farmed)
    Farmed salmon is actually one of the reasons wild Atlantic salmon stocks are so low and are now illegal to capture. 
    Thousands of fish are crammed into pens, which leads to the growth of diseases and parasites that require antibiotics and pesticides. Often, the fish escape and compete with native fish for food, leading to declines in native populations. Adding to our salmon woes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is moving forward with approving genetically engineered salmon to be sold, unlabeled, to unsuspecting seafood lovers. That salmon would be farmed off the coast of Panama, and it's unclear how it would be labeled. Currently, all fish labeled "Atlantic salmon" come from fish farms.

  6. Imported King Crab
    Identity issue here - Imported King Crab is often misnamed and mislabeled as Alaskan king crab making you assume its from Alaska when really its likely from Russia where limits on fishing aren't strongly enforced.

    Even though it says 'Alaskan' and you might feel like a boob asking, ask if it is actually from Alaska were they are more responsibly harvested.

  7. Shark
    Who doesn't want to be a badass and say they eat shark? Well, time to find other ways to pick up chicks at a bar:
    Problems associated with our eating too many sharks happen at all stages of the food chain, says Cufone. For one, these predatory fish are extremely high in mercury, which poses threats to humans. But ocean ecosystems suffer, too. "With fewer sharks around, the species they eat, like cownose rays and jellyfish, have increased in numbers," Cufone says. "And the rays are eating—and depleting—scallops and other fish." There are fewer of those fish in the oceans for us to eat, placing an economic strain on coastal communities that depend on those fisheries.
  8. Orange Roughy
    Just don't even eat this one, ever. It takes up to 40 years for orange roughy to reach full maturity and they reproduce late in life. Do the math, if you're eating one it's going to make it really hard for the population to recover. And if it says 'sustainably harvested' it's BS.

  9. Chilean Sea Bass
    Am I the only one that thinks Dumb and Dumber when I hear the word Sea Bass?
    We're looking at extinction of this species within 5 years unless we stop eating this fish. Also, most of the Chilean Sea Bass sold in the U.S. was illegally harvested and this is a fish that is high in mercury. Pretty much don't ever eat this one either.

  10. Atlantic Flatfish - Flounder, Sole and Halibut
    This is a group of fish caught off the Atlantic coast and it's populations are also crucially low due to heavy contamination and overfishing. Pacific halibut on the other hand seems to be doing ok, so choose that for dinner instead.

  11. Atlantic Cod
    New England fisherman rely on this for their economy, however, the species is now listed as just one step above endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. Pacific cod is a better choice and one of Food and Water Watch's best fish picks.
    Apparently this is what Atlantic Cod look like. I just
    assumed they came out of the water deep fried.
    Photo courtesy of j.corke
  12. Caviar
    All forms of caviar come from fish that take a long time to mature, which means that it takes a while for populations to rebound. If you really need to impress someone, and caviar is the only way, go with American Lake Sturgeon or American Hackleback/Shovelnose Sturgeon caviar from the Mississippi River system.

Soooo... What's left to eat? Its easy to look at that long list of things not to do and frown, but turn that frown upside down because there are a lot of sustainable and delicious species to choose from. The Monterey Bay Aquarium keeps an up to date list of sustainable seafood choices available in different regions of the U.S. found here. Some of my personal favorites include U.S. farmed catfish, lake whitefish, yellow lake perch, red snapper and of course U.S. Gulf of Mexico shrimp (always great sales at Whole Foods!)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Slow Food | Dorking Chickens

Silver Grey Dorking Rooster
The time finally came for three of our Dorkings to meet their fate. I think the anticipation for this day was pretty much one sided. I knew when they first arrived that a few would be sent to 'freezer camp' earlier than the others. With over 8 roosters, problems were bound to occur. It's always the small ones that raise the most hell too, so this is not an example of the size a Dorking can reach, but more of the quality of this table bird.

If you're not yet familiar with the concept of slow food, I'll save the smartass remark that it is the opposite of fast food because it's really much more than that; it is an idea and a way of life. Popular fast food chains provide a meal, generally through a drive through window, in a matter of minutes for convenience of their customers.The taste of the meal is up for debate but 'over 200 billion served' is a remarkable feat. Most grocery stores now provide whole rotisserie chickens at an unbelievably low price of something like $4.99. A loaf of white bread can be as low as .89 cents. Hot dogs, on sale now 2/$3. Any meal you desire is pre-made, pre-baked and pre-fried and always at some remarkably low price. For supply to keep up with demand agricultural practice had to change. Industrial livestock are almost unrecognizable compared to their ancestors. Chickens are now crossed a scientific 4 different ways (nothing kinky, just specific grandparents chosen and then their offspring crossed with very specific other offspring...yeh confusing) to achieve the result of a large fast growing bird that produces the best feed conversion ratio. With this 'super' breed you sacrifice a lot of the flavor that is found in a heritage breed and you are sacrificing the identity of the animal. Chickens that are ready to butcher in 6 weeks instead of 6 months taste different. Pigs that are fed high energy grains for fast growth instead of given the opportunity to forage like they were meant to do taste different. "Today, the pork industry rests on a three-way cross between a few highly selected strains of the Duroc, Hampshire, and Yorkshire breeds which have been chosen for performance under intensive husbandry."

More and more of us are not interested in sacrificing taste and the pleasure of good food for fast convenience. All good things take time. Part of the slow food initiative encourages everyone to "slow down and use their senses to enjoy quality food with awareness, learning to choose good food that is produced in harmony with the environment and local cultures." One of the first steps is understanding where your food comes from; exactly how did those greasy chicken legs plastic wrapped to a yellow foam board arrive at the grocery store for my convenience, and am I ok with that? How was that burger made that arrives through the drive through window within minutes of my ordering it at that magic 2 way board of endless options that I hide behind in the comfort of my car, and am I ok with that? How many people don't even know any different?
Muskegon Farmers Market
Photo courtesy of nancyblujean

I consider growing my own food, having the financial resources to afford organic produce and access to a local farmers market all luxuries. I know some people do not have these opportunities and maybe don't even understand the importance of these resources. There is a world outside of your grocery store and there is a road that does not lead to the drive through window. 

When I was researching which breed of chicken I wanted to raise as table birds, Dorkings just made sense for me. Dorkings are an ancient breed dating back to roman times and are known for their gourmet table quality; hence the anticipation for the day they meet their maker. Dorkings can take up to 2 years to reach full maturity; some males can reach a weight of 13 lbs and females over 8 pounds. The three roosters we processed Sunday were only 4 months old, and even though they were of a reasonable size to eat they definitely had not yet reached their full potential. My husband was brave enough to do the deed himself again. We used the same set up we used when we processed our very first rooster. Each bird was treated with great respect and the deed was done quickly to avoid any suffering. They were in a bucket of salted ice water before they even knew what happened.

Leg of a Dorking Rooster; very dark chicken
meat full of flavor.
We waited two days to cook one of the chickens, to let the soul rest as my dad would say. My husband put one of them in the crock pot stuffed with apples and onions and accompanied it with half a bag of baby carrots and an array of herbs and spices. 10 hours later dinner was served with a record setting number of 'mmmmms' and 'dammit this is good.' If I can describe chicken as sweet and have that make sense, then I will say this chicken was sweet, yet savory and with full flavor. The texture was perfect; a light chew, very moist, tender and unforgettable.  The leg of the chicken was almost as dark as cooked beef and the breast was crisp white - a beautiful contrast on your plate - something Ansel Adams could have photographed and made into famous artwork. Anyone who says chicken is just chicken either had their taste buds pack up and leave long ago after putting up with years of bland or poor tasting food, or has never had the opportunity to taste a heritage bird who was allowed to free range and fed an organic diet. It was well worth the time and the wait.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Zingerman's Roadhouse

Photo courtesy of The Awesome Mitten
It's hard to wrap a label around Zingerman's Roadhouse. The extensive bourbon list and separate menu for fresh oysters makes me want to describe it as classy or high end; the prices certainly reflect this description. The vintage camper permanently parked outside, the oyster shells used as a landscape medium and the tacky yet whimsical display of salt and pepper shakers displayed in cases throughout the establishment authenticate it as a true 'roadhouse.' And then there is the actual menu; corn dogs, hamburgers, five different choices of mac and cheese, pot likker stew, something called Hill Billy Charcuterie Garnie and an exclusive collection of artisan cheeses from across the U.S. on a display board as an appetizer, just to name a few. It's like a dream where around every corner is something unexpected, previously not related to the latter and yet so comforting and natural.
Photo courtesy of RubyJi

The waitstaff was also a part of this dream; friendly, like someone you were meant to be best friends with and just hadn't had the opportunity to hang out yet. She knew everything without being arrogant about this great skill almost as if she attended some sort of grad school specializing in the Zingerman's menu that focuses on where it's food is sourced from, what oysters have the most brine and who makes each beer on the drink list with the exact description of floral hints and honey top notes that are left on the palate after each sip and continue to dance in your mouth. I was overwhelmed with options, I wanted it all.

To drink I chose the New Holland Mad Hatter IPA, one of many Michigan craft brewed choices presented on the drink menu. And then I had to take each step one at a time; choosing an appetizer, oysters, meal and dessert seemed too overwhelming to happen all at once. I sipped the Mad Hatter and decided to tackle the oyster menu: I recall approximately 6 different options for freshly flown in oysters either raw or smoked with barbeque sauce. I haven't had raw oysters in years, mostly because its hard to find good ones around Michigan. I had no idea how to pronounce some of the options that were on the menu and I recall myself saying something like (as I'm pointing to the choice) "this one sounds delectable" so as not to sound incompetent. I ordered the same kind of oyster barbequed and raw just to sample the difference. Barbequed wasn't really my thing, it really took away from what I always enjoyed most about oysters; the freshness of the salt water brine that lingers in your mouth. The raw version was what I audibly described as perfection. Serious perfection. It was topped with home made horseradish sauce just sharp enough to catch your attention but not take away from the oyster itself. The brine was refreshing, cool and sweet like a holiday in the Hamptons.  I wanted to just sit there and enjoy the flavor in my mouth for hours on end. I wish had ordered more than one. Dammit why did I only order one. My husband ordered the Sea Island Sweet Potato Fries they were huge, breaded perfectly and quite addicting. 
Oysters served on ice
Photo courtesy of Gandhu & Sarah

On to the main course. It was a toss up between the Creole Pot Likker Fish Stew and the Lamb Chops. What was so impressive about the lamb chops was the little clover next to it on the menu, this clover indicated this was a lamb purchased at the local Chelsea 4-H fair and actually had the name of the person who raised and sold this lamb right in the menu. There is nothing I like more than seeing local food in a menu and owners who take pride in supporting their community, though it did take me a second to get over the fact that I might be eating little Johnny's pet lamb. I got over it - I chose the lamb chops and I chose them rare. I chose rare because no one ever has the balls to bring out food that is actually rare and it is usually served toward the end of medium rare; Zingerman's apparently has balls, because it was rare. Beautifully red in the center with great texture and surprisingly little as far as spice and salts go. For sides I chose bacon braised greens and topped them with their own pepper soaked vinegar, Zingerman's farm squash blend and a side of mushroom mac and cheese. Of the sides the bacon braised greens were my favorite, with the vinegar they were just the right combination of smokey, sweet, bitter and hot. My husband ordered Chef Alex's Bearded BBQ Plate which included slow pit-smoked Memphis-style ribs, BBQ Beef with Alex's Red Rage Tomato BBQ sauce, South Carolina pulled pork and pit-smoked chicken with green tomato BBQ. Served with mashed local potatoes and bacon-braised greens. A real mans dream come true - this amount of smoked meats on one plate should require a red checked flannel shirt and inappropriately bulky leather boots with no hint of shine to them ever. Neither of the plates were fancy, and the sweet potato fries were actually brought out in a basket like some sort of roadside dive would offer. The portions were sizable and homemade bread was also brought to the table. We were more than stuffed by the time it was all over. I was so sad to see it end. I eye-balled the butterscotch pudding on the dessert menu for a long time before I convinced myself I would be sick if I attempted to eat anymore and passed, promising myself that next time I would save room for dessert. 

Zingerman's Deli
Photo courtesy of *Kid*Doc*One*
At one point during the meal my husband pointed to the 'water boy' declaring that was the owner. I thought differently and assumed it was, in my very own words, "some hippie who needed a job." And yes, of course, our waitress verified the water boy was indeed Ari himself and I felt pretty sheepish about the situation. Ari is one of the co-founders of Zingerman's and the author of several books including "Zingerman's guide to giving great service" and "Zingerman's guide to good eating," both concepts you can clearly see in the roadhouse's service and menu. What a rare treat to see the owner of a prominent restaurant on a Saturday night take the time to ensure his customers water glasses are full and to interact with the staff and guests, apparently this is common practice here. It felt like I crashed some extravagant barbeque and the owner of the house was mingling after he just got done serving all of his house guests his favorite meal consisting of comfort foods and recipes handed down from his great grandmother.

America used to grow their own food, raise their own meat and rely on partnerships with local farmers to prepare the evening meal; what was in season is what was served at the time. Zingerman's has partnered with Real Time Farms to help you understand where your food comes from and changes their menu daily to reflect what is in season and available fresh for your plate. I'm angry that this is considered a 'movement', shouldn't it just be common sense; support local and serve what is fresh and in season because it tastes the best? Sadly Zingerman's is one of the only restaurants I have encountered that does just this, so it's hard to contain them within just one category or label. Zingerman's is also a coffee company, bake house, candy shop, creamery, mail order and deli to name a few. Zingerman's is what every restaurant in America should aspire to be. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Deep Litter Method for Chickens

Deep litter method in chicken coop
Some notes from what I've learned:

Prior to getting chickens I read several articles on the ease of caring for chickens using the 'deep litter' method. The deep litter method is this: In the coop you start by laying down about 6 inches of pine shavings on the floor. As the shavings become covered in chicken poop, you turn them over mixing the poop right in. The shavings absorb any moisture and smell keeping the coop clean and ammonia free. As the shavings break down in the coop, you add more and by the end of a year you have around 8-10 inches of shavings. Once, or maybe twice a year, you remove all the shavings and start over new.  The removed shavings are a great pre-broken down mix perfect for your compost or right in your garden. The deep shavings helps keep your chickens warm in the cold months and dry in the hot summer months. Sounds perfect right? Well, I've learned this actually only works in certain conditions...

I'm a lazy chicken farmer; I don't like scraping poop, I don't like cleaning out bedding and I sure as hell don't like doing either of these on a regular basis. 'Farm chores' are only romantic in theory. I bought my very first 7 chickens this past spring and after reading about the deep litter method I planned on implementing it so I could do as little work as possible while obtaining maximum benefit (who doesn't?). I asked a lot of questions about the method on BackYardChickens but did not get the answers I was looking for. There was definitely a lot of opinion; some saying it's the best thing since sliced bread, some claiming it never works no matter what (Debbie Downer). I obviously decided to do it, or this would be a really lame post ending it here.

I had 7 chickens in a dreamy 4' x 5' coop with attached run. A chicken dinner and a freak car accident for a Barred Rock later and I now have 5 chickens in a dreamy 4' x 5' coop. I started with 6 inches of pine shavings back in May and have since added about 2 more inches of shavings. I have turned over the bedding maybe 10 times. They don't spend a lot of time in this part of the coop, they are usually in the fenced run, but their food is housed in here and so are the nest boxes. The coop is so dry and clean it always looks like I just replaced the bedding. These hens are almost self sustaining - it takes almost no work at all to keep them clean and happy. The deep litter method has been so easy and effective.
Inside of the pallet coop prior to adding
roosts and 6" board to keep the shavings in

In August we built the pallet coop and put 18 chicks in it. The pallet coop is a 4' x 8' coop without an attached run. We open the door's and let the chickens out to free range almost daily from late morning until night, they roost in the coop and their food and water is housed in there. The story is I was only supposed to get 10 chickens, so this coop is a little small for 18 (sold 4 over the weekend thankfully). I started with just under 6 inches of bedding in the coop. The chicks were only 6 weeks old when we put them in the coop and it looked like the deep litter method would work pretty well. 3 weeks later the coop started to smell and it didn't seem like the moisture was under control anymore. I added another bag of shavings and turned everything over. This lasted for a few more weeks but inevitably the coop was dirty again and I was worried the ammonia smell was getting too strong for the chicks. I admit I didn't do an awesome job of keeping the shavings turned over, but realistically I don't think it would have helped much. Too many chickens, too little space. These are Dorkings and I plan on putting the majority of them in the freezer by late November, so I didn't want to add on to the coop or build a new one just for this short time. After some trial I'm to the point now where once a week I scoop out the heavily soiled bedding, add new shavings and then turn everything under and mix well. This makes it so that I don't have to completely clean the coop every week yet controls the smell and ensures the chickens are in a clean low moisture environment. It's not ideal. It's not fun. But it's what has to be done. I'm sure the condition of industrial raised chickens is far far worse, but that's not how we roll.

I suppose some would say this is all common sense. A lot of chickens in a small space requires a lot more work to keep them clean. If you have a small flock of up to 12 or so chickens with sufficient space using the deep litter method is not only possible I would say for the health and comfort of your chickens it's recommended; unless you're the type who loves doing chores and prefers to clean a coop every day. On a larger scale especially using space preservation (a nice term for 'your chickens don't have enough room') the deep litter method isn't possible without some sort of modification.

A few other notes on things I did not know prior to trying this method out myself:
  • Fine shavings work better than flake shavings because they break down easier.
  • Just use pine shavings, hay or straw can make a really big mess.
  • Turn the bedding over as you see fit; for your particular housing you may need to do this every other day, or you may be able to do it once a month.
  • Mark the wall of the coop at 6 inches. The bedding breaks down a lot more than I expected, keeping a mark lets you know when to add more shavings.
  • The coop should not smell, if it does you need to adjust something.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Super Easy Peach Pie with Olive Oil Crust

late in the season for baby gold peaches
Let me set the picture for you here: I've got a 2 month old screaming in her swing, a 1 1/2 year old making me do the shuffle to the Party Rock Anthem (everyday day I'm shuffling) for the 100th time, one dog repeatedly hitting his water bowl with his foot letting me know he's thirsty while the other is trying to bite me because he hates it when I dance (maybe he's trying to tell me something) and a house that is completely trashed like only a 1 1/2 year old tornado knows how. It took probably 5 hours for me to actually make this pie with the chaos that is my current state of life. It's legitimate to say this pie was made with love.

This pie is not a good looking pie. Down right ugly in fact. I wasn't even going to post the recipe but I thought it might bring some satisfaction to others who attempt to make it; the type of satisfaction like you get when you receive a friend request from the popular girl that went to your high school only to find out she gained a bunch of weight. If my pie is setting the standard, the bar is pretty low.

Schweddy Balls? Nope.
I'm not really into baking, I'm more into eating baked goods. But since no one was around to make me a fresh peach pie I thought I would give it a whirl. I took my dads recipe for pie crust, it uses olive oil instead of lard or butter and is the easiest and most versatile crust I've ever made.
Olive Oil Pie Crust:

2 cups Unbleached Flour
1 teaspoon Salt
1/2 cup Olive Oil
4 Tablespoons Cold Water

Mix the salt and flour together and then add the olive oil, mixing well. Add the water and use your hands to press the dough into a ball. Divide the ball in two and refrigerate until ready to use.
Roll out the crust on a lightly floured surface with the top covered in wax paper so the rolling pin does not stick. Make sure to fork some air holes in the top of your pie crust.
The peaches I used were baby golds and not the greatest. I bought them to can but apparently they had been stored in a cooler too long and were airy, browning and not very sweet. With the right amount of sugar added they were perfect for pie, but I'm definitely bummed I wasn't able to can peaches this year.

Peach Pie Filling:

8-10 peaches – peeled and cut the best you can
1 cup pure cane sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup flour

Just mix it all together.

Set your oven to 350
Sprinkle the top of the pie with a heavy amount of cinnamon and and sugar.
Bake the pie for 40 minutes or until golden brown and you can see the filling bubbling. Let cool for at least 10 minutes.

peach pie filling
one ugly pie
ugly never tasted so good, turned out amazing.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pallet Coop

The Best Chicken Coop Ever comes with a cost. A pretty high one. Still waiting on one of these hens to lay that golden egg to recoup some of the cost associated with the penthouse suite they're living in. So when it came time to build a second coop to house the Dorkings we bought and plan to send to freezer camp late in fall, we wanted to shoot more for something like 'the cheapest coop ever.' I searched through posts on (best chicken site ever) and found some people making use of pallets for coops; a great way to reuse materials and make a sturdy coop at a low cost. I saw some people actually stripped the pallets down and reused the materials to make the coop; time is often worth more than money and this seems like way too much work for me. I hopped onto Google Sketchup and began experimenting with the idea. The goal was to use as many materials as we could that were already in the shed, or given to us to make the coop cost nearly nothing. My dad just happened to be coming into town the weekend we planned to start building and may have ended up working for his supper (supper being the Bishop Don Juan, so I'd say he was paid handsomely).

I talked about the pallet coop idea in the carpool so much (yeh, I'm really fun at parties too) that I had everyone on the lookout for good pallets in the trash that I could grab up. I also had a donation of old lumber going as well. We collected 10 nice pallets, a few pieces of free plywood, several landscaping blocks, some nailed together 2x4's that needed to be pried apart and in the shed we had some leftover hardware cloth, a gallon of outdoor paint, metal roofing screws and some other odds and ends. We had almost all the supplies we needed; my dad and husband ran to Menards to pick up some nice metal roofing sheets, a latch for the door and a few 2 x 4's for the roof. Total bill was around $100.

They started by laying down some landscaping block to have a level and perfectly squared structure slightly raised off the ground to save from rot and water damage. Four pallets were laid on top of the block and then plywood on top of those. Four pallets were then placed vertical for the walls. We joined this coop with our existing coop to save on having to make another wall and the hardware cloth in place gives them light and airflow during the summer. In the winter we will fabricate a temporary wall to close this in so the coop isn't drafty.
Building a pallet coop

We (and by 'we' I mean 'they' while I watched and took pictures) then took one of the pallets and turned it the opposite way so it would stand taller and we could later cut it at an angle to support the roof. 
Really useful nail gun in action

Floor in place and 2 out of 3 walls ready in the Pallet Coop
To be honest I really don't know the full details of how the coop was built other than it was my idea and after some sort of magic it all came together and looks great. It has 3 walls and the fourth wall is the hardware cloth from the existing coop. 9 pallets were used total leaving space for a small door. There is a long overhang in the front for some protection from the elements and because it didn't seem like a good idea to try to cut the roofing sheets. Hardware cloth was used to enclose the front of the coop under the roof where it was left open for ventilation and also around the coop my husband dug down about 6" and lined the openings of the pallets with hardware cloth to keep any critters from making a life out of living under it. The coop structure was built in a day and the details were finished up about a week later taking a few hours. The coop was actually finished and the chicks were moved into their home as I was counting between contractions waiting to go to the hospital the day my daughter was born. The coop was complete and chicks moved by 6:00 pm and my daughter was born at the hospital an hour away at 10:00 pm. Cutting it pretty close I'd say. So this coop was actually built about 2 months ago, I've just been to busy too get it up online. 

We had plans of making a small run in the front with some old fencing from a dog kennel, but haven't completed that project yet, they seem to be doing just fine free ranging for now. Here are some more pics as it was being built and the finished project:

Cheapest coop ever. All this for under $100

Almost finished. Added a 6" board along the hardware cloth so we could add in pine shavings

Love the metal roof. Looks good, lasts forever. Worth the money.

Finished the hardware cloth, painting and doors right before we
headed to the hospital for the birth of our second daughter

Monday, August 1, 2011

Processing a chicken: This is where food comes from

The Bishop Don Juan in his final days
In case you didn't know, chicken comes from chickens. And in order to partake in that delicious variety of chicken, the chicken must lose its life. You can do it yourself, or shift the burden to someone else; the chicken however, is dead either way.

I had a very hard time coping with the thought of taking the life of a chicken, or any animal for that matter. It seems cold, harsh and barbaric, but when it comes down to it, the barbaric thing is actually to ignore the fact that so many chickens and other livestock you eat grow up (unnaturally fast btw) and are slaughtered in industrial farms without ever acknowledging that it is a living thing that feels discomfort and pain like most living things do.

The rooster in this story lived the life of a rooster king until the day his life was taken. He roamed our backyard everyday picking at worms and plants, he had his way with the ladies whenever he pleased, crowed his fool head off from dawn to dark and was provided unlimited fresh water and food daily. As much as I thought I would feel sadness and remorse for ultimately taking his life, in the end I felt incredibly at peace and satisfied. My husband commented that he hoped The Bishop Don Juan (our rooster) wouldn't haunt him for the rest of his life; my response was that he is the only chicken that will actually thank you for a respectful life and a respectful death; all those chickens that you ate from Tyson are the ones that will haunt you for ignoring the tortured life they were given.

My parents were in town visiting this past weekend and I wanted more than anything to show them that I could provide a beautiful farmer's dinner from our little 2.5 acres. I recently purchased way too many a few Dorking chicks that are to be butchered in the fall and I knew as they got older I would have to get rid of our 'Easter Egger' rooster, The Bishop Don Juan, to better accommodate the Dorking roosters I would keep to breed next year. Our current rooster was 17 weeks old and of age to make a fine crock pot dish. I had been stewing (pun intended) over the thought of butchering him for weeks. I knew it was time - I just had to put on my big girl undies and do the deed. 10am Saturday morning I put a big pot of water on the stove. I watched YouTube 'chicken processing' videos for a half an hour to prepare myself while the water got hot, and then I announced it was time. The husband set up a killing cone (inverted traffic cone) and set up an old door between two barrels to serve as the gutting station. Our serious faces were on.
Inverted traffic cone to serve as a holder

Cleaning station made from 2 plastic barrels and an old door

Even though I'm due to have a baby this Saturday, there was no way my husband was going to just let me stand back and watch; this was my rooster, my idea and my dinner. With some effort and a lot of squawking from the hens he successfully wrangled The Bishop out of the coop and then handed him to me. I grabbed him by the feet and was really surprised how quickly he calmed down. For the first time ever I took a minute to look at how beautiful he was and to pet his soft feathers, talking to him like I was crazy and thanking him for his sacrifice (as if he had a choice). I took him over to the cone and gently set him inside head first. It was odd how easy this was, I had been picturing a crazy bird fighting me till the end and the neighbors peering through windows wondering what the hell I was doing. My husband pulled his head through, I quickly took a picture and turned away. No struggle, no fight, very calm and respectful until the very end.

Crazy lady - 10 months pregnant slaughtering a chicken in the backyard

My brave man doing 'the deed'

We waited about 5 minutes to ensure the blood had left his body and I pulled him back out of the cone. We had a large pot of water waiting and I dunked the body in 3 times for a total of about 10 seconds each. Again, surprised at the ease of this task, the feathers just came right off. We used a torch to singe the tiny hairs that were left and in matter of 10 minutes what was once a rooster running the yard was now almost the packaged bird you buy at the market.

Burning off any remaining hairs on the chicken
My dad is familiar with processing quail and pheasant so he was able to offer a teaching moment on how to properly clean out a chicken (similar enough). My husband did this part and really took his time to ensure it was done right; I think in the future it will go much quicker, but better safe than sorry on the first round.

Finished bird - cleaned and ready to set overnight

Fresh herbs and a whole chicken in the crock pot
On the table and delicious

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Dorkings sounds like a name someone might have called my group of friends in high school, but it's actually a rare breed of chicken used for both egg laying and meat.  In a previous post I covered the difference between a 'meat bird' and a heritage breed chicken and my want to start a backyard flock of 'table birds' - birds that will eventually end up at 'freezer camp.'

I chose Dorkings because of their supposed ability to forage and tolerance of cold weather, the fact that they make great mothers, their gourmet meat quality and also because the color of their eggs are white which is different from the eggs that I will get from my mixed backyard flock I currently have; they lay brown or blue/green eggs. 

So Fluffy!!!
About 2 months ago I contacted a woman online who said she had some Dorking chicks for sale. Apparently these aren't the kind you impulse buy from the metal bins at Tractor Supply during your college days and then wonder what the hell you're gonna do with 3 baby chickens in a dorm room. This is a rare breed and you need to order well in advance of a hatching or know someone who is willing to part with a few of theirs. This woman happened to place her order with the Sandhill Preservation Center way back in January and decided she didn't need the birds after all and therefore was willing to part with the entire order. She reserved 10 'colored' Dorkings from the May hatch. Apparently these birds are hard to predict and didn't decide to put out enough baby chicks until mid July. Even then, they did not have enough of the 'colored' variety and instead supplemented her order with about 8 'black' and 4 'silver greys' in addition to 7 'coloreds' they were able to hatch. I met up with her on her farm and she gave me the grand tour. She has some really beautiful birds and I definitely appreciated all the info shared. I went to the farm with the intention of getting 10 birds. I left with 19. Yikes. I tried my best to avoid the look I could feel my hubby giving me as soon as we got into the car. I had to talk him into getting the 10, how was I supposed to explain leaving with 19? I sounded like I had a speech impairment when I started explaining "I..uhh... errr.. well, you know... she... then... I don't know... cuteness.....they're so fluffy!!!" I guess that explanation worked cause he didn't question too much after. We ended up getting about $120 worth of baby chicks for $40 after a soap trade, so I think it was a good decision.

Dorking chicks - Colored, Silver Grey and Black

So here we are again. After thinking I would never raise chickens in the house again I have 19 of them in a large dog cage in my entrance way. And I'm back to Google Sketch-up for an easy chicken coop plan that hopefully costs a lot less money this time around.

As an update to our current flock; The Bishop Don Juan, our only rooster, has been pretty rough on his ladies these days and I think will be attending freezer camp soon. I just need to decide if I have the courage enough to do 'the deed' myself. I'm laughing as I picture myself, 9 months pregnant right now, like a crazy woman, slaughtering a chicken in my back yard. Maybe I'll save some dignity and just Craigslist him.

The Bishop Don Juan

Don our 'Easter Egger' Rooster and his flock

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Burning trash

Photo credit Joelk75
I usually love living outside of the city where the houses are spread apart and everyone has a little space to themselves. However, within this little bit of space inhabitants seem to think they are islands; separated from the world around them, immune to the laws of society. So when it comes to waste removal, why not save a few dollars and burn it? "It just disappears into the air, ain't no harm done" (In my best redneck tone). Maybe that was the way of thinking 50 years ago when burn barrels were common and children roasting marshmallows over them didn't bring concerns of brain damage and asbestos and lead paint were just part of everyday living. But this isn't that time. And I have no idea why people think it's still ok to burn their trash in a primitive barrel right in their back yard.
Burn barrels are often a source of conflict between neighbors; which "right" is more important: allowing people to burn household refuse or guaranteeing that everyone can open their windows without noxious smoke and odors getting into their homes?,1607,7-153-10366_46403_46404-248168--,00.html
Nothing gets me more pissed than when I'm outside enjoying a nice warm evening in the garden and the smell of hot plastic and burning trash lingers through my yard and sticks in my nose. I'm not the kind of neighbor to call the police either; I really try to stay on the good side of my neighbors since I do have to share a street with them for at least a few more years, and I don't need a crazed burning plastic chemical induced episode where one of them kills my dog for barking at 5:30am or some other complaint they have been waiting to spring on me.

What is a girl supposed to do? I have a daughter and I'm pregnant with #2 and do not want to breathe in these noxious chemicals on a weekly basis.
Simply put, burning trash is not a good idea. It allows the release of environmental contaminants such as hydrogen cyanide, benzene, lead, mercury, dioxin and carbon dioxide into the environment.,1607,7-153-10366_46403_46404-248168--,00.html
I'd like to give my neighbors the benefit of the doubt and assume they are just not educated on the dangers of burning garbage; a tradition that was likely passed down from other generations before them. We really are grateful to have decent neighbors, other than the whole 'releasing deadly carcinogens into the air on a weekly basis' thing. Plan A will be to pass out the following brochure into their mailboxes anonymously (unless they know I have this blog. Not so anonymous now.) I hope after reading the brochure they will understand the dangers not only for themselves and their own families, but also the dangers that it brings to nearby neighbors who have to breathe in their burning trash fumes with little to no choice. Plan B? A super soaker? I'm not sure. Michigan, one of a handful of states that still allows unrestricted burning of trash, was supposed to enact a law as of April 2011 that would restrict this, but for whatever reason it was suspended. So I'm not sure I would even have the law on my side should I consider calling authority.
UPDATE - On 3/21/11 the DEQ suspended this proposed rule package pending further review. This means that the proposed changes will not take effect April 1, 2011. Additional information about pending changes to the open burning rules will be posted at this web site as the DEQ continues to work with stakeholders to address this issue.,1607,7-135-3310_4148_55793-218708--,00.html
Crazy to think I have no rights when it comes to the quality of air on my own property. I'm not sure what the hold up is either, the DEQ explicitly states: "Open burning pollutes the air and poses a fire hazard. The air pollution created by open burning can irritate eyes and lungs, obscure visibility, soil nearby surfaces, create annoying odors, and is a danger to those with respiratory conditions." Yet no law is in place to prevent this.

Brochure I'm handing out:

Another Brochure from the EPA:

Interesting piece from about burn barrels:,1607,7-153-10366_46403_46404-248168--,00.html 

DEQ's stance on open burning:,1607,7-135-3310_4148_55793---,00.html

What can we do to get this law in place and spread information about the danger's that backyard burn barrels impose? 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Roasted Summer Vegetables

My husband can never come up with anything to make for dinner. He is constantly of the opinion that there is absolutely nothing edible in the house, even just 2 days after a grocery shop.  A trick I learned from my dad, I can literally make a gourmet meal from practically nothing...

roasted summer vegetables
I know you think it's too damn hot out to use the oven. But one day of sacrifice (or cranking the a/c) will yield delicious results. Roasted vegetables are so easy, versatile and delicious especially when picked fresh from the garden. I usually make a really large dish and use them throughout the week:
  • Cold on salad
  • In fajitas
  • With a side of pasta or brown rice
  • Plain either cold or hot
  • Dipped in any dressing, yogurt or hummus
  • Tossed with feta and orzo
I could go on and on... The point is they are delicious.

I don't have an exact recipe to share, but here is an idea of how I go about making this dish; it usually involves cleaning out the fridge.

From our organic garden I was able to collect:
from the organic garden
  • 4 yellow summer squash
  • 2 zucchini 
  • basil, oregano and sage 
In the refrigerator and pantry I found:
  • a sweet potato on its last leg 
  • a few wrinkly potatoes with eyes
  • 4 large white mushrooms 
  • 1 large white onion
  • a half of a bunch of wilting local asparagus
The sweet potatoes and white potatoes take longer to cook so I chopped them first, tossed them in olive oil and put them in the oven on 450° to start cooking.

In a large bowl I chopped the rest of my ingredients and mixed them together. I kept everything in large pieces and even left some of the fresh herbs on their stems instead of cutting all of them up. I added salt and pepper and about 4-5 tablespoons of olive oil to the bowl combining everything well. I also chopped and added 3 tablespoons of cold butter to the top of the vegetables

It took approximately 15 minutes to chop and combine the ingredients; at this time I removed the large dish with the potatoes and sweet potatoes from the oven and added the large bowl of chopped veggies and herbs. I mixed the veggies in well with the potatoes and put the dish back into the oven for a total of 20 min. At approximately 5 minute intervals I would turn the veggies over. With 5 minutes remaining I turned the oven up to broil and watched very closely, turning the veggies often making sure they were getting dark, but not burning.

roasted veggies with wheat pasta and fresh salad greens
The smell in the kitchen was amazing. The herbs and the vegetables paired so well. I served mine that evening with some wheat pasta tossed in sage and garlic butter and a hand picked salad with crusty bread and organic ranch dressing..... now I'm going to warm some leftovers cause this post made me hungry all over again.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

5 cheap, quick and healthy dinners

It's so easy to order in. I have a real weakness for authentic Mexican food, but for $30 (3 people, not just me eating $30 worth of take-out on my own) and 1,200 calories a plate, it's just not a smart meal. Other options include pre-made frozen dinners which to me consist of calories, calories, sodium, artificial flavoring and overall a very bland and often rubbery dinner that 9 times out 10 I feel depressed about eating afterward; but it's quick and will fill you up when you're hungry, problem solved.

My husband does not enjoy cooking on a regular basis and has a hard time coming up with healthy meals during the week. I work too much and prefer to spend time with my toddler instead of slaving over the stove when I get home; yeh yeh, typical American life. But instead of turning blindly and giving into pre-made foods I'm trying to combine the best of both worlds: fast food that is still all natural and healthy. I'm determined to provide real food to my family without compromise. This is my mission in life.

Planning, planning, planning is the key to success. When you're on your way home, starving, tired and not feeling up the Top Chef surprise box dinner challenge with a toddler screaming in your face instead of Gordon Ramsey, it's easy to whimp out and speed dial (I know you all have Mexican take-out on speed dial) your fav local spot and just pick it up on the way home. It doesn't help that my husband LOVES take-out and is happier to see when I have the cheesy looking smiley face thank you bag in my hand as I walk up the driveway (whats up with the smiley face bag anyway?).

To help you out and have this as a personal reference of my own, here is a list with a guestimate-breakdown of cost for 5 of my favorite fast, healthy and actually great tasting meals. With some super easy beginning of the week planning you can avoid the  temptation to order out or pop that Stouffers lasagna you've been dreading into the oven as a quick fix.

Photo credit Lara604
1) Homemade bean burgers
Look at the ingredients list for many of the vegetarian burger options in your freezer section. What is that stuff? Making them at home on your own is super easy, fast, cheaper and more nutritious. This recipe is one of my favorite go-to's:

1 can of Eden Foods* beans (black, white, red, chickpeas, whatever...)
1/2 cup flour (white or wheat)
1/4 cup of breadcrumbs
1 egg
1/2 onion diced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper to taste

Drain and then mash the beans in a medium bowl using a fork or potato masher.
Add all of the remaining ingredients to the bowl and mix until evenly combined.
If you're feeling adventurous you could also add mushrooms, green pepper, shredded carrots, corn or jalapenos to the mixture.
In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. You can use your hands to make the mixture into a patty, or drop it by the spoonful into the skillet and using a fork shape it to your desired size (be careful of splattering oil!). Brown each patty well on each side - approx 5 minutes per side.
That's it! These are great on hamburger buns, in tortilla shells, on a salad or as a meat replacement in soups and chili's.

Meal cost: 
.50 cents for the beans ($2.00 for the can of beans/4 servings)
.50 cents to place the patty on a bun
.50 cents for other condiments and toppings
and an estimated .50 cents for the other ingredients from your pantry
Total per person: $2.00

Grocery list note: Most of the items for this meal are readily available in your pantry. Make sure you add to your grocery list a variety of Eden Foods canned beans to have in stock!

Have even less time? Make these patty's in advance and freeze them. When you get home quickly fire up the grill or a fry pan and toss them in to reheat.

* Eden Foods is one of the only brands I'm aware of that is BPA Free

2) Easiest gourmet spaghetti ever
For a while I was on the search for an easy yet flavorful spaghetti sauce. I like spice, flavor and simplicity all at once. Surprisingly the Travel Channel offered a recipe for just this, and to make it a little more time efficient for when I get home from work I've taken their Spaghetti With Fresh Tomato Sauce and Basil recipe and made it into a fast and easy version: obviously the original is better and I highly recommend it if you have the time and resources, but my version cuts a few corners with little compromise.

2 cans, drained well, diced or whole tomatoes
1/3 cup olive oil
pinch of crushed red pepper
kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon dried basil (fresh is better if you have it on hand!)
1 lb of spaghetti
1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese (optional) 

For the sauce: Heat the 1/3 cup of olive oil over medium-high heat.
Add your drained tomatoes, red pepper flakes, dried basil and a little salt and pepper (you can always add more later, better to start light.)
Give the tomatoes a few minutes to get hot and then using a potato masher work them until they are finely chopped. Continue to cook for about 10 minutes or until the sauce starts to thicken.

al dente (pasta should be firm, and slightly chewy, just shy of what you would consider 'done'). Drain the pasta, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking water.
Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat while gently tossing the pasta until it is tender and the sauce has absorbed. If the mixture seems too thick, slowly add some of the reserved pasta water to thin it out.  Remove from heat, add the butter and cheese if desired and gently toss until well combined. Serve immediately.
This dish seems really simple, but it creates a very flavorful and satisfying pasta dish as either a side or a main course with salad and garlic bread.

Meal cost: Spaghetti is always economical and quick to make. A box of pasta is only about $2.00, 2 cans of tomatoes will run you around $4.00 and 1/3 cup of olive oil will also cost around $2.00.
Total meal cost approximately $8.00 divided by 4 people for a cost of $2.00 per person. Add some french bread and pre-cut salad for an additional $2.00 per person.

Grocery list note: Olive oil is a must on our grocery list. It provides healthy fats to the diet and offers plenty of flavor in Italian dishes. If it's not already in your pantry, add it to your grocery list today. 

Have even less time? Make the sauce in advance and freeze it in portion size containers. Just make your pasta and toss the sauce in when you get home!

Photo credit star5112
3) Oven Kabobs
So easy. So versatile. So good.
Our grill takes a while to get hot and sometimes the oven is just easier; take this classic summer dish and cook it any time of the year using your oven.

Kabobs are great because you can use whatever you have in your house, or whatever your family favorites are. Here are some suggestions, cut them all into bite sized pieces:
  • Bell peppers
  • Onions
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Summer squash
  • Zucchini
  • Baby potatoes
  • Eggplant
  • Fresh pineapple
  • Salmon
  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Shrimp
  • Tofu
You can either skewer the kabobs yourself, alternating each of the items on the skewer or make it a family time and have each member skewer their own in a DIY dinner setting.
For a marinade I recommend just buying it instead of making it: this is a huge time saver. Of course read the ingredients label, many marinades can include corn syrup, artificial coloring/flavoring, mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) and other odd an unnecessary ingredients. Annie's offers a fantastic line of dressings and marinades.

Place the finished kabobs on a cookie sheet and brush them with your marinade of choice.
Turn the oven to broil.
Place the kabobs in the hot oven and watch closely, cooking approximately 10-15 minutes total, and turning every few minutes as they appear done on each side. Halfway through you may also brush the kabobs again with your marinade.
When done, let them set for 5 minutes to cool and absorb their juices. Serve with a side of brown rice or pasta and leave the extra marinade on the table as a dipping sauce.
If you don't have skewers just chop and roast the vegetables and meat on a cookie sheet turning with a spatula often.

Meal cost: There is a big variation in the cost of kabobs depending on what ingredients you use.
I try to use as many things from the garden and sitting in my refrigerator about to spoil as possible, keeping the cost to near free. When you start adding prime cut meats and gourmet baby potatoes you could potentially end up spending $5.00 per kabob. Keep this recipe as easy and simple as possible, kabobs turn out good no matter what.

Grocery list note: Having a good and healthy marinade/dressing in your pantry is always a good secret weapon. Use it on baked potatoes, pasta, vegetables or even as a dip for french bread.

Have even less time? Make the kabobs the night before and marinade them over night for maximum flavor. Just quick pop them in the broiler when you get home!

4) "I can't believe it's not take-out" peanut noodles
Sometimes I just crave take out Chinese food, but I'm usually disappointed with the results and with myself for eating so much of it.
This is a versatile recipe that is good hot, cold, as leftovers, packed in your lunch or for potlucks! Add extra veggies, tofu, chicken or beef for variation.

8 oz pasta (spaghetti, rice noodles, linguine, your choice)
1 bunch of green onions (white part only) or 1/2 diced white onion
2 tablespoons of sesame oil
1/3 cup peanut butter (crunchy adds texture)
2-4 tablespoons soy sauce (depending on taste)
1/4 cup hot water
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar (preferably organic)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
for extra heat add 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
2 teaspoon fresh ginger (optional, but very good)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro (optional, but VERY good)

Cook and drain pasta.
In a skillet cook the onions in the sesame oil until tender and then add remaining ingredients except cilantro. Cook just until hot and well combined. Remove from heat, toss into pasta and serve topped with fresh cilantro.
If you want to add more nutrition to this dish you can also top with sprouts, scrambled egg, sauteed broccoli or raw snow peas.

Meal cost: At the basic level, this dish costs approximately $3.50 per person considering the cost of pasta, peanut butter, sesame oil, onions, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and spices.

Grocery list note: Sesame oil is versatile, flavorful and healthy. Keep a bottle in your pantry to easily add flavor to salads, dressings, noodles and rice.

Have even less time? This basic recipe can also be used to fry leftover rice in place of pasta for a unique and quick dish.

Photo credit stu_spivack
5) Spicy 3 bean soup
For me there is nothing easier than throwing together a quick and tasty bean soup. This recipe has plenty of protein from the beans and packed with vitamins and minerals from the veggies. If the weather seems too warm for soup, serve it slightly cooled with avocado and sour cream!

1 can Eden Foods* northern white beans
1 can Eden Foods small red beans
1 can Eden Foods kidney beans
(really, any bean combination will do, these are just my favorites)
1 can diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons olive oil
4 cups organic vegetable broth
2 minced garlic cloves
1 onion
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1.4 teaspoon chili powder

The recipe covers the basics, but it is encouraged to make it your own by adding extras (or clean out your refrigerator by adding everything!)

In a skillet add the olive oil, onions, garlic and any other veggies you wish to add (green peppers, celery, carrots, summer squash, corn...) Cook until vegetables are tender.

In a large soup pot add everything together - the beans, cooked veggies from the skillet, spices, broth, everything.  Cook for about 20 minutes. Super easy.

If you would like to add hamburger or chicken, cook it in a skillet separately and add it into the soup.

My favorite way to serve this is with shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream on top with corn chips on the side!

Meal cost: Were mostly just opening cans and combining ingredients in this recipe
$6.00 for 3 cans of beans
$1.50 for a can of tomatoes
$4.00 for 4 cups of organic broth
$4.00 for veggies and onion 
$2.00 for spices and other
The total meal cost is approx $17.50. You of course could make this significantly less by not using Eden Foods brand and also using a non-organic broth, but the few dollars in difference is worth it to me for a more quality meal.

Grocery list note: Another good reason to have a wide variety of canned beans available in your pantry!

Have even less time? Throw everything in your slow cooker on low before you leave work and it will be ready by the time you come home! No need to pre-cook those veggies if you take the slow cooker route.

* Eden Foods is one of the only brands I'm aware of that is BPA Free