Thursday, February 25, 2016

Trimming Trees in Winter

Too many little branches on the trunk.
Winter is the ideal time for doing any major tree trimming. The main reason for this is that during the winter trees are dormant and not focusing their energies on growth. Another reason for pruning in the colder months is that the threat of insects attacking, and possibly infesting or infecting the tree's wounds is greatly diminished, if not eliminated. You should trim away dead branches as soon as you notice them, as this can be a gateway to disease or infestation, but save your major changes for the winter months. Another benefit to trimming in winter is that without leaves on the trees it is easier to see the limbs.

After I trimmed off the excess branches.
The main reason for a major trimming or pruning operation is to shape and structure your tree correctly. For evergreen trees this may be to encourage a conical shape to improve light absorption to the lower branches, which will promote health in your tree. For trees such as fruit trees it may mean encouraging upward growth and a good access to light for all the branches of the tree. This should optimize fruit production and overall health of the plant.

This branch crosses another.
This winter I pruned my fruit trees. The first task was to remove all the branches from the trunk area. The main purpose to this is to encourage your tree to grow upward, not outward, and to provide easy access for harvesting fruits. It will also help with the health of your tree. The upper branches, as they develop, will prevent the light from reaching these lower branches causing them to be sickly. Removing these lower branches will help your tree to utilize its energy on growing its upper branches, which, in the long run, will be healthier branches.

These little branches will grow to the center.
My next task was to remove any branches growing toward the center of the tree, or that would overlap other branches as they grew. As these branches develop, they will shade the branches below them, causing the lower branches to become sickly.

Since these branches were not very thick, I was able to use pruning shears to trim them. I made sure that my shears were sharp and trimmed as close to the trunk as possible, so that the scar would lay flat. If you have larger branches to remove, you will need a saw. Please note that there is a technique to trimming branches with a saw so that you don't damage the body of the tree. I will try to cover this technique in a later post.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Using Gift Cards to Stock Up on Food

Every month at the nursing home where I work we have an All-Staff Meeting. During the meeting they hold a raffle and give away all sorts of little prizes. The most popular prizes are gift cards, and I have won a few in my day. At the last meeting I attended I won a gift card to Olive Garden. I was quite dismayed by the idea, since the nearest Olive Garden restaurant is a 75 mile drive from my house, but then I got to thinking. I had a few gift cards that we had received a few years back as gifts, and if I combined them all I could buy a good amount of food. So, what was the plan? The next time I drove down to the "city" I would order food to go, portion it up when I got home, and use it to fill my freezer with lunches.

Too much Parmesan on my penne? I didn't think so either. 
You could do it with any gift card to a "sit down" restaurant, as long as you are ordering the right stuff. You want to make sure that what you are ordering is something that can be easily reheated, and won't be ruined by the microwave. Probably the best options would be pasta, soups, chicken dishes, or anything saucy served over rice or noodles. If you were planning to eat it within a day or two, you could get a salad and put it in the fridge, just be sure that the dressing is on the side and any toppings that would get soggy, or cause the salad to get soggy, are on the side as well. You can also use your card to purchase side dishes. For example, a card for a Mexican restaurant could buy you shredded meat, rice, beans, or salsa that you could use to make burritos at home. A card for an Asian restaurant could buy you fried rice or lo mein noodles, to which you can add your own meat. Avoid deep fried or breaded food, as it really doesn't reheat well. If you order a steak dinner, order your steak to be cooked a little less than you normally would, put the veggies and potatoes in separate containers to put in your lunch, and slice the steak thin to use in other dishes (put it on pasta, salad, in fried rice or cook it up for steak and eggs in the morning.) There are so many possibilities!

Zuppa Toscana and some crescent rolls from a can.
So, what did I do with my gift cards? I had enough gift cards to order four meals from Olive Garden, and each meal came with a choice of salad or a bowl of soup. I opted for the soup, so I could freeze it for later. My four meals got portioned into 7 lunch-sized portions and put into the freezer. Since the bowls of soup were pretty darn big, I ate one as a meal and portioned the others into six "cup-sized" portions and put them into the freezer. Now, whenever I want to take soup with me for lunch all I need is some bread or a sandwich to go with it! All I did was put the meals into the fridge a few days in advance to thaw, and add a splash of water before I microwaved it. The water will keep it from drying out or getting hard as quickly in the microwave.

Now, I believe that I have some Cafe Rio gift cards somewhere around here...

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Scrap Fabric Heart Cards

These cute cards can be made with whatever color or print of fabric you desire, and you only need a little scrap, so don't throw away your little bits and bobs left over from your sewing projects!
The first thing to do is to make a pattern. Just draw your very best heart! I folded my paper in half and drew a half heart so that it would be symmetrical.
Next you should choose your fabric. When I originally began this project my intention was to make cards for Mother's Day and Father's Day, so I chose the floral fabric for the moms and the striped fabric for the dads. I only ever got the Mother's Day cards done, however. (Sorry dads!)
Pin your pattern to your fabric. It is helpful to double your fabric if you are making more than one card with the same fabric. 
I used pinking shears to cut my hearts to prevent fraying and add a little interest.
Once you've got all your hearts cut, it may be beneficial for you to press them. This way they will lay flat while you are gluing them to your cards.
For the next step you will need to gather together your cards (I just used some half-fold inkjet cards I had left over,) some white glue, an old paintbrush, and a dish or container that you don't mind if it gets ruined.
Put a big dallop of glue into your container and thin it just a little with water. You don't want it too watery, just thin enough to paint on with a paintbrush.
Lay out your cards, position your hearts and begin "painting" your glue on. It will soak through the fabric and stick the heart to the card.
I added some little buttons at the top of each heart to add a little depth and interest.
Finally I wrote the name of each card's recipient at the top.
Although I made mine for Mother's day, this would be a good Valentine's day project as well.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Food Storage: Load Up Your Freezer!

There are so many things that can be kept in your freezer! More often than not I feel like we associate frozen food with frozen burritos, TV dinners, and store-bought frozen vegetables, but there's all kinds of stuff that you can make, buy and grow to keep in your freezer!

Bread & Baked Goods
My grandma always kept an extra loaf or two of bread in her freezer, and it makes sense to do so. If bread is on sale, buy a few extra loaves to stash in your freezer. That way you have extra on hand in case family drops by. Defrost it in the fridge if you have a few days to allow it to thaw, or on the counter top if you need it right away. Likewise you can freeze hamburger or hot dog buns, hoagie rolls, dinner rolls, tortillas or whatever it is that's on sale. If you like to bake you can also freeze your homemade concoctions, bread, muffins, corn muffins, banana bread, tomato soup cake, biscuits, etc.

There are a great many different vegetables that you can freeze and keep. So far I have frozen onions, jalapenos, snow peas, bell peppers, and pumpkin. You can also freeze corn, peas, carrots, potatoes, asparagus, tomatoes, squash or green beans. We froze our jalapenos whole, diced the onions, and cut the bell peppers into strips. For the snow peas, I froze them individually on a wax paper-lined baking sheet before I put them into a zip-top bag. I would highly recommend spreading out diced onions or cubed vegetables on a baking sheet to freeze before bagging it up as well, otherwise you will end up with one big clump.

Most fruit freezes and keeps very well in the freezer. I have frozen berries, bananas, cantaloupe, and kiwi fruit. You can also freeze mangoes, plums, peaches, grapes, or any fleshy fruit, really. For instructions on freezing fruit, and for peeling kiwi fruit, please visit my blog post Make It Yourself: Frozen Fruit.

Stock & Broth
This Thanksgiving Willie decided to use the "spatchcock" method of cooking our turkeys. So, the spines were cut out of the birds so that the carcasses laid flat and cooked more quickly. He also decided to remove the wings, as we never eat the wings from our turkeys. When faced with the dilemma of what to do with these extra turkey parts, he decided to make turkey stock. It was decided that the stock would be frozen so that we could use it later. Some of the stock was put into resealable containers and frozen "in bulk" and some was portioned out into muffin tins for use in smaller recipes. We lined the muffin tins with silicone baking cups for ease of extraction, but you can put the stock directly into the tins as well. If the stock is difficult to remove, just dip the bottom of the muffin tin in hot water to loosen it. Put it in a zip top bag and put it in your freezer! It is very helpful to measure how much liquid your muffin tin/baking cup holds so that you can estimate how many portions to use in a recipe. My silicone baking cups hold about 1/3 cup.

Pre-Made Meals
As I'm sure you know, I really enjoy cooking meals to take with me to work. It is a lot cheaper to eat something you have made yourself than to go out to eat every day on your lunch break. Often times I will make a huge batch of whatever it is, portion it out into containers, and put half of it in the freezer for later. I've made chicken lo mein, chicken and ramen stir fry, kung pao chicken, chicken and rice, Mom's stroganoff, keema mattar, fajitas and Mexican rice, and chicken and stuffing. This year we also portioned out our Thanksgiving meal to freeze for later. So, turkey, potatoes and stuffing went together, and the gravy got its own container. When your meals in the fridge start to dwindle, just pull another stack out of the freezer to thaw in the fridge. Add a little water before microwaving, and you should be very pleased with your results!

Burgers & Meatballs
Yes, you can buy frozen hamburger patties already formed, but if you ever want to spice things up (get it) you can always make your own seasoned patties, or patties with "mix-ins." We have made patties with onion soup mix, or garlic herb soup mix and they have turned out really well. You can also mix in items such as blue cheese crumbles, bacon bits, diced onions, diced peppers, mushrooms, or shredded cheddar cheese before forming and freezing your patties. Just be sure to separate the patties with wax paper before you freeze them, or you will have a heck of a time separating them! The other pre-made beef product that we like to keep in our freezer is meatballs. We make and can our own spaghetti sauce, so it only makes sense to make and freeze our own meatballs to cook with it! You can find instructions on meatball making on my Meatballs blog post.

This is a concept that I had never thought of before, but Willie, being the genius that he is, suggested that we portion and freeze white rice to take along with our lunches. So, any items that need a rice accompaniment, such as Mom's stroganoff, keema mattar or any sort of stir fry not involving a noodle, will have its own portion of rice. Just put the entree in its own container, and put a portion of rice with it in your lunch. There is no need to thaw the rice, simply add a splash of water, cover loosely and microwave. You will need to stir it around (or shake it with the lid on) midway through the heating process for even heating. Combine the entree and rice and you're all set!