Necessity is the Mother of Invention

My mother was a good, old-fashioned home cook.  She also never learned to drive.  Since we lived in the country much of the time, she knew how to make do with the ingredients and tools that were already on hand.

If she didn’t have spaghetti on hand, she would use flat noodles with Marinara, meat and cheese.  She flattened out chicken breasts with a frying pan (and worked off some frustration with her kids, I think).  A favorite recipe in our house is still a Chili Sauce that uses apples as well as tomatoes for a sweet and spicy addition to ground beef.  Mom usually had a pot of soup on the stove made out of oxtails, ham bones, turkey carcasses or whatever meat she had on hand.  (As kids, she didn’t dare tell us what was in the soup.  We only knew that it was good!)  She graduated eventually to be become restaurant cook but she still did her best work without the fancy gadgets that have become standard in many modern kitchens.

I don’t have my mother’s skills when it comes to cooking, but I have learned her respect for good, simple tools.

  • Knives should be kept sharp and safe.  A magnetic strip on the wall above the counter will keep metal knives safe, dry and conveniently at hand. These magnetic strips can be picked up at most hardware stores as they are commonly used for tool benches.
  • A good variety of large spoons, ladles and spatulas is a must.  Many can be picked up very reasonably at thrift stores or garage sales.  Watch for brand name items at a bargain.
  • Multiple cutting boards mean less chance of cross contamination.  Sterilize cutting boards regularly.
  • Old tools don’t need to be tossed out just because there is a new version, unless it is broken.  If there is room to store them, multiples can make prep work more fun!  It can become a contest between siblings or a chance to sit and visit with your spouse.  “Show and tell” works especially well with kids when they have their own tool that won’t be taken away if they are “too slow”.

Here are also a few favorite adaptations learned along the way:

  • Keep a clean pair of paint stirring sticks in the kitchen drawer.  When rolling out cookie dough, position the stir stick so that they raise the rolling pin and ensure the same thickness cookie with each cut. When the thickness is uniform, the cookies will bake evenly and you won’t end up with doughy middles and crispy edges.  If the paint stirrer gets grungy, toss it out and head to the hardware store.

    Paint Stirrers, Chopsticks and a Variety of Apple Peelers.  I am ready for making gingerbread Christmas Ornaments.
    Paint Stirrers, Chopsticks and a Variety of Apple Peelers. I am ready for making Gingerbread Christmas Ornaments!
  • A pair of chopsticks is a great way to poke nice round holes into the tops of gingerbread (and other) cookies so they can be hung with a ribbon.
  • A 10 or 12 inch Fry Pan lid can be used as a “giant” cookie cutter for pie dough. It will create a perfectly round piece of dough for the top crust.  This will give a neat edge to turn when finishing the top crust.

As you can tell, good tools are an inexpensive way to make cooking fun, social and sustainable.  If you have other tips and or adaptations that you have tried in the kitchen, I would love to hear from you.  Please share them by adding your comment to this post or contacting John at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Entering the New Year

Today is my first day back from vacation. I’ve been looking forward to telling you everything that has happened during my down time! In fact, unlike many people, I really look forward to getting back to work. Well, the crammed inbox is a bit of a pain, but even the e-mail surplus is a reminder to me that you’re finding the help in my books useful.

Vacation is a bit of a misnomer for me. Yes, I do unplug from the computer as described in my Learning to Unplug post, but there is plenty to do outside. One of the new experiences I had during vacation was working on a large tree. My uncle had an oak with a 44″ diameter trunk fall several years ago. It was time to cut it up this winter. I only have a 22″ bar on my chainsaw and a 22″ bar doesn’t quite reach 22″ into the trunk, so we had a bit of trouble getting the rounds cut from the trunk. Cutting as much as I could and then using wedges to do the rest worked fine. Moving pieces that large is also a problem because you can’t lift them (or barely budge them for that matter). I learned how to use a cant hook to move the large pieces of wood onto the splitter (my uncle has a hydraulic splitter attached to his tractor). I still use a 20 pound splitting maul and splitting wedge to hand split all of my wood. Most people use a lighter splitting maul, but the abundance of white and red elm, black locust, and hickory on my property makes a heavier maul a necessity. Lets just say that between helping my uncle and cutting a bit of my own wood, I didn’t lack for exercise during vacation .

This year we did get to spend quite a bit of time with family and friends, especially since the weather here is Wisconsin is unusually mild. We don’t have any snow on the ground to speak of at the moment and none is in the forecast. Of course, the lack of snow makes travel easy, but it’s also worrisome because our plants will miss the moisture come spring and we could experience problems due to the lack of cover. However, each winter is different and I’m sure we’ll get clobbered by a snowstorm or two before all is said and done.

Rebecca and I also spent time putting a puzzle together (a review will appear later this week) and we had some fun watching movies. Of course, the tea kettle received a workout as we spent time in front of the wood stove enjoying something good to read. Overall, a nice way to rest during vacation. We didn’t just stay at home though. The new Sherlock Holmes movie called to us, so we went to see it at our local theater. Of course, there were visits to Deli Bean (a local coffee shop) and Stone Hollow (our local restaurant), where we enjoyed some nice treats.

The mild weather also made it possible for me to walk in the woods. During one of my visits to the woods, I kept track of a fox. Cody (see Many Hands Make Light Work) and I had spotted a dead raccoon near a den in the woods, so I perched a distance from the den to see if anything came out. The den had a fox in it last winter and it appears that the same fox is there this winter. So, I sat on my stump for a while and watched. I find nature amazing. The woods provides us with food, heat, and entertainmentwhat more could anyone ask?

However, in addition to these activities, I also worked on some ideas for upcoming books, which is one of the focuses of this post. I’m planning to write some books on self-sufficiency. The books will have the same focus as my blog posts. I want to make things simple and to demonstrate ways you can also receive a financial benefit from your activities. Self-sufficiency is great because you help the environment, improve your health, and get a better product. For many people, these reasons look attractive until you start considering the financial element of self-sufficiency. Surprisingly, many people are unaware of the fact that self-sufficiency saves considerable money—enough that you really need to consider it as a source of income, rather than as a money sink. My new book will emphasize what you get in exchange for your efforts and how to optimize the benefits you receive. If you have some ideas on what you’d like to see in my book, please be sure to write me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Vacation is a time for equipment maintenance as well. I was able to get a few necessary maintenance tasks done during vacation. Another week off would have been nice, but I did get the essentials done.

One of my favorite activities during vacation was baking cookies with Rebecca. She makes the most delightful cookies and it’s always a pleasure to give her a hand when I can. We made sugar cookies this time around, but next time we may do something a bit more exciting.

Today is the first in-office work day of the year for me. Please be patient if you’ve sent me an e-mail while I’ve been gone. I promise to answer every e-mail that I’ve received while I was gone, but with a little over 900 reader e-mails in my inbox, it takes a while to get the job done. In the meantime, I hope that you’ve had a great start to the new year and I’m looking forward to presenting you will all sorts of really neat posts this upcoming year on just about every topic imaginable!