In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. ~ Proverbs 3:6

Friday, August 26, 2016

Roasted Garlic and Basil Marinara Sauce from Garden Tomatoes.

The end of summer is here, and that means tomatoes are in season! I had seven pounds of tomatoes sitting on my counter for a little over a week and was wanting to make and preserve a huge batch of marinara sauce.  I was hoping to have 20 pounds or more of tomatoes before endeavoring on such a task.  Unfortunately, we have had a lot of rain the past several weeks, and all of the remaining tomatoes on the vine are still green. 

This misfortune ended up working out for the better, as when I went to look at the new pressure canner I ordered, I realized I was missing a piece and was going to have to call the company to have the missing part shipped to me!  So even if I had 20-30 pounds of tomatoes sitting on my counter, I couldn't pressure can marinara sauce if I wanted to!
I really couldn't keep my tomatoes much longer without them spoiling, so a few days ago I filled my house with the aroma of fresh marinara sauce from roasted tomatoes!  To do this I did the following:

1) I cut 5-7lbs of tomatoes in half, after cutting off the stems and placed them into two glass pans.

2) To the tomatoes I add: a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper, garlic cloves with the skins on from a whole head of garlic, a chopped onion, and a few handfuls of fresh basil.   

3) I then roasted everything uncovered for 40 minutes at 375 degrees.

4) Once roasted, I peeled off the skin from the garlic cloves and the skin from the tomatoes before pouring everything into a strainer and straining the juice

5) From this batch I was able to get one quart of tomato juice that I will can by processing with boiling water.  The juice can be used in soups or stews at a later time.  Setting the juice aside, I blended everything else in the blender with another handful of fresh basil.  A food processer would work just fine for this too.

6)  From there, I poured the mixture into a pot and brought it to a simmer, adding about a tbs. of Italian seasoning and sweetener to taste.  Most people would use sugar, but I am on a no-sugar-kick whenever possible.  Instead of sugar, I used Gentle Sweet from my THM supplies.  I have no measurement on the sweetener.  I just sweeten to taste, as it depended on the flavor and ripeness of the tomatoes.

7) When ready to use, add meatballs or seasoned ground beef, and then pour over pasta!
This made about a quart of marina sauce, which was more than enough to use with a spaghetti dinner.  This is not enough to preserve, but it is enough to go over one pound of pasta, which is two meals for my family.  It's also good to note that roma tomatoes are usually recommended for marinara sauce, but I've only grown big boy tomatoes and have found these to work just fine for marinara!

Last year was my first time making homemade marinara, as I made a large batch and froze  the excess in quart size freezer bags.  I personally didn't care for the marinara as much after I froze it, which is why I was looking forward to canning marinara sauce this year.  To make it worth my time and effort, I'd want to make a large batch and I would probably need about 25 pounds of tomatoes to preserve 4 quarts of juice and 8 pints of marinara sauce, which unfortunately, I do not have from my garden at this time.
Freeze in quart size bags
or use a pressure canner and can for 40 minutes at 10 pounds PSI

There are mixed views on whether or not it is safe to preserve marinara sauce by processing in a boiling water system.  Some say that once you add seasonings and sweeteners you lower the acidity lever, and therefore a pressure canner must be used.  Others say any kind of tomato is acidic enough for boiling water canning.  To be safe, I planned on using the pressure canner, since I added seasonings and sweetener.
To make one quart of marinara sauce/one quart of tomato juice you will need:

5-7 pounds of tomatoes
small onion, chopped
head of garlic
couple handfuls of fresh basil
drizzle of olive oil
salt and pepper
1 tbs. Italian seasoning
sweetener to taste

Roast first six ingredients for 40 minutes at 375 degrees, and follow the above directions to create the marinara sauce.

NOTE: You can always add the juice back into the marinara and add a small can of tomato paste to thicken the sauce.  This would give you more marinara if you have no use in preserving tomato juice.  Although to do this, the seasonings and sweetener may need to be adjusted.

As I stated above, I made a large batch of marinara last summer, of which I used all of the juice and thickened it with tomato paste.  I even made homemade meatballs and homemade garlic spread that day.  I must have been feeling very Susie-homemaker at the time, as I did not put in that kind of effort this past week!  Here are pictures from last year's marinara making, and what I learned from that first experience:

1) Be sure to use deep glass dishes that are sprayed with cooking spray.  Last year I roasted the tomatoes on  baking sheets.  Bad idea.  Lots of juice.  Lots of mess.  Enough said.

2) It's easier to cut off the stems before roasting. I even roasted the tomatoes whole last year, but found that slicing them first was a bit easier this year.

3) Don't forget to take off the tomato skins after roasting.  They come right off.  I forgot this step this year, and although it didn't taste bad, you could find tomato skin fibers all throughout my sauce.

4) It's my personal preference to drain the juice and not add it back to the sauce.  Even with the tomato paste in last year's sauce, the end result was still runnier than I'd like.  This year, I had a nice thick sauce without the juice.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tips for Vacationing with Young Kids

We recently got back from our annual family vacation.  I thought I'd post a few tips about vacationing we kids, as vacationing with kids is nothing like vacationing without them!

Our annual vacation of choice is southwest Michigan.  Matthew and I were drawn to it when we first got married.  We woke up one Saturday morning, found ourselves with nothing to do, and decided on a spontaneous beach day.  Packing a picnic and beach bag that contained nothing more than a book, sunglasses and sunscreen, we put on our beach attire and drove north.  We crossed into Michigan and ended up in New Buffalo for the day.  With the sand in our toes and the sun kissing our skin, the view of Lake Michigan was only topped by the relaxation of a beach day getaway and the company of one another.

Several years and three kids later, I can assure you our annual Lake Michigan trip is nothing like the first time we dipped our toes on that southwest Michigan water.  Now we make the drive up in our minivan, full of kids and all of the "stuff" that comes with kids.  There is nothing relaxing about our trips to the beach anymore, but somehow the memories we make are just as sweet as the first time we drove up there years ago.

So how do we make such sweet memories with kiddos?  Here are few tips that I've found help make our annual vacation as stress-free as possible.  Although let's be honest, with kids it will never be completely stress-free!

Short and Sweet
I try to remember that vacationing with children, particularly young children, is not really a vacation!  What it is, is a lot of work!  For us, four days is the right amount of time to be away from the comforts of home with kids in tow!

It's a long enough span of time to do all sorts of fun things with the kids, yet short enough that we aren't completely exhausted when we come home.  Not to mention, only doing a 4 day/3 night vacation helps keep our lodging cost at a minimum.  I personally prefer to go Tues- Fri, allowing plenty of time to prepare before the trip and unwind after the trip.  Or if for whatever reason we are limited on paid vacation days that year, a four day vacation gives us the option to do an extended weekend and only use up two vacation days.

Not too far Not too Close
We live in the Midwest.  For us, we could drive 3-5 hours in any direction and have a place to vacation.  St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Chicago, Gatlinburg ~  These are all places that we could get away, without being too far away.  The idea is to drive instead of fly with kids to keep cost down, yet we also don't want to have a crazy-long drive with kids!  .

Time everything around Naps!
Seriously!  We plan our drive around naps, as the kids always sleep well in a vehicle.  We plan our itinerary around naps.  We plan everything around naps! 

This year, the boys typically nap from 12-2, so I planned the beach for one part of the day and an outing with a meal the other part of the day.  Last year, the boys were taking two naps a day.  This meant that we did the beach every morning before going back to our place of lodging for morning naps.  And we went out an about during the afternoon, before coming back to take afternoon naps, and then finishing the evening with parks and walks on the pier. 

Make a plan - a kid-friendly plan!
I wouldn't be me if I didn't do my research and make a detailed plan of what to do and when to do it when we are on vacation!  It's just the way I am wired!  With kids, I'm researching kid-friendly places to stay, places to eat, and activities and beaches.  Every part of the plan has the kids in mind!  Once I've researched, I make a basic itinerary and do my best to stick to the plan!

Try to stick to a budget!
Although the average American thinks you have to spend a lot of money to go on vacation, that's really not true!  We have never spent a lot of money n "things" when we travel.  Rather, if we splurge with money, we try to spend it on an experience.  Whether that is an adventure or a place to eat that we can't get back home, we'd rather spend our money on making memories, not on souvenirs or a local shopping mall.

To keep the budget down, we stay somewhere with a kitchenette.  This allows us to bring our own food and only splurge on eating out once a day.  And of course we are always looking for free things to do.  So for our annual Michigan trip, most of what we do is free.  Beaches, parks, splash pads, piers, blueberry picking, visiting Chicago.....all free!  The only thing we pay for is parking in Chicago, which is outrageous by the way!

Expect the Unexpected
Even with the best plan, when taking kids anywhere you can expect the plan to not go as planned!  Whether it's weather, cranky kids, kids not napping or kids getting sick, you can expect something not planned to happen!

For example, last year Ethan took off his diaper in the car before the blueberry patch, unknown to us of course, and peed all down himself while we were picking blueberries!  And of course, I didn't bring a change of clothes!  This year Charlotte decided she needed to eat, so I found myself breastfeeding while picking blueberries.  Or one time on our way back from TN, one of the twins was vomiting the entire five hour drive back home, as he picked up some sort of virus while we were away!  Talk about a long drive home!

Take lots of pictures!
As the saying goes, when you vacation with kids you are not vacationing, you are just making memories!  There is 100% truth to that statement, so take lots of pictures to remember the memories.

I even invested in a tripod and a remote for the camera this year for our annual beach picture.  My boys are two years old and impossible to photograph, so I thought the remote would be a good idea.  It was a good idea, but it didn't really make them any easier to photograph!  Even so, my pictures are my memories!  I wouldn't want to vacation with a camera to capture the memories!

Organization is the Key to Success
I firmly believe that organization is the key to success.  Here are some things that help me stay organized.

~ Make lists!  Lots of lists!  List what to pack.  List food items to bring.  List what to buy last minute.  List baby/kid gear to grab last minute. If you want to get really organized you can even keep a master vacation list for the following year.
~ Research before you go and have a written itinerary of what you are doing and when you are wanting to do it.  And then stick to the plan!
~ Pack light and pack early!  I try to be packed and ready to go a few days in advance.
~ Pack the vehicle with items that need to be nearby in mind.  In other words, don't pack the diaper bag on the bottom of the van!
~ Bring a few toys, books and electronics for the kids. Just enough to entertain them when you are stuck inside.
~Unpack and do laundry right away!  This helps me feel less stressed out when we get home, knowing everything is ready and back to normal!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Canning Stewed Tomatoes


Second year gardener here!  I was thrilled to finally see lots of red in the garden this week!  
That's right.  Tomato season is upon us!

Our garden did fabulous last year, with the exception of tomatoes, as we tried planting them in pots that didn't have good drainage.  We planted three tomato plants in a raised garden bed this year, and have found that to be very successful.  Ironically, tomatoes are one of the only things coming up well in the garden this year, due to pests that have completely taken out some of our other crops in mid-season.  While I'm still sad that I've lost more than half of what we planted this year, for now I will relish in the fact that I have tomatoes to eat fresh and to can for the winter!

Even though I didn't yield tomatoes from our garden last year, a friend gave me their extras, so I was still able to enjoy fresh garden tomatoes last year and for the first time put up salsa, sauce and stewed tomatoes by teaching myself how to preserve vegetables using a canning system. 

Yesterday, I put up my first big batch of canned stewed tomatoes from this year's garden.  I use stewed tomatoes most often when I make vegetable beef stew, which in the fall and winter, I make frequently.  Some people like to add onions, celery, garlic, celery salt and more to their stewed tomatoes before canning.  For me, I season my stewed tomatoes with salt and pepper and nothing else, that way I can use additional seasoning for specific recipes.

When I can stewed tomatoes, I process them without a pressure canner, using a large pot and boiling water.  Last summer, I invested in large canning pot that came with all of the necessary canning tools.  My canner holds seven quart jars and was purchased from Amazon. 

Certain things are not safe to can without a pressure canner.  Tomatoes are one of the few things that I will can with boiling water.   When canning with boiling water instead of a pressure canner, you need to be careful of the acidity levels.   This is why lemon juice is added to each jar before processing.  The lemon juice helps raise the acidity level of the tomatoes, making them safe to preserve with boiling water.

To can seven quarts of stewed tomatoes you will need the following:

15-16 pounds of tomatoes
1/4 c. salt, or more depending on taste
2 tbs. pepper
any other additional seasonings
7 tbsp. lemon juice
7 quart jars, sanitized in boiling water
large canning pot and tools

The first thing I do when preparing to can is to get organized by making an assembly line of sorts.
15 pounds of tomatoes ready to be weighed....check!
Big pot and strainer filled with boiling water....check!
Bowl of cold water....check!
Cutting board for peeling tomatoes....check!
Cutting board and knife for chopping tomatoes....check!
Giant bowl for chopped tomatoes....check!
Canner filled with water on the stove boiling.....check!
Clean jars and lids nearby.....check!
Canning tools and seasonings nearby...check!
Wearing an apron to catch any tomato splatters.....check!
Ok, I'm ready to can!

Step One:  Weigh 2lbs of tomatoes on the scale.  I do 2lbs batches to make things easier.  That's about 6-8 sm-med tomatoes.

Step Two:  Place weighed tomatoes into boiling water for a couple of minutes, or until the skins begin to crack.  This will allow the skins to peel off effortlessly.

Step Three:  Strain tomatoes and place in a bowl of cold water or ice water.

Step Four:  Peel the skins. 

Step Five:  Rough chop into bite size pieces and pour into a large bowl.

Step Six:  Repeat steps 1-5 until 15-16 pounds of tomatoes are chopped. 

Note:  I usually do an assembly line, so once I pull the first batch out of boiling water, I put the next batch into bowling water....and so on and so on, so I'm always busy doing something and never waiting.

Step Seven:  Once all tomatoes are chopped, empty boiling water and remove strainer.  Fill the pot with the chopped tomatoes. Add salt and seasonings. Cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes.

Step Eight:  Put one tbsp.. of lemon juice in each jar and fill each jar with cooked tomatoes, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. Add a little water to each jar if necessary to leave 1/2 inch headspace.

Step Nine:  Put lids on jars.  Process in boiling water for 25 minutes.  Listen for the "pop" to make sure jars are sealed.

This is only my second year having a garden and trying my hand at canning.  Canning has already been easier this year, just because I know what I need to do to be organized.  I'm hoping that our small garden yields enough tomatoes this year for me to can another big batch of stewed tomatoes, some tomato sauce and some fresh garden salsa!  If so, I'll be sure to keep you posted.  Until then, happy canning everyone!


Monday, August 8, 2016

RIP Squash and Zucchini Plants ~ What you need to know about Squash Vine Borers

Last summer we decided to start a garden for the first time.  We built our own boxes of raised beds in our small backyard garden.  We found it required very little maintaining, and we didn't seem to have any issues with garden pests.  I shared some of our first-time garden experiences on my blog last year.   

With the exception of fungus issues in early summer, from an over abundance of rain, our garden was very successful.  We tackled the fungus issue, and found ourselves reaping the benefits of planting for months to come.  We had an abundance of cucumbers, squash and zucchini all the way through the first freeze in October, and we got two yields of green beans!  It was fantastic!
And then there is this year.  Year two started out great.  It wasn't very wet, so we didn't deal with the fungus.  Everything looked great.....was growing great....and was producing great fruit!  We had several weeks of squash, zucchini, cucumbers, green beans and peppers.  Even the tomatoes were looking good this year.  But then, something happened around the mid-July.  It would be the first of our garden issues this year.

About a month ago, I noticed my beautiful squash and zucchini plants that had been producing much fruit, all of sudden starting to wilt.  We had just had a bad storm the night before with high winds and hail, and so I thought that maybe the damage was a result of the storm, as it almost looked like the stems were exposed and starting to uproot?

Not realizing I had a much more serious problem than storm damage, I had my husband cover up the base of the stems with more soil.  As a result, new shoots started coming out of the soil, but the original plant was dying.  I couldn't quite figure out what was going on?  Then the following weekend, the new shoots started to wilt.

When I finally went out to examine the plants, I noticed we had an infestation of squash bugs.  Ok, so that was not good, but it wouldn't kill the plants that fast?  So I started researching, and discovered my plants had the symptoms of squash vine borers!  As I examined my plants further, I noticed that the bases of the plants did indeed have the "saw dust" type residue from the larvae entering the vines.  And sure enough, when I cut open a stalk, I saw these disgusting looking white larvae eating away my plants!!!

Squash vine borers?  What the heck was that?  Well, it's not good, I can assure you.  When you read terms like "gardeners worst nightmare" or "gardeners loath squash vine borers", you know it's bad stuff.

Basically, I was dealing with moths that lay eggs at the base of squash plants in late spring/early summer.  The eggs hatch a few weeks later.  Once hatched the larvae eat their way into the base of the plants.  These caterpillars feed on the plant for 1-2 weeks, killing the plants, then return to the soil to cocoon over the winter, and the vicious cycle starts all over again.

I was heart-broken, as I knew from my research all I could do at this point was to tear out my plants and try to clear the soil for next year!  I tell ya, I was taking this personally!  No more zucchini breads, cookies or cakes!  No more zoodles!   No more fried squash, sautéed squash, squash cakes!  And it was still July!  This pests took two months of my gardening season away from me!  We eat zucchini and squash every week, so I'd have to start buying them again, which I was not a fan of doing!  I was determined to learn all could about borers and try to prevent them from invading my garden next year.

I spent an entire day researching squash vine borers.  I quickly discovered that my plants were far too gone to help them.  However, I did gain much knowledge on this dreaded garden pest, that some would call a gardeners worst nightmare, and learned three important bits of information:

~ getting rid of these pests is near impossible, due to the fact that once they are discovered the damage has already been done.

~ once you've had an infestation, they are likely to return the next year, due to the fact that they overwinter in the soil each year.

~ preventing the pests from attacking your garden is the best way to avoid and control squash vine borer.

Here are six preventative measures I plan to take in my garden next year to lower my risks of having a repeat infestation of squash vine borers.

1) Plant in a different area each year....

We have a small back yard garden with raised beds.  The entire garden is close together, but I do plan on planting my squash and zucchini in different boxes next year.

2) Clean up soil in the fall....

One of the problems with these pests is that they overwinter and come back each year, by cocooning a few inches below the soil. Plowing the soil in the fall is supposed to help kill them.  I think we are going to go a step further by completely digging out our soil in the infested boxes and having new soil and fertilizer delivered next spring.  That's a bit of an expense, but I am willing to do anything necessary to not have to deal with this nasty infestation again next year.

3)  Protect new plants with garden tents until the first bloom.....

Because there is only supposed to be one life cycle of these garden pests in the northern states, gardeners can protect the young plants with garden tents.  Be sure to take the tents off once the plants start flowering, so they can pollinate and produce fruit.  Supposedly, the moths only lay their eggs in early summer before the first blooms, so ideally, by the time the plants are unprotected, the moths would have already laid eggs.
4)  Cover stems with aluminum foil or nylons......

Covering the plants with garden tents won't protect the plants if the moths have already cocooned in the soil.  Even though we will be cleaning up our soil this fall, there is still a chance we may have some eggs laid at the base of our plants next year.   The idea is that covering the base of the plant with aluminum foil or nylons is supposed to protect the plant from any larvae hatched from the eggs that eat the plants from the base.

5)  Sprinkle black pepper and diatomaceous earth......

I plan to sprinkle both of these at the base of each plant and reapply after it rains.  This is supposed to deter the pests from the plants.

6)  Keep of bowl of soapy water out to trap moths.....

Soapy water is supposed to attract and trap any moths, hopefully before eggs are laid.

7) Plant intermittently....

I do not plan on doing this, as my garden is small, and I only plant two yellow squash plants and three zucchini plants each year, which produce more than enough for my family of five.  But they say that if you plant a few plants, and then a few weeks later plant a few more plants, and so on and so on....that you should be producing some fruit all season, even if the borers infest your garden?

If for some reason my preventative measures fail, there are a few things I can do to help save the plant, but the trick is to catch the borer problem early, which is very hard to do. In my case this year, my plants were too far gone.

1) Cut the larvae out with a knife.....

2) Inject BT into the vines of the plant to kill the larvae.....

3) Keep adding soil around the damaged base for new shoots to come through.  The only issue with this is that if you still have an infestation, the new shoots will also become infected and die before they produce fruit.