Friday, March 31, 2006

Stiffen Up Your Foods

If you’re wondering about the differences between cornstarch and arrowroot, there are a few. Price is one (cornstarch is less expensive). While they’re both great thickeners, they each have their fine points and faults. Arrowroot, combined with other foods, can be frozen while cornstarch cannot. It does not, however, pair well with dairy and cornstarch is much better for gravy and bold sauces. Cornstarch takes about twice as long to reach full thickening power in most liquids. It should not be cooked too long, however, or it will lose that stiffening prowess.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

When You Need a Non-Reaction

Specifically when you cooking – you don’t want a reaction with some foods. Don’t throw those tomatoes into an aluminum or cast iron pot. They’ll come away with a surprise taste. That’s because the acid in the food causes a reaction. If you see a recipe calling for a nonreactive pan, that means you must use nonstick, stainless steel, glass, anodized or clad aluminum, and enameled cast iron.

There are a host of foods that should not be prepared in anything but nonreactive cookware: dairy products, bottled or fluoridated water, egg dishes, fruits or juices, and alcohol.

There are still plenty of uses for those great cast iron pots. Keep ‘em seasoned and they may outlast all your other cookware – and yourself, for that matter.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Calling All Tomboys and Princesses

The fact is that more and more women are coming out of the woodwork to work on wood. Plus a host of other projects around the home that previously were deemed manly-man jobs. In addition to several sites that include a host of how-to articles like this one, there are several neat ones geared specifically toward women. Here are two in particular: BeJane and MrsFixit.

Now, women can also purchase tools that are tried and tested by female do-it-yourselfers. They also offer consultant opportunities and demonstrations that encourage women to get out there and do some repairs. The tools are somewhat smaller in size and may be a little easier to use. Those features are helpful for older folks as well. Men are really enjoying their women becoming “empowered,” too. This means a lot less work around the house for them!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Let Your Cakes Rise

They’re not your mom’s cake stands. But, they could be. In case you think cake pedestals have gone by the wayside, look again. They’re more decorative, trendy, and classy than ever. The best thing is, you don’t have to bake cakes to own one. These stands are the perfect presentation platter for a host of other foods. Cookies piled high, cheeses and fruits, and a host of other finger foods. If you do get the urge to bake a cake, you can pre-slice it and have a beautiful display. Drizzle a little chocolate on top and you have a whole new dessert!

It may be time to scope out a few flea markets and garage sales for that perfect presentation pedestal. They make great gifts, too!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Change Your Space for no Change

Some decorating professionals specialize in rearranging space utilizing things that you already own. The outlay of cash in those instances is only to the decorator. This is good when you’re at a loss for ideas.

You can, indeed, make some dramatic changes to your space with no moo-la. I call it the three “R’s of Redecorating.”

Refocus: change the focal point of a room. If your sofa is the center of attention, make a bookshelf or a fireplace the focus by re-grouping plants or items to create a nifty little new space.
Rearrange: play with your furniture. Angle a sofa or rearrange art and photographs on a wall or a table.
Redecorate: go shopping in the attic or make a sweep through your other rooms. You may find goodies hidden away that can be rotated into your decorating scheme. Don’t let it become cluttered, though. If you add a new-found item, stash another one away.

These are a few basics. You can find more information in my article at the March 2006 issue of Best Life Now: One Hour, One Day, One Weekend.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Brown Sugar Pylons

It’s called piloncillo and is Mexican in origin. This unrefined brown sugar (pronounced pee-lawn-SEE-yo) is made into a cone; hence the reference to “little pylons.” The taste is similar to its American cousin so it can be used as a tasty substitute. And, yes, it comes in dark – oscuro – and light – blanco. The art to using it is to crumble off the appropriate amount with a serrated knife.

Like many other Mexican foods, it is also known by other names: panocha or panela. It can be used for some delightful Mexican recipes. Try these very popular recipes for starters.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Jim Beam to the Rescue

You don’t have to be of drinking age to eat these sunflower seeds, but Jim Beam has taken to the food aisles with bags of them. Those wonderfully salty little devils are soaked in the bourbon, dried, and packaged in 5.5-ounce bags. At this point it merely adds flavor, not alcohol. So, the kiddies can go for it, but you probably will not want them actually toting the bag around, which is boldly emblazoned with the famous Kentucky name. You can get them shelled or unshelled and if you want to avoid the inference of boozing it up, try the other flavors: jalapeno or barbecue.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Do the Mango Mush

Mangoes are a mess to eat, literally. In India, they are sometimes called the bathtub fruit because children will remove their clothes before tangling with a juicy mango. The fruit stains clothes, so beware, especially if you aren’t going to eat it naked. In fact, the inner fruit is difficult to remove, which goes back to the mess of trying to release it from the skin. And don’t eat that skin – it’s not good.

Here’s one solution: cut the mango in half much like you would free a peach from its pit. Now, with a sharp knife tip make score marks on the inside – as close to the skin as possible. Press down the edges and the mango half will open inside out. Now you can release the cubes from the skin with almost no mess.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Vanities for the Boudoir

Vanities are staging a comeback – those elaborate tables that are dedicated to putting on a happy face. At one time, they served double-duty as both a writing table and a place to apply makeup. The French term is table de toilette, and that is probably where this table was first recognized – perhaps in the mid-late 1600s.

There are plenty of terrific finds in antique shops, but the nice thing is that a host of furniture designers are creating new pieces that perhaps in a few decades will also be around. Some of the more amazing styles include those from the 1940s Hollywood era as well as any piece from the 18th Century. They’re great for little girls’ rooms but adult women are also taking quite a fancy to them.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Connecting with Quilts

If you think quilts are old-fashioned, have another look. Quilting made a comeback a few years ago, drawing in a younger crowd that began gathering in groups and at quilting shops to create their own versions of granny’s cover. Out of that revival came some very modern-looking quilts that are trendy enough to double as wall-hangings. Some of them are reminiscent of the psychedelic era in the vibrancy and others are “with-it” in a wonderfully artsy way.

While old-style quilts are still around today, a lot of retailers are carrying hand-stitched new versions that will fit into any decorating scheme for young or old.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Teak is Tops

You may be attached to those rusting outdoor tables or think you’ll repair the plastic or mesh strips in the lawn chairs – forget it and look into teak. It is more expensive initially, but will literally last for decades. You don’t have to do anything to help it along, either. It ages gracefully all by itself – turning to a beautiful, chic silvery gray over time. Teak is an elegant wood and the good pieces come from sustainable forests, so you’re being environmentally conscious as well.

You can start small: tables and trash receptacles. Soon, though, you’ll want to graduate to a lounger (as in chaise longue – and I am getting really tired of seeing it spelled incorrectly; however, so many people have been misusing the word for so long that the improper spelling and pronunciation are becoming acceptable), tables, and deck chairs. Teak also adds a most elegant touch indoors as well. Take the leap and shop for teak.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Organics of Organics

Organic gardening does not mean neglect and it doesn’t mean you have to be a tree-hugger. It only makes sense to use fewer pesticides and other toxic chemicals whenever possible. You can do a little or a lot, depending on your abilities and location.

While composting may not be your cup of tea, there are still ways to achieve an organic flowerbed or garden. You can purchase natural or organic materials instead. If you have insects, be sure first that they are the “bad guys.” Then you can shop for natural controls (if available). It’s true – healthy soil produces healthy plants. Once you get started, you’ll just want to keep on going. Nature calls!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Laws of Lawnmowing

Now that the weeds are beginning to burst forth, it’s time to review a few basic lawnmower safety rules. Yeah, it’s common sense, but accidents happen for lack of it. So, here goes.

-Wear appropriate clothing: shoes with traction, long pants, long sleeved-shirts.
-Always start the mower outdoors.
-Clear the yard of limbs and patrol for other objects before mowing.
-Don’t allow children or pets to play nearby – they could be hit by flying debris.
-Don’t mow wet grass. It could clog up the mower, but, worse, you could slip and lose control.
-Always disconnect the spark plug wire before making an inspection of the mower.
-Remove the key on riding mowers when not in use.

Last, hang onto the owner’s manual. Keep it handy and refer to it on occasion.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Life on the Fringe

You may not be familiar with the fringe flower, but it’s a fragrant wild beauty that is fairly hardy and will surprise you with blooms at different times of the year. It’s also known as witch hazel and its fabled branches are used for “divining” water.

There are many species, some more fragrant and others more cold hardy. Most species love well-drained soil and will burst forth with blooms after a rain. The names are fun, too: razzleberri, Zhuzhou fuchsia, and snow muffin, for instance. Fringe flowers, depending on species, will grow to 10 feet in height or remain compact and bushy. For more info, start here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Caffeine O.D.

If you need a really strong jolt of caffeine and an espresso just doesn’t cut it for you anymore, then you must try a doppio. There are two ways to go about it. Espresso doppio is a double espresso in a larger cup. Doppio ristretto is a double shot of espresso in an espresso cup. Now that will put hair on your chest.

Give it a try the next time you’re around a bunch of caffeine elitists.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Wildlife Habitat for Humanity

If you have the urge to get back to nature in your back yard, there is plenty of information out there on creating a wildlife habitat. The experts will tell you that wildlife needs shelter, food, water, and a place to raise young; provide these – especially food and water – and you’ll have a bustling habitat before you know it.

Remember to include yourself in the big picture. If you’re going to all this trouble, you might as well enjoy it, too. Set up feeders and baths where you can see them from indoors. Create a few “people” spaces in the garden as well: add a bench or a large rock where you can sit quietly and take part in nature. It’s a great escape.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Dutch Treat

Dutch ovens are one of the essential tools of camping and outdoor life. They’re manufactured in a number of sizes from a tiny 4-inch diameter unit to a whopping 160-pound honker that will feed an entire campground full of people. Lodge and Maca are the two most-known manufacturers of the cast iron variety. Maca also makes an oval Dutch oven that is perfect for larger birds and roasts. You can also find aluminum pots that are much lighter in weight. These won’t retain heat as well, but they are a heckuva lot easier to lug around in the woods.

Dutch ovens that are meant for the outdoors – because they’re set over hot coals – will have legs, and a lid that is designed to hold coals. You can find pots for indoor cooking as well – they’re sometimes called “kitchen” or “bean” pots. These will have flat bottoms and domed lids.

The most important sign of a good Dutch oven is the fit of its lid. A tight-fitting lid makes for a successful meal – keeps all the moisture in. Now, this kind of makes you want to grab a sleeping bag, some matches, and head out, doesn’t it?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Deep Into Deep Fryers

Fried foods are not the healthiest choice; that’s a fact. However, the taste of foods that have rolled around in hot oil for a few minutes is a clear winner for many of us. The two most important factors to a less-than-greasy fry are 1) a hot enough temperature, and 2) plenty of room in the fryer to keep each piece separate.

So, if you’re in the market for a fryer or getting ready to drag out your old one, make sure the temperature gauge reaches at least 375 degrees. This is good enough to give a nice crispy crunch on the outside and cook foods to juicy tenderness on the inside.

Also, buy the largest unit with the highest wattage you can afford. First, you want the oil to heat fast. Second, a larger basket or interior cooking chamber will leave plenty of space for foods to float around like tiny little islands. The end result is a lot less grease to cling to those arteries.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Lose Power, Not Food

When the power goes, the first thing you go for is candles, matches, and flashlights. The second thing you begin to worry about is the food. So, then you open the freezer and fridge to look at the food. Wrong. Never open the doors to the fridge or freezer. It doesn’t take but a few seconds for all the circulating cold air to recirculate outside.

If the freezer is full, the food may be remain safe for about 48 hours; less full and you may have no more than a day. A refrigerator will keep its cool for about 6 or 7 hours. Most foods that remain about 40 degrees for more than two hours should be pitched. It’s not an easy thing to do – throwing away food – but it’s a wise move. Read this for a few more tips on food safety during a power outage.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Down and Dirty Carpet Care

You may be diligent about vacuuming and cleaning up spills on your carpet. You may even own a handy-dandy steamer. The fact remains, however, that no matter what you have on hand for cleaning is just not enough. At least once a year, you should welcome a carpet cleaning company into your home. A reputable one. Because even your nice little steamer is grinding more dirt in and leaving more soap residue behind every time you use it.

A good carpet cleaning company will send a representative to your home. He or she will inspect each area; heavy traffic areas require different treatment from the dusty corners. Steam cleaning, or water extraction, reigns supreme as the best solution to getting ground-in grit out. The bigger the equipment the better the job will be and with less drying time. If you need more details, read this.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Orange Rhymes with...Decor

Orange - from burnt to bright – is spicing up more than the contemporary scene. No stranger to overall design, orange is enjoying a rebirth in furniture showrooms and fabrics around the country. From rugs to settees to ottomans, you’ll find orange where it has never dared to go before.

Don’t think of orange as, well, orange, either. It can be presented in skin-friendly peach tones, a lightweight cantaloupe, or an exotic coral. Now you have some new shades to work with that will certainly add some fun and/or frou-frou to your space. If you choose to use bold and beautiful in-your-face tones, read this.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Do New Products Warrant a Warranty?

Maybe not. That fact is, more and more products are lasting longer and may not warrant an extended warranty. The experts say that a product will either go out in the first year or is destined to live long past the extended guarantee.

It pays to do your homework regarding what parts are actually covered. Are they the ones that could actually break down? And in-store warranties may offer extra benefits that would come in handy, such as on-site repairs. Cutting-edge products – those that have not been around for long – may also warrant the extension.

If you really want peace of mind, get the extended warranty. Now you can go worry about other things.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Hazard Duty

How do you handle pesticides? With a little extra caution? Before disposing, it’s best to use each product up. Ideally, you’ll only buy as much as you need to treat the problem, but that’s not always the case. Always read labels carefully – and before each use, just in case you forget something.

Another thing you’ll find in that tiny little print is how to throw the stuff away. Unless your city ordinances state otherwise, this is how you should do it. Some will recommend wrapping tightly in newspaper or soaking up the leftovers with kitty litter or vermiculate. Don’t be tempted to pour the stuff out – not even in the gutters during a good rain. Here are a few more tips on handling pesticides.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Crape Murder

That was the title of an article in a magazine some years back on the senseless suffering crepe myrtles undergo during trimming. If you must, trim back branches that are less – way less – than the width of a pencil. Even better, though, is to leave those dried pods on as long as possible – now those are for the birds. The upside to removing pods and twigs, though, is increased flowering. That’s your choice.

Now, here’s a hint that you can use even if you are inflicting pain on the upper portions. It is perfectly all right for some of the roots to show. Experts claim that most crapes are buried too deep in the soil to begin with. So, resist the urge to cover with extra soil or compost. Here’s more on crape myrtles.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Change the Oil in Your Coffee

You already know about cleaning out the coffee pot with vinegar on a regular basis. This cleans the pipes and keeps everything sparkling clean. There’s more labor involved, however, in getting a nice, clean cup of coffee. When coffee grounds become wet, they emit oils and other residue. This sticks to the filter basket. Some of that old sludge will be added to the next pot of coffee and affect the taste.

So, the trick is to rinse the filter basket after use. And if you’re one of those who waits to clean the pot until there’s a light brown film on the insides and around the lip, that’s a big no-no, too. Clean with hot soap and water while you’re cleaning up the filter basket. Now you can be sure you’re getting a truly fresh cup of java/joe/jolt/whatever.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Leave the Candles Burning

Now you can really enjoy the romance of a lighted candle without the danger of fire and with no wax buildup. Manufacturers have designed waxy lookalikes and filled them with LED bulbs. They last a very long time and are available in a variety of shapes and sizes. For now, they are more expensive than the traditional wicks, but what price will you put on safety?

Some can even flicker like the real deal. Flameless candles are indeed the next hot wave of the future.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Do-It-Not-Yourself Thank You Notes

If you’re a busy new bride who just doesn’t have time to crank out all those personal thank you notes, there’s help right around the corner. Services are beginning to pop up that will take care of those little details such as thanking Aunt Gertrude for the lovely purple and orange comforter.

First, you’ll have a meeting to discuss your personality and style. That is usually at no charge. Then the service will write up three variations on a thank you note with fill-in-the-blanks to personalize giftors and gifts. Once you approve the paper, language, and handwriting style, the service takes your list and off they go. They write, stuff, stamp, and lick all for a cost of about $2-3 per card (not including postage).

What a deal.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Test Drive Your Kitchen Cabinets

Buying new cabinets is a chore – too many choices. You need to be confident and have a pretty hefty budget, too. While you can get into more detail here, there are a couple of things to check for quality-wise.

First the doors. Hinges – cheap ones – are pretty awful. They may limit the door’s mobility – you may not be able to open it as wide as you’d like. Also, find out if the doors are removable. This makes installation quite a bit simpler and if you ever choose to refinish, you’ll be glad.

Next, the drawers. Pull them out and make sure they slide with no resistance. Once you have pulled the drawer out, jiggle it. If there’s any play, you should move on. The joints should have dovetail construction instead of staples. (Dovetail means they look like fingers that are interlocked.)

There is plenty more you’ll have to decide on, but quality comes first.