Cooking Local Produce: My 2015 CSA Selections

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Spring is practically around the corner, and the amazing and fantastically abundant outdoor Farmer’s Market season commences here in Madison on April 18th. Technically that is still a month away…it’s never too early to start a countdown,  right?  While I am super excited to resume selecting my produce directly from the farmer’s that cultivate the locally grown fresh treats, this year I also want to try supporting the local farm efforts by investing in a CSA box. I have always loved the challenge of cooking what’s in season,  and this feels like a healthy new direction to explore. Who can argue with fresh picked and hand selected vegetables? And as you can see from the empty greenhouse…I will also be trying a new approach to a kitchen herb garden by implementing an outdoor strategy that does not involve a all-you-can-eat snack bar for the cat. (We have not yet told the cat…)

In Wisconsin,  we are extremely lucky to have a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) coalition that allows you to search a large number of registered farms relatively quickly: [http://www.csacoalition.org/about-csa/how-it-works-faqs/]. If you live outside of WI, I would suggest looking for a similar organization in your state, or for a little general help, try this site:[http://www.localharvest.org/csa/].

As I alluded to,  I started with a large number options and through carefully reviewing typical crop choice and online customer reviews; at the end of my research I was able to narrow it down to 5. I have been patroning the Dane County Farmer’s Market since I was a child, and know first hand some of the vendors I wanted to partner with. It was so hard to choose! Honestly the final decision tie-breaker came down to the delivery sites and pick-up days/times…plus each one we selected has a 1/2 portion or small box share, yielding a better chance to evaluate both offerings and ultimately help us decide which one to go with next year. So for 2015 we are trying:

http://www.burroakgardens.com/?page_id=13

*and*

http://www.elderberryhillfarm.com/CSA_Sign-up.html

The other options I liked were:

http://www.sproutingacres.com/members/types

*also has punch cards, allowing you to pick your selections personally at the market

http://www.harmonyvalleyfarm.com/csa.php

*also has punch cards, and I am most likely going to buy a few…the beets, Jerusalem artichokes,  edible flowers and greens they grow are awesome and not to be missed

http://www.keewaydinfarms.com/new-csa/

*also has egg shares, you can go in for every week or every other week

I look forward to sharing my cooking adventures and would love to hear from anyone else attempting an eat local type challenge.  Just 4 days left until the OFFICIAL start of Spring!

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The Cat Who Thinks She Just Might Be A Shoe

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We aren’t sure if she thinks she is camouflaged by the shoes, or that perhaps she is one. But Love’s favorite spot to retreat to is this corner. Realistically it’s probably the rug, proximity to a window with a backyard view AND the heating vent. But I prefer the shoe theory.

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Cooking Challenge: Jenn F’s Improvised Sausage and Tortellini Soup

Today I have a special treat, an emergency recipe thrown together in the midst of Winter weather.  As a Midwestern gal, I have great appreciation for last minute or dramatic weather situations – and hope Jennifer’s adventure with tweaking a recipe to work with available ingredients will inspire you to do the same. I am all for recipes, however being able to roll with a lack of an ingredient or improve upon regular versions of recipes are crucial skills for all home cooks to learn. Enjoy!

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“Improvised Sausage and Tortellini Soup

I went to the store a few weeks ago with every intent to follow this recipe: http://www.adashofsanity.com/2014/03/tuscan-tortellini-soup/. However, the incoming snowstorm struck fear into many a city resident, so I grabbed what I could and improvised.

Total time: 50 minutes (15 for prep, 35 cooking)

Serves: 8-10

Ingredients:

1lb of Italian Sausage

1 purple onion

1 yellow onion

1 tablespoons olive oil

6 garlic cloves, minced

7 cups of chicken broth (I used Swanson’s Tuscan Chicken because everyone and their mom needed regular chicken broth for the snowpocalypse)

1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes (I used the ones seasoned with basil, garlic, and oregano)

1 10 oz package of frozen spinach

1 cup of half and half milk or whole milk

1 package of cheese tortellini (the refrigerated Bertoli tortellini was on sale so I used that. I think it was about a 20 oz package. Whatever the large box shaped sized one is)

1 cup of parmesan cheese

Salt, pepper, red chili flakes and Penzys Tuscan Sunset seasoning to taste

 

1. In your soup pot, brown the Italian sausage. Once it’s completely cooked, drain and set aside.

2. In the same pot, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil, add chopped onions and garlic. Cook until the onions are caramelized.  

3. Once onions are caramelized, add tomatoes, chicken broth, sausage, and spinach.

4. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, and add seasonings to taste. Let the mixture boil for 5-10 minutes to let the flavors merge.

5. Add cheese tortellini and cook until al dente. (I followed the directions on the tortellini box)

6. Add half and half and parmesan to the soup and let it simmer for a few more minutes. ”

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Day 54 of 2015 – The Possibility of Etsy

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I have been devoting a fair amount of thought hours lately to figuring out ways to potentially sell chalkboards. I have given quite a number as gifts (as illustrated above, thanks Mandy) and keep getting requests for colors and occasions. Currently this would be a hobby, however, developing projects that I can market and sell is a challenge I think I am up for. Like most of you out there, I currently have a fair amount of responsibility on my plate. But I’m hoping that investing some time into upcycling could fuel some really cool new ideas.

I am going to go the Etsy route. Anyone have any tips? I want to figure out ways to make this manageable and fun; but also have current concerns about what shipping method to utilize.  Expert Etsy folks,  feel free to lend your sage advice. 😉

Stay tuned for updates…

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A Brief Glimpse of the National Cathedral

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Yesterday we made the drive into Georgetown and DC to look at some of the historic neighborhoods and buildings in our great nation’s capital.  Having lived in Northern VA previously for a number of years, I am going to be honest and tell you that I rarely took in the tourist sites unless someone came to visit. Is that totally lame? So being a visitor myself this weekend, I took my mother to tour the National Cathedral.

From the outside it’s a pretty impressive piece of architecture,  and has oodles of stained glass and gargoyles to boot. There are a number of surrounding buildings and multiple entrances. You could literally spend hours exploring. In addition to the “space” window above, here are some other interesting windows:

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I’ve walked by this building before, however,  never actually went inside despite being in the vicinity. Having oodles of time this trip (plus frigid artic temperatures and winds to contend with) – we spent all of our time indoors and skipped the grounds.  There are many places to sit (it’s a place of worship after all) and a perfect touring option for weary travelers. I like the detail on this pew:

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I have traveled a fair amount over the years and seen a number of religious buildings and sites that are comprised of amazing details and historic features. This building is very reminiscent of cathedrals in Europe. But has quite a number of unique details, like flags from all states in the grand hall.

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If you are ever in the DC area, the Cathedral has onsite parking (free on Sundays),  plus with an address on Wisconsin Avenue, it’s a moderate walk back down the street to the retail sector of Georgetown.  Also they even have elements of pop culture for the superfan, like a Darth Vader gargoyle it was too cold to find outside. We found a statue in the gift shop instead so I could show you.

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How to essentially fuel your car for less than $1

I love the grocery store.  Big ones,  little ones,  international inspired, health food chains, meat markets, bakeries and specialty delicatessens …pretty much any store that sells some sort of food product is something I want to check out. It’s my zen place. Full of possibilities and potential – I could walk around for hours and buy just a few items or target in on one product and instantly be motivated to race home and cook something.   However, while buying the ingredients and cooking at home is WAY friendlier than eating out at restaurants,  it still can be pretty pricey. How does one feel less guilty about trying something new? May I suggest Hyvee’s Fuel Saver program.

Here is my current tally from the last 14 days:

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Got your attention,  didn’t I?

I will admit my dedication to making this program payoff is a little crazy obnoxious. Yet it’s pretty simple to bank points.  Here are some of my tips so that you too can earn your inexpensive gas…

1. Plan your meals: Knowing what you want and how much you need before you leave home.

This idea is hard for most of us who work full-time, and nearly impossible for anyone with kids or both.  That said, if you want to minimize your food budget and maximize your diet, this is a valuable time investment to accomplish both goals.  Also, the ability to pull a meal together in a quick fashion for your household is a priceless skill which is often undervalued and the contrary contributes negatively to an already chaotic time of day. Give yourself a break and invest in some calm!

To accomplish this task, it is essential to have the right ingredients. A stocked pantry is helpful,  keeping things you use often and in large quantities on-hand at all times. I always add items I am running low on to the bottom of my list so that if it’s on sale or fuel perks I can safely buy it at the most beneficial time. This is helpful when I don’t have time to hit the grocery store to replace staples or have to make something last minute. Full disclosure: my pantry is only 3 shelves, so when considering a great deal, I will not buy unless there are holes to fill. Stocking up does not mean you should tie up your money in food stores, it means having a reasonable of items you regularly use at your disposal.

Similarly being able to utilize seasonal produce that is readily available and bountiful is a smart and strategic asset to this task. I often select several impulse vegetables based on promotions and quality, and buy what I can use ASAP (that night, the next day) and a few that have a longer shelf life like squash or cauliflower. Potatoes, apples, green beans and other classic go-to produce items often have fuel perks for buying a lb or more – look for stickerd and signs in the produce department. With the heavier stuff it is easy to get 2 to 7 cents in perks only selecting exactly what you need in a week. (Do not over buy perishables;  throwing them out due to spoilage negates the deal/perks you scored.) Another example of savvy produce shopping – buying berries or tomatoes during the summer as not only are they fresh and delicious,  but often local and inexpensive. For added value,  pick up extra and freeze or can for later use! But that’s another day’s topic…

If you want to go one step further and reduce your grocery totals even more, create a menu that uses similar items (primarily proteins) during the week allows you to limit your time in the kitchen and stretch what is typically the most expensive component into 2 or more meals. If you buy a larger cut of meat the price per pound is often cheaper,  which gives you the option of dividing from the get go; or if you cook all of it straight out of the gate, the extra can be used for quick fix meals. I also cheat and buy prepared foods like rotisserie chicken: it’s delicious and can be broken down to tossed into other meals in no time at all.

I try to keep 1-2 tried and true recipes in the rotation every week, and add in 1-3 new. (Remember I like to cook and find trying new cuisine enjoyable. Do not feel compelled to try new recipes every week unless you want to.) With my weird retail schedule I am rarely home 7 nights a week, so for the most part I plan 3-5 dinners and utilize the leftovers the rest of the time for lunches and other dinners.

2. Make your list, but don’t forget to check the grocery store advertisements first!

Most of us get inundated with retail advertising in our mailboxes,  but neglect to actually look at it. BIG mistake! Not only do they flag items that are really inexpensive (think pantry stocking and budget friendly) to entice you in to buy more – they include many big ticket promotions to expose you to new products. Hyvee does this via email, facebook, mailed postcards, digital ads and in-store flyers. Each option has different perks and benefits.  Some are actual coupons…others are purchase-with purchase deals…many are just great prices…and lastly, there are those extra special products that provide fuel perks.  This is how you will rake in the nearly free gas!

Every location has store specific deals – as well as weekly or monthly events that award even more points. As you page through the flyer grab some paper to write down notes. Target items that you need to complete your list, and record perk points next to them on the list. While there are several things that I like a particular brand or need an exact item, in many cases other manufacturers are just as tasty, so purchasing the product that fills your need and is either low cost or fuel perks (or ideally BOTH) is genius.  The best is when your item is low priced, fuel perks AND your favorite brand. We stock up on things like condiments, pasta, canned vegetables, lunchbox items and crackers several times a year based on this model. When pasta is 10 packages for $10, 1 cent in perks per box and 25 cents fuel perks for purchasing 10 products in that brand – how can you say no? Don’t forget to check email and Facebook for deals of the day! Periodically Hyvee awards perks for grocery totals : 25 cents or 50 cent or even $1 for merely hitting a certain dollar amount.  Combine offers like these with your list, and you’ll be swimming in points.

Several weeks ago there were some manufacturer promos that combined multiple products, that purchased in combination yielded bonus perks. For buying 1 bottled flavor creamer,  1 small butter, 1 pack of granola bars, 1 pack of fruit cups and 1 loaf of bread (all items on my list), I spent less than $10 due to promotional pricing, earned 5 cents in fuel perks for product specific perks,  and was awarded 50 more for the 5 products bought from the combo promotion. Can you see why this project is such a valuable time investment yet?

Here’s a store specific example:

Thursday’s at the Westgate location are “Thirsty Thursdays” and awards 40 cents in fuel perks just for buying $40 of products from the meat and seafood counters. The best part is that this is in addition to whatever promotions and perk offers exist off of individual items. Oh, and the meat case also has vegetables and a wide variety of accompaniments (such as fresh garlic herb butter) that pair well with meals. This week I picked up 2 12 oz steaks,  1 lb of ground sirloin,  1/2 lb of ground turkey, 1 lb of pork sausage,  2 salmon filets,  1 lb of bacon, 3 sticks of flavored butter, 4 stuffed mushrooms,  1 parmesan basil chicken breast and 2 1/2 lbs of a beef pot roast. With careful preparation, this will keep us in meals for almost 3 weeks.

Westgate also does a “Super Tuesday” the first Tuesday of the month between 430 pm and 630 pm. The list is posted on Facebook,  or available during the event at front of store.  Other cool features besides from outstanding prices and perks – sampling of new and promotional products,  deals flagged with balloons,  and free perks to the first 100 to 200 people to arrive via raffle (number depends on the month).

Okay, now that you are equipped with a list, head to the store and…

3. Shop with your eyes open! Unless you want to miss awesome in-store specials…

Remember when I mentioned store specific offers? Here are five examples of unadvertised promotions that reward you for trying new offerings:

$3.99 Fresh Baked Artisan bread – 50 cents in perks

[Great opportunity to try a new flavor or variety. And there are many inspiring ways to use bread in everyday meals.]

$7.99 Cherry Almond Topped Brie – 50 cents in perks

[Need a last minute starter? How about one that is made fresh and $10 CHEAPER than buying the ingredients yourself.  This is a no brainer.]

$1.99 Specialty Tomato Sauce – 15 cents in perks

[Useful for many last minute meals, and a fun enticement to steer away from your regular brand. ]

$2.99 Fresh Made Tortilla Chips – 10 cents in perks

[Way better. Easy grab for parties, work potlucks, or a DIY nacho bar.]

$2.99 Specialty Local Pasta – 20 cents in perks

[Great time to try something new! And a fast weeknight meal option. Extra bonus.]

There are numerous more ways to make Fuel Perks add up quickly and not break the bank. It is easy to pay practically nothing at the gas pump WITHOUT clipping coupons and only buying items I actually need, and hopefully I have encouraged a few of you to attempt this too. If you have any tips, share them!

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Throw Pillows: A Quick Update for the Couch

There comes a time in everyone’s adult life when you realize that despite your best efforts,  your comfy decor needs updating,  but you don’t have the time (or moola) to tackle this daunting task. As a co-worker pointed out the other day, furniture can be more permanent fixture in one’s life than relationships for some people. How do you decide what will best suit your needs when nothing is certain?

This is why I love DIY.  Not only is it a perfect excuse to get your hands dirty and stay busy…it allows you to design something “for now” on a budget. And the low cost can also make it less agonizing to attempt a redo if plan A is an epic fail. Our current pillows are actually fine, just pretty beat up, so rather than replace, today’s task is to craft pillowcases that give them some much needed oomph.

(And I bet you thought I was going to share earth shattering relationship advice…nope…this is strictly a throw pillow kind of day.)

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The tired yet functional pillow.

I carefully measured looked at the tag to determine the size (26″×26″) and headed to JoAnn’s to get fabric. While they are having a pretty major textile promotion this week, I opted to look at the remnant boxes first, as these pieces are 50% off AND often save me the trouble of needing to cut a larger piece down to size. Our living room is primarily modern furniture that is black,  glass or grey, so I was hoping to find a print or two with a simple pattern that essentially pulled together the style of the existing furniture.

I lucked out and scored about 1.2 yards of a grey mod print that was the perfect size for the two pillows in question, and several other .5 to .75 pieces of similar patterns and colors to add to our stash of pillows. Since I also will be buying some smaller sized pillows later on, I invested in the cloth now to finish the whole project. If I hadn’t found coordinating designs right away I would have ventured into the main department,  but this trip I scored 4 options – three that are a variation on the pictured project, and one that I just really liked the pop of color in. Who doesn’t like grey and yellow together?

To start, I cut the 1.2 yard piece in half. Since I am making pillowcases,  and don’t ultimately want to see the stiches, I turn the fabric inside out. Additionally,  I want to be able to remove the cases to launder them,  so I opted to fold the fabric over into 2/3 and 1/3 pieces to create an overlap for the backside.

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The pattern gets folded inside.

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All ready to sew!

To ensure a secure hold, I am using upholstery thread. This stuff looks like regular thread, but is stiffer and way stronger. They really only make it in boring colors…but since we are not going to see it, no worries.

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One of the other reasons I am opting for the fold over closure is to minimize the sewing. I do not own a sewing machine, so my stiches are by hand.  It’s hard to see, but these are basic stiches, and I am simply following the pattern straight down two edges.

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Sewing down the line.

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1st finished edge.

Once I finish all four edges (two on each pillow case) I am ready to turn these right side out. Here is the before and after:

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Before and After.

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Love approves. ..and is attempting to claim the cases.

Next step is to finish the edges of the overlap. I am in possession of an absurd amount of ribbon. I am guilty of raiding the dollar bin at Michael ‘ s or ACMoore when I lived out East and stockpiling for wrapping or craft purposes. So today I actually already had grey grosgrain ribbon to finish off the edges. Coupled with Peel and Stick, this project will be a breeze to wrap up.

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To finish the edges, I cut 4 pieces the width of the cases, 2 for the internal flaps and 2 external flaps. Then one piece at a time, I lined each with the Peel and Stick tape, pressing and cutting until it looked like this:
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Then to expose the adhesive on the other side, carefully peeled the backing off, and aligned the ribbon to the edge of the fabric and pressed firmly until it was smooth and flush with the fabric.

Here are two views of the process:

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One side done...the bottom is a ribbon with the adhesive.

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Both sides done!

Now the cases are ready for pillows! Our couch looks much cheerier, and I also made another case WITH BUTTONS so that all 3 pillows are no longer a dingy creamy (aka tired) color.

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The Front.

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The back.

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Can you see the yellow buttons?

Even the cat approves…

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