Vegetarian Friday: Kettle corn

One of the foods I always associate with fall — along with hot cider and caramel apples — is kettle corn, which shows up at a lot of county fairs and harvest festivals.

I’m sharing the recipe now because I’m thinking of it, but you can make kettle corn at any time of year, and it’s way easier than you’d think. Cheap, too; I used to make it for our scholar-bowl team at Webster, and a batch big enough to feed two teams and all their alternates took about 50 cents’ worth of popcorn and sugar. The kids loved it and were disappointed if I let a game slip by without making it.

The big trick with kettle corn is having all your equipment ready so you can move fast once the oil heats up.

Equipment
Big saucepan or small stockpot with a lid
Big spoon
Oven mitts
Big bowl
Measuring cups

Ingredients
About 1/3 c. popcorn (use Orville Redenbacher, not the cheap stuff)
About 1/4 c. sugar
Enough canola or peanut oil to coat the bottom of the pan about 1/8″ deep
Salt

Step 1: Pre-measure the popcorn and sugar and set them next to the stove, along with the spoon and the big bowl.

Step 2: Pull the battery out of your smoke alarm and turn on the exhaust fan above your stove, because you’ll probably screw up and burn this the first couple of times you do it. It gets easier with practice.

Step 3: Put on the oven mitts. No matter how well your lid fits, oil and steam can escape around the edges and scald you.

Step 4: Cover the bottom of the pan with oil, throw in three kernels of popcorn, and heat on high until they all pop.

Step 5: Dump in popcorn and sugar — in that order — stir quickly, and cover. Remove from heat and shake vigorously every three seconds, holding the lid onto the pan as tightly as possible.

Step 6: Once corn pops (about five minutes or less), dump it into a large bowl, sprinkle lightly with salt, and enjoy.

If you let it cool down completely and then store it in a sealed container, it will stay fresh and crispy for several days.

Emily

P.S.: The little strings on the popcorn in the picture aren’t hair. They’re strands of melted sugar. The sugar melts into the oil, coats the popcorn, and basically turns into candy as it cools.

My promise to you

I am trying VERY hard to read what looks like a potentially useful blog entry about eliminating plastic products from a household. There are many good reasons for buying less plastic and using better materials.

I found the blog in question through a link from Pinterest. And I want to read it. I really do. But like 99 percent of the other blogs I’ve found through Pinterest links, this one has so many plug-ins and pop-ups and animated ads and obnoxious, memory- and bandwidth-eating nonsense that I can’t get the damned thing to load so I can read it.

With that in mind, I am making a promise to you here and now: If I ever decide to monetize this blog, I will NEVER put ads, offers, promotions, subscription requests or other useless crap on here that interferes with your ability to read the posts you came here to see.

To that end, I would like to extract a promise from you: If you ever find something on here that causes a page to load slowly, keeps you from being able to scroll down to read a whole post, locks up your browser, commandeers your phone, automatically opens the App Store, or does anything else besides sit there quietly, minding its own business, PLEASE tell me so I can remove it. (Any ads you see on here right now are put here by WordPress itself, and I don’t have any control of them or get any cut of the action. That’s how they keep the service free for users, which is fine, but if any of the stuff they’re posting causes you a problem, please screencap it and let me know what’s going on so I can raise hell about it — or, if need be, bite the bullet and switch to a self-hosted site so I can control the minutiae.)

I can’t think of anything that irritates me more than having to force-quit my browser because some stupid plug-in on somebody’s blog locked it up, and that seems to happen every time I click on a blog somebody linked from Pinterest. It’s infuriating, and I don’t ever want to subject my readers to that level of frustration.

Emily

Tiny Tuesday: Pants hanger

These multi-pair trouser hangers save a LOT of space in the closet.
These multi-pair trouser hangers save a LOT of space in the closet.

There’s nothing exciting or magical about this week’s Tiny Tuesday tip, but again, this preparation for life in a tiny house at some point in the future is a gradual process, and I’m documenting the journey bit by bit, partly for my own records, and partly to help others who might be dreaming small, too, and aren’t sure where to start. Every cubic foot of space I save now is a cubic foot I don’t have to build (and thus a cubic foot I don’t have to heat and cool) a few years from now.

With that in mind, I present my current favorite space-saving tool: five-item hangers.

These cost about $10 to $15 at most retailers and are a godsend in a small closet where space is at a premium. I have two, but in looking at them in preparation for this post, I realized I only need one, because half the items currently hanging on them are at least two sizes too big. Guess we’ll be making a Goodwill run this week.

They’re designed for slacks, but I’ve also used them to store long skirts, maxi dresses, and even the occasional sweater. Very handy, and well worth the price to reclaim about three hangers’ worth of space. It’s kind of hard to tell from the picture, but I alternate sides with the garments, so the legs of one pair of slacks drape to the front of the hanger, and the legs of the next one up drape to the back, which I find saves space and makes it easier to get items off the hanger.

If you’re dreaming of a tiny house and don’t know where to start planning, jump in here. Clean out your closet, jettison everything you don’t use, and reward yourself with a relatively inexpensive tool to help organize what remains. You can also search the “Tiny Tuesday” tag to find other ideas for embracing a minimalist lifestyle.

Emily

Make-It Monday: Failed attempt to defog headlights

I keep seeing these dramatic before-and-after photos on Pinterest that show how you can defog old plastic headlight covers using cheap toothpaste.

I was pretty sure this was crap the first time I read it, but I figured it was worth a try, since the headlights on the Dreamcar were covered with black walnut sap, the plastic was yellowed, I’d gotten overspray on them after forgetting to mask them off last time I painted the hood, and toothpaste costs a dollar a tube. If it didn’t work, I was going to have to replace them anyway, so why not give it a try?

Have I mentioned how much I hate the black walnut tree next door?
Have I mentioned how much I hate the black walnut tree next door?

Following several sets of instructions I found online, I applied some Ultra-Brite toothpaste to the headlights with an old toothbrush.

Here we go.
Here we go.

Totally covered.
Totally covered.

I scrubbed it around with the toothbrush for several minutes and then hosed it off. The sap came off, but the plastic still looked pretty bad, so I took some advice I found on another how-to-clean-your-headlights post and reapplied the toothpaste, using a Scotch-Brite pad to scrub it off.

When I rinsed, it looked pretty good — not perfect, but less yellow, maybe, and most of the overspray came off — but as the water dried, the plastic fogged back up and looked worse than it had to start with:

I'm not sure this is an improvement.
I’m not sure this is an improvement.

Back to Pinterest. A commenter on one of the how-to articles I’d found suggested applying olive oil. Another suggested vinegar. I’d made a pretty effective furniture polish out of a mixture of the two and still had some left under the sink, so I ran in and got it. Definitely an improvement:

Shiny again. Sort of.
Shiny again. Sort of.

Another commenter said the best method was to attach an old sock to a belt sander, put the toothpaste on it, and use it to buff out the scratches. Several commenters agreed with this, so I found a worn-out running sock and gave it a go.

At least I'm recycling.
At least I’m recycling.

Buffing seemed to help some, and I suspect if I’d done it first — before I took out after the plastic with that abrasive Scotch-Brite pad — it would have helped more, but I was still underwhelmed.

Yet another commenter insisted WD-40 is the way to go. Well, of course. Anything that can’t be fixed with WD-40 or duct tape belongs in the trash. I rummaged around under the kitchen sink, found my WD-40, and applied it, buffing it in with a fresh sock on the sander.

This was the result:

I swapped sap and discoloration for scratches.
I swapped sap and discoloration for scratches.

Not bad at first glance. Maybe an improvement. But as soon as it rained, they fogged up again and looked like frosted glass in the dark — very pretty, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to drive with a Streisand filter* over your headlights.

Conclusion: This method is, indeed, utter crap. The sock on a sander might work without any of the substances I applied, but the toothpaste and Scotch-Brite just scratched up the plastic and made it worse. I’d also be leery of using anything abrasive or acidic near a factory paint job, as I’m not sure what it would do to the finish.

Pinterest fail. I’ll take the Dreamcar to the Honda dealership next weekend.

Emily

*My friend Brandey’s term. We used to watch a lot of old Barbra Streisand movies, and Brandey noticed the cinematographers always used a soft camera filter on her close-ups.

Sunday self-care: A walk in the woods

A view of the Whitewater River through the window of the mill.
A view of the Whitewater River through the window of the mill.

Ron wanted to check out something we’d never seen before this weekend, so when we were both off Friday, we drove out to Bollinger Mill, a long-defunct grain mill at Burfordville that has been preserved as a state historic site.

The mill is enormous.
The mill is enormous.

Ron, whose late uncle used to run a feed store, liked touring the building and seeing how the machinery worked, and we both enjoyed meeting the resident mill cat and walking across the covered bridge next to the mill, but for me, the best part of the trip was the trail leading up through the woods to Bollinger Cemetery.

We walked through this covered bridge and down a country road past fields of soybeans that will be harvested soon.
We walked through this covered bridge and down a country road past fields of soybeans that will be harvested soon.

Amboy Crater remains my favorite place to hike — followed closely by Tucumcari Mountain and La Bajada Hill — but beggars can’t be choosers, and I’ve become increasingly enthusiastic about the prospect of spending time off traipsing through the woods, usually at a pace considerably faster than Ron would like. For everyday training, I like smooth, fast trails or climate-controlled tracks and treadmills, but there’s something to be said for rugged terrain that demands your full attention and forces you to focus on the task at hand instead of counting steps, timing intervals or making mental to-do lists while you log your miles for the day. Tree roots, spiderwebs and steep inclines force you to be fully present in the moment; failure to do so generally comes with unpleasant consequences.

You cross this creek on the trail leading through the woods and up the hill to Bollinger Cemetery.
You cross this creek on the trail leading through the woods and up the hill to Bollinger Cemetery.

I was too busy concentrating on keeping my feet under me — a demanding task, as the heavy rains we’ve had this summer appear to have eroded the trail pretty badly — to take many pictures, but the trail is pretty, and the hill is just steep enough to be challenging without posing any significant risk of shin splints or sore knees on the way back down.

Bollinger Mill is off Route HH about 19 miles from Cape Girardeau. If you go through Gordonville, to get there, I highly recommend a stop at the Gordonville Grill for lunch. If you hike the trail during warm weather, take bug repellent. I didn’t have any with me Friday, and the mosquitoes were exceptionally obnoxious.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Reusable containers

One evening about 10 years ago, I looked at my motley collection of plastic food-storage containers — some stained, some cracked, some missing lids, and some permanently infused with strong odors that limited what I could store in them — and got fed up.

In a moment of frustration or clarity (or maybe both), I tossed out the whole mess and took myself to Target for replacements.

I came home with three white Corning soup mugs with vented plastic lids and a big set of Pyrex containers with lids in assorted sizes and shapes. All of the containers were heavy, stain-proof, odor-resistant, microwave-safe, freezer-safe, dishwasher-safe, and — with the exception of the lids — oven-safe. This meant I could bake a small casserole or batch of lasagna in them, snap a lid on, and stick them in the fridge or freezer to warm up in the microwave later.

I don’t remember exactly what I paid for the set, but I want to say it cost about twice what I’d have paid for good-quality plastic containers in similar sizes. Given the limited lifespan of plastic containers — I’ve never managed to keep a set going longer than three or four years — they’ve paid for themselves and kept a lot of plastic out of the landfill.

I did notice the lids on the Corning mugs were starting to get brittle with age this spring, so Ron contacted the company to find out where we might be able to purchase replacements. A Corning rep emailed him back, asked for our address, and sent us three new lids at no charge. I was impressed; I haven’t seen a company provide customer service like that since Tupperware did that lifetime-lid-replacement warranty in the ’80s.

I’m completely sold on the merits of tempered-glass containers with plastic lids, but if you can’t afford them, reusable plastic containers are certainly better than disposables. I focus a lot on portion control to make sure I’m getting the right balance of nutrients to support my lifestyle, but I try to avoid excess packaging, which means I usually buy in bulk and then divide up the food into single-serving containers I can take to work. IKEA’s 17-piece Pruta set, which I picked up for $4.99 last time we were in St. Louis, is really handy for this, as it has a nice mix of bigger containers (good for packing fresh fruits and vegetables) and little ones (ideal for single servings of salsa, crackers or pretzels).

I still use disposable storage bags now and then — usually for freezing big or awkwardly shaped items — but I’ve been phasing them out gradually over the last decade, and I can’t say I miss them. If you’re not already doing it, I challenge you to replace one plastic bag per week with a reusable container and see how quickly you can reduce your environmental footprint.

Emily

P.S.: As always, nobody paid me anything or gave me any free product to get me to write this post; these are just my personal experiences with stuff I’ve bought and liked.

Vegetarian Friday: Vegetable stock

Remember a few weeks ago, when I told you to start saving vegetable scraps in a freezer container? It’s time to get out that container and reap the rewards.

This won’t be the prettiest thing we ever make, but vegetable stock is the basis for so many winter recipes, it only makes sense to prepare a batch now and keep it on hand as we head toward soup season.

You can buy vegetable broth at the store, but it’s usually outrageously expensive, comes in packaging that’s difficult to recycle, and often includes a lot of excess salt and preservatives. Vegetable bouillon is cheaper and involves less packaging, but the sodium content is through the roof, and many brands are made with monosodium glutamate or other chemicals that trigger problems for people with certain food sensitivities.

Our DIY version is free, tastes better, uses little to no packaging, and takes less than 10 minutes of actual work to prepare.

Ingredients

At least 2 c. vegetable scraps
Water

That’s all you need. The scraps can be mushroom stems, celery trimmings, onion peels, herb stems, baby carrots left over from a veggie tray, bell-pepper cores, or just about anything else you have on hand. Every time you cook, instead of tossing these leftovers into the compost bin, throw them in an old ice-cream tub or similar container and keep it in the freezer.

The Crock-Pot turns vegetable scraps into broth with minimal effort.
The Crock-Pot turns vegetable scraps into broth with minimal effort.

When the container is full, take two minutes to dump it into a Crock-Pot and cover the contents with water. Turn the Crock-Pot on and let it cook at least 4 hours on high or 8 hours on low. The longer it cooks, the more concentrated the flavor will be.

Shut off the Crock-Pot and leave it alone until the broth is cool enough to handle safely.

When the stock cools, freeze it in ice-cube trays, then store the cubes in a ziplock bag.
When the stock cools, freeze it in ice-cube trays, then store the cubes in a ziplock bag.

Strain the finished broth into a large pitcher, pour into ice-cube trays, and freeze. Pop out the finished cubes and store them in a ziplock bag or other freezer-safe container to use in any recipe that calls for broth. Compost the cooked vegetable scraps.

Emily

Beer in the woods

exteriorweb
This might be the best place in Southern Illinois.

Tucked away at the end of a back road outside Ava, Illinois, is a microbrewery so good, in such an idyllic setting, it has managed to elevate my entire perception of the region where I grew up.

We made a new friend on our last visit.
We made a new friend on our last visit.

I first learned about Scratch Brewing Company last fall, when I attended a friend’s birthday party at Hangar 9 in Carbondale, and his sister bought me a hickory-based sour beer from Scratch that was easily the most glorious thing I’d ever tasted.

The taps are made of sticks. So is some of the beer. And it is AMAZING.
The taps are made of sticks. So is some of the beer. And it is AMAZING.

Ron and I finally made it out to Scratch’s tasting room this summer and proceeded to fall in love with the brewery and its surroundings.

The garden surrounding the brewery blends seamlessly into the woods.
The garden surrounding the brewery blends seamlessly into the woods.

The first thing that delighted me about Scratch was the fact they make everything from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, many of which they grow on-site or forage from the nearby forest. This practice leads to far more diverse and interesting flavors than you find at breweries that rely almost exclusively on hops to flavor their beer.

The menu changes constantly. Last Friday, we had this cheese platter with house-made crackers and a killer spreadable cheese from Bloomsdale, Missouri.
The menu changes constantly. Last Friday, we had this cheese platter with house-made crackers and a killer spreadable cheese from Bloomsdale, Missouri.

The second thing that delighted me about Scratch was the fact they aren’t afraid to experiment with less common types of beer. This means you’ll almost certainly find a sour or two on tap when you walk in, and they might have a rauchbier, a heavy or some other less-common variety available as well.

Everything on this menu is awesome. And odds are good none of it will be on the menu when you go, because the options change constantly.
Everything on this menu is awesome. And odds are good none of it will be on the menu when you go, because the options change constantly.

The brewers’ commitment to local ingredients extends to the yeasts they use: Instead of commercially produced yeasts, they use sourdough starter to ferment their beer and make their pizza crust rise. This not only guarantees a unique, hyperlocal flavor, but it allows me to drink Scratch products without triggering sinus headaches. (Apparently I’ve developed an allergy to certain strains of yeast in the past year or so, but I’ve been exposed to Southern Illinois’ indigenous yeasts for 41 years, so my immune system doesn’t freak out when it encounters them.)

This is what my dining room would look like most of the time if I didn't own a dehydrator.
This is what my dining room would look like most of the time if I didn’t own a dehydrator.

After three trips, however, I’ve found my favorite thing about Scratch might not be the excellent food or the world-class beer, but the surroundings. The tasting room is tucked into the woods, with a big, rambling herb garden out front and tiny lizards darting between the rocks in the retaining walls next to the walkway that leads into the building.

Here is most of the Piasa mural ...
Here is most of the Piasa mural …

... and here is the rest.
… and here is the rest.

Indoors, a beautifully rendered mural of a Piasa bird graces one wall, dried herbs hang from the rafters and fill jars lining another wall, and local artists’ influence can be seen everywhere.

This sort of reminds me of the golden years when Makanda Java carried bulk herbal tea in big jars.
This sort of reminds me of the golden years when Makanda Java carried bulk herbal tea in big jars.

It’s a remarkable place, and one that has the same effect on me as a trip to Dave Dardis’ not-so-secret garden in Makanda: It makes me more aware and more appreciative of what my home area has to offer. Between Scratch and a recent trip to Shawnee Trails in Carbondale, I’m just about ready to invest in a pair of trail shoes and let my next New Year’s resolution revolve around exploring the forests of Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri every chance I get.

Emily