Design Mom » Secrets to Living Well http://www.designmom.com The Intersection of Design & Motherhood Fri, 14 Mar 2014 04:58:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.1 9 Secrets To Garnishing a Turkey Platter http://www.designmom.com/2013/11/9-secrets-to-garnishing-a-turkey-platter/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/11/9-secrets-to-garnishing-a-turkey-platter/#comments Thu, 21 Nov 2013 17:00:15 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=43030

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

By Lindsey Johnson of Café Johnsonia for Design Mom.

We’ve already tackled the 6 Secrets to the Perfect Pie Crust and 7 Secrets to the Juiciest Thanksgiving Turkey. Now it’s time to talk about making that turkey pretty on the platter! You put in a lot of effort when preparing a Thanksgiving turkey — roasting it for hours and hours, lifting the heavy pan to rotate the turkey, making sure it doesn’t burn, checking the temperature, etc, etc. All that work and everyone devours it in a matter of minutes? I know. It’s just how things are. Everyone is hungry.

But if you’re at all like me, you might want everyone to stop and take a good long gander (pardon the bird pun) and admire that beautiful turkey with its crisp, brown skin and tantalizing juiciness. A well-roasted, heavily browned turkey is a piece of art, no? Norman Rockwell seemed to think so, and I do too.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

My advice: think like Martha. Dress up that platter! Gild that lily! Make that turkey pretty! Make those hungry mouths wait just a darn second and admire that 4-5 hour beauty you just (literally) threw your back into.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Here are some ideas to make the turkey platter look extra pretty, whether you’re a food blogger like me, an Insta-maniac, you simply like your food to be attractive, or as I said, you just want everyone to stand back and admire your work.

Turkey Platters

Let’s begin with talking about platters. You’ll want to keep a few things in mind when selecting which platter to use. The first thing is your personal style. Secret #1: You’ll want a platter that matches what you already have in the way of serving pieces, dishes and flatware. I’m not saying you have to take this as seriously as picking out a sofa, but think of a platter that will keep along with a theme — for instance if you have all white dishes and serving bowls, just about any white platter will fit in well. Another example, if your dishes are really modern, an ornate floral platter might look out of place unless you have other pieces to pull together an eclectic look (which I happen to love). It doesn’t have to be matchy-matchy to look put together.

If you don’t own a giant platter, but you want to, start checking places like thrift stores, TJMaxx, Home Goods, Bed Bath and Beyond, IKEA, and department stores. You can often snag a good one for a good price at this time of year. Another look I love is a large cutting board or a nice looking roasting pan. You can dress those up too!

Secret #2: Whichever platter option you choose, make sure it is large enough and can support the weight of a turkey without being too heavy for someone to carry, i.e. you don’t want to be cleaning up turkey off the floor. (It can happen.)

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

After you pick your platter the real fun begins and you can let your creative side take the reins. Secret #3: These are things you want to start thinking a few days before your dinner so you’re not trying to throw something together at the last minute. Last minute can work too though (said from experience).

There are dozens of ways you can go about garnishing your platter. I tend to begin thinking about a color scheme first, along with the feeling or mood I want to create. And we’re talking about turkey here, but this advice goes for anytime you’re garnishing a platter or any kind.

Think about things like the time of day you’ll be eating. Later in the evening or the middle of the day? Also, is your table extra fancy with your great-grandmother’s china and real silver, or is it more casual. And please don’t say paper plates. Hah! Are you someone who does things over-the-top, or are you more simple? From there, you can decide which garnishes best suit the look and feel of your Thanksgiving dinner. Here are some examples of creating a mood:

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

The turkey on this simple white platter is garnished with roasted vegetables, mushrooms, pears, and herb sprigs.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

They didn’t cook alongside the turkey, but they could have. I would maybe garnish my turkey this way for a later, possibly candlelit, Thanksgiving dinner.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Now, if I was going to have my meal a little earlier in the day with the sunlight pouring through my windows, I might want something bright and cheery like the platters shown above and below.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

I really like this one on the aqua metal tray because it features fruits and veggies in the colors of the rainbow.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Now let’s move on to the garnishes themselves. You can garnish your platter with just about anything you can imagine, but I’ve come up with a great list (below) of common and very pretty platter garnishes that will make your turkey look extra special.

You can go with garnishes that match the flavors used to season your turkey during brining or that were stuffed inside the turkey as an aromatic. Things like fresh herbs, onions, garlic, and apples. Like I showed above, these could also be roasted vegetables, fruits, and/or mushrooms.

Secret #4: Greenery is a great, fresh garnish to place around the base of the turkey on a platter. Lettuces, kale, leafy herbs, and other salad greens are particularly lovely.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

The platter above starts with an even layer of watercress around the perimeter.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

It looks simple as is, or other things can be added, such as different varieties of citrus fruit.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Now let’s talk about all of the things to add in for different colors, shapes and textures.

Nuts are one of my favorite things to decorate with at this time of year. I love the different shades of brown and the contrast of rough and smooth shells. Sometime I would like to decorate a monochromatic platter using only browns and tans.

red berries, pomegranates, grapes

I love the pop of color from reds and oranges against the dark brown turkey and the leafy greens. Pomegranates and cranberries are my favorite holiday garnishes, but you could also include roasted beets or clusters of grapes.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

I love the feeling the grapes give to the platter of a bounteous feast when mixed with other gorgeous fruits.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Secret #5: Also you can think about what’s in season. I desperately wanted to find figs for my platter, but fig season is so short. Sigh. Instead I was able to pick up persimmons and gorgeous satsumas with their leaves still attached. And my local farm stand still has lovely little golden apples and winter squash. Take advantage of what’s available to you!

persimmons, squash, yellow apples, satsumas

GARNISH IDEA LIST

Fruits and nuts:
pomegranates, cranberries, quince, pears, persimmons, grapes, berries, currants, crab apples, citrus, figs, whole unshelled nuts (almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, walnuts), chestnuts (fresh or canned)

Veggies:
squash, root veggies (potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips. celery root), fennel, onions, garlic

Greenery:
Fresh herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, parsley, etc.), lemon leaves

It kind of goes without saying, but make sure you’ve washed the produce well before you use it on the platter.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Now let’s talk about how to begin arranging and building the platter. Secret #6: You’ll want to do this in layers. Most of the time I start with placing the turkey on the platter first. Sometimes I place a few paper towels underneath it to absorb any escaping juices and to keep it from tipping over on its side. Then I give it a brush of olive oil so it looks fresh. You can do that at the very end too.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Then I’ll start adding the greens. Here I’ve started building my platter using sturdy, dark green lacinato kale.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Or depending on the kind of green I’m starting with, I might want to place them first and then place the turkey on the platter.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

One the greenery is basically in place, I start adding the different elements starting with larger items and ending with the smaller ones. Secret #7: I want to place them at different and sort of random intervals so it doesn’t look too ordered. I don’t really care about having an apple at both the top, bottom and sides. But I might choose a fruit of similar size instead that helps keep it in balance.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Other things I think about include the turkey cavity. Secret #8: If the turkey isn’t stuffed, you might want to place something inside so it’s not a gaping hole. An apple, a bunch of herbs, an onion, etc.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Secret #9: Use some whole and some cut items. Pomegranates are beautiful when they are whole, but cut them open and they are absolutely stunning. Use a nice mix.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

Don’t be afraid to move the items around and rearrange. Fill in little holes with smaller items. Remove a piece of fruit that’s too large and looks out of place. Add in some texture! Play around and have fun.

Then bring it to the table and delight your family and guests while you bask in their oohs and aahs!

Happy Roasting! Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. — Love secrets? Find all the posts in the Secrets To Living Well Series here.

How to Garnish a Turkey   |   Design Mom

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Living Well: 40 Secrets for Cooking on a Grill http://www.designmom.com/2013/08/living-well-40-secrets-for-cooking-on-a-grill/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/08/living-well-40-secrets-for-cooking-on-a-grill/#comments Fri, 30 Aug 2013 13:00:14 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=40126

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Images and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

We’ve come to part three of our 3-part Outdoor Cooking mini-series (find campfire cooking here, and dutch oven cooking here). In this post I’m going to cover some grilling basics as well as a fun menu that can entirely be cooked on the grill — from the appetizers to the dessert!

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

It’s a good guess that when it comes to outdoor cooking, grilling is the most popular method. Summer seems to be when grilling is at its peak — starting with Memorial Day and ending with Labor Day. But I imagine a lot of us grill year round.

It’s such a great way to cook food — most of the mess is outside, it doesn’t heat up the house, and it tastes fabulous! Plus you can grill just about anything.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Ready to get grilling? Let’s go!

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

PREPPING THE GRILL

The first thing to decide? Gas or Charcoal.

There’s a bit of a debate over which is better, and I’m still on the fence. Charcoal gives food a smoky flavor that’s hard to duplicate. But it’s also harder to control the temperature and takes a bit longer. Charcoal also requires and additional 20-30 minutes to heat up before cooking. Gas is cleaner burning, quicker, and easier to control the temperature. Secret #1: Really, it’s personal preference. In this post I’m using charcoal because that’s what we use, but I’m including tips for using gas too.

No matter which type of grill you’re using, it doesn’t have to be fancy. Grills with all the bells and whistles, knobs and side burners are great — not really necessary. Secret #2: With grilling, it’s all in the technique. You could even say it’s an art. And that comes with practice. Lots of delicious practice. : )

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

In addition to a grill, you’ll want to have a few tools handy. Secret #3: When it comes to grilling, look for tools with long handles. It can get pretty hot over the grill! Again, you don’t need fancy tools. There are some really fun grilling gadgets available now, but I stick to a good grill brush with stiff, wire bristles, a pair of tongs, and a spatula.  The little brush pictured below is good for getting in between the grates. The flat one covers the top of the grate.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #4: You always want to start with a clean grill. Of course, it helps if you clean the grates after each grilling session. But if you forgot last time you grilled, no worries. It’s pretty easy to do and only takes a few minutes. You can clean the grates when they are hot or cool. Secret #5: I find it’s a little easier to clean a hot grate.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

The cleaning can happen while the grill is heating up or after cooking while it’s cooling down. Secret #6: I also clean the grate in between cooking different types of food, too — particularly if I’ve cooked something with a sticky glaze, or something spicy. I give the grill a good scrub with a wire brush and that seems to take care of most of the food residue.

Secret #7: If you have a lot of burnt-on residue, you can even turn the grill up really high and burn it off. As I mentioned, the extra heat seems to help, but elbow grease will also work if you clean it when it has cooled. If you don’t have a grill brush, you can wad up some aluminum foil, hold the wad with tongs, and rub the foil across the grill to clean the surface.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

We talked about starting charcoal in our Dutch oven post, but in case you missed it, here’s a quick refresher. You can buy traditional briquettes or hard wood briquettes. Secret #8: We like to start ours in a charcoal burner. You simply put the charcoal in the burner, add a little lighter fluid (totally optional), and light with a match.Self-lighting charcoal is also available and doesn’t require more than a match to get it going. As I said, using lighter fluid is totally optional, but we tend to use a little bit to help things move along more quickly. Though you should be aware, some people feel it negatively affects the flavor of the food. Ultimately, it’s your call.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

With gas grills there is typically a button starter, if not, you’ll light it manually with a match. There are valves and knobs to control how much fuel you let in, which in turn creates a bigger or smaller flame. Bigger flames=more heat, smaller flames=less heat. Some gas grills are very large and have several burners. Secret #9: This is advantageous, because you can easily create a hot side and a cooler side. You can do this with charcoal too, by piling up more charcoal on one side and less on the other. Or, you can pile the coals in the center for direct heat and use the outer part of the grill for indirect heat. (Read on for more about this.)

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #10: Once the grill has heated up, you’ll want to oil the grates well with a paper towel soaked with a little vegetable oil. This helps keep food from sticking. Avoid using nonstick cooking spray which can cause dangerous flare-ups.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

PREPARING THE FOOD

Before we get to the actual cooking part, let’s take a little detour and talk about preparing the food.

Secret #11: Practically anything can be grilled. Grilling itself provides a lot of flavor, but you can further enhance the flavor of grilled foods through marinades, glazes and rubs, or by smoking the food using wood chips or planks. (I’m of the opinion that simple is better. If you start with good food and season it simply, then it will always be good. That being said, I have a hard time saying no to a good marinade!)

Secret #12: Grills are good for things that don’t need to be cooked for a long time, think: steaks. But you can also use them for longer periods, think: ribs. Grills are also great for smoking food. That means longer, slower, lower cooking temps. We love to smoke fish using wood chips or cedar planks. But you can smoke other meats, and even vegetables.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #13: When cooking meat, a lot of good flavor comes from fat. So look for cuts with good, even marbling. If the steak feels tender when raw, it will likely be tender also when cooked. Making friends with your butcher or fishmonger will be a great help when deciding which cut of meat, poultry or fish to buy for grilling.

For a really good steak (the one above has been dry aged), all you really need is some coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. You don’t want to mask the flavor of the meat.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #14: Some cuts of meat are leaner or tougher — they require a little tenderizing and benefit from marinating and long, slow cooking.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #15: Marinades and spice rubs are done before grilling. They infuse flavors into the food before it cooks, which can be nice for leaner cuts of meat or foods that require a little extra seasoning. Secret #16: Marinades contain an acid (vinegar, wine, citrus juice), salt, and oil and sometimes a little sugar.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #17: Dry rubs consist of a blend of spices, salt, and sugar, that are applied to the outside of the food. They are good for food that cooks quickly on the grill and won’t become more tender when it cooks — such as steak, fish, shrimp, and chicken breasts. Secret #18: Wet rubs are dry rubs mixed with a liquid ingredient such as yogurt, buttermilk, beer, mustard, tomato sauce, oil/butter, etc. Both kinds of rubs help create an irresistible crust on the food once it’s grilled.

Secret #19: Unless a recipe instructs otherwise, meat and chicken should be marinated at least 30 minutes or up to several hours prior to grilling. Though marinating for too long can affect the texture of the food. Secret #20: Fish and other seafood should only be marinated for a brief amount of time or it can actually “cook” the food.

Speaking of marinades, some fresh fruit juices like pineapple and papaya contain enzymes that are good tenderizers, but if left too long will make the meat turn spongy. Either use cooked juice or marinate for a short time.

One last thing, there is also a method called brining. We talked about wet brining in the Turkey 101 post. Dry brining is done by heavily salting meat, placing in the fridge for a few hours and then rinsing the salt off and patting dry before grilling.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #21: When using dry or wet rubs, be careful not to press too hard into the meat. Just rub on the surface, you don’t to be too rough or it could damage the texture of the meat. Secret #22: Also, trim any excess fat before marinating or seasoning. This will help prevent flare-ups on the grill.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #23: Glazes are added at the end, or near the end of cooking time. This is because glazes tend to be sweeter and thicker — like BBQ sauce. Jams, jellies and other prepared preserves also make great glazes. But if the food is glazed too early, the sugars in the glaze can caramelize and burn.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

It’s best to brush the glaze on a few minutes before the food is done, or just as it’s pulled off the grill. Secret #24: Some marinades can be boiled down and turned into a glaze. Just be sure to let it boil for several minutes or more to kill any harmful microorganisms.

Secret #25: Make sure to pat the food dry before searing it over direct heat. If not, the food can steam instead of developing a nice crust on the outside. Try to remove most of the marinade from the food. Rubs are fine and don’t need to be removed.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #26: If you are planning on making skewers, smoking food, or using wooden planks, plan ahead and soak them in water first. The extra moisture will help keep the wood or bamboo from catching fire. And in the case of wood chips, will also help create the desired smoke.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Vegetables can be cooked whole or cut into wedges or cubes. Secret #27: They should be lightly rubbed with a little oil to keep them from sticking. Other than that, veggies are pretty simple to grill. A little salt and pepper is all they need, but they can also be marinated if you prefer. (Mushrooms are really great marinated and grilled.)

Once the food is ready, it’s time to head outside and get grilling!

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

INDIRECT AND DIRECT HEAT

There are two ways of cooking on a grill. Secret #28: You can use indirect or direct heat. Indirect means that the food isn’t over the hottest part of the grill, and with direct heat it is. Direct heat is for foods that cook quickly — 20 minutes or less. Indirect is for foods requiring longer cooking times, like ribs. Secret #29: Indirect heat is also okay to use when you’ve cooked something and need to keep it warm. I’m not talking about steak though. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

The grill above is shallow. This means when the grate is placed on top, the food will be closer to the coals.  The charcoal in this type of grill cools quickly, so it’s best for things that can cook very quickly over a hot, high heat.  Kettle grills are deeper (unless they are filled very full of charcoal) and have more distance between the food and the hot coals.

Holding your hand over the grill will help you determine if it’s hot enough. Hold the palm of your hand about four inches above the coals and/or grate. Count the seconds it takes until it becomes too hot to hold your hand there. Secret #30: Two seconds is approximately 375-400 degrees F, three is 350-375 degrees, four seconds is 300-350 degrees and five seconds is between 200-300 degrees F. For most recipes and grilling purposes, you’ll want the grill to be in the 375-400 degree range.

Foods best cooked over direct heat: boneless poultry and meat, skewers, burgers, hot dogs, steaks, vegetables (whole or sliced), fruit, bread slices

Foods best cooked over indirect heat: bone-in poultry and meat such as ribs, whole chickens or turkeys.

Once the grill is hot enough, put the steak (or other cut of meat or poultry) on the grill.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

GRILLING

Let’s talk about timing. Bone-in cuts of meat and poultry will take a bit longer to cook than boneless and can be seared first over direct heat and then moved to the indirect heat to finish cooking. Thinner cuts will cook much more quickly than thicker cuts, so keep that in mind if you’re cooking steaks and prefer one that is more rare/well done. Vegetables and fruit cook in a flash. Skewers and kabobs cook much more quickly than whole pieces.

Ribs need to be cooked slowly for a long time over even heat. If the temperature spikes, the meat can dry out.

Secret #31: Once you put the food on the grill, don’t be tempted to turn it a bunch of times.  Let is stay on the grill to get a good sear on the first side, then turn over once. Resist the temptation to keep turning it over and over again.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #32: When preparing and cooking skewers, make sure the food isn’t too crammed together on the skewer or on the grill.  It needs to be close enough so it stays juicy and doesn’t become too dry, but not so close it takes a long time to cook or steam.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Secret #33: Put the lid on the grill to keep the heat in, but leave the vent open so the charcoal or flame doesn’t go out.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

When is the food done? A lot of times experience is the best way to know when food is done cooking. Secret #34: But it’s also a good idea to buy an inexpensive instant read thermometer. It will tell you pretty quickly if the internal temperature is high enough.

Medium-rare beef will be about 150 degrees F on a meat thermometer. Poultry should be cooked to 180 degrees, pork and lamb are cooked when they reach 160 degrees.

Secret #35: Remember that food will continue cooking a bit once it’s off the grill. And in fact, you should let meat and poultry rest for about 15 minutes to allow the juices to be reabsorbed. You can lightly cover it to keep the heat in, but it might sacrifice the nice crust a bit.

Steak is one of those things that when done correctly is magical, and if done incorrectly is horrible. Secret #36: A good way to gauge if a steak is cooked properly (rare, medium, well, and in-between) is to use your hand. Bring your pointer finger to your thumb loosely in an O shape. Feel the fleshy part of your palm just under the thumb. That’s what rare feels like. Bringing the middle finger to the thumb feels like medium; ring finger to thumb is medium-well, and pinky to thumb is well done. Secret #37: Don’t worry, it’s better to err on the side of rare. You can always put a rare steak back on the grill for a few minutes.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

TROUBLESHOOTING

Flare-up? No problem! Secret #38: Just close the lid to tame the flames. Don’t spray water on it. It could cause splattering and burns. Better to sacrifice a burger than end up in the emergency room.

If the grill is not hot enough or the food isn’t cooking as quickly, simply add more coals for charcoal, turn flame up for gas grills. Secret #39: We like to keep an extra batch of charcoal going when we are grilling so we can add hot coals as needed. It’s particularly helpful if you’ll be grilling for a crowd. That’s another disadvantage of charcoal — it can go out before you’re finished cooking!

Certain foods might fall apart or fall through the grill grates. Secret #40: You can use a grill pan or make a little boat out of heavy-duty foil to keep that from happening. More delicate foods like fish are best cooked in a grill pan or special grilling basket.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

MENU

And last, but not least, our menu!

Grilled Toasts and Brie, Figs and Jam
Grilled Kale with Sea Salt and Olive Oil
Grilled Marinated Flatiron Steak
Grilled Vegetable and Chicken Skewers
Grilled Peaches and Poundcake with Ice Cream

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Grilled Toasts with Brie, Figs and Jam
Ingredients:
1 large wheel brie
jam
10-12 fresh figs
1 loaf artisan bread, cut into 1/2-inch slices
olive oil, for brushing

Instructions:
Brush slices of bread with olive oil. Grill over direct heat for a 1-2 minutes each side until toasted. Transfer to a serving platter. Rub grate with paper towel soaked in a little oil. Place whole wheel of brie and figs on the grill. Turn the bried and figs after a few minutes. The brie will be done when the inside feels jiggly when pressed gently with tongs. Carefully transfer brie and figs to a serving platter and serve with the grilled toasts and jam.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Grilled Kale with Sea Salt and Olive Oil
Ingredients:
2 bunches kale (I used Lacinato Kale)
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
coarse sea salt

Instructions:
Wash kale and pat dry. Brush the leaves with olive oil. Working in batches, cook the whole leaves on a hot grill for a few minutes per side. The leaves will darken in places and even become a little crispy. Transfer to a serving bowl. Remove the hard stems if desired and tear the grilled kale into bite-size pieces. Season with coarse sea salt and serve warm or at room temperature.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Grilled Veggie Skewers
Ingredients:
assorted cubed vegetables such as zucchini, onion, and bell pepper
cherry tomatoes
olive oil
salt and pepper
bamboo skewers, pre-soaked in water for 30 minutes

Instructions:
Have a hot grill ready. Place the vegetables on the skewers. Brush with a little olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Place skewers on grill and let cook for 3-4 minutes per side. Serve warm.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Grilled Marinated Flat Iron Steak
from epicurious.com
Can be prepared in 45 minutes or less but requires additional unattended time.

Ingredients:
2-to-2 1/2 pound Flatiron steak (London broil or flank steak can be substituted)

For marinade-
4 large garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
2/3 cup olive oil

Instructions:
Whisk all marinade ingredients together in a bowl.

Put the meat in a large resealable plastic bag and pour marinade over it. Seal bag, pressing out excess air, and set in a shallow dish. Marinate meat, chilled, turning bag once or twice for several hours.

Remove meat from marinade and discard the marinade. Have a hot grill ready. Cook meat for 9 to 10 minutes on each side, or until it registers 135°F. to 140°F., on a meat thermometer for medium-rare meat. (This may vary according to the thickness of the meat.) Transfer meat to a cutting board and let stand 10 minutes. Cut meat diagonally across the grain into thin slices.

Your Complete Guide to Cooking on a Grill. 40 tips!  |  Design Mom

Grilled Peaches and Poundcake with Ice Cream
Ingredients:
4 large peaches, peeled if desired, halved and pit removed
1 pound cake loaf, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 pint premium ice cream

Instructions:
Have a hot grill ready. Rub the grates lightly with oil. Place the peaches on the grill, cut-side down for 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter or bowl. Clean grill grate with wire brush, if needed. Rub again with oil. Place the pound cake slices on the grill. Grill for about 1 minute and carefully turn over and grill for another minute. Gently remove from the grill. Serve warm with the grilled peaches and a scoop of ice cream. Yield: 8 servings

——-

Now I want to hear your grilling secrets! What’s your go-to grilling favorite? Are you a summer-only or year-round kind of griller? Will you be grilling this weekend for Labor Day?

P.S. — Like secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.

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Living Well: 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking http://www.designmom.com/2013/08/living-well-15-secrets-to-dutch-oven-cooking/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/08/living-well-15-secrets-to-dutch-oven-cooking/#comments Thu, 22 Aug 2013 17:00:41 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=39638

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Images and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Are you ready for another installment of our Outdoor Cooking series (here’s part one)? I am too!

Cooking in a Dutch oven is one of life’s pleasures, I think. It’s hard to duplicate the feeling of cooking outdoors in a big, cast-iron pot over hot coals. It’s hard to duplicate that flavor too — a cross between cooking over a fire and using a slow cooker. I love it (if that wasn’t already obvious). :)

Dutch ovens have been around for years and years and years. Now that most of us do our daily cooking indoors on and in modern stoves and ovens, it seems like Dutch oven cooking is more for hobbyists and campers. If you haven’t enjoyed Dutch oven cooking as the cook or the eater, you’ve been missing out! It’s a lot of fun.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Cooking with a Dutch oven might seem a little intimidating or complicated. I totally get that! But what you put into the Dutch oven is pretty simple and uncomplicated; the cooking part is where it can get a little tricky. There’s a bit of a learning curve to get the timing and temperature just right, but once those two things are covered, you’ll be set.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

You can cook or bake practically anything in a Dutch oven — they are incredibly versatile. Over the years we’ve modified old family favorites for use in a Dutch oven as well as finding new ones.

So, it’s time to pull out your favorite recipes and a pen and paper to take some notes!

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

You will want to purchase or borrow a few things to get ready for your Dutch oven cooking adventures. You don’t need a ton of equipment, but there are a few essentials that you don’t want to be without. I’m listing them here and will cover each in a bit more detail as we go along.

-One or two Dutch ovens (or more if you’ve got a crowd!)
-Charcoal chimney starter
-Charcoal briquettes
-Something to put the lid on (a muffin tin works well)
-lid lifter
-high heat resistant gloves
-straw broom
-lighter fluid (optional, not pictured)

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

DUTCH OVENS AND PREPARATION

As with anything, cooking with Dutch ovens does require a some planning and preparation. Secret #1: You should buy a Dutch oven a little before you plan on using it to make sure you have time to properly season it. A well-seasoned Dutch oven makes for happier cooking and cleaning up. Seasoning means that it’s been rubbed with oil or vegetable shortening and baked in an oven for a few hours to develop a nice, black coating on the surface of the entire Dutch oven. It will become further seasoned as you use it, eventually becoming nonstick.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Treat Dutch ovens as you do cast iron skillets and pans. If you’ve used those, it’s the same process for seasoning and care. There are aluminum Dutch ovens available, but the most common ones sold and used are cast iron. That’s what we’ll be talking about in this post.

Dutch ovens come with heavy lids that provide a good seal during cooking. Because the Dutch ovens are made of heavy cast iron, they retain heat very well. In fact, they can stay warm for hours and hours after cooking. Dutch ovens are best used for recipes requiring a long, slow cooking time, like stews, roasts, chili, etc. But they can also be used for things that cook in 30 minutes or less, like quick breads, rolls, cakes and cobblers. Dutch ovens lend great flavor to food from the oven itself and the charcoal briquettes. (You can’t get that from your indoor oven or a slow cooker!) Though I’m not covering the techniques in this post, dutch ovens are great for cooking bread and deep frying, as well.

Generally the cooking temperature will be about 350-400 degrees F. The cooking heat is generated from using coals placed underneath the pan and on top of the lid. You’ll see Dutch ovens with flat bottoms or with three little legs. The flat ones are better for indoor cooking. The ones with legs are the kind for outdoor use. I’m sure they were designed that way for other reasons too, but the little legs are nice because the Dutch oven keeps upright much better over the coals.

Let’s talk about the charcoal for a minute because it is such an important part of Dutch oven cooking!

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

CHARCOAL

For getting the coals hot, we prefer using a charcoal chimney starter.

The advantage of a charcoal starter is that you can get the coals started quickly and (usually) evenly. The tall chimney shape keeps the coals protected from wind and keeps them together as they heat up. I honestly would recommend investing in one if you do a lot of cooking with charcoal. Secret #2: The charcoal needs to be started about 20-30 minutes before you plan on starting to cook. If you use a charcoal starter, it might only take 15 minutes. I use that time to mix my ingredients together. By the time I’ve put everything into the Dutch oven, the coals are hot and ready to be used.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Directions for lighting charcoal:

Put charcoal in charcoal burner, drizzle with a little lighter fluid (optional, but helps to get it going quickly), the carefully add a lighted match.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

The general rule of thumb is two charcoal briquettes per inch in diameter, and typically more coals are placed on top than on bottom.  For example, a 12-inch Dutch oven would have 14 coals on top and 8 underneath for a temperature of about 300 degrees F. Secret #3: To raise the cooking temperature 25 degrees F, add an extra (preheated) briquette on both top and bottom.

Secret #4: The arrangement of the coals also matters. They need to be arranged evenly both top and bottom. Usually this is a circle around the perimeter with a few in the center. I’ve arranged them a little differently here because I was using the hard wood briquettes and they weren’t uniform in size.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Ovens can go almost anywhere to cook just about anything you want. This could be your backyard, a park, campsite, etc. Just make sure the surface is heat proof. Concrete works great as does dirt. You can use Dutch ovens in a fire pit or on a grill like the one in the picture. I chose to do it this way for this post because I liked that it was high off the ground — while my kids were running around and playing. It also made it easier for me to check on it. But we also like placing it in on the ground in a fire pit because we can cook other things over the coals at the same time. Either way works great!

Dutch ovens come in various sizes. The most common sizes are 10″, 12″ and 14″. They also vary in depth. The bigger (and deeper) the Dutch oven, the more people you can feed, and the heavier they are. Keep that in mind too. We usually use 12″ ovens to cover our basic cooking needs.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

COOKING

Let’s talk a bit about the Do’s of Dutch oven cooking.

Secret #5: Do season it well and then rub the inside with a little oil every time you use it.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Even though the Dutch oven has been seasoned, it’s a good idea to rub the inside with a little oil before using it. I just pour a little in the bottom and use a paper towel to wipe the entire inside. The outside doesn’t need to be rubbed with oil again before cooking. Also, Dutch ovens don’t require preheating, so unless a specific recipe lists preheating as part of the instructions, you won’t have to worry about doing that.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Secret #6: Do line the inside with foil if you need to. Need to = if you’re cooking something especially sticky like fruit cobbler. Or, if you’re using acidic ingredients like tomatoes, lemon juice, wine, or vinegar, because they can remove some of the seasoned interior. To be honest, I usually don’t use foil with the acidic ingredients, but I am careful not to let the food sit in the dutch oven for too long after it’s done cooking.  Note: It will take a little longer to cook if you line it with foil.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Some other quick Do not’s for Dutch oven cooking include Secret #7: Don’t ever pour cold water into a hot oven to cool it off, it will ruin it. Secret #8: Don’t drop it! They look indestructible, but they can break, or break your toe. : ) Secret #9: Make sure the lid is on properly and fits tightly so heat doesn’t escape. And don’t set the lid directly on the ground — use a pan, brick, or rock (I like using an upside down muffin tin) — it keeps dirt or other things from being transferred from the ground to your food. Secret #10: Don’t use plastic or silicone cooking utensils. Wood or metal only. Secret #11: When you’re finished cooking, do use the broom to clear the lids of ash so that it doesn’t get into the food.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Secret #12: If you have more than one Dutch oven, you can stack them. The coals on top of the bottom oven become the bottom coals for the top oven. Know that this will require more time and you might have to add fresh coals to keep it cooking hot enough for both ovens.

Secret #13: Timing depends on recipes, ingredients, and the size of the dutch oven. For example, with my Chicken Provencal stew (pictured in this post), I wanted to add some zucchini. Like with slow cookers, zucchini would disintegrate during a long cooking period. Add things that cook quickly near the end of cooking time. I added the zucchini about 30 minutes before the stew was ready. Start the ovens that takes the longest to cook first — desserts and ovens with just vegetables don’t take as long to cook. Also, you’ll need to add more time for deeper ovens.

Secret #14: As far as clean up goes, if the Dutch oven is well-seasoned, it will be a snap! It should just wipe out. (Toss any aluminum foil you might have used.) If the food was too messy to simply wipe out with a paper towel, use a little water or oil mixed with some salt. It will help scour the inside without damaging the seasoning. Let it dry thoroughly, then rub inside and out with oil.

Before we get to recipes, here’s one last rule of thumb I’ve found helpful, Secret #15:

If you can hear it, it’s hot enough.
If you can smell it, it’s probably getting close to being done.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

RECIPES

I chose one of my favorite recipes to turn into a Dutch oven recipe — this Chicken Provencal is amazing! We usually do it in the oven or slow cooker. Happily it’s even more delicious in the Dutch oven! Stews do really well in Dutch ovens. We also made a Summer Fruit Cobbler.

Dutch Oven Chicken Provencal Stew
adapted from Big Girls, Small Kitchen
For one 12-inch Dutch oven, to feed 6-8

Ingredients:
3 lbs. bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed (can use boneless)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup red or white wine vinegar
1/4 cup chicken stock or white wine
1 small can tomato paste
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
3 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1/4-1/2 cup chopped, pitted kalamata olives
5 large pitted dates, chopped
2 Tablespoons fresh oregano (or 1-2 teaspoons dried)
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 zucchini cut into 1/2″ rounds
6 whole roma tomatoes
Fresh parsley, for garnish

Instructions:
Combine all ingredients except zucchini and roma tomatoes in a gallon sized resealable plastic bag or large bowl covered with plastic wrap. Chill until ready to cook. (Can be done one day in advance.)

Rub the inside of the Dutch oven with oil. Place the entire contents of the bag or bowl into the oven. Arrange the chicken with a spoon or spatula so it is in an even layer. Place the Roma tomatoes evenly around. Place the lid on top.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Place 8 coals under the oven and 14 coals on top. Cook for about two hours or until the sauce has thickened quite a bit and the chicken is falling away from the bone. Add the zucchini during the last 30 minutes of cooking time. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with crusty bread, potatoes, rice or couscous.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom 15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Dutch Oven Summer Fruit Cobbler
For shallow 12-inch Dutch oven, if using a deeper one, double the fruit and filling ingredients but keep the topping the same

Ingredients:
2-2 1/2 lbs. fresh or frozen peaches
4 cups fresh or frozen berries (I used strawberries and blueberries)
1 cup sugar (use a little less if your fruit is really sweet)
1/4 cup cornstarch
pinch salt

Topping:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup stone ground corn meal (coarse or fine)
1/4 cup dry milk powder (omit if you use fresh milk instead of water)
2-4 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 Tablespoons) cold butter, cut into 8 pieces
1 1/2 cups cold water or milk (omit dry milk powder if using fresh milk)

Instructions:
For filling-
Mix cornstarch, sugar and salt together. Set aside until ready to assemble cobbler.

For topping-
Whisk all of the dry ingredients together. Add the cold butter and cut into the dry ingredients using a pastry cutter or your hands. The mixture will look like cornmeal with larger, pea-sized pieces of butter remaining. If making in advance, transfer to a large resealable plastic bag or cover bowl with plastic wrap. Chill until ready to make the batter.

To assemble:
For filling-
In a large bowl mix all of the fruit with the cornstarch and sugar. Let stand for a few minutes to allow sugar to dissolve. Transfer to the Dutch oven. (Can line with foil because it will be sticky!)

For topping-
Add the cold water or milk to the bag or bowl and mix just until combined. Pour over the fruit. Put lid on top and use 8 coals on bottom and 14 coals on top. Cook for about 30 minutes or until the juices are bubbling and the top is golden brown.

Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream. Makes about 8-10 servings.

15 Secrets to Dutch Oven Cooking  |  Design Mom

Now, I’m dying to know. Have you ever cooked with a dutch oven? Or eaten a dutch oven meal? What’s your take? Worth the extra effort? And if you’re a dutch oven expert, please add your secrets.

Here’s to outdoor cooking!

P.S. — Love secrets? Find all the posts in the Living Well series here.

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Living Well: 23 Secrets To Cooking on a Campfire http://www.designmom.com/2013/08/living-well-23-secrets-to-cooking-on-a-campfire/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/08/living-well-23-secrets-to-cooking-on-a-campfire/#comments Wed, 14 Aug 2013 16:48:09 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=39634

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

Images and text by Lindsey Johnson.

Cooking outdoors is something I love doing, but I know it can be intimidating. So I thought it would be helpful (and fun!) to create a three part series on different ways to cook outdoors. I think you’ll really like this mini-series! For the first post, I wanted to talk about campfire cooking because it’s definitely one of my favorite things about summer and being outdoors. Let’s get to it!

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

There is definitely something deeply satisfying about cooking over an open fire. The flavors, the smells, the sounds. All of it conjures up good memories of childhood camping trips and communing with nature. Campfire cooking can be just as fun and satisfying whether it’s for a week at a campground or for the day in your own backyard.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

PREPARATION

Preparation, as with most things, is key when it comes to campfire cooking. Secret #1: Plan your meals ahead of time. Depending on how long you’ll be camping, this step is very important because it affects how you will store the food. You don’t have to plan elaborate menus — In fact, sometimes simple foods taste the best. I think that’s especially true with camp food. Everything seems to taste great when you’re camping!

Plan a little extra food or an extra meal just in case. Also, if you are hoping to rely on foraging in the woods for wild food or catching fish to fry up for dinner, bring a back-up meal for if/when your plans go awry. For us, this an extra loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, hot dogs and buns.

When camping, I plan on hot cooked breakfasts and dinners. Lunch is a no-cook meal or snacks to get by until a bigger, hot meal at dinner.

A cooler is a must. You want one that’s a good size and easy to transport. The ones with wheels are great if you have to walk a bit from the car to the campsite. There are a few tricks to packing a cooler to help keep the food at its freshest and coldest for as long as possible. I recently learned a good tip from a friend who is a frequent camper. Secret #2: Line the cooler with cardboard to help it stay cold for longer. The cardboard acts as insulation and allows air to circulate. Secret #3: You’ll also want to pack it as full as possible — a full cooler is a cold cooler.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

Secret #4: Pack in layers. Start with the last day first and pack the first day last. For example if you’re camping for the weekend, pack Sunday first, Saturday next, and finish with Friday. Place more cardboard or paper bags between each layer and line with ice packs. Besides keeping things nice and cold, packing in layers this way will eliminate the need to open the cooler too often. Secret #5: If you need to, bring several small coolers. It’s a good idea to have a separate one for things like ketchup or butter, or other items you’ll need more frequently and won’t spoil if the cooler is opened more often. Fresh fruits and veggies can be stored in a separate cooler that doesn’t need to be kept quite as cold.

Secret #6: It’s also a good idea to freeze everything you can the day before you pack the cooler. This includes any meat, cheese, dairy, water, fruit, veggies, etc that will be used in cooking. You can even freeze ketchup or other condiments you’ll be using that require refrigeration. They act as their own ice packs! Bonus:  if you are bringing meat or chicken, add marinade and it will marinate as it thaws.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom 23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

Other camping food prep tips: Cut, chop, and marinade food ahead of time. Put things in plastic resealable bags. If you bring pancake mix, measure it ahead of time in the bag and label it — just add water, mix, and cut off the corner and it’s ready to use. Precook stews and chili at home, freeze in plastic bags and it will be super easy to let them thaw and heat up in a pan over the fire. This step will save you loads of time and extra cooking utensils you don’t really need, not to mention clean up!

You’ve got your menu planned. You’ve packed your cooler. Secret #7: Next, think about think about pots and pans and other cooking utensils. For sure bring a few sharp knives — a chefs knife and paring knife will cover most of your cooking needs at camp. Bring a few cutting boards, sanitizing wipes, or spray. I like to mix liquid dish detergent with water and put it in a spray bottle to keep handy for a quick hand wash or to spray on cooking utensils and surfaces before I rinse and wipe them down.

Cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens are great to bring along, but are heavy to carry! Secret #8: Don’t bring your good cookware with you. Purchase some less expensive pots and pans (Goodwill and Salvation Army are great sources for these!) and be prepared that they might get a little beat up. We also bring a percolator to heat water in for hot beverages and washing dishes. Bring a few big bowls for mixing or serving and to use as wash bins. Don’t forget tongs! They are invaluable when cooking outdoors. Bring the longest ones you can find. Be sure they are flame-resistant and don’t have silicone or plastic tips, which can/will melt.

Now that we’ve covered the planning part, it’s time to get cooking!

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

BUILDING THE FIRE

Of course, building a fire is a crucial step. Before you camp, read up on fire safety. Make sure it’s safe to build a fire where you are camping.  We tend to use campgrounds with dedicated cooking areas that are close to water and other conveniences. If you’re really roughing it and there isn’t a dedicated fire ring, build one using large rocks. Make sure to clear away any loose debris that could catch fire from sparks or ash. Also be sure to build it away from tents and trees. An open space is best. Also, pay attention to weather conditions such as wind or rain.

Secret #9: You don’t need a lot of special equipment — firewood, matches or lighter, kindling (you can usually find this at camp), a shovel (for clearing debris, moving logs and coals, extinguishing the fire), loose-fitting high-heat resistant gloves (oven mitts don’t cut it here!), and last but not least, you’ll probably want some water just in case things get out of hand. If you don’t bring firewood with you, then plan on bringing a hatchet to chop wood.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

To begin building the fire, you want to use dry hardwood. Secret #10: If you’re planning on finding wood at camp, be sure to stay away from fresh or green wood. It will just smoke and not burn. Look for smaller pieces of dried branches or use paper or cardboard for kindling to help get a small fire going at the beginning. Add larger logs as you go and eventually you’ll have a great fire going.

Secret #11: Don’t add all the logs at once. Save some to add slowly and keep keep the fire going for longer. It’s tempting to throw everything on at once, but if you do, you’ll probably find yourself hunting for more firewood before you’ve finished cooking. We only use what we need and add one or two logs as we go. This is also good advice so you don’t have a giant fire raging at the end of the night when everyone wants to go to sleep. (Never leave the fire unattended!)

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

As the logs burn, they will break up and become black with white or gray ash on the surface. This is good. This is what you want! The logs have turned into coals. More on that next!

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

COOKING

Secret #12: Contrary to what you might think, you don’t really want to cook over an open flame. The heat is not consistent and there’s a higher chance of burning the outside of your food before the inside is cooked thoroughly. The marshmallows above were cooked over an open flame. They promptly caught fire, turned black and the inside remained cold. This also happens with hot dogs and other foods you cook on long sticks over a fire. You want the glowing embers, not the flames.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

The goal then is to get the firewood to burn down into white hot coals. The coals provide a heat as hot or even hotter than the fire, but one that is much more even and consistent. To isolate the coals, move the larger pieces of wood aside and use a long handled spoon or shovel to rake the coals where you want them. You can keep adding more kindling to the main fire as it dies down. The logs will keep turning into fabulous, super-hot coals. You can break up the logs with a shovel to create smaller coals if you need to.

Secret #13: We like to create the fire on one side and leave room for the coals on the other. The reason for this is that it’s nice to have a dedicated area just for cooking, and the other side is for creating hot coals and provides warmth.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

To utilize the heat from the coals efficiently, you can cook directly on the coals or use a campfire grill. The grill goes over the hot coals and works the same as a backyard BBQ grill. (More on backyard BBQs later in this series!)

Secret #14: Campfire grills are inexpensive and lightweight. They are worth the investment. It really comes in handy when you don’t want to cook directly on the coals, or if you don’t want to buy or carry a camping stove along. The flat surface is great for pots, pans and percolators or as a direct cooking surface for food.

Secret #15: There are times when you’ll want to cook directly on the hot coals. We mostly use this method for cooking things like vegetables, particularly root vegetables, or when we use a Dutch oven, or for foil dinner packets. (More on Dutch ovens to come too!) The coals are very, very hot, so you will need to protect the food a bit more by giving it a double wrap in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Or if it’s something like corn, cook it in the husk and it will be protected from the high heat.

Secret #16: With foil dinners, it’s a good idea to layer the food in such a way as to prevent it from burning. I’ve seen campers say they line the bottom of the packet with cabbage leaves or thick slices of onion, then layer root vegetables, protein (meat, chicken, fish, etc.) with aromatics (herbs, leeks, garlic, etc.) on top and a bit of liquid (stock, wine, water) to keep it from drying out. Cut the vegetables in smaller pieces because they will cook more quickly and the meat in larger pieces so they take a bit longer and will be done at the same time as the vegetables.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

You can leave potatoes whole or cut them in half. Whole potatoes and other vegetables take a bit longer to cook than those that have been cut in half, sliced, or diced. For whole potatoes, rub them with a little bit of oil and prick a few times with a knife or fork. Then wrap them up!

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

When you wrap the food in foil, place it in the center and seal it tightly by bringing the edges together in the center and rolling or folding tightly. Secret #17: Don’t forget to create some handles on the sides. The food will be very hot and it’s much easier to grab the handles and there’s less of a chance of tearing open the foil packet and getting ash on the food inside.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

Place the food directly on the coals and use a long-handled metal spoon or shovel to bring some of the coals up and around the foil packets.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

Secret #18: You can even wrap s’mores in foil and toss them onto the coals or grill for a few minutes. It works great and it a little less messy than the traditional method.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

Secret #19: Some foods can be cooked directly on the coals and ash with no tin-foil needed. Peppers and chiles are great cooked like this. The peels blister and pop and the get great flavor from the fire and smoke.

As I mentioned, corn-on-the-cob can be cooked directly on the coals because it is protected by the husk, but you can also wrap it in foil if you’re worried about it burning. Secret #20: Soaking cobs in cool water for 30-60 minutes will also keep the husk from burning. We also cook corn on top of the grill. Either way works great.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

Secret #21: Typically we’ll cook meat, chicken and fish on the grill unless we’ve wrapped it in foil. It takes on a great flavor being cooked over the coals with the nearby flame.

Secret #22: An important step is to turn your food every 15-20 minutes so it cooks evenly. The bacon-wrapped trout pictured above needs to be turned frequently to avoid flareups from the dripping fat. Secret #23: Also, remember that the food will be very hot and retain heat for awhile after it comes off the fire. Corn will finish steaming in its husk. Potatoes will cook a bit more in their foil packets. Things cooked on top of the grill will need to be covered with foil after cooking to help them stay warm — the cooking temperature is a little cooler than directly on the coals.

Try to plan out how long everything on your menu will take to cook so everything can be done at the same time. I realize, it’s easier said than done sometimes. : )

I’ve come up with a fun menu that takes camp food up a notch without being too complicated. It relies on fresh food made flavorful by the fire. If you aren’t a fan of fish, you could easily substitute boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs for the trout. I’m not usually a fan of trout, but cooked this way it’s amazing! For dessert, I included the ubiquitous s’mores. So many variations, so little time! Check below for some suggestions on making your s’mores extra fancy and delicious.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

MENU

Bacon-wrapped Trout
Campfire baked potatoes
Corn-on-the-Cob
Fire-roasted Chiles
S’mores

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

Bacon-Wrapped Trout

loosely adapted from Bon Appetit magazine

Ingredients:
Two (about 1 lb. each) trout, gutted, scaled and butterflied*
12 ounces thin-cut bacon
Sea salt (I used applewood smoked salt)
Fresh ground black pepper
garlic powder
fresh sage and rosemary sprigs
thinly sliced onion

Instructions:
Rinse and pat the fish dry. Sprinkle the inside of each fish with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Lay a few sprigs of rosemary and sage and thinly sliced onion inside. Close the fish. Starting at the tail begin wrapping the bacon all the way around. Tuck the end of the bacon strip under itself before continuing with a new slice. Wrap an extra piece around the head to help keep it secure.

If not cooking immediately, wrap the fish tightly in freezer paper, parchment or plastic wrap and keep chilled for up to 6-8 hours.

To cook:
Prepare a camp grill over hot coals. Place the fish on the grill directly over the coals. Let cook for 10-15 minutes, then carefully flip over and cook on the other side for and additional 10-15 minutes or until the bacon is crispy on all sides.  The actual cooking time may vary a little depending on the size of the fish and the temperature of the coals. Check to see if the fish is done by poking with the tip of a knife.  It should pierce it easily.  If not, flip again and cook for another 5-10 minutes.

Remove from the heat and serve immediately. Makes 4-6 good-sized servings.
*Butterflying the fish is optional, but worth the extra time to remove most of the bones. If you have purchased the fish, ask your fishmonger to do it for you. You need to have a very sharp knife if you do it yourself  or you’ll damage the fish in the process.

Campfire Baked Potatoes

Ingredients:
4 large baking potatoes (Russets are great)
a little oil
8 (12-18″) pieces of heavy duty aluminum foil
Butter, for serving
Salt and pepper

Instructions:
Scrub the potatoes really well. Dry and the rub with a little oil. Wrap each potato in a double layer of foil, twisting the ends to use as handles.

Separate the hot coals from the main part of the fire. Place the potatoes directly on the hot coals. You can use a shovel or long spoon to scoop the coals and ash around the potatoes. Let cook for about 45 minutes. To test if they are ready, gently squeeze the potato. If it gives, then it’s ready. If it’s still hard, then put back onto the coals for another 10-15 minutes and test again. Rotate the potatoes every 20 minutes for even cooking.

To serve:
Carefully pull the foil back. Cut the potato in half lengthwise and use a knife or fork to slightly mash it. Top with butter, salt and pepper. Makes enough for 4-8 servings. (We usually share a potato between 2 people if they are really big.)

Note: Prepare a few extra potatoes for the next day. In the morning, dice the potatoes and fry in a pan for quick hashbrowns.

Campfire Corn-on-the-Cob

Ingredients:
4 ears of unhusked corn
Butter, for serving
salt and pepper

Instructions:
If desired, gently pull back the husks without tearing them and remove just the silk. Pull the husk back over the corn and secure with twine. Or leave the silk on and it will come away easily after the corn has been cooked. Soak the corn in cool water for about an hour before cooking. This will help prevent the husk from catching fire.

Separate the coals from the main fire. Place the corn directly on the flames. Cook for 10 minutes, turn, cook for 10 more minutes. Test for doneness. If not done, place back on coals for another 5-10 minutes.

*Be careful! Make sure to wear protective gloves or a hot pad because the ears will be hot and let off steam as you open them.

23 Secrets to Campfire Cooking  |  Design Mom

S’mores
Time to get creative by mixing and matching different kinds of cookies, chocolate, spreads and other goodies!

Ingredients:
Graham crackers, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies, snickerdoodles, chocolate wafers, shortbread, gingersnaps, etc.
marshmallows
sliced strawberries, bananas, pineapple, raspberries, etc.
different kinds of chocolate (dark, milk, white)
spreads – nut butters, nutella, lemon curd, jam, cookie butter (Biscoff)

Instructions:
Skewer marshmallows on roasting stick of choice. Hold over hot coals. Rotate frequently for even cooking. Marshmallow is done when it becomes loose on the stick (meaning it’s melted inside) and golden brown on the outside.

Sandwich the marshmallow between two cookies/crackers along with chocolate, fruit, or spreads of choice. Eat while warm.

——

Now I want to hear from you! What are your favorite, must-have camping foods? Any secrets to cooking over a campfire that I forgot to add in? And will you be doing any campfire cooking before the summer ends?

P.S. — Like secrets? Find all the posts in the Secrets to Living Well series here.

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Living Well: 6 Secrets For a Smooth Move http://www.designmom.com/2013/07/living-well-6-secrets-for-a-smooth-move/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/07/living-well-6-secrets-for-a-smooth-move/#comments Wed, 31 Jul 2013 16:00:22 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=38766

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Photos and text by Lindsey Johnson.

Moving. It’s been on my mind the last month or so. We just made a move to a new city in the same state. Design Mom moved halfway across the world. Five years ago we packed up and moved across the country with a newborn and two toddlers. We’ve all done it at one time or another. Some moves are bigger and more hectic than others. But let’s just get this out there: moving stinks! I don’t know one person who has ever said, “Moving is great!  I love it!” Quite the opposite! That’s because it’s just plain miserable most of the time. Packing up all of your belongings, schlepping them to another town, state, or country? Not fun at all. Am I right?

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom 6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Someday I dream of hiring a moving company to do all the work for me, but in the meantime as we continue to pack and move ourselves, I rely on some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned with you to help you or someone you know have an easier time packing and moving — and hopefully making it a bit less miserable in the process. : )

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom 6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom 6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Ready to get packing? Let’s go!

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

To start, I always plan my packing around the end goal, which is, Secret #1: to be able to find everything when I need it. That seems kind of obvious, but once there are dozens of stacked boxes all over the place and everything feels disorganized and messy, you might not be able to find that box with the pair of scissors or pocket knife you need to start opening up all the other boxes. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I would remember what was in certain boxes as I was packing them only to forget a few minutes later — even right after I taped them up!

The method I use now does take a little more effort at first, but on the other end of the move, it makes unpacking and organizing infinitely easier.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Secret #2: Each room is designated a number. For example – Living Room 100, Kitchen 200, Girls’ Room 300, Boys’ Room 400, Master Bedroom 500, Bathroom(s) 600, Office 700, Storage Room 800, Garage 900, and so on. You could also color code the rooms, but the numbering has worked best for me.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Secret #3: I have a clipboard with a notebook or a stack of paper. Each page corresponds to the rooms and boxes in the number series.  Some rooms might need extra pages because of a higher number of boxes for that room. This will make more sense in a second.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

I assemble my supplies — boxes, packing materials (like bubble wrap or packing paper for delicate items), markers, a notebook and clipboard, and dozens of rolls of tape. Then it’s time to start packing the boxes.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Secret #4: Each box is numbered so that it corresponds to the room to which it belongs. If I have five boxes for the Kitchen, they would be numbered 200, 201, 202, 203, and 204, etc.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Secret #5: On the clipboard sheets, I will write a general list of what is contained in each box. It doesn’t need to be too specific at this point unless there is a particular item I know I’ll want to find immediately when we arrive at the new place. For Living Room, for instance, I might be packing pictures from the wall, albums, CDs, DVDs, decorative items, and maybe the pillows from the sofa.  I would list them in that way on the notebook sheet and even on the box.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Sure it’s easy to just write the box contents on the outside of the box. And I do that too, but writing it down on a sheet in an organized way helps me keep track of everything better and if a box inadvertently gets lost, I know what was in it. Make sure to write the box contents down before you seal it up.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Secret #6: Inevitably there is are going to be things that may not have a specific place, or they might be things you find under the couch after all of the boxes have been packed. That’s where the Miscellaneous category comes into play.

Also, I might have a few boxes marked as Important. This could be my 000 series of boxes. The things in these boxes are going to be things like cell phone chargers, important documents that I don’t carry on my person, or even a family heirloom. Those get marked with red because they are important and I can see that at a glance. Secret #7: Some or all of these boxes are also going to be the boxes that I want to pack with me in the back of the car or will be the last on the truck so I immediately know where they are upon arrival at the new house.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

I know this might sound a bit excessive and overwhelming, but once you get going it is a snap. The reason I keep doing this is that it works so well on many levels. As the moving van is unloaded, it’s easy to see which boxes go in which room. This is a great help when you have other people helping you. It can be overwhelming to be the one in charge! But this eliminates some of the stress. You know what’s in each box just by looking at it. No more tearing open box after box looking for a lost item. It’s also great for insurance purposes because you have a detailed list of your possessions if anything is damaged, lost, or stolen.

Also, some things don’t need to be opened or unpacked right away. It’s summer now, so if I know I have my Christmas decorations in a box labeled for my storage room, I don’t need to unpack that. But with Fall just around the corner and school starting, I will really need to know where the jackets and sweaters are packed.

6 Secret to a Smooth Move  |  Design Mom

Other Moving Tips:

- Don’t pack books or other heavy items in big boxes! It seems like a great idea until you have to pick them up. For books, use smaller boxes with sturdy bottoms and sides. Tape them well.

- When packing fragile items like dishes, use dishtowels, tablecloths, and other similar items that you would be packing anyway to cushion them.

- I save original boxes and styrofoam packaging materials for small appliances and electronics (when I can or if I have the storage space) because it’s the best way to protect those items when moving.

- Stock up on plenty of packing tape. You don’t have to go crazy with taping, but you’ll run out faster than you think. One strip of tape in each direction should be sufficient for a simple across town move.

- Moving boxes are expensive to buy! Check Freecycle and Craigslist for free boxes. Another great resource are dumpsters behind restaurants, grocery stores and apartment complexes. Or, ask a friend who has just moved to save their boxes for you.

Now tell me, Design Mom readers, do you have any tips to add to my list? Or maybe more entertaining, do you have any horror stories from moving? Mine involve that cross country move with a newborn. We did one of those u-pack things. The bulkhead that separated our stuff from the other stuff broke  and every single item we owned was damaged. Total nightmare! Luckily our move last week wasn’t quite so awful. Live and learn!

P.S. — Love secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.

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Living Well: 6 Secrets To Folding a Fitted Sheet http://www.designmom.com/2013/07/living-well-6-secrets-to-folding-a-fitted-sheet/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/07/living-well-6-secrets-to-folding-a-fitted-sheet/#comments Wed, 10 Jul 2013 14:30:56 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=34775

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Photos and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

There are few parts of doing laundry quite as exasperating as folding fitted sheets. Not even missing socks can compare with the frustration of not being able to fold it just right so it sits nicely on the linen cupboard shelf. Fold and refold. Repeat. Get frustrated, roll the sheet into a ball, shove into cupboard, close door, walk away and find chocolate.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Before I developed my mad sheet folding skillz, if I didn’t roll the fitted bed sheets into wadded up balls, then I made sure I immediately put the clean sheets back on my bed thereby rendering the folding task obsolete and saving myself from uttering a colorful string of (mild) expletives under my breath.

But really, why is it so difficult to fold fitted sheets? Why must the elasticized edge that lovingly hugs our mattresses as we slumber, or while we host tickle fights on our beds, cause so much angst and exasperation?

folding-fitted-sheet-76 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

It doesn’t have to! Once I figured out the proper way to fold fitted sheets, I no longer hollered out in frustration. I no longer feared the weekly chore of laundering the bed sheets. And best of all, my linen cupboard has never been quite so tidy and organized.

For this how-to I’ll be showing a crib sheet because it’s easier to demonstrate in the photographs, but this works just the same way for King, Full, and Twin-sized sheets. (I know because I tried out every one just to make sure.)

I’m going to demonstrate two different folding methods. Both ways give you perfectly folded fitted sheets. I happen to prefer the first method, but I can see the appeal of second method too. Method #1 works well with any size sheet. And honestly, I had never seen this way of folding before, but observed the way a set of new sheets were packaged, and thought, “Well, if the manufacturer can get it to fit in the package, I’m going to take notes!” : )

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

In my opinion Method #2 is better for larger sheets because there is less bulk from the elasticized edges. With smaller sized sheets there is less fabric in the center to offset the bulky elasticized edges. Of course, you have to experiment a little and see which method you prefer and works with your linen cupboard.

The key thing to remember for the tidiest looking folded fitted sheet is to flatten and smooth out the sheet and even out the corners with each step. Those pesky rounded, elasticized corners can be tackled!  I’ll show you how as we go along.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

METHOD #1

This way works best if you have a flat surface — like a bed, table, or floor — to lay the sheet on while folding.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

I begin by folding the sheet in half. (If you remember back to elementary school, we called this the “hamburger way.”) Secret#1: To get crisp corners, I turn two of the corners inside out so they fit neatly into the other side. Keep reading for how to do this.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

For the corners, I turn one of the bottom corners inside out and place my hand inside it.  I put my pointer finger in the corner seam so I can match it up exactly with the other corner on the other side of the sheet.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Then I put that corner right inside the corresponding top corner.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

I repeat that with the other side and then it looks like this (above).

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Then I even up all of the corners, top and bottom.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Next we start folding again. Secret #2: I fold crib sheets in thirds, like a letter. You can begin with folding the top down or the bottom up, it doesn’t really matter. For larger sheets, I draw an imaginary line in the center of the sheet and fold both the bottom and top edges evenly towards the imaginary central line. (The larger sheets end up being folded in fourths.)

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Secret #3: Again make sure to square off the corners for crisp edges and pointed corners!

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Fold the next side up or down. It will be long and narrow like the picture (above).

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Again match up the corners the best you can and try to square them off  the best you can. Secret #4: You’ll notice that because of the rounded, elastic edges, it won’t be totally square on the one side. That’s okay. The other side (the one opposite of the elastic) will have edges and corners that are more square. Those are the edges that will be facing outward when you finish folding.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Next you’ll bring one of the sides towards the center, folding in thirds again. For larger sized sheets, you can either fold towards the center again as you did in the earlier step — in fourths, or you can fold it over several times on itself. Depending on the size of the sheet, you may have a few more folds.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

The last step is to fold it over again and tidy up the corners and edges.Yay! You did it. It’s all ready to be put in the linen closet!

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

METHOD #2

This is the more common method of the two. Chances are you’ve already seen this one, but it’s always good to have a little refresher. To begin, we start as before.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Secret #5: This time, however, we are going to take folding corners inside-out a step further. When we get to this point, we will take one of the (double) corners and turn it inside-out once more, bring it over to meet the other side, and tuck it inside the other side’s corner.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

All of the corners will be tucked neatly into each other. This is what it will look like (above). Straighten the corners and even them up so it looks neat and tidy when it’s all folded.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom 6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Next fold the right side towards the center, again in thirds like a letter. Larger sheets can be folded in thirds or fourths depending on how big you want the folded sheet to be when you’re finished. Secret #6: I usually go with fourths on the larger sheets because it fits better on my shelf and matches the folded flat sheet better too.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Fold the left side over.  Straighten corners again.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

Lastly, turn it and fold in half. Again, with bigger sheets, you’ll have to play around with how many times you need to fold it so it’s the right size for your shelf.

6 Secrets to Folding a Fitted Sheet  |  Design Mom

All done! It might seem a little confusing at first, but spend an hour in front of your favorite show with a pile of fitted sheets, and it will become second nature, I promise. And that formerly nasty chore of folding fitted sheets will be a breeze!

I’d love to know: Are you a balled-up-sheet-in-the-corner-of-the-closet person? Or do you like to keep things neat as a pin? Any other tips you would add?

P.S. — Love secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.

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Living Well: 12 Secrets For The Perfect Picnic http://www.designmom.com/2013/06/living-well-12-secrets-for-the-perfect-picnic/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/06/living-well-12-secrets-for-the-perfect-picnic/#comments Wed, 19 Jun 2013 16:00:16 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=35803

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Text and images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Picnics are one of my favorite things about summertime — both spur-of-the-moment sandwiches on the lawn, and well-planned out feasts. What’s not to love about sitting out in nature, enjoying some company and a plate full of delicious food?

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom 12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom 12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Every time I watch one of those addictive British period dramas (I’m looking at you Downton Abbey), I’m always fascinated by the lavish picnics depicted in the stories. The servants carry the silver and crystal along, as well as chairs and tables, tents, and a fancy multicourse meal. It all looks so dreamy and magical and I want to transport myself into the television and join them.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom 12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom 12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

In reality, our family picnics are mostly of the last-minute variety that involve me grabbing a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and a few napkins on the way out the door. But sometimes I get it just right and create my own version of a dreamy and magical afternoon.

So today, I thought I’d share my secrets for the perfectly planned, perfectly executed picnic.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #1: Planning a picnic is just like planning a small, transportable party, and if you think of it that way, it will help you with the organizing. Thinking through the who, what, when, where, why and how will keep you from missing any details. Essentially, the ideal picnic is nothing more than choosing a great location, inviting a good group of people, bringing something to sit on, and packing some delicious food and drinks.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #2: Start with choosing a location. That will help you determine the food and other picnic essentials you’ll need to bring along. You can hold a picnic practically anywhere! Isn’t that why they are so much fun? It could be in your front yard, at a local park, a beach (lakeside or seaside), in the mountains or at a campground, the middle of a metropolis, or the countryside.

When deciding on the location, be sure to consider the on-site amenities. Because I’m a mom to young children, I’m always thinking about restrooms — where are they and how many? : ) But you might also want to think about the availability of running water, or if the location is easily accessible. Do you have to walk or hike a long way from the car? Will you be biking there? How many people are you bringing along? Do you need to make sure you choose somewhere that can accommodate a large group? If your dog will be joining you, is it a pet-friendly location? Those are the sorts of things you’ll want to keep in mind.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #3: Don’t forget to consider the time of day. It’s another detail to take into account and can also affect where you go and what you pack. I love the idea of a morning picnic where I can enjoy breakfast foods in the cool morning. But I also like afternoon picnics when it’s warm outside and I can sit in the shade and enjoy the breeze. And we all know dinner picnics can also be fun, especially if you decide to bring a little grill along or build a fire to roast hot dogs.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #4: Assess any unique needs of your guests. When I plan a party of any kind, including a picnic, I try to think about who my guests will be and if there are any specifics I need to keep in mind. For instance, if I’ve invited Grandma, I’ll want to pack a folding lawn chair in my trunk so she doesn’t have to sit on the ground.  If there are going to be a lot of younger guests, I will plan on bringing some kid-friendly food, activities and games, so they have something to do while the grown-ups are chatting. Or I might choose a location that’s near a playground.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #5: Once you’ve sorted out the location, think about what you’ll bring for guests to sit on. The grass is certainly fine, as is a nice flat rock or tree stump. Large beach towels, old tablecloths (the plastic ones work just fine!), woven mats, blankets and quilts are great options.

When we picnicked at the beach, we found that bringing a few woven mats was the best thing for keeping us off the sand — and keeping as much sand as possible out of the food. Something sturdier or waterproof might be in order depending on where you’ll be picnicking. Packing lawn chairs is also great if you’ll be somewhere where sitting on the ground might not be your best option.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #6: A picnic basket doesn’t always have to be a basket. Baskets are fun, coolers are practical, and plastic grocery sacks are inexpensive. What will suit the needs of your picnic best? Wooden crates are great for lugging around a heavy load. Or a stylish beach bag might be just the thing. My preferred carrier is a good, old fashioned wooden picnic basket.  There are so many great options out there — you can even find great all-in-one picnic kits that makes things extra easy.

Keep in mind that once you load up all that food in there, whichever container you choose will likely be heavy. If you’re going on a biking or hiking picnic, a backpack might be more handy than a basket.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Now we come to the food, glorious food!  Simple or fancy — what will you be eating at your picnic? (This truly my favorite part.)  Will it be a potluck for a sizable group of fellow picnic goers? Or are you imagining a romantic picnic for two? Are you heading up a the picnic for your child’s school class?  Think about who is coming and where you’re going and that will help you determine what food to bring along. And there are so many picnic-friendly food options out there to choose from!

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

What does picnic-friendly entail? Well, that can be different for everyone. We often like to pack cheese, cured meats, bread, and other finger foods because they are delicious and easy to pack and eat. I like to think of foods that can be easily eaten on a plate that’s sitting on my lap (so, not spaghetti), or out of a wrapper. These could be store-bought, or could be items I’ve packaged myself. While I personally may prefer to leave soup behind, you might love to pack gazpacho for your picnic and you’ll also know to pack cups for easy sipping.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

A dessert picnic is another fun idea. Dessert could be tarts or macarons from a local bakery, homemade cookies, fruit, or whatever else your heart desires.

Sandwiches, hors d’oeuvres, and salads of all kinds are popular picnic fare. There are times when I think simple is better and times when I want to go a little fancier.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #7: Just remember that whatever menu you settle on, you’ll want to keep the food at the proper temperature to avoid food borne illness. Plan on bringing a cooler if you are serving salads with a mayonnaise dressing, with eggs in them, poultry or meat. If you pack raw meat or poultry to cook on your picnic, remember to keep it packaged separately.

Cheese fares pretty well, but you’ll also want to keep it cool if you have a long ways to go before it will be served. I usually bring ice packs along in any case. You’ll also want to keep any leftovers cold for the trip home.

picn12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #8: As for drinks, I recommend bringing bottles of your favorite soda, lemonade or water. Individual bottles means I don’t have to bring cups along, which is nice. And I can also distribute the weight of the bottles to make carrying in the food easier.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #9: It’s nice to think ahead about how you want to package the food, and the eating utensils you’ll need to bring along.

I like to use a combination of disposable and reusable containers, utensils, and plates for my picnics. Dishes — paper, bamboo, tin, or sturdy glass are nice. Cloth napkins add an elegant touch, but paper napkins are easier and don’t require washing later on. For flatware, I favor light-weight metal or disposable. Cups, bottles of water, soda, etc.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Jars come in handy for salads or desserts.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

If I’m adding items to our menu that aren’t as easy to travel with or pack, it just means I need to plan ahead and bring a cutting board and knife, etc.

Secret #10: While we’re on the subject, there are some other things you might want to pack: insect repellant, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, condiments (salt and pepper especially), extra napkins or paper towels, and possibly matches for lighting birthday candles (one of our favorite reasons to picnic) or when we’re roasting hot dogs. And if you’re like me, you’ll probably also have some bandages and antibacterial ointment on hand just in case.

A tray or two is nice for setting drinks on so they don’t tip easily. I always bring a few knives just in case for cutting up fruits and veggies, slicing cake or tarts. And bottle opener is a must for soda and other drinks.

If your picnic will take place on a table, clips to hold down the tablecloth are something to bring. And a pop-up shade tent or umbrella is great for areas with little tree cover.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #11: Plan for the end from the beginning. When I’m planning the food, I’m also planning the clean-up. I bring along extra resealable plastic bags, aluminum foil and plastic wrap for leftovers if I haven’t brought a container and lid. Baby wipes are always in my bag to quickly clean tiny (or big) hands. And I definitely bring along garbage bags so that I can leave my picnic area nicer than I found it.

12 Secrets to the Perfect Picnic  |  Design Mom

Secret #12: The last thing is to think about what you’ll be doing when you’re not munching. For me this is a good book or magazine, or a favorite playlist on my ipod. When I have the kids with me, I bring bubbles, balls and frisbees, kites, and other activities they can do outdoors. After all, the goal of any picnic is to have fun and relax.

I think we’ve about covered every possible detail for the perfect picnic. Now it’s your turn. Where is your favorite place to picnic?  And what are your favorite picnic foods? Will you be picnicking this summer? Maybe for the 4th of July?

P.S. — Love secrets? You can find all of the Secrets To Living Well posts here.

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Living Well: 9 Secrets to Amazing Homemade Lemonade http://www.designmom.com/2013/06/living-well-9-secrets-to-amazing-homemade-lemonade/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/06/living-well-9-secrets-to-amazing-homemade-lemonade/#comments Wed, 12 Jun 2013 16:00:10 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=36128

Lemonade 101  |  Design Mom

This summer inspiration is brought to you by Target. Find more fun and surprises all season long on Target’s #SummerUp Pinterest board.


Text and photos by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

There is nothing that quenches my thirst on a hot summer day quite as well as an icy glass of fresh squeezed lemonade. I honestly cannot think of beverage I enjoy more. It’s tart and sweet and utterly refreshing. Whether it’s straight up lemonade or a fruity lemonade infused with herbs or flowers, I take mine with plenty of ice and by the quart. Read on to find out my secrets to Sweeten Up your summer and make the perfect pitcher of lemonade.

How to Make Flavored Lemonade  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make classic or flavored lemonades.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Including how to properly squeeze a lemon.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Get ready to get refreshed.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Let’s begin with talking about lemons.  The ones you’ll find in the grocery store are typically the Lisbon and Eureka varieties that are grown mostly in California and Arizona. In reality, there are a dozen or so different varieties, but 9 times out of 10 these are the ones you’ll see in stores.

Another lemon variety you’ve probably seen on store shelves during the winter and spring months is Meyer lemons, which are actually a hybrid of mandarins and lemons. They are sweeter and juicier than traditional lemon varieties. They make fantastic lemonade, and if you can find them on sale somewhere at the end of the season, stock up! The extra expense is worth it when you taste the superior lemonade.

Otherwise, Secret #1: a lemon is a lemon. Unless you are lucky enough to have your own lemon tree. And if you’ve been fortunate to try lemonade from homegrown lemons, you know what I mean. Superior in every way!  But for the rest of us, grocery store lemons are just fine. : )

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

One extra large lemon yields about 1/2 cup of juice (pictured on the left) and one regular-sized lemon yields about 3 Tablespoons of juice (pictured on the right). A lime is about 2 Tablespoons. This might vary a teeny bit depending on the size of the lemons you’re using. And even then, I’ve bought some lemons that were huge and ended up having thick rinds and very little juice. Secret #2: Buy a few more than you think you might need just to be safe. You’ll need about 5-6 regular lemons to yield 1 cup of lemon juice.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

From left to right:  a perfect lemon, an under-ripe lemon (it’s hard to see but it’s still a little green), a mushy lemon.

When you’re picking out lemons, pick out those that have a nice bright yellow color (not tinged with green), don’t look too dry or shriveled, are free from mold or bad spots, and are heavy for their size. You can give them a little squeeze. The juiciest ones, I find, aren’t mushy, and give a little when pressed. If you’re buying lemons in a big bag (they are a little less expensive when purchased this way), just be sure to turn the bag around and inspect them carefully.

Have you ever bought a bunch of lemons and one goes moldy and then the next day they’re all moldy?  Yeah, me too. Washing them really well when you get home will help with that, and be sure to store them on the counter.

There are a few tricks for getting the most lemon juice from lemons. Secret #3: Lemons should be kept at room temperature anyway, but if they are cold, let them come to room temperature, then place them in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes or microwave for 20-30 seconds. This helps weaken the cell membranes and you’ll be able to extract more juice. To further break down the membranes, roll the lemon against the counter using your palm. (Just like when you peel hard boiled eggs.)

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Now, there are several ways to physically juice or squeeze a lemon. Some impressive chefs with equally impressive, toned arms can squeeze a lemon with their bare hands. Me? I like to use either a fork, a wooden reamer, an electric citrus juicer (if I’m doing a lot at once), or a glass citrus juicer with a reservoir to catch the juice. There are some great citrus squeezers available too.

Another thing I’ve tried is to squeeze a lemon using a pair of tongs. You place the lemon close to the hinge and as you close the tongs, the juice is released. A fork is probably the method I use most because it’s so simple. You just cut the lemon in half crosswise, hold half in one hand, push the fork into the center and twist.

This kind of goes without saying, but you’ll also want to strain out the seeds. Secret #4: When you measure the juice, be sure to do it after you strain because you will lose some volume when the seeds and some pulp is removed. If you like pulp, remove the seeds from the collected juice with a fork.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

I like my little strainer that I bought ages ago at Target. (There are some great ones available now in store and online.) You can also squeeze a lemon through your fingers to catch the seeds. I usually have a paper cut or two, so I don’t often use this method. ; )

You might be tempted to skip the fresh lemon juice in favor of bottled juice. Bottled juice is usually reconstituted and has other things added in. It tends to have some “off” flavors and definitely does not taste as good as fresh. It’s much better to use fresh.  Your lemonade will be so much better! (Stepping of my soapbox now…)

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Lemons, of course, are very sour. They need some kind of sweetener to tame the tartness. There are all sorts of sweeteners out there that you can use from basic white, granulated sugar to honey to artificial or natural low-calories sweeteners. This is kind of up to you and your taste preference. Granulated sugar will give you the purest taste. A less refined sugar, like raw sugar, sucanat and others, will have more molasses flavor and make the color of the lemonade a little darker. It’s really up to you what you decide to use. For this post, I’ve used granulated sugar.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Sometimes it’s difficult to get the sugar to dissolve in the water, and you can purchase superfine sugar which will dissolve more readily. But if you remember back to chemistry class, for something to completely dissolve in water, you’ve got to add enough water, or a little bit of heat. Secret #5: What I’m talking about here is called a Simple Syrup. If you make cocktails and drinks at home, you already know how to make it. This is my preferred sweetener for lemonade for several reasons.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

A simple syrup is nothing more than mixing sugar and water together, boiling it quickly for the sugar to dissolve, transferring it to a bottle and chilling it. It will keep almost indefinitely, but I tend to use mine within a few weeks of making it.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Why do I love using simple syrup for lemonade?  It can be infused with fruits, flowers, spices and herbs to make a flavored syrup. Right after the syrup comes to boil, I will add the flavor components and take the pan off of the heat. As the syrup cools, the latent heat helps release the flavors (essential oils) into the syrup. The solids (leaves or petals or woody bits) are strained from the syrup and you’ve got yourself a flavored syrup, perfect for mixing into lemonade and other drinks. I’ve included more specific directions below.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

There are several recipes out there for simple syrup. One part sugar to one part water will provide a thick, concentrated syrup. It takes up less room in the fridge too. One part sugar to two parts water is another common recipe. It’s up to you which you choose. As I said, I mix the water and sugar in a saucepan, and bring it to a boil. The sugar dissolves pretty easily. The whole process takes less than 5 minutes to complete.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Now for the really fun part — making flavored lemonade. By adding fruit puree(s), herbs, floral components, and spices, the possibilities are truly endless. I like homemade fruit syrups to add to lemonade, but if you’re in a hurry you can use the same syrups you use when making Italian sodas.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Flavor variations we like at our house:
Peach Rosemary
Cherry
Blueberry Lavender
Coconut Rose (use Coconut Water for some of the water, add a little Rosewater)
Mango Mint (with a little Lime Juice added)
Pineapple Cilantro (good with some Jalapeno for a spicy kick)
Strawberry Basil
Raspberry
Cranberry
Cucumber-Melon with Mint

Strawberry Basil Lemonade - part of Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Secret #6: Adding fruit puree does change the amount of sugar you’ll need. Which means you might need to make a little experimentation on the basic lemonade recipe because the sweetness and tartness of fruit varies greatly upon the kind you use and how ripe it is. If you make lemonade using ripe melon juice for part of the water, you might not need to add any sugar at all!

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Another variation we really love is made by using cold herbal tea (black, green or white tea is great too) in place of plain water. It’s incredibly refreshing. You can use loose tea or tea bags. Make it a twice as strong as you would if you were drinking it hot so the flavor doesn’t become too diluted.

lemonade-101-fruity-flavorsLemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

While we’re on the subject, Secret #7: you can do several things to keep lemonade from becoming too diluted. The easiest thing to do is use less water and more ice. Then as the ice melts, it doesn’t dilute the lemonade too much — maybe just the right amount. Another is to a large ice ring which melts more slowly. Or you can plan ahead and make lemonade ice cubes. You can even freeze fruit to put into the lemonade in place of, or in addition to, ice cubes. And there are specific pitchers that have a tube in the middle of them that is filled with ice that doesn’t come into actual contact with the beverage so it doesn’t become diluted.

Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make the perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Secret #8: If you’re planning a party (or just at home by yourself), it’s fun to add garnishes to the bottles, carafes and beverage dispensers. Fresh mint, slices of lemons and limes, cucumbers, berries and even edible flowers all look really pretty. Use the same ones you used in the lemonade recipe to help people know which flavor is which. (By the way, have you seen these gorgeous floral ice cubes? Sigh. So pretty.)

Lemonade will keep in the fridge for a few days. If you plan on keeping it for longer, you might want to consider making a concentrate (recipe below) and freezing it.

Secret #9: To make lemonade for a crowd, plan on two to three 8-ounce servings per person — more if it’s really hot outside. (If I’m coming to your party, plan about one quart or more just for me. : ) For 50 people plan on making between 6-9 gallons of lemonade.

Blueberry Lavender Lemonade - part of Lemonade 101. Everything you need to know to make a perfect pitcher.  |  Design Mom

Now, to the recipes!

Basic Lemonade
yields six 8-ounce servings
1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 cups Simple Syrup I (recipe follows)
3 cups water
ice

Stir lemon juice, simple syrup, water and ice together in a pitcher and serve.

Simple Syrup I (one part sugar to two parts water)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups water

Stir together in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let cool and transfer to a bottle. Chill until ready to use.

Additions for flavored syrup: fresh mint, tarragon, basil, thyme, rosemary, lavender buds (make sure you buy culinary lavender or use homegrown without pesticides), organic edible flowers, slices of fresh ginger, whole spices, etc.

Add the herbs/flowers/spices when the syrup is still hot. Let steep for at least 30 minutes. The longer it steeps, the stronger the flavor will be. Strain to remove the solids and transfer the flavored syrup to a jar and refrigerate. Use within a week. (It will keep for a little longer, but is best when fresh.)

For Fruit Lemonade
Add 1/2 to 1 cup fresh fruit puree (strained to remove seeds if desired) to basic lemonade recipe. You can also add fresh or bottled fruit juice (like cranberry juice) for part of the simple syrup and water.

For Tea Lemonade
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup honey or simple syrup, to taste
3 cups brewed tea, chilled

Stir together and serve over ice.

Simple Syrup II
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Bring to a boil to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and transfer to a jar and refrigerate.

For Lemonade Concentrate
Mix 1 cup fresh lemon juice with the Simple Syrup II. Chill.

Make a glass of lemonade by using 1/3 cup concentrate and 2/3 cup cold water. (You might need more water — dilute it according to your personal preference.)

Martha’s Recipe for Fruit Lemonade
1 lb. fresh fruit (cherries, strawberries, peaches, etc.)
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
8-10 cups of water or more to dilute to desired strength

Puree fruit, sugar, and lemon juice. Let sit for sugar to dissolve. Add cold water. Taste and adjust sugar or lemon juice.

——–

Now, I’d love to know what your favorite lemonade flavors are, Design Mom Readers. Are you a purist? Or do you like to play around with different flavors like I do? Do tell!

P.S. — All the cute props for this post came from Target: striped paper straws, striped paper napkins, dishtowels, acrylic cups (in-store), carafes (from the dollar spot), measuring cup (in-store). And you can find all of my Secrets To Living Well here.

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Living Well: 11 Secrets To Properly Freezing Produce http://www.designmom.com/2013/05/living-well-11-secrets-to-properly-freezing-produce/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/05/living-well-11-secrets-to-properly-freezing-produce/#comments Wed, 29 May 2013 16:00:32 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=36196

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

This summer inspiration is brought to you by Target. Find more fun and surprises all season long on Target’s #SummerUp Pinterest board

Images and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

When I was a little girl, I loved going to my Grandma Maxie’s house. There was always something yummy to eat, especially during the summer when her garden was brimming with strawberries, rhubarb, peaches, and all sorts of veggies. I used to pass by the giant (ancient) freezer on my way through the garage to the backyard and I would stop, open it, and gaze at the stacks and stacks of square freezer containers with green or yellow lids. Each had tape around it and was labeled with the contents. My favorite, no surprise, was her strawberry and raspberry freezer jam.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Now that I’m a mom, I enjoy taking my kids to local pick-your-own farms to pick fruits and vegetables. Along with the harvest from our garden and stops at roadside stands and farmers markets, we end up with a lot of summer fruit and vegetables that we want to preserve and enjoy throughout the year, not just during the summer. While I really enjoy canning now and again, I’ve really been channeling my grandmother the past few years and taken freezing food to a new level.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

There’s a reason for that. I find that some things are quicker to preserve when freezing, like berries. And other produce is fresher tasting and the quality is a bit better when freezing instead of canning. Plus, confession: I just don’t like canned veggies all that much. So, freezing it is!

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Remember last summer when we covered the basics of washing and storing produce? Consider this the companion to that post.

As with canning, freezing produce requires a little bit of planning and gathering the proper equipment. While canning relies on heat to kill microbes, which then also destroys some of the nutritional value, freezing delays the growth of bacteria and slows the work of enzymes, which keeps the food preserved. That’s not to say that frozen food isn’t as safe as canned food. It’s just a different way to do it.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

A big plus for freezing produce is that it ends up tasting much fresher and contains more nutrients than canned produce.

But there is a draw back as well. The texture of thawed veggies and fruit can be undesirable. In the process of freezing, the water within the fruits and veggies turns to ice. As it does, it expands which causes cell walls to burst. This can equal mushy texture when thawed.

But there are steps you can take to ensure higher quality frozen fruits and veggies — similar to the ones you buy at the grocery store. And we’ll cover those below.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

First let’s talk about the materials you’ll need to assemble before you start.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

GATHER MATERIALS

Secret #1: Something great thing about freezing fruits and vegetables is that you don’t really need fancy equipment. Freezer bags come in handy for “dry pack” freezing that doesn’t involve using syrups or purees. Rigid plastic (and sometimes glass) containers and jars come in handy for liquid or semi-solid foods, sauces, jams, and other preserves.

I stocked up on both sorts of containers (including some pretty awesome jars for freezer jam) and plastic freezer bags at Target.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

In addition to containers, I also recommend freezer paper, freezer tape, and heavy-duty foil. They come in handy for packaging certain foods and for long-term storage. Long term means longer than the typical 6-12 months. The longer you store the food in the freezer, the more the quality declines, but it is still perfectly fine to eat.

Another essential for me is a rimmed baking sheet. I use it to quickly freeze individual pieces of whole or sliced produce. More on that in a bit.

Again, I found all the materials I needed for this post — from bowls, to markers, to baking sheets — at Target.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

PREPARE THE FOOD

You’ll want to wash all fruits and vegetables well, especially if you don’t plan on peeling them, and pat them dry with a paper towel or dishtowel. Some fruits and vegetables can be frozen whole, while others need to be peeled, pitted, and/or cut into smaller pieces. A bit of it is personal preference, but some produce definitely does better in the freezer when cut into smaller pieces.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Secret #2: Fruits and veggies that do exceptionally well frozen whole:
Berries (raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, currants, cranberries, etc.), bananas, chili peppers, beans, asparagus, tomatoes, and corn.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Secret #3: Produce that does well sliced or diced:
Bell peppers, avocado, mango, pineapple, melon, peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries), apples (yes, you can freeze apples!), summer squash, and winter squash.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Cut broccoli and cauliflower into florets. Shell peas, trim the ends of green beans and asparagus. Dice or slice peeled carrots, squash, brussels sprouts, and large leaves of spinach, chard, and kale. Rhubarb should be trimmed of woody ends and diced.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Potatoes can be frozen, but benefit from being shredded. Think: hashbrowns. (Note: I personally don’t like freezing potatoes at home. The quality just isn’t as good.) Zucchini is another veggie with a high water content. It can be sliced or diced and frozen, but I prefer shredding it instead.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Corn and bananas are pretty versatile when it comes to freezing. Corn can be frozen whole or cut from the cob.  It’s totally up to you!  I think it’s one of the best veggies for freezing because the quality isn’t as affected by the cold temperatures.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Bananas can be frozen whole and unpeeled, or peeled and whole, or peeled and cut. They’re pretty fabulous that way! I can’t resist adding a frozen banana to my daily smoothie to sweeten it up without adding sugar.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

After fruits and veggies have been peeled, sliced and diced, as needed, there are a few more preparation steps.

Secret #4: Most vegetables also need to be blanched before freezing. Blanching is nothing more than plunging vegetables into a pot of boiling water, letting them cook briefly (3-4 minutes max), and transferring them to a big bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.

Why is this important? Remember that mushiness I mentioned earlier? This will help with that, but it also helps maintain the color and nutrients, as well as killing any surface organisms that could lead to spoilage.

Corn (though you could), tomatoes, onions, potatoes (including sweet), and winter squash don’t need to be blanched. And neither do fruits.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Leafy greens don’t have to be cooked, but they can be. But one thing is for sure, quickly sauteing spinach, for instance, really saves on space! Pictured above is four ounces of spinach cooked and fresh.

How to: Pureed Spinach Cubes for Green Smoothies

Something I saw a few months ago (and a few of you lovely readers mentioned to me) that I think is brilliant, is making spinach ice cubes to add to smoothies. I usually just put the greens into my smoothie packs, but I finally tried this and I’m hooked! Simply add a whole bunch of leafy greens to a blender with enough water to make a smooth puree and freeze. Easy peasy!

I also like to roast some foods before I freeze them. I’ve done this with tomatillos, plums, tomatoes, and peppers. I will either puree them into a sauce or freeze them as is, juices and all.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Secret #5: In canning, foods are treated with citric acid, lemon juice, or ascorbic acid to help kill microorganisms and prevent discoloration. The same rings true with freezing. Think of all of your favorite fruits that turn brown after being cut — bananas, avocado, peaches and nectarines, apples, etc.  They benefit from a quick dip into acidulated water.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Make a solution of 1/2 teaspoon ascorbic acid (found in the pharmacy or canning section of grocery stores) per 3 Tablespoons of water, or 1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice in 4 cups (1 quart) water. Sprinkle or dip the fruit with the solution and let dry.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

FREEZING

First up, Dry Pack freezing, where we start by talking about IQF, or Individually Quick Frozen. The idea behind this is simple: if a fruit/veggie is frozen in a single layer (whole or sliced), it will freeze more quickly. Secret #6: Freezing quickly is great because a) fruits and veggies are easy to thaw out if they aren’t frozen together in a big lump, and b) the quality is better after thawing.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

All you do is place everything you want to freeze in a single layer on a lined baking sheet. Lined, so that what you’re freezing doesn’t stick to the pan.

The goal is to freeze the food as quickly as possible. Adjusting the temperature of the freezer ahead of time is a good idea. You want to ensure that it’s as cold as possible — at least 0 degrees F or lower. You also want to make sure there is plenty of air circulation for even freezing, so it’s better not to layer a bunch of bags or containers in the freezer at once. Doing it over the course of a day or a few days is a good idea.

Be sure to not open the freezer as the produce is freezing on the baking sheets. You really want them to freeze as quickly as possible without fluctuating temperatures. When the food is frozen, transfer to containers or bags and place the bags back in the freezer.

Removing air from containers and bags will help keep frozen food last that much longer and help prevent hoar frost from forming.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Secret #7: Another option is Wet Pack freezing, or freezing fruit in a sugar syrup. The recipe for the syrup is the same as you’d use when canning. All of the steps are the same as with canning, except no cooking needed. It’s so easy to do!

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Of course I can’t talk about freezing produce without talking about freezer jam. In the winter months, it’s really wonderful to pull out a jar or container of freezer jam made from summer fruit. We really enjoy making jam at our house and it is another great way to enjoy frozen fruit.

I also freeze fruit and vegetable purees (including baby food when my kids were tiny), soups, sauces and other condiments, like fresh salsa.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

LABELING & STORING

Secret #8: You’ll want to label the bags and containers with the date and the contents. You might think you’ll remember what it is, but six months down the road it might be more difficult to remember what was in each bag or container.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Freezer tape will stay on the containers despite the cold temperature and the moisture. I like to run tape around the containers too, to keep out air and prevent hoar frost. Wrapping bags and containers in foil and taping will also help with that.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

I like to use resealable freezer bags a lot when I freeze produce. They’re easy and inexpensive. Secret #9: Both bags and containers should be packed full. Remove as much air as possible. A trick I learned is to use a straw to suck all of the air from the bag and then quickly close it.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

For containers, removing air is a bit challenge without the help of a vacuum device. A vacuum sealer is definitely the way to go for long-term storage — both for bags and containers. It is worth the extra expense to purchase a device if you do a lot of freezing. Removing the extra air and sealing fruit and veggies individually in plastic packaging yields a lot better results than the freezer bags alone. (My grandma swears by it!)

Secret #10: When using containers, be sure to leave enough headspace to allow for the liquids to expand as it freezes.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

STORAGE TIME & THAWING

Typically in a basic freezer, frozen fruits and veggies will last a very long time. As time passes, the food doesn’t become inedible, but the quality does deteriorate. If you plan on keeping frozen foods for a long time, a deep freeze might be a better bet as it has lower temperatures and is opened less often.

Secret #11: Fruit will keep well for a year, and veggies will keep for about 18 months. (I’ve had some keep for much, much longer.)

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

When thawing, know that fruits are better eaten when still a little frozen so they aren’t completely mushy. Or you can cook them into sauces, or add them to smoothies. Vegetables are best cooked straight from the freezer, no thawing.

Some vegetables suffer no ill effects from freezing — corn and peas, particularly. Others will be better in recipes where they will break down and be consumed in smaller pieces, like soups, stews and sauces. There’s nothing easier than pulling a bag of broccoli, carrots and cauliflower straight out of the freezer and toss them right into a Thai curry.

How to Properly Freeze Fruits & Veggies. 11 Secrets!  |  Design Mom

Well there we have it. Everything you need to know to get your summer harvest stocked away for the winter.

What about you? Does all this talk about freezing fruits and veggies take you right back to summers at your grandma’s house? Do you prefer canning? Any tips or secrets you’ve learned along the way? I’d love to know!

P.S. — Love secrets? You can find all of the other posts in the Living Well series here.

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Living Well: 8 Secrets To The Perfect Burger http://www.designmom.com/2013/05/living-well-8-secrets-to-the-perfect-burger/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/05/living-well-8-secrets-to-the-perfect-burger/#comments Wed, 22 May 2013 16:00:15 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=36176

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

Images and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Do you remember the first time you had the perfect hamburger? I certainly do. It wasn’t too thick or too thin, it was juicy and flavorful, and I enjoyed every single bite.

Trying to recreate the perfect hamburger at home is actually easier and simpler than you might think. It’s just a matter of understanding a few basics and getting the timing down, and then you’ll be well on your way to a summer filled with juicy grilled burgers.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger 8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger the-perfect-burger-melted-cheese-bun (1 of 1) 8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger 8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger 8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger 8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger 8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

Are you ready to get grilling?

the-perfect-burger-ground-beef (1 of 1)

CHOOSING THE BEEF

Let’s start with the meat. For this post I’ll be talking about ground beef, but most of tips will apply to turkey burgers as well. (I actually don’t eat much meat — here are my vegan recipe files — but we’ll save veggie burgers for another day. : )

When you go to the grocery store or butcher shop, you’ll see several kinds of hamburger in the case. The labels contain information about the cut of meat used and percentage of fat to meat.

Typically the label will say ground round, sirloin, or chuck. It might only say hamburger. Chuck is the best for hamburgers because it has more flavor. Ground chuck usually comes from the trimmings of chuck roasts, though you can buy a chuck roast and ask your butcher to grind it fresh for you. Chuck roasts are the cut of beef that starts at the base of the neck, includes the shoulders, and ends where the ribs begin. It contains more fat which means a juicier burger. But we’ll get to that part in a second. Round and sirloin come from the back of the cow and are better for steaks, in my opinion. (They also cost a little bit more.)

If you’re feeling really ambitious and have a meat grinder or food processor at home, you can also grind it yourself. A lot of burger aficionados swear by grinding your own meat, but I like the ease of purchasing ground meat.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

The next thing you’ll notice on the label relate to the fat-to-ratio. Ground beef that is 80/20 means that it is 80% lean (meat) and 20% fat. Sometimes you’ll see 70/30 meat, but not very often. And it’s too fatty for burgers anyway.

In order to be labeled “lean” the ground beef must contain less than 22 percent fat. Extra-lean ground beef may not contain more than 15 percent fat. There is a little leeway here by a percentage point in either direction. Note: These percentages are According to US regulations, so it may be slightly different if you live outside of the U.S.

Ground chuck will contain 80 to 85 percent lean (meat) and 15 to 20 percent fat. Ground round is 85 to 90 percent lean and 10 to 15 percent fat. Ground sirloin is the leanest at 90 to 92 percent lean and 8 to 10 percent fat. The leaner the ground beef, the less flavor and drier the cooked burger will be.

So, Secret #1 is: Look for ground chuck with an 80% meat 20% fat ratio.

the-perfect-burger-season-well (1 of 1)

SEASONING AND FORMING THE PATTIES

Salt is a hamburger’s best friend. If you’ve selected a good ground beef with plenty of fat in it, salt will really enhance the flavor. I also like to add freshly ground black pepper and a little garlic salt. (My husband and father both really like giving the patties a good dousing of Worcestershire too.)

Secret #2: Seasoning the meat before forming into the patties is important. You don’t want necessarily mix the salt, pepper, and garlic powder into the meat. Just an even sprinkle will do nicely.

the-perfect-burger-indentation-center (1 of 1)

Hamburger patty size is a personal preference. I don’t like super thick patties as they are difficult to cook through all the way. (We can address medium-rare burgers in a minute.) Too-thin patties are just, well, too thin for my taste. My version of the perfect patty is somewhere in between.

the-perfect-burger-scoop-meat (1 of 1)

As for the amount of meat, four to six ounces is about right. This is a good number to keep in mind when planning how much meat you’ll need to buy. This number will also depend on the size of the hamburger buns. If the buns are larger, err on the side of six ounces. Pro-tip: A large ice cream scoop or measuring cup can help with even portions.

the-perfect-burger-cupped-hands (1 of 1) the-perfect-burger-form-patty (1 of 1) the-perfect-burger-flatten-patty (1 of 1)

Secret #3: Remember to be extra gentle when forming the patties. Lightly forming the hamburger together into a ball with cupped hands and pressing it gently into patties is all you need to do. Overworking the meat will result in a tougher cooked hamburger.

the-perfect-burger-seasoned-patties (1 of 1)

Secret #4: Don’t forget, the patties will shrink as they cook. So you want to be sure to make them large enough that they don’t turn out the size of silver dollars. A six ounce portion will form a burger that is a good 4 1/2-inches in diameter and about 3/4-inch thick before cooking.

the-perfect-burger-indent-center (1 of 1)

Another tendency is for the burgers to puff up in the middle as they cook. The edges and sides are done, but the center is undercooked. Combatting this problem is very easy — Secret #5: make a 1/2-inch indentation in the center of each burger.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

COOKING

We’ve seasoned the ground meat. We’ve taken care not to overwork the meat as we’ve formed it into correctly-size patties. And now it’s time to cook these burgers and not undo what we’ve just done.

The grilling platform used is up to you. Our family prefers charcoal grilling. True, it is more difficult to regulate the temperature than gas grills or on the stove top, but we like the flavor it lends. Gas is good for when you’re in a hurry. And the stove is great if you don’t have access to a grill or want to cook inside.

In these pictures I’m demonstrating on a charcoal grill, but the same principles will apply to the gas grill.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

Secret #6: You’ll want to make sure to preheat the grill. It should be hot, but not too hot. Depending on the grill you are using and how it’s set up, there will be hotter and cooler spots.

Use a grill brush to clean the grate if you didn’t clean it after the last time you grilled. (By you, I mean me, of course. : ) Dip a wad of paper towels into oil and use tongs to wipe the oil on the grate. This will help the burgers not stick as they cook.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

Be aware, it’s really easy to overcook hamburgers because they are thin. You don’t want to put the burgers on the grill and walk away or go for a swim. Stay close by. It only takes a few minutes, about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 minutes per side, for the burgers to cook through.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

You’ll know it’s time to turn them over when that indentation you made is full of juices and the edges have developed a nice crust. Only flip the burgers once. And please, if you don’t take anything else away from this post, remember Secret #7: don’t press down on the burgers as they are cooking. It’s completely unnecessary and all it does is make sure the burgers lose all of their juices to the charcoal below.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

Some burger lovers would totally balk at cooking to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. But that’s the recommendation to prevent food borne illness. If you grind your own meat, there is less of a chance of E.coli poisoning, but I never chance it. Be sure to cook the burgers completely, especially when serving to children.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger

About a minute before removing from the grill, top with cheese and let it melt.

Secret #8: You already know this, but burgers are the very best hot off the grill.

the-perfect-burger-cool-side-grill (1 of 1)

TROUBLESHOOTING & OTHER TIPS

- Keep raw meat separate from everything else, especially the lettuce and tomatoes. Use a clean plate for cooked burgers, not the same one that had the raw patties on it.

- Remember when I mentioned the hotter and cooler spots of the grill? If the burger is cooking too quickly on the outside and you can tell the inside is still raw (the juices won’t be clear), then you can move the burgers to a cooler spot on the grill and let them cook for a bit longer.

- If there are flare-ups from dripping fat, don’t panic. Shut the lid of the grill to cut off the oxygen supply and/or move the burgers to a cooler part of the grill to finish cooking.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Burger the-perfect-burger-toasted-buns (1 of 1)-2

BUNS & TOPPINGS

I confess, I don’t have a preference in regards to hamburger buns. I like them all equally, except that some artisan rolls are a little tougher to bite into. (We won’t talk about the gluten-free buns I now use. Sigh.) I do like a grilled bun. Spread a little butter on it and put it on the grill, cut-side down for a minute or two, until it’s toasty.

8 Secrets to the Perfect Grilled Burger

Personally, I can’t imagine a burger without a thick slice of tomato, crispy Romaine lettuce, and a smattering of ketchup and mustard. Hold the mayo and cheese, and load on the onions. :)

Your turn! What do you like on your burgers? Sky high with a slice of everything under the sun? Plain? What’s your favorite kind of cheese? And do you have any favorite grilling tips you want to share?

P.S. — Love secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.

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Living Well: 7 Secrets For a Successful Container Garden http://www.designmom.com/2013/05/living-well-7-secrets-for-a-successful-container-garden/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/05/living-well-7-secrets-for-a-successful-container-garden/#comments Wed, 15 May 2013 16:00:22 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=35796

How to Plant a Successful Container Garden - 7 Secrets!   |   Design Mom

Text and images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Gardening is one of my favorite hobbies and has become such a source of happiness over the last six years. That’s right, it’s been six years since I planted my first container garden on the balcony of my second floor apartment. I was determined to make it work even if it was only a few herbs, lettuce, peas, chiles, and a cherry tomato plant.

Alas, it was almost a complete failure. I planted too many herbs in the same pot. The lettuce was horribly bitter. The chiles and cherry tomatoes both had blossom end rot (more on that later). Only the peas were a success that year. I was tempted to feel defeated, but I turned my failures into lessons and have continued to be more successful each year.

How to Plant a Successful Container Garden - 7 Secrets!   |   Design Mom Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

I can’t say I’m a Master Gardener, but I’m working hard to become one. I’ve talked with seasoned gardeners. I’ve read forums and researched articles online. I’ve chatted with the horticulturists at my local nursery. And I keep trying and keep planting. I wouldn’t call myself an expert yet, but I am on my way there. I hope you find my advice helpful and chime in with your own knowledge. Sometimes I think gardening is a team sport!

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Now, back to the particular topic of this post: Container Gardening. I no longer live in a second floor apartment, but I still rely on containers to expand my growing area — and I like the way they look lining the back of my driveway.

It’s amazing what you can grow in pots! Containers can add a lot of interest in a landscaped yard, make apartment landings more beautiful, and make things cheery indoors.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

As I’m sure you can guess, comprehensive information about container gardening is more than I can fit into this single post. So consider this an overview. We’ll cover prep, planting essentials, and miscellaneous tips to get you started.

Bonus: the information in this post applies to both vegetable container gardens and decorative ones (sometimes gardens can be both!). And it applies to indoor gardens as well.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

GETTING READY

The first step is to plan. This might be the first time you’ve ever thought about a container garden, or you may have been planning since last October. But either way, it’s not too late to start!

Secret #1: Ask yourself a few questions about your container garden.

- What do you want to plant? What kind of pot or container will you need?

- When should you, or when are you going to plant it? (If you’re me, then the answer is: at the last possible minute!)

- Where will your container garden be — indoors, outdoors, patio, deck, porch? Where do you live? Does your climate affect what you can plant? Is it arid and dry? Is it humid?

- Why do you want to plant this garden? Will you cook with the herbs and veggies you grow? Is it part of your outdoor decor?

- How often will it need to be watered? (Again, think about your climate. And think about your busy lifestyle — how much watering do you have time for?) How will your garden work into your summer vacation schedule?

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

I always start with deciding what to plant. This year I decided to plant three kind of cucumbers, Serrano chiles, several kinds of small tomatoes (yellow pear, grape, and cherry), rosemary, thyme, two kinds of mint, four varieties of basil, chamomile, lettuce, and potatoes.

And there are loads of other plants that do well in container gardens, like carrots, strawberries, edible flowers, onions, eggplant, and bell peppers. In fact, if the pot is deep enough you could theoretically plant almost anything in a container.

Make a list, do some research, ask questions and plan out your space. Remember that seedlings are much smaller than full-grown plants, so you’ll need more space (meaning: a larger container) than you might think. I know this from experience and overzealous planting!

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

CONTAINERS

The beauty of container gardens is that practically anything can turn into a pot for a plant. Secret #2: I say pot, but almost any kind of container will work. I’ve seen old metal washtubs, plastic laundry baskets, wood crates, tires, wine barrels, and other snazzy boxes and colorful containers — all used successfully as planters. Choose what you like best and suits your taste.

There are a few other considerations to think about when choosing a container. If you live somewhere windy, you might want to purchase a pot that is heavy and sturdy with a base that is wider than the top so it doesn’t tip over.

Terracotta is a long-time favorite, but sometimes I turn to plastic because it’s (almost) indestructible and lighter to lift. If you don’t have a space with full sun, and the plants need to be moved around, smaller containers (or larger ones on casters) will be your best best.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Also keep in mind that vegetables need deeper pots in order to develop a really strong root system. Deeper pots = more soil.  Bring a calculator along with you when shopping for supplies so you can easily calculate how many quarts to buy or how many cubic feet that equals.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Some herbs will have long roots as well, but can usually tolerate shallower pots usually. Lettuces and cabbages are often pretty as well as edible, and can tolerate shallower planters as well.

Frankly, you just kind of have to ask and look around a bit for advice on specific plants.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Also, now is a good time to start mentioning drainage. Most pots come with good drainage systems built in. If not, you can easily drill or punch holes in the bottom to allow for that — we’ll talk more about the importance of drainage in a minute. Also, the holes allow enough oxygen to reach the roots, which is another essential for optimal root health.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Okay. You’ve selected your plants and containers, now it’s time to talk about the essentials that all plants need.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom 7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

SOIL

First up, soil. Secret #3: Don’t be tempted to transfer dirt from your yard into the pots you’ll be using for your container garden. It might include unwanted organisms and insects, weeds, or other materials that could harm potted plants or impede proper growth and plant health.

Instead, plan on buying a good potting mix from a local greenhouse or home improvement store. It removes all the guesswork for you and includes nutrients and proper pH levels plants need.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Let’s take a look at what typical bagged potting soil contains.

Potting mixes include a combination of several soil amendments, different materials such as peat moss, mulch, vermiculite, perlite, and sometimes sand. Potting mixes are formulated to aid in aeration and proper drainage.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- Dried Sphagnum (Peat) Moss —  increases the soil’s capacity for storing water and nutrients

- Mulch — pieces of bark or wood chips that conserve moisture and help keep soil healthy

- Vermiculite — a mined, naturally occurring phyllosilicate that absorbs water and improves aeration in soil. It can be difficult to find and has received bad press over the years because it was contaminated with asbestos from a mine in the US in 1990.  Some gardeners don’t use it because over time it tends to break down, though it never dissolves. (This is the same stuff you’ll see in the bottom of fireplaces with gas logs.)

-Perlite — naturally occurring, looks like little styrofoam balls, holds water very well, prevents soil compaction. If using by itself, use extreme caution and even wear a mask to prevent inhaling it. (See why a premixed soil is so handy?)

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom 7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Some gardeners like to have more control over their soil, so they mix their own from various amendments. Worm casings, compost, coffee grounds, and other organic materials are commonly used.

Here I’ve mixed high-quality top soil (too heavy on it’s own) with perlite and vermiculite.

If you want to buy vermiculite or perlite (or both) check first at some of the big box and home improvement stores. I had a trickier time finding perlite. I found it at a farm supply store. If you’re an urban dweller, you might find it more difficult.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

WATER

I’ve heard it said that it’s difficult to over-water container gardens. I think that’s right for the most part. Secret #4: Typically, watering container gardens once a day is enough, and water will drain off when there is too much. (Read further on for more about that.) The only real problem with over-watering a container garden is the chance that vital nutrients will be washed away with the excess water.

It goes without saying that you want to guard against under-watering. If you forget for a few days, the plant might not suffer too much, but it’s better to make sure watering becomes a daily habit.

Make it as easy on yourself as you can. For example, if you’re a city apartment dweller with a rooftop garden, consider a barrel to collect rain water so you don’t have to lug gallons of water up and down stairs every day. Or, if your container garden is part of your landscaping and you have a sprinkling system, place the containers near the sprinklers and let them do the watering.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

This is the perfect time to cover the subject of drainage. Sounds like fun, right?

First I’m going to dispel a well-known garden myth that I used to believe. That is the practice of filling the bottom of your pots with gravel. Secret #5: While it seems like this would be a great idea to help with drainage, the opposite is actually true. Good, aerated soil will drain just fine on its own. And there’s more of a chance the pots will become waterlogged with the gravel than without.

The same goes for adding pot shards to the bottom of your pot. In effect, the pot’s depth is shortened and drainage impeded.  Contrary to what you might think, the soil won’t wash out of the holes in the bottom of the pot either. Proper soil ends up acting like a sponge that will release water when there is too much and retain it as needed.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

SUN

Secret #6: Not much needs to be said about sunlight except that A) it’s very necessary, and B) part of your planning process should include which plants need how much sun.

I choose mostly full sun plants because of where I place my garden containers. If you have a small area that receives sunlight for most of the day, that’s going to be fine. If you have a shaded patio or balcony, find shade-friendly plants.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

FERTILIZER

Different plants have different nutrient requirements. This is a part of gardening that is as fun as it is infuriating. Secret #7: I choose a potting mix that has fertilizer mixed right in. That makes things easy for me. Some people don’t like that and want more control, and that’s fine too. Research online or ask someone at the nursery to help. (I find they often really enjoy talking shop.)

There are so many different kinds of fertilizers and nutrients you can purchase or add yourself. You can buy liquids that are mixed in when watering or powders that are mixed in with the soil when planting. There are stakes or pellets that release fertilizer slowly into the soil with each watering. And there’s your very own kitchen compost. It just depends on what you like and can keep track of, because you don’t want to fertilize too much either.

For containers, I tend to use epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) and bone meal. This is because it’s the same stuff I use in my big vegetable garden, and I typically have some on hand.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

MORE TIPS & INFO

Okay, we’ve covered basics, and hopefully you’re making plans to head to the garden shop. Moving along… In this section, I’m including miscellaneous bits and pieces I’ve learned over the years.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- When growing tomatoes and peppers in a container garden, even with a really good potting mix it’s possible that there isn’t enough calcium or other nutrients in the soil. These have to be replaced often or a plant disease called blossom end rot will occur. The fruit looks just fine until you turn it over and the bottom is darkened and rotten.

This happened to me my first year of container gardening. Sigh. I lost everything.

Bone meal or other fertilizers containing calcium should be added to the planting hole when you place the tomato or pepper seedling (and some other plants too) to help prevent this. Once it happens, it can’t be reversed easily.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- Save the plant tags or seed packages — they often contain information about the frequency of watering, fertilizing, light requirements, and climate zones.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- Add water and mix it into the soil before adding the seedling.

The soil will absorb quite a bit of water, and I find it helps the plants acclimate to their new home a little better and that I have less run-off when I water again immediately after planting.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- Find out which plants will do well together and which plants are container hogs. (I’m looking at you, mint!)

It’s kind of fun to plant themed pots. For example, if you have a large enough pot, you might plant a cherry tomato with some cilantro and a small chile plant, and some onions around the perimeter (salsa!). Or maybe a pot with herbs you might use in French cooking, like rosemary, thyme, sage, and garlic.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- Don’t be afraid to use cages or stakes for plants that like to climb or vine.

I’ve added large tomato cages to my cucumber pots because I know they will climb and branch out for straighter cucumbers. It also provides extra stability. In my second floor apartment, I planted peas in a long, narrow planter along the railing and allowed the peas to climb the railing. It looked pretty and my kids had fun going out every day to pick fresh peas for a snack.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- Make your garden accessible.

One reason I’m such a fan of container gardens is that it’s easy to place plants I use in my daily cooking by my back door, so I can run out quick and snip a few herbs during dinner prep.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- When planting tomatoes, remove bottom leaves and plant a little deeper to give the roots a good chance to take hold.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- When re-potting a seedling, loosen the root ball just a little bit, but don’t cut or tear roots off of the plant. If the root ball seems too large for the container you’ve chosen, swap it out for a larger one.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

- Remove “suckers” from in between the branches so the plant can put energy into the main stem. I usually only do this at planting and in the first few weeks. I’ve actually heard this might be another myth, but I still do it sometimes, especially if there is a lot of greenery and very little blossoms or fruit. But if it seems too tedious, skip it and chances are your harvest will be just fine.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Okay. Basics have been covered, and you even know some of my favorite tips. Design Mom Readers, now it’s your turn. How does your garden grow?  In pots? In the ground?  What are you growing this year? And what are your favorite container gardening tips?

Happy planting!

P.S. — Want to know more secrets? You can find all of my Living Well posts here.

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Living Well: 10 Secrets (Actually, Shortcuts!) For Better Cooking http://www.designmom.com/2013/05/living-well-10-secrets-actually-shortcuts-for-better-cooking/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/05/living-well-10-secrets-actually-shortcuts-for-better-cooking/#comments Thu, 09 May 2013 13:30:04 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=30018

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

Photos and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

I remember my mother wishing there were more hours in the day. So much to do! So little time! Now that I’m a grown-up and a mother, I totally understand what she meant. Our days are filled with many necessary tasks — laundry, dishes, running errands, helping kids with homework. And making meals. As much as I like spending time in the kitchen cooking and baking, I’m always looking for new ways to save time in the process. Anything to hurry dinner along is appreciated by me and my hungry children.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom 10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

We live in a fast paced society and we don’t like to wait for things. Specifically, if you’re my children, you don’t like to wait for your dinner to cook all night. We have the internet at our fingertips giving us this and that instantly with the tap of a screen or press of a button. And it might feel like the drive-thru is the only way to get a fast, hot meal. But happily, it’s possible to make a healthy, wholesome, quick meal while cooking from scratch at home.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom 10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

So this brings me to my 10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking. You may already know some of the tips I’m going to share with you, but even if you do, consider this a nice reminder. And it’s pretty great to have them listed in one place!

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

Let’s begin with one of the first shortcuts I learned even before I got married over 10 years ago. Shortcut #1: Buying chicken in bulk (this could be one big package, or several smaller ones) when it’s on sale is great for saving time, and helps my pocketbook too. Separate the chicken into resealable plastic freezer bags, and take it a step further by adding a marinade to the bag. Note: if you buy your chicken already frozen, this still works!

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

I have a rotating list of favorite marinades, and I spend about 30 minutes after I come home from the store to stir up the marinades and them add to the bags with the chicken.

Squeeze out any extra air, then seal the bags and freeze. When you need them for your menu, pull out the bags to thaw. I like to pull one out in the morning and let it thaw in a bowl in the fridge. As the chicken is thawing, it’s also marinating. By dinner time, it’s ready to go!

And hey, I mention chicken here, but of course, this same technique works for any meat.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

Here’s another shortcut I also use on a weekly basis. Shortcut #2: Cooking big batches of healthy rice, quinoa, legumes, sauces and soups — and then freezing them in individual, smaller bags. This is so easy to do and great for when I’m in a hurry.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

If I freeze them flat, they thaw out quickly in a bowl of warm water and are ready to go in a few minutes. Or if I remember to put one in the fridge first thing in the morning, it will thaw out all day. If you think about it, your whole meal could already be cooked, in the freezer, and ready to be thawed out or warmed up. Brings new meaning to freezer meals, doesn’t it?

Slow cookers (you didn’t abandon yours, did you? : ) are really good for cooking large batches. I do regular batches of slow cooker black beans and freeze them. We’ll eat some freshly cooked for dinner that night, and then I put the leftovers in resealable bags. It’s just as easy as opening a can of black beans, but fresher — and cheaper!

green-veggie-smoothie-bags_1

Shortcut #3: Something I’ve been doing for a little while (and is totally trendy right now!) is to make my own smoothie packs. It makes things infinitely easier for me in the morning if I have a smoothie pack ready to go.

Purchase fruit in bulk or on sale and freeze your favorite combinations together in bags. I like to add fresh leafy greens from my CSA to mine, but if you don’t have access to fresh greens, places like Trader Joe’s have frozen spinach and kale that is great to add to your packs.

green-veggie-smoothie-bags-2

In the morning, put everything in the blender, add some juice, yogurt, water or milk and you’ve got a healthy smoothie for you and the kids.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

We’ve tackled a few bigger dinner menu items, and helped you about with breakfast, but let’s talk now about the flavor components of recipes.

I’ve been known to groan when I’m mid-recipe and notice that what I’m making calls for fresh garlic. One of several things happens: A) I’m out of it, B) I don’t want to take time from what I’m doing to chop one measely clove of garlic, or C) My knives and cutting board are dirty and I don’t want to wash them. Okay, B and C are pure laziness, but still.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

So, Shortcut #4 is buy some in a jar from the store (I’ll say it — the jarred version can be too strong and sometimes nasty). Or — do this instead! — you can prepare your own jar of garlic ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. (Edit:  there seems to be a chance that storing garlic in oil can cause food borne illness.  See the comments for more info.  Freezing as with the herbs and garlic seems like a safer bet.)

Peel the garlic and simply chop a few heads in a food processor or put them through a garlic press, put in a jar and top with olive oil. Much better than the store bought! You could do this once a week or every other week depending on how often you cook with garlic. If you’ve planned your menu ahead of time, then you’ll even know how much you’ll need for the week and can prep accordingly.

You can even add herbs to the garlic, which leads me to the next shortcut.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

Shortcut #5: Chop fresh herbs, top with olive oil and freeze in ice cube trays. Brilliant, right? Maybe you’ve seen that kicking around Pinterest. It’s such a great, time-saving idea!

The cubes can be tossed into sauces and soups. Or put one or two on hot cooked pasta. Or toss a couple in with rice while it’s cooking. Fresh herbs really add a lot of flavor, but sometimes they might wilt before you can use them all. This is the perfect solution.

Ice cube trays also come in handy for our next two secrets.

leftover-wine-ice-cubes

Shortcut #6: Sometimes I might only need 1/2 cup for a recipe, but leftover wine doesn’t last more than a few days in the fridge. Freezing extra wine in ice cube trays is a great way to curb the wasted wine. (If I drank wine this wouldn’t be a problem, I’m sure.)

For times when you only need a little wine in a recipe or maybe you’ve made a killer sangria and you don’t want to water it down, use the frozen wine cubes.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

Shortcut #7: Store-bought bottled ginger doesn’t taste as good to me as fresh, but along with chopping garlic, grating ginger is one of my least favorite kitchen prep tasks. The answer is very similar to the garlic, except that instead of a jar, I’m using my handy ice cube trays again. This keeps the ginger much fresher.

Simply grate it (I used my grating disk for my food processor) and place tablespoon-sized spoonfuls in the wells and freeze. Pop them out and put them in a resealable bag.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

My next shortcut involves butter and a cheese grater. I learned this tip from my husband’s cousin as he had a sudden craving for lemon bars. Shortcut #8: He grated cold butter into the dry ingredients and the crust was ready in a flash.  No pastry cutter needed, which is a kitchen tool not everyone has on hand.

Bonus: This also works for pie crust or if you want to quickly soften butter for cookies or cakes without using the microwave.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

Shortcut #9: Kitchen shears are one of my all time favorite time-saving kitchen tools. Skip the knife when you’re chopping smaller amounts of herbs and snip them into little bits.  You’ll be amazing at how quick this is.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

Other ways to use the shears over a knife? Cutting tortillas and quesadillas is very easy with kitchen shears. So is cutting chicken into pieces. It’s easier to snip homemade candy like caramels, marshmallows and taffy into bite size pieces.  Kitchen shears are also great for snipping dried fruit into bits, as well as cutting raw or cooked bacon into small pieces or trimming fat from meat.

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

The last one is another favorite tip that I use all the time. My family likes roasted root vegetables quite a lot. We eat them on a weekly basis. It can take a very long time to wait for the oven to heat up and then for the veggies to roast until they are tender enough to eat. Shortcut #10: Parboiling the vegetables cuts the time in half!

10 Shortcuts for Better Cooking  |  Design Mom

Toss the veggies with a little olive oil and stick under the broiler to finish them off. You’ll wonder why you ever did it any other way. Similarly, you can also microwave diced onions to help them soften and caramelize more quickly, then finish them off in a skillet.

Okay lovely Design Mom Readers, I’ve shared my favorite cooking shortcuts. Now, what are your favorites?

P.S. — You can find all of posts in the Living Well series here.

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Living Well: 11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices http://www.designmom.com/2013/04/living-well-11-secrets-to-cleaning-your-tech-devices/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/04/living-well-11-secrets-to-cleaning-your-tech-devices/#comments Wed, 10 Apr 2013 16:00:13 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=34177

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Text and images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

The arrival of Spring ushers in my deepest desires for a thoroughly cleaned house, inside and out. Shelves and cupboards organized. Base boards and walls washed. Windows that are streak free to let in the sunshine. But there are a few items I seem to forget about — the technological devices that I use every single day and might need sprucing up the most.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc. 11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

I hold my cell phone and home phone in my hands each day, touching the buttons and screens, holding it to my face. I allow my children, with their sticky little fingers, to play games and send texts to their dad or have a chat with grandma. My laptop screen is smudged by the same tiny fingers. Crumbs lurk between the keys. My camera and lenses shows signs of my last food shoot. Don’t get me started on the desktop computer! I’m not sure I can remember the last time it was properly dusted and wiped down.

Then there’s the television with diaper cream stuck in the speakers and even more smudges on the screen. (Or is this just my house?) I’ve read that these devices with their many buttons and screens harbor more germs than the toilet! Ew!

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc. 11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

So how, and how often, should these things we use daily, these things we can’t seem to be without, be cleaned? No worries. I’m here to help. This post will cover the nitty gritty of keeping your technology dusted, clean, and smudge free.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Secret #1: Assemble an arsenal of technology cleaning tools. It’s good to keep these cleaning items on hand because you never know when you’re going to drop muffin crumbs onto your keyboard while you’re checking blogs during breakfast. : ) Let’s look at what I have in my kit (clockwise left to right). Screen gel spray, disposable screen wipes, canned air, cotton pads, rubbing alcohol, microfiber cloth, soft brush, tweezers, q-tips, toothpicks, lint-free lens cloth, and screen eraser.

Screen Gel Spray is a special alcohol-free cleaner that is specially made to clean screens.

Disposable Screen Wipes are perfect for keeping in your purse for wiping down your cell phone while you’re out and about.

Canned air is an essential when cleaning out dust in small spaces. It doesn’t work for every task, but it’s essential enough that we always keep a can on hand.

Cotton Pads are a good, soft, cleaning tool. You’ll spray these with the rubbing alcohol, or water, instead of spraying the liquid directly on the tech.

Rubbing Alcohol is another essential. But, there are certain items that should not be cleaned with rubbing alcohol. So keep reading.

Microfiber Cloths are extra soft and won’t leave lint when you use them and also prevent scratches when you’re cleaning monitors and other screens.

Soft Brushes, the kind you use for makeup, are probably my favorite tool for cleaning technology. It is essential for dusting and is very gentle, especially for cameras and keyboards.

Tweezers are used for delicately grabbing flakes or dust bunnies that get lodged in crevices.

Q-tips are good for gathering dust small places.

Toothpicks are great for scraping out small areas where grime can hide.

Lint-free Lens Cloths are essential for making sure your cameras see clearly.

Screen Erasers are fairly new-to-me, and they’re pretty handy! More on screen erasers below.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Now that you have your tools, its time for Secret #2: Before you start cleaning electronic devices, be sure to unplug them, or power them down, and let them cool. Read any warnings listed on the device itself or the packaging/directions if they are still around. If not, check the manufacturer website — sometimes if you open the case (like a cell phone or computer), you’ll void your warranty. If you don’t want to chance it, leave the deep cleaning and maintenance to a professional instead, and stick to a quick wipe down of outer surfaces.

Okay, let’s proceed!

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

SCREENS

One of the most visible places for dirt, dust and grime is a screen — whether it’s a monitor, cell phone, LCD panel, or TV screen. Screens are easy to clean, but they are also an area that requires a little more TLC than you might think. This is definitely not the time to whip out your standard blue window cleaner and paper towels.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Secret #3: Alcohol and ammonia can harm screen surfaces, so stick with the alcohol-free gel cleanser or the disposable wipes. If you can’t find a gentle cleaner or disposable wipes, use plain water and a lint-free cloth. A lens cloth, like the kind you use for eye glasses, is perfect for this task. Microfiber cloths work too. One more plug for using a special lens or screen spray: they often have antistatic properties that will repel dust.

You’ll first want to brush away any dust you see before you start wiping it down. This will help prevent scratching.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

The screen eraser pictured here is another handy option. You just rub it in a circular pattern over the entire screen and it that’s it! I find it to be very effective.

Computer and other screens should be cleaned on a regular basis, as needed. At our house this is approximately twice a week for our desktop computer, and much more frequently for our cell phones. In fact, I recently bought my first smartphone (I know, high five!) and  I was amazed at how quickly the screen became dirty. To clean smartphone screens, I prefer to spray a little of the gel cleaner onto a microfiber cloth (NOT the screen itself) and wipe.

Secret #4: You never want to spray a cleaner directly on a monitor or screen because the overspray could get into cracks and crevices and cause damage. If you do get liquids where they aren’t supposed to be (this goes for keyboards and other parts of your devices), take your tech to a professional to be properly cleaned and dried out.

If you have a scanner, the glass scanning surface should be cleaned in the same manner to prevent scratching.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

KEYBOARDS

Start by turning the keyboard over and gently shaking it to loosen crumbs or bits of debris. Next, you might be tempted to vacuum your keyboard. I always thought this was perfect okay, but not so! Which brings us to Secret #5: Turns out vacuums can potentially create static electricity that can short out your keyboard. Oh dear! What you should use instead: A soft brush, like a large makeup brush, perfect for gently getting into tiny crevices.

After a dusting with the brush, canned air should be your next step. Applying too much pressure with the canned air can leave a wet spot, so be careful — use short bursts of air from about 6 inches away.

At this point, all crumbs and dust should be thoroughly banished. For remaining dirty spots on your keyboards, use a q-tip dipped in a small amount of rubbing alcohol mixed with water (about a 50/50 combo). Q-tips are the perfect size to move quickly in and out between the sets of keys on a full size keyboard. Just be aware not to get the q-tip too damp — excess moisture will wreak havoc on your keyboard.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

COMPUTER MOUSE, DESKTOP COMPUTERS AND LAPTOPS

Secret #6: The exterior bodies of most desktop computers and laptops can be cleaned very nicely with rubbing alcohol. It works really well to remove dirt and grime, as well as any residue from adhesives or stickers. Use a diluted mix of half alcohol, half water, and apply it with cotton pads, or a lint-free cloth if you’re worried about the lint from the cotton.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Depending on the kind of computer mouse you have, you might be able to take it apart and clean dust from the mechanical parts — for instance a roller. If it’s an optical mouse, simply wipe off the bottom with a cloth.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Some laptops have a removable battery that is perfectly fine to remove and dust as well.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Most desktop computers and laptops have one or more cooling fans. Secret #7: Cleaning these fans can really affect the performance of your device. A dusty, dirty fan means it’s not effective in cooling. If it’s not cooling properly, then the computer might overheat and that’s definitely not a good thing.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

The fans can be dusted from inside and out.  When it comes to laptops, it might be better leaving that to a professional as it is more complicated to take apart. CPUs are a little easier. (Again, be sure to check your warranty to make sure it’s okay to do this.) If you choose to remove the cover of the CPU, be sure it’s totally unplugged first. Also, using common sense, be careful not to unplug anything inside or remove any screws that you don’t need to remove.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

We feel comfortable enough cracking open our CPU to give it a quarterly dusting. If you live in a home with pets, or if your computer is in an area that accumulates a lot of dust, you’ll want to dust the inside and fans more often. Every 4-6 months is probably adequate enough. Again, don’t use a vacuum here, as tempting as it might be.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc. 11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Once it’s open, start by removing larger dust bunnies with a pair of tweezers. Next, use canned air to give the interior a general dusting. Again, be sure to use short bursts of air from about 6 inches away.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Next, concentrate on the fan — which might take a little extra effort. You can use a barely damp q-tip or cloth, in addition to the canned air. Secret #8: The fan will start to turn when the canned are is used. You don’t want the fan to turn too quickly or rapidly because it could cause damage to the fan. So hold it gently still with your finger while you clean.

Now onto my favorite thing…

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

CAMERAS AND LENSES

I own several DSLR cameras, but this same advice applies to point-and-shoot cameras.

Secret #9: I don’t clean the inside of my cameras myself. The mirror inside is so delicate that it can easily scratch or be damaged. This is something to definitely leave up to the professionals. A yearly cleaning is probably sufficient unless your camera sees heavy use, or if you’ve taken a trip to the beach recently.

The outside can be cleaned the same way as your computers — a microfiber cloth or cotton pad, dampened with a 50/50 alcohol water mixture. Or, you can rub it down with a lint-free cloth.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

After a general wipe down of the exterior, it’s time to look at the details. Cameras also have so many areas where dirt can collect. This is where toothpicks come in handy.

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

Lenses require extra care too. Secret #10: One rule to remember is that you should never wipe a dry lens. Breath on it or use a moistened microfiber cloth or a disposable lens wipe .

11 Secrets to Cleaning Your Tech Devices. Laptops, cameras, smart phones, etc.

The makeup brush is also useful here if there is a lot of dust. But note Secret #11: Don’t use canned air inside or outside your camera. It’s better to use a soft brush (as pictured) or a special blower/brush combo that can be found at most camera stores.

And that about wraps it up — we’ve covered the basics of keeping your electronic devices clean and dust-free. Happy dusting! And please share if you have your own secrets for keeping your tech clean and germ free.

P.S. — Find out all the secrets! See the whole series here

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Living Well: 5 Secrets for Caring for Teen Skin http://www.designmom.com/2013/03/living-well-5-secrets-for-caring-for-teen-skin/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/03/living-well-5-secrets-for-caring-for-teen-skin/#comments Wed, 27 Mar 2013 14:00:27 +0000 Design Mom http://www.designmom.com/?p=33020

5 Secrets for Avoiding the Teen Acne Phase

Written by Deborah Harju. Photos by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Note from the Editors: In January, Deborah Harju was interviewed in a Living With Kids home tour. Deborah is an esthetician and she casually wrote, “I hope my kids will one day appreciate that they could go through their teenage years without the dreaded acne phase.” Well. The Design Mom inboxes lit up! Readers wanted to know more. Can you really avoid the acne phase? So we asked Deborah to share her secrets. Lucky us!

Adolescence is a pretty tough transition period for any child. Unpredictable hormonal changes on the inside! Crazy physical changes on the outside! And us parents? We are learning to adjust our parenting techniques right along with them.

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Amidst all these changes, one of the toughest things teens deal with is acne. Oh ACNE! At the peak of their self-doubt, our poor kids get this dumped on them. As a parent, we may feel powerless when it comes to our child’s acne but the truth is, we don’t have to just sit back and let acne run its course.

Although acne can be genetic (children are more likely to suffer acne if a parent suffered from it), there are still many things we can do as parents to keep it manageable. Although I have personal experience with my preteen, I have treated adolescent acne as an esthetician for over 12 years and have found that these tips can be effective in navigating these troublesome years.

NOTE: These tips alone will not address the concerns of cystic acne, which is acne defined by very painful cysts or fluid-filled lumps beneath the skin. I would refer any client with cystic acne to a doctor, (preferably a dermatologist), who can prescribe oral antibiotics. If your acne is severe, an esthetician alone will not be enough. These tips can be effective in managing all other types of acne — even adult onset acne.

Secret #1: Cleanliness. It’s not shocking to say that most teens are not the most hygienic humans. But this is the most crucial time in their life to be just that! Oil glands in overdrive combined with activities like gym class and after school activities (team sports, skate boarding, dancing in their bedroom) create a face full of oil, dirt, and sweat. I cannot stress enough the need to cleanse their face AT LEAST twice a day.

When? I recommend in the morning when they wake up, and then again at the end of the day before bed. Encourage them to brush their teeth before washing their face, this will avoid bacteria from the mouth area from migrating down to your chin. An extra (third) cleansing would be after a midday sports game or other sweaty activity.

How? You want to pick a cleanser that will lather well — usually a gel or foaming facial cleanser — to help take the oil and makeup off.

- For sensitive skin my own kids (age 11 and under) use the Dove White bar soap, but soaps in general tend to be harsh on the face, so beware of soap.

- Use only warm water on the face, because hot or cold water is too shocking to the pores.

Showering daily is also vital to keep the oil from their hair from migrating down onto their face. Justin Bieber’s original look? Not so great for breakouts on the forehead. To cut down on time, keep a bottle of your facial cleanser in the shower so that you can wash your face while showering.

Secret #2: Stop Touching. Hands are our germiest body part. They are crawling with bacteria and dirt. And kids love to touch their face. They like to scratch at bumps, pick at things, or even just innocently lay their cheek in the palm of their hand. Urge your children from a young age to never touch their face.

Also, NO PICKING! Most acne scars occur because teens take matters into their own hands and pick at their pimples, usually drawing blood and creating scabs and holes which take weeks or even months just to heal.

Secret #3: Eat wisely. If you look carefully at any pimple, large or small, you will notice that it is inflamed and red. Certain foods cause inflammation in our body and feed the inflammation of acne. How does a teen’s diet of soda, hot dogs, pizza and onion rings fare for skin? Not good.

Stay away from refined sugars, processed foods such as meats with nitrates and excessive amounts of dairy. These foods feed inflammation and redness. Fresh is best? Definitely. Our skin is the largest organ of our body and we need to feed it wisely.

Secret #4: Identify and treat blackheads early. The reality is that even if your child heeds all these tips, they will still get blackheads. It’s just a part of life. But if you can treat the blackheads before they have a chance to turn into pimples, you are ahead of the game!

Manual extraction is really the only way to remove blackheads. And, I know I’m biased, but regular visits to an esthetician are the very best way to handle extractions and maintain blackhead free skin. If you cannot get to a local esthetician for extractions, the reality is your teen will attempt to take out the blackheads themself. If this is the case, I would recommend always preparing your face for extractions first.

How? Start by washing your face in the shower, letting the steam soften the pores for about 10 minutes, then use a gentle facial scrub — no salt or sugar, those are for the body and are too abrasive for the face.

- After you’ve rinsed the facial scrub off and toweled dry, wrap Kleenex or tissue paper around your pointer fingers, keep wrapping until you no longer feel your nails through the tissue. Never ever squeeze your face with bare hands, this is how you can mark and scar your face — the more padding between your nails and your face the better.

- You’ll need good lighting and a close mirror to see the blackheads. Look for small dark or black dots, sometimes raised sometimes not, usually in the T-Zone area of the face. Never attempt to squeeze something you cannot see (the side of your cheek for example).

- Gently squeeze your pointer fingers around the blackhead, pushing down and together at the same time. A small wormlike shape should come out from the pore. Use clean tissue to brush the blackhead off your face.

- If nothing comes after a few attempts, do not keep squeezing! And do not squeeze beyond the blackhead itself, there is no reason to draw blood, this will only cause the pore more stress and create inflammation.

- Once you’ve extracted any blackheads you will want to rewash your face to make sure you remove any leftover bacteria hiding in the pores.

Secret #5: Get educated about your skin (or your teen’s skin) and skin care products. Instead of just reading a product recommendation from someone or seeing a magazine editor recommend it, learn about your particular skin and why it does what it does, so that you can navigate the products and brands out there as an educated consumer versus someone blindly grabbing for something out of desperation.

Just because the Dove White Bar works for my 11 year old, in a year or two, it may not and we may need to move to something else. So I would hate for someone to read this and think that particular soap is going to cure their child’s acne.

Sigh. I could write for days about products alone. The whole drugstore versus department store versus professional products is a discussion in itself. I could also go on about toners and pH and how they relate to cleansers. But I’m afraid this article would be 3 times as long. Hah! Perhaps another post is in order. : )

I hope these insider tips and information can help navigate this time in your and your child’s life. Thanks so much for having me!

P.S. — Like secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.

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Living Well: 5 Secrets to Perfectly Hard-Boiled Eggs http://www.designmom.com/2013/03/living-well-5-secrets-to-perfectly-hard-boiled-eggs/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/03/living-well-5-secrets-to-perfectly-hard-boiled-eggs/#comments Wed, 20 Mar 2013 13:30:46 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=33115

How to Perfectly Boil an Egg

Text and photos by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

In March and April, eggs go on sale at the market, so this is an ideal time to learn, or improve, our egg boiling skills. You may have big plans to dye some Easter eggs, or maybe you’re just craving an egg salad sandwich. Either way, knowing how to perfectly hard-boil an egg is a skill everyone should have.

How to Perfectly Boil an Egg How to Perfectly Boil an Egg How to Perfectly Boil an Egg How to Perfectly Boil an Egg

Do you ever peel and cut open an hard-boiled egg only to find a pesky grey-green ring around the yolk, or that the yolk is still a little raw? I’m here to help!  And soon you’ll be an egg-spert and be able to show all your friends how easy it is to hard-boil eggs.

untitled-6311

Put the eggs into a deep pot in a single layer. Secret #1: Fill the pan with cold, not hot, water. The goal here is to bring the eggs up to boiling temperature along with the water, which will also help prevent cracking and promote even cooking. The eggs should be covered by 1-2 inches of water. To measure, dip your finger in and touch an egg. If the water reaches anywhere between your first and second knuckle, you’re probably good to go. If not, add a little more.

Bring the water up to a boil. Secret #2: Let the eggs boil for one minute, then cover and remove from heat. The heat in the water will continue to cook the eggs after they are off the burner. If you have an electric stove with coil burners, you can skip boiling the eggs for one minute because the burner will retain heat. Let the eggs sit in the covered pot for 12- 15 minutes.

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Secret #3: The actual time is going to vary a bit due to the size of the eggs. Medium eggs will take less time, about 9 minutes, and extra large eggs will take more time, about 15 minutes. The altitude where you live will affect the cooking time as well. I live at about 5,000 ft. above sea level, so I keep the eggs cooking in the covered pot a few minutes longer so the yolks aren’t too raw. Plan on practicing with a few small batches till you get the timing just right.

If you’re boiling a lot of eggs at one time, sometimes it’s worth sacrificing one egg to ensure the others are properly cooked. Remove one egg from the pan, cool it as quickly as you can in ice water, peel it and cut it open to see if it’s cooked all the way. Undercooked yolks are almost as bad as overcooked ones! They will be darker yellow and look raw.  If your tester egg isn’t cooked through yet, keep the rest of the eggs cooking in the hot water for a few minutes longer. (Alas, there’s no going back once the yolk is overcooked.)

boiled eggs in cold water

Next step is Secret #4: To stop the cooking (and avoid over-cooking) you’ll need to cool the eggs quickly. There are two options. You can gently drain off the hot cooking water and add cool water to the pan. Or, you can remove the eggs from the hot water with a slotted spoon and carefully transfer to a bowl of cool water. As I mentioned, this stops the cooking process, so be sure not to skip this step.

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Now we’ve come to the funnest part: peeling. Secret #5: Cold eggs peel much more easily than warm or room temperature eggs. Begin cracking the cooled egg by rolling it gently against a flat surface, like a counter or cutting board. Go ahead and roll until the entire shell is covered in cracks. Then carefully peel the shell off. If the shell sticks to the egg white, help things along by either peeling under cold running water or in a bowl of water. I have also found that cracking the larger bottom end first, then rolling can help the shell come away more easily. Be sure not to crack it too hard or you’ll chance breaking the egg white right in half!

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Peeled eggs should be used very soon after peeling. Unpeeled eggs should be kept in a container with a lid (to prevent odors) in the fridge for up to a week.

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TROUBLESHOOTING

Peeling
Have you followed all the tips and you’re still having a hard time peeling the egg? It might be because your eggs are too fresh. (Too fresh? Who knew that being fresh could be a problem?) Fresh eggs are known to be harder to peel, and that includes those fresh from the farm. Eggs in the store are typically about a week old, so plan ahead. The fix: Let your eggs sit in the fridge for a few days or even two weeks before you boil them. Or try the pin trick I mention in a bit…

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Cracking
If your eggs are cracking during the boiling process, try this: add a little vinegar or salt to the water. The vinegar/salt will help any escaping egg whites coagulate and stop leaking out of the crack.

Or, you can follow my Mother’s tip: prick the bottom of the egg, where there’s a tiny space between the membrane and the shell. The idea is to release a little bit of air. It’s supposed to help prevent cracking — and some people swear it makes peeling easier too!

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Grey-Green Ring on the Yolk
Found a grey-green ring? Don’t worry it’s not dangerous and doesn’t affect the taste of the egg. It’s just a little unappealing. That dark colored ring is a natural reaction between sulfur and iron reacting at the surface of the yolk and the egg white. It does mean that your hard-boiled eggs cooked for too long. Make a note of how long the eggs cooked and cook them for a few minutes less the next time.

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And that’s it! Now those hard-boiled eggs are ready for Grandma’s Deviled Eggs, dyeing with the kids, or eating as a quick snack or breakfast on the run.

Now, please tell me, do you have any tips you’d add to mine? Have you ever tested and timed your eggs so that you know the exact amount of cooking time for your stove and elevation? I’d love to hear.

P.S. — Save those shells! They can add extra calcium and other nutrients to your garden.

P.P.S. — Love secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.

How to Perfectly Boil an Egg

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Living Well: 10 Easy Secrets to Greening Your Home, Part 2 http://www.designmom.com/2013/03/living-well-10-easy-secrets-to-greening-your-home-part-2/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/03/living-well-10-easy-secrets-to-greening-your-home-part-2/#comments Wed, 13 Mar 2013 14:30:26 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=32191

This post is sponsored by GLAD®. Small changes can make a big difference.

——-

Text and images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

A few weeks ago we talked about 10 Easy Secrets to Greening Your House, and today I’m back with 10 more easy tips. There are just so many things we can do! This time, I’m going to focus on secrets to cutting down on waste and using less — things I bet we could all improve on.

Some things you may have already heard, and some might be new things you’d never even thought of doing. All of them are small, everyday changes that are simple and easy to make, but make a big difference.

Secret #1: Replace light bulbs with energy efficient, longer lasting bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs use about 1/4 less energy than incandescent bulbs. Halogen bulbs are another alternative to incandescent.

You might be wondering about the difference between halogen and fluorescent bulbs and which one to buy. Halogen lights are more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, but they do emit a fair amount of heat and don’t save as much energy as fluorescent. The light from halogen bulbs is warm and yellow-reddish. Halogen bulbs are much smaller, provide a good amount of  light, and last a lot longer, but they are expensive.

Overall fluorescent bulbs are cheaper to buy and use and are cooler. Fluorescent bulbs are especially worth considering if you want to keep your air conditioning bill lower during the summer or if you live in a warmer climate. Daylight balanced fluorescent bulbs are available if you don’t care for the blueish tint given off by traditional fluorescent bulbs. The daylight balanced bulbs create a more natural looking light indoors.

Secret #2: Get to know your recycling options. It’s not just for bottles and newspaper anymore! You can recycle your old electronics like cell phones, chargers, cameras, laptops, radios, etc.  You can even recycle old household appliances.

If the appliances still work, consider donating them to the Salvation Army, a local women’s or homeless shelter, a church, or another organization where they can still be used. If they are nonworking, check into centers that will accept them, such as Habit For Humanity or Appliance Recycling Centers of America (ARCA.)

Old appliances sitting in landfills release harmful chemicals and gasses into the environment.  For more information, contact your municipal  government’s department of sanitation. They can also help you find a donation center in your area.

Most office supply and big hardware stores will recycle inkjet cartridges, as will most manufacturers, usually for no charge. Or you can use an ink refill service.

Even soap bar scraps can be recycled. (The Global Soap Project is working to recycle all of that hotel soap so it doesn’t go to waste. Awesome!)

Secret #3: Choose products that are designed to help prevent waste. For example, avoid individually packaged items like small bottles of water, yogurt cups, and snack foods.

Or give our sponsor’s trashbags, GLAD® Forceflex, a try. They’re designed to stretch so you can fit more in (without making holes!), meaning you can use less trash bags, and less plastic overall.

Secret #4:  Raise your hand if your kids (or you) use too many paper towels when cleaning or wiping up spills? I’ve saved so much money (and paper!) by switching to cleaning cloths.

Flour sack towels are just the thing for getting windows and mirrors sparkling clean and streak-free. I use white bar mop towels for smaller cleaning jobs, and dusting too. Another trick: I safety-pin smaller towels around my flat mop to replace expensive disposable mop pads.

Secret #5: Showering instead of bathing saves a lot of water. This is the easiest tip of the bunch — and you’re probably already doing it! You’re an eco-expert already. : )
Now let’s get to some easy changes in the kitchen that will go a long way to curbing excess waste.

Did you know that on average we waste about 1.5 lbs of food per person per day in the U.S.?  That doesn’t even account for all the food waste from supermarkets and restaurants. Which leads me to Secret #6:  Start at the source of eliminating food waste by buying less. Plan out your menus ahead of time, make a detailed grocery list before you shop, and stick to the list.

Of course there might be one or two items you forgot or you might find a great sale on something, but in general this will help you curb that extra food that just sits in the fridge unused, only to be thrown away when it spoils.

You’ve gone to the effort of planning a fabulous weekly menu and now it’s time to use up those leftovers! Eat them for lunch or have a night dedicated to leftovers. Secret #7: If you need to reheat food, use the microwave instead of the oven or stove. Turns out, it uses a lot less energy.

Speaking of food, let’s talk about something that might be a little more effort to start but will quickly become an easy habit with a little practice. Secret #8: Compost your kitchen scraps. Composting kitchen scraps like vegetable and fruit peels will help keep them out of the trash and you can turn it into rich nutrients for your houseplants, your garden — or the community garden down the street. If you did buy more lettuce than you were able to use, stick in the compost bin and it won’t go to waste.

Composting isn’t just for the suburban or rural dwellers. Small compost pails can fit neatly next to or under the kitchen sink. There are attractive store bought bins or easy-to-make homemade compost bins. And don’t worry unsavory smells. If a compost bin is made and used correctly, it won’t stink and it won’t attract pests, and you’ll be doing a lot of good for the environment!

Bonus:  It’s another way to dispose/recycle newspaper and other paper products. You’ll want about a 50/50 mix of green components (fruit and veggie peels, tea and tea bags, coffee grounds) and brown components (cereal boxes, cardboard egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, napkins, paper plates, pizza boxes, shredded paper).

Stay away from composting cooked food, meat, fish, and cat litter. A full list of what you can and cannot compost can be found here.

You can’t compost glass, but you can certainly reuse it. Secret #9: Keep and reuse glass jars for storing leftovers (soups and sauces especially), or bulk items like grains, legumes, spices and dried fruit.

I use glass jars in the bathroom to hold q-tips, cotton balls, makeup brushes, and toothbrushes. In the garage they come in handy for holding nails, bolts and screws. Being able to quickly see what’s in the jars saves time too.

Last, but not least, Secret #10: Cities are making no-plastic grocery bag laws one after another. Might as well get with a reusuable grocery bag habit sooner than later. (If you’re like me and get to the store only to remember that you forgot your reusuable bags, keep them in your car so they are handy and waiting for you when you hit the market on the way home from work.) 

You can pick these up at almost anywhere for a few dollars a piece. These are also a good looking and sturdy option. Be sure to wash them regularly.

Wow! We’ve covered a lot of tips. And that leads me to the most important recommendation.Don’t feel overwhelmed and try to do everything all at once! Take it one step at a time, get your family invovled, and experiment with these tips until new habits are formed. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to be more green at home.

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Living Well: 10 Secrets For Extending The Life of Cut Flowers http://www.designmom.com/2013/03/living-well-10-secrets-for-extending-the-life-of-cut-flowers/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/03/living-well-10-secrets-for-extending-the-life-of-cut-flowers/#comments Wed, 06 Mar 2013 15:00:34 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=31923

Text and images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Nothing brightens a room quite like a vase of fresh flowers. Also, nothing smells quite as nice (with the exception of a few flowers maybe — I’m looking at you, Easter Lilies!).

I love walking by a vase of freesia. It reminds me of being someplace warm and sunny, preferably tropical, with the breeze blowing through my hair. Roses remind me of my great-grandmother’s rose garden and her gorgeous Peace Roses the size of small dinner plates. Hydrangeas bring back fond memories of my time living on the East Coast. Then there are peonies. My maternal grandmother had so many growing in her garden. They are cheerful and happy and make me think of summer and bare feet in the grass.





Whether it’s a bouquet of gorgeous roses from your significant other, a friendly bunch of birthday daisies from your bestie, magenta peonies fresh from the garden, or that impulsive bunch of tulips you grabbed on your way through the grocery store check out line, there are some helpful concrete things you can do that will keep them fresh, lasting longer and looking their best.

Most of the time you’ll probably find flowers bunched together, held with either a rubber band or twine, packaged in cellophone or paper. When you get flowers from the florist, try to buy from one that has a high turnover so you can be sure you’re getting really fresh flowers. It’s a good idea to befriend your favorite florist, like I have with mine. They are going to be your best resource regarding specific flowers and they might just let you in on good deals or specials, or tricks only the pros know.

Tips like Secret #1: when shopping for roses, gently squeeze the rose where the petals meet the top of the stem. If it’s soft and squishy, the roses are old and you shouldn’t buy them. If it’s firm, the roses are fresh.

Florists and floral sections of grocery stores will keep some flowers in refrigerated areas in buckets of water. The cooler temps help keep the flowers fresher, and the water is of course to keep them alive. Speaking of water, flowers will wilt quickly without it.  Secret #2: If you have a ways to go before purchasing your flowers and putting them into a vase, be sure they are A) packaged with individual water containers, or B) that you plan ahead and have a bucket of water with you, or at the very least C) wrap the stem bottoms in damp paper towels.



Once you get home, inspect the flowers. I find this is especially true with roses.

Remove any severely wilted petals or leaves, and Secret #3: remove any greenery from the bottom of the stems that will be submerged in the water — you’ll be amazed at how much removing lower leaves will help keep the water clearer.

Next, take a look at the stems. Sometimes you’ll see that they’ve been burnt, or are severely dried out. Water is changed regularly at the florist, but they leave the stem trimming up to us. Time to trim those ends!


Cut off 1-2″ of the stems, under running water or in a bowl of water, at a 45 degree angle. Doing this underwater will help prevent extra air from going into the stems. Secret #4: It’s a good idea to trim a bit from the stems each day or every other day to help the flowers receive a steady flow of nutrients and water.

What should you use to cut the stems? My florist says scissors squish the stems too much. They can damage the end of the stem and prevent them from absorbing the water from the vase. So I take her advice and Secret #5: I use a very sharp knife to get a clean cut. For woody, thicker stems, you can also use sharp garden shears.

If you don’t cut the flowers underwater, be sure to get them in water as soon as possible after cutting. They should stay in fresh, clean water until you transfer them to a vase or put them into an arrangement. There are only a very few flower stems that can handle being bashed or split, so steer clear of that unless you know for sure it’s good for a particular flower.

When you’re ready to arrange the flowers, remember Secret #6: Always, always, always use a sparkling clean vase that has been washed in hot, soapy water and rinsed well. This will help remove any microorganisms. Those pesky microorganisms equal slimy water and dead flowers.

Some flowers will continue to grow even after they have been cut from the main plant. Anemones (the pretty purple flowers pictured) will keep growing and taking in large amounts of water every day, as will tulips. In just two days, the anemone blossoms opened and the stems grew about 1/2″!

Flowers take in more water than you might think. Look carefully at the hydrangeas below and you’ll notice that in a little over 24 hours they drew in 3/4 of the vase water. I use good old tap water, but you can also use demineralized water — like the distilled water you’d put into an iron. Florists don’t recommend using soft water. There’s too much sodium in the water which is not good for the flowers.

Which brings us to Secret #7: Since cut flowers are no longer receiving nutrients from their roots, it becomes your job to keep them fed and happy. This will also help any unopened buds bloom.

There are homemade vase solutions you can make, but when I asked my florist to give me the down-low on that, she said the best thing is the same thing the pros use: commercial flower food in packets. When buying your flowers, ask for a few extra food packets, because you will want to change the water every day or every other day, and each packet is only enough food for 1 pint of water.

Secret #8: In addition to the food, adding a tiny amount of bleach to the water — 1/4 tsp. per quart of water — will also help keep the water clean and clear and prevent harmful microorganisms from taking over. But please don’t use too much or you’ll damage the flower you’re trying so hard to preserve!

Secret #9: Besides drawing water from their stems, almost all flowers benefit from a daily mist of water. This is a fun “chore” my kids enjoy helping with.

Lastly, cut flowers will keep fresh longer if kept at cooler temperatures. Remember how florists keep flowers in those large refrigerators? Secret #10: You don’t have to keep your flowers in the fridge, just move them to a cooler spot every night and keep them away from hot spots in your house — this includes being near fireplaces and heaters, and away from direct sunlight, which can harm the delicate petals.

Temperature also matters when cutting the flowers from the garden. Cut in the morning when the temperature outside is cooler.  

MINI-APPENDIX

I’ve also gathered random bits of flower-specific advice that don’t fit in the general discussion above, but they’re too good not to share. Take a peek:

- You might have heard that aspirin or vinegar will help prolong the life of cut flowers, but it doesn’t really have much of an effect. One thing that does seem to work is using lemon-lime soda. Word on the street (from an elementary science fair project) is that filling a vase with straight 7-Up instead of water will keep roses looking fabulous for up to 2 weeks. Wow!

- There’s an old wives tale about putting a penny in the bottom of a vase of tulips to keep them standing up straight. It really seems to work!

- Another one for tulips: dipping stems in ice water each morning and cutting off 1/4″ will make them last a lot longer.

- Hydrangeas like water so much, that instead of misting them, they can handle a quick dip in a bowl of cool water!

Now you’re ready for all those gorgeous Springtime flowers! If you have life-extending flower tips that have worked for you, I’m sure we’d all love to hear them. And I’d also love to know what flower you’re most looking forward to as the weather warms up. (Preferred flowers can be a passionate topic!) As for me, I can’t decide between peonies and hydrangeas.

P.S. — Hungry for more secrets? You can find all of the posts in this series here.

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Living Well: 7 Secrets To Caring For Unmentionables http://www.designmom.com/2013/02/living-well-7-secrets-to-caring-for-unmentionables/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/02/living-well-7-secrets-to-caring-for-unmentionables/#comments Wed, 27 Feb 2013 17:00:01 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=30320

Text and photos by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Lingerie. Bras and panties, slips, hosiery, camisoles, bustiers, nightgowns. Unmentionables. 

They are often silky, satiny, lacy, and ornate. They are feminine and beautiful. As a little girl I loved watching my mom gently wash and care for her undergarments and was always fascinated by the little bit of extra time and effort she put into it. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough for my first bra and I could trade in my Strawberry Shortcake underwear for pretty, grown-up panties. I took notes while I watched my mom and learned a few tips for taking proper care of my underthings. It not only keeps them looking beautiful, but they last longer too.




So lets talk about those silky, sexy unmentionables and the secrets to keeping them properly washed and looking lovely.  (And I’ll try not to blush!)

The first step is looking at the care label. This might seem like a given, but it’s easy to overlook something so obvious.  The labels are not there for looks and certainly not for comfort! Manufacturers know how to best care for the clothing items they make, so don’t ignore the care instructions. Sometimes the care instructions are clearly written out and sometimes you have to decode the symbols. Take notice of key information — particularly the type of materials or fabric used and then the temperature of water and drying instructions.

If you are like me and snip those little tags from your undergarments, you could make a note somewhere or keep the tags in a jar near the laundry room for quick reference. Secret #1: If the tags are long gone or too worn to read, play it safe and skip the washer. (More on this later.) If you are really a stickler for instructions, and know the name of the brand, often their website will offer care instructions.

Materials/Fabric

Lingerie and hosiery are made of delicate fabrics and materials that require a little more TLC than t-shirts and blue jeans. Polyester, nylon, silk, and cotton, or blends of these are the norm. For the most part, the care instructions will be fairly similar. Except for silk. Secret #2: Silk requires more attention and love — and usually dry cleaning.

Other materials — interfacing, elastic, wires — are used to provide structure. And then there are pretty buttons, ribbons and bows, beads and other details and decorative trim. Because many undergarments are made using several different materials and fabrics, it is all the more important to read the labels and follow them.

Hand-washing vs. Machine-washing 

Depending on what the care label says, it’s time to decide how to proceed. Will you hand-wash or machine-wash?

Even if the label says machine-washable, I sometimes hand-wash anyway. Hand-washing is much more gentle, so if you have items with more beading or special trim, choose that over machine-washing. In fact, if I have any questions on the care instructions at all, I err on the side of caution and hand-wash.

For hand washing, fill the bathroom sink, large bowl or washtub with warm or cool water. Swish the undergarment in the water, add detergent (not much — about 1 Tbsp) gently agitate or squeeze the suds through the garment.

If there are any spots that need extra attention, like perspiration stains, treat with a little of the detergent and allow the item to pre-soak for a bit. Gently rub the fabric against itself or use a soft cloth to scrub the stains away.

Finish by rinsing in cool water. Secret #3: When rinsing, you can add a little white vinegar to the rinse water to help remove any soap residue.

Be sure to remove rings from your fingers and be extra careful if you have long fingernails so you don’t snag the fabric. This is especially true when hand-washing hosiery.

That being said, machine-washing can be a great way to save time and is safe for most fabrics. (Remember- — not silk!)

To machine wash, start by purchasing an inexpensive, fine-mesh bag. There bags made for lingerie in general and there are special bags designed especially for bras. One trick with machine-washing is that some undergarments, bras especially, might become twisted, bunched, or lose their shape. This is especially true if your bra has any kind of padding.

Using a special mesh bra bag can help bras keep their shape and will also keep straps from getting caught on and tangled around washer parts. Secret #4: When you place your bras in the bag, fasten all hooks so they don’t catch on lace or straps.

I like to use larger, rectangular bags for my nylons and tights. If your washer comes with a small basket insert, this is the perfect time to use it and you may not need to bother with a mesh bag. (Though I still recommend using one.)

Again, if there are any spots that need extra attention, treat with a little of the detergent and allow the item to pre-soak for a bit. Gently rub the fabric against itself or use a soft cloth to scrub the stains away, then add to the mesh bag.

Utilize the gentle cycle on your washer. Generally, I allow the washer to fill with water, add the detergent, and then the items. Wash undergarments together in very small batches, with like colors, and not with other larger items like towels and clothes.

Detergents and Water Temperature

Be sure to use a liquid, mild detergent that is specifically made for delicates. The gentler formula of these special detergents isn’t quite as harsh and is made for delicate fabrics. In a pinch, I have also used a gentle baby shampoo.

Warm or cool water is gentler on clothes and will prevent shrinking. If you must use hot water, make sure the care label says it’s safe. Certain materials, such as interfacing, can shrink in hot water causing the item to pucker or become misshapen. Hot water is also damaging to elastic.

Secret #5: Never use bleach on delicate fabrics. It’s too harsh and damaging. Pre-soak instead.

Drying

Once your undies are washed and rinsed, it’s time to dry them. Resist the urge to twist them and wring out. Instead, pat dry or roll up in a towel to remove excess water before hanging up to finish drying. Use extra care for any items with wires to prevent bending or breaking. Always line dry unless otherwise specified on label.

I tend to hang my bras by one strap on a hanger and let them dry overnight. Another option is to reshape them (good for padding) and let them dry flat on top of a towel. Thinner fabrics will dry more quickly. Anything with padding will take longer, so place it somewhere it will be able to dry out — not in a steamy bathroom or damp basement, for example.

Secret #6: I never dry my bras in the dryer. Even if the label says it’s okay, I still line dry. As I mentioned above, elastic will deteriorate with heat, especially the strong heat that dryers produce. And then there’s shrinking. Interfacing often shrinks more than other fabrics, which causes garments to become misshapen or pucker. Not good.  Better safe than sorry! If you must dry your bra in the dryer, use the lowest heat setting you can.

How Often To Wash 

Now for the big question: How often should bras and other undergarments be washed?

Washing undergarments too often will wear them out more quickly, but you should wash them often enough that the fabrics don’t break down from natural body oils, deodorants, lotions and perfumes, etc. And as you can guess, letting soiled clothing sit for too long in the hamper isn’t a good idea.

A good rule of thumb is to wash a bra after you’ve worn it twice. If you have perspired a lot, then you might want to wash it after one wearing — this applies to sports bras particularly. If you have a drawer full of bras that you rotate wearing, then you might only be taking care of your delicate laundry every few weeks. If you only have a few bras, this might be every few days or once a week.

When it comes to other undergarments and hosiery, it’s personal preference and there’s some debate here. (I’m not talking about panties. Your mom was right: wear a clean pair every day!) I wash my nylons and tights about every third time I wear them, unless they are worn for an extended length of time. You’ll know when it’s time. : ) Slips and other items seem to last longer between washes, so they might only get a wash once a month, more if I am dressing up more often.

Secret #7: All of these secrets apply bathing suits and leotards too!

And now I’d love to know: Do you have your own favorite tips for taking care of delicates? How often do you wash your unmentionables? And the question I’m most curious about: Do you say panties, undies or underwear? (I have a friend who hates the word panties!)

P.S. — Love secrets? You can find all of the other Secrets to Living Well here.

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Living Well: 10 Easy Secrets to Greening Your House http://www.designmom.com/2013/02/living-well-10-easy-secrets-to-greening-your-house/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/02/living-well-10-easy-secrets-to-greening-your-house/#comments Wed, 20 Feb 2013 15:00:12 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=31346

This post is sponsored by Green Works®. You don’t have to compromise to be clean when you use hard working, plant-based cleaners powered by The Clorox Company.

Images and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Spring is just around the corner. I can feel it! This time of year always gets me thinking about ways I can be more green. We all know it’s important to reduce, reuse and recycle. We know saving energy is a very good thing. But sometimes it can seem daunting or overwhelming and you might wonder where to start.

And sometimes, it feels like no matter what efforts we make we’re somehow doing it wrong or not doing enough. (Remember the fascinating comments and discussion on this post?) But I’m here to reassure you. I’m not perfectly green by any definition, but I do know there are simple things we can do, habits that we can form, that have a positive impact. Nothing extreme. Nothing that will stress us out or have us feeling guilty. I’ve got 10 simple things everyone can do, no matter where they live, to make their home greener. 

(By the way, if you’re ever felt like attempting to be green has turned into a competitive sport, you might get a kick out this video.)

I live in a desert climate, so saving water is always on my mind. There are so many simple things to do to help conserve water on a daily basis. Here’s one of the easiest — and it doesn’t cost any money at all. Secret #1: Place some small pebbles In the bottom of a plastic bottle (like a used water or soda bottle), fill it with water and place it in the tank of your toilet. Most toilets use 3-7 gallons of water with each flush. That’s a lot! The plastic bottle will displace some of the water in the tank and save you gallons of water a day.

Saving energy also means saving money on gas and electricity bills. (Yay for saving money!) Secret #2: The first place to look is at the settings on your thermostat. It’s typical for Americans to keep their thermostats at 70 degrees. With that in mind, when it’s cold outside, set your thermostat a few degrees lower than 70 and throw on an extra sweater. When it’s hot, think about raising the temperature 2-3 degrees to save money on air conditioning. A programmable thermostat is a great way to lower or raise the temperature according to your schedule — i.e. when you’ll be home or sleeping — without having to think about it every day. But if you don’t have one, manually lower or raise the temperature when you leave your house.

While we are talking about temperature, let’s talk about hot and cold water. Secret #3: Simply setting your water heater to a max temperature of 120 degrees F, means you’ll be saving money and energy as the water heats up. This is also a much safer temperature to prevent scalding when you have small children in the house! Bonus tip: wrap your water heater with an insulation blanket, secured with a bungee cord or oversize safety pins, to prevent extra heat from escaping.

Doing laundry takes a lot of energy (and time!). Most of the energy for a washer comes from heating the water. Secret #4: Wash clothes in cold water and line dry your laundry whenever possible. Unless you’re washing some seriously stained clothes, almost all clothes can be washed in cold water (check the labels to make sure they aren’t dry clean only!) Conventional thinking says that warm hot or water will help remove stains from laundry, but with store shelves stocked with cold water detergents specially formulated to remove stains, you won’t have to compromise when using cold water for your laundry needs.

If you have a dishwasher, use it. It might surprise you, but hand washing dishes often uses more water than the machine! If you don’t have a dishwasher, fill up a big bowl or the sink with hot, soapy water for washing and another with clean water for rinsing. Secret #5: Skip the heated drying cycle on your dishwasher and prop the door open to let the dishes air dry. 

Secret #6: Go paperless! Are you still writing checks to pay your bills? Be green and sign up for online bill pay. Ask to be removed from catalog lists using a removal service and peruse online for new Spring dresses and shoes instead.

If you keep your phone charger, toaster and other small appliances plugged in even when they aren’t in use, you are draining electricity — and your wallet. Secret #7: Unplug. Better yet, use a power surge strip and flip the switch when the items plugged in are not in use. The biggest power drains are your computer and television. Put your computer into sleep mode if you don’t want to turn it off completely. If you leave for an extended period of time, like for a vacation, unplug everything except for major appliances.

Secret #8: Swap out those toxic cleaners for safer ones. Greenworks (the sponsor of this post) has an all-purpose cleaner that’s 97% naturally derived! Besides environmental benefits, non-toxic cleaners are much safer to use around children and pets, and are easier on your respiratory system and your skin. Bonus: No more worrying about the kids helping you clean when you’re armed with non-toxic cleaners. 

Secret #9: Buy vintage. Search out clothing, furniture and other household items from consignment stores, thrift shops and yard sales. Or have a swap with friends for baby clothes and gear, dishes, appliances, etc. Would you rather stay home and thrift shop? Try Closet Dash for you and ThredUp for the kids.

Secret #10: Put a houseplant in every room. Besides actually adding some green to the house, keeping plants indoors helps provide a healthier environment for you, your family, and your pets. Which reminds me: Be sure to choose plants that are kid and pet-friendly. Some of the benefits of having houseplants around include purifying the air by helping remove harmful chemicals, humidifying the air which can help with respiratory or allergy problems, brightening up the room for an instant mood lift, and more. Not bad.

All of these things might not seem big enough to save the environment in one go, but lots of people making small changes leads to a big impact. And beyond that, making even small efforts like these puts our heads in a conservation mindset. A good place to be!

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Living Well: 9 Secrets to Tasting Chocolate http://www.designmom.com/2013/02/living-well-9-secrets-to-tasting-chocolate/ http://www.designmom.com/2013/02/living-well-9-secrets-to-tasting-chocolate/#comments Thu, 14 Feb 2013 16:00:30 +0000 Lindsey Johnson http://www.designmom.com/?p=30318

Text and Images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

Do you remember the first time you had a really good piece of chocolate? I mean the good stuff. Not the sort you steal from your child’s Halloween stash, and certainly not the kind you share freely during play dates. I’m talking about the kind of chocolate that melts slowly on your tongue, and tastes like berries or citrus, maybe even with a hint of coffee at the end. Once you’ve tasted it and found your favorite, this is the chocolate you’ll secret away in a too-high cupboard. One square of the stuff will get you through the witching hour just before dinner, homework time, any end-of-the-day playroom mess you can imagine, and all the deadlines looming before you. Maybe chocolate’s not that magical…but it is delicious.


Tasting chocolate has become an art form, a lot like tasting wine and cheese. There are books, classes, and societies all devoted to the art of tasting chocolate. Learning to distinguish between candy chocolate and fine chocolate isn’t as hard as you might think, but it does involve all five senses, and by the time we’ve finished you’ll have developed a sixth sense for understanding, appreciating, and tasting chocolate.





So let’s forget everything we’ve heard about dark chocolate being bitter, let’s dream beyond a Mars bar, and get acquainted with the art of tasting chocolate. Real chocolate. This will be fun! I’ve got some helpful secrets to help turn you into a chocolate-tasting pro. (And, trust me. This is a very fine skill to have!)

No tasting yet! The first — and most frustrating when you’ve got chocolate within reach! — step to appreciating chocolate is knowing from where it came and how it’s made. Which happens to be Secret Number One:Run a background check on your chocolate.

When I talk about higher quality chocolate, I am referring to chocolate made by artisans in small batches from cacao, often one kind of bean. These are referred to as bean-to-bar, meaning the artisan chocolatier turns the cacao beans to chocolate as opposed to large candy companies that purchase chocolate liquor or solids.

Chocolate comes from cacao, a fruit with a thick, leathery skin. Though it is native to the Americas, Cacao has now been cultivated in tropical climates around the world, close to the equator. The trees require heat and shade, and grow in orchards or groves. Cacao pods grow directly on the trunk of the tree.

Most of the world’s cacao beans come from West Africa, but they are also grown in the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia. Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario are the three main varieties of cacao used in chocolate production. Forastero makes up the bulk of chocolate worldwide, and is inferior in quality to the Criollo, which is considered the very best and only makes up about five percent of all cacao grown in the world. Secret Number Two: If you remember one thing the next time you’re at a chocolate shop, remember Criollo. You can’t go wrong.

The beans inside the cacao pods are white and mucilaginous. The white pulp is removed from the pods and laid out in the sun to dry and ferment. As the pulp ferments, it leaves behind the reddish brown cocoa seeds. This process is all done by hand, not machine.

Are you still with me? Good, because we’re almost to the tasting part.

To make one pound of chocolate, 400 of the cocoa beans are required. The beans are bagged and shipped to chocolate makers around the world. Once there, the beans are cracked open and broken into cocoa nibs that are then ground into a paste called chocolate liquor. It is then mixed with other ingredients to make a bar of chocolate.

Cocoa butter is the fat that comes from cacao. It’s mixed with the chocolate liquor to make all the different types of chocolate.

Unsweetened chocolate does not contain any sugar, but is made up of cocoa solids mixed with cocoa butter. It is used primarily for baking and cooking when we’re adding sugar and other ingredients to make cakes, cookies, and brownies.

Bittersweet and semisweet chocolates contain somewhere between 60-72% cocoa solids. There is a small percentage of sugar added. Milk chocolate contains about 40% cocoa solids or less. The rest of the chocolate is made up of added sugar and milk, usually in the form of dry milk solids. It tastes much sweeter than bittersweet and semisweet chocolate.

Did you know that white chocolate isn’t technically chocolate at all? It only contains the cocoa butter which has been mixed with milk, sugar, and vanilla. Secret Number Three: If you’re a hopelessly devoted fan of white chocolate, be sure to stay away from any white chocolate that contains palm kernal oil. It’s not true white chocolate and does not have the same taste or quality.

Now that we’ve covered the types of chocolate, let’s get down to business. We’ll start with our eyes.



SIGHT.

When selecting chocolate, look at the wrapper. It will tell you a wealth of information and help you decide which bar to choose. Secret Number Four: The less ingredients, the better! High quality chocolate contains five to six ingredients: cocoa solids/mass, cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and soy lecithin. If it’s milk or white chocolate, then milk will be on that list, too. The soy lecithin is an emulsifier. Not all chocolate contains soy lecithin, but it is very common. If it’s a flavor-infused bar, it should contain natural, pronounceable ingredients and contain no artificial flavoring: spices, chiles, herbs, coffee, etc.

Other things to look for: where was the bar made, from where did the beans originate, whether it is a single origin bar (meaning, was only one variety of cacao used), and the percentage of cacao solids (the higher percentages make for a darker chocolate).

Once you open the wrapper, pay attention to the appearance of the chocolate. Artisan chocolates are beautiful. Their colors are rich, their finishes glossy, formed in varying shapes and thickness, and with some you may even notice slight reddish tint. The bars might look slightly different from one batch to the next as they are made in smaller batches by hand, not in big factories. Some are beautifully stamped with the company’s logo or other decorations. Some you’ll want to frame. I mean it.

Secret Number Five: Looks matter. If the chocolate has white streaks on it, that means it wasn’t kept at the proper temperature or the chocolate wasn’t tempered properly. The white streaks are cocoa butter that has risen to the surface. It doesn’t mean the chocolate is bad or spoiled; it’s still perfectly fine to eat, though the texture may be slightly affected.

SMELL.

Mass produced chocolate is made in large batches, which means cocoa butter is often removed and replaced with vegetable fat, and artificial vanillin is used instead of vanilla. Other artificial ingredients are often added as well. So when you smell the chocolate made by artisans, you can really smell the difference. Secret Number Six: Your nose knows. Higher quality chocolate will smell sweet, like vanilla, or have floral components. It might smell like coffee, caramel, or fruit. It is full-bodied where the less expensive, grocery store chocolate smells artificial, or too sweet like marshmallows.

SOUND.

When you break chocolate, it should snap so crisply that you can hear it. This snap as well as the dark, shiny finish is thanks to a process called tempering. The short explanation is that tempering is bringing melted chocolate (in this case, during production) to a proper temperature so that the cocoa butter is evenly distributed and the crystals in the chocolate are properly formed. This crystallization is what causes the snap. It also makes the chocolate less likely to melt on your hands.

TASTE.

This is seriously the best part. You get to taste that piece of chocolate you’ve been studying. And you’ll be glad, once you’ve tasted, that you did your homework and chose the perfect piece.

Secret Number Seven: Take it slow. First, set the piece on your tongue. Instead of chewing it, let it snap between your teeth and melt on your tongue.

This is where we can talk about the distinct difference in single origin chocolate. Big candy companies buy loads of cocoa beans or cocoa solids and mix them all together for a consistent product that always tastes the same. Which is fine if you’re buying chocolate in bulk, or you’ve grown to love a certain candy bar from your youth and wouldn’t want it to taste any other way. But cacao beans grow all over the world in tropical climates. Some beans taste like banana. Others taste like berries or citrus fruit. One of my favorite bars from Amano, Morobe, tastes citrusy.

Think of it as you would wine or cheese tasting; different grapes and different milk from different parts of the world and a variety of sources, harvested at different times, have a certain flavor. Cacao beans from different parts of the world and even in different orchards will possess a unique flavor. And this is why it’s so important for chocolatiers to use the finest ingredients to highlight — not hide — the distinct flavors.

After the chocolate has melted, you’ll be able to detect what is known as the finish, which is very satisfying and lingers for a few minutes. Secret Number Eight: Fine chocolate actually is not as bitter as you’d think. In fact, a little bitterness is good. We are only able to really taste chocolate in the presence of sugar.

TOUCH.

Because of the cocoa butter, which melts at body temperature, good chocolate won’t melt easily on your hands and will take a minute to melt on your tongue. It should be placed on the tongue, left sitting for a few seconds until it starts to melt. Good chocolate is creamy, smooth, and luxurious in the mouth. Inferior chocolates taste waxy or might even coat your mouth with fat. Domori chocolate is the creamiest I have ever encountered; the milk powder is ground right in with the cocoa beans leaving it as smooth as can be as it melts on your tongue.

Secret Number Nine:If you’re tasting multiple chocolates, begin with the one that contains the least amount of cocoa, from white to milk to dark. That way, your senses won’t be overwhelmed and you can ease into a true study of which tastes you love the most. Taste a single chocolate several times in small bits to get the full effect of the flavor of the chocolate. Also, in between chocolates, it’s possible to erase the previous taste to make way for the new by eating a small piece of white bread or something equally bland. Nothing spicy that will shift your senses into over-drive or compete with any flavors to follow.

Promise me you’ll pick up a high quality chocolate bar if you’ve never given them a chance before. It might even be fun to run your own taste test; industrial chocolate vs. fine chocolate. Be sure you taste them the same way — slowly and waiting until the final taste — because the finishes are drastically different! I imagine this is the kind of test you won’t mind taking. And remember: I want to hear what you love so I can try some, too!

P.S. — This infographic is a handy reference for all things fine chocolate!

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You can find all the posts in the Secrets to Living Well series here.

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