Here are some hints and hacks that I’ve found helpful. Laundry, chickens, eggs, bacon, onions, croutons, microwave sauces and polenta, simple kitchen tools. How to do stuff, and how not to.
The best, and often the cheapest, stewing beef are eye of round steaks. Also round steaks and pepper steaks. All are from the same cut of beef. The pepper steaks are edged with black pepper. They are perfect for stew or stroganoff because they have very little fat and you can easily cut them in cubes or slices.
Sometimes the label says “fast fry” and I have no idea why. I have done that, and they were like shoe leather. But they are perfect for slow and stewed.
Potato water is probably the easiest stock to make. Whenever you boil potatoes for anything, don’t pour the water down the drain. Pour it into a bowl, let it cool and put it in sealable containers. Freeze it and you have instant stock for making stews and soup. Use it instead of water for making gravy – more flavour and lots of vitamins and minerals.
I hadn’t thought about it, but apparently dogs can get their heads stuck in chip bags and suffocate. Not just dogs, but cats and other animals. Not just chip bags either, but any plastic or foil food bags. They go for the whatever is left inside and then might not be able to get their head back out. If it’s a tight fit, well, those bags are strong. To prevent this, just slit the bag down the side before throwing it away.
Melitta Coffee Cone
The best coffee making “system” I have found is the Melitta cone. It was my first way of making coffee and now, many years later, I have returned to it. In between, I have had automatic coffee makers, a French press, instant, espresso machines, and a Keurig.
All methods have done their job – provided coffee to me. But some have done it better than others in terms of taste, time, quantity and waste created. None met all my criteria at the same time.
In my search for the perfect coffee maker, I overlooked the humble Melitta cone. If I’d even thought of it, I wouldn’t have been sure that they were still even made. So simple: a plastic shell and a paper filter. Set it on your cup, spoon in coffee and add boiling water. You can get large cones that make a pot of coffee as well as the small ones.
I found mine in a Salvation Army thrift shop, complete with its measuring spoon. Googling them, I found that an updated, improved version is available (that’s it on left). It has a window in the base so you can see how full your cup is. But other than that, it’s the same simple and efficient cone. Thank heavens some things that work are left well enough alone.
The best kitchen gadget I bought at a yard sale was a mandolin slicer. I thought I would try it out, then leave it to languish in a cupboard, and finally bag it up for donation to another yard sale. My experiment with it was slicing cucumbers. It’s staying with me forever.
I was making bread and butter pickles, slicing cukes with a knife. My hand was getting tired and the slices weren’t even. I remembered the mandolin. It’s supposed to slice and dice, let’s try her out. Wow! It did. Slices were even and just the right width.
Soon after, I had a giant zucchini. I’d read about zucchini noodles, and liked the idea. But i didn’t have the spiralizer you use to make the long strips. I tried cutting long narrow strips with a knife. Couldn’t cut them narrow and long enough, and I worried about losing a finger in trying. The mandolin – I wonder!
Yes, there’s an insert with small blades placed very close together. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and shove it flat side down through the blades and you’ve got noodles.
I haven’t used it for anything else, but the box says it slices, dices and minces. Good for coleslaw and whatever. I figure I’ve got more than my money’s worth out of it just with the two things I’ve done with it. Plus it’s easy to clean, no difficult parts to disassemble. Then it repacks into its little box and doesn’t take a lot of space in the cupboard.
Using a bit of order with laundry on a clothesline saves you time. Remember, what goes on first comes off last. So to the extent that you can easily root around in the laundry basket, hang things in order of where they’re going. If your kitchen is closest to your clothesline, hang tea towels etc. up first because you’ll put them away first. Also spread items full-width on the line. They’ll dry without wrinkles. Then you want to keep the wrinkles out when you put them in the basket.
1. Group items by room, person and type. Hang things on the line according to what room they’re going to and by who they belong to. Put sheets, pillow cases and towels side by side. Same with clothes: hang each person’s clothes together by type. T-shirts together, jeans together, etc. That way you can just lift each stack out of the basket and put it away.
2. Fold straight from the clothesline. Fold each item carefully the way you want it to be stored. For example, I fold towels different ways for different towel rods, so, as you can see in the photo, I do that when I take them off the line. Smooth out wrinkles in clothes before folding. Best way to avoid ironing.
3. Hangers. Hang wet shirts, jackets, trousers and anything that goes in a closet. Find a nail or hook (or put some up) and let them dry on the hanger. That saves you folding and then unfolding to hang them, and also avoids wrinkling in the laundry basket.
If you have a clothesline tree, you can start and finish wherever you want in the circle. It still helps to group each person’s clothes together and group by type. If you use a dryer, you can’t order the items since the most important thing is to get them out quickly before they wrinkle. But folding each as you pull it out is just as important to avoid wrinkling.
Slicing an onion
When you near the top, turn it around and start cutting from the bottom of the other side.
Chickens need calcium to keep the shells of their eggs hard. You can buy oyster shell from feed stores. But, in some, the smallest bag available would supply a small flock for many lifetimes. My aunt told me how to use hens’ own eggshells as a calcium supply.
You make the eggshells unrecognizable to the chickens. You don’t want them realizing that they don’t need you to get these treats. Chickens like shell so they may start pecking their own eggs. If one starts, the others will learn from her. You will end up with no eggs or your hens in the soup pot.
After you crack eggs, put the shells in a container of hot water and let them soak for a while. The membrane inside will loosen from the shell. Peel the membrane from the shell or the shell from the membrane, whichever way works best.
Put the clean shell or shell pieces in another container, with a paper towel in bottom, to dry out. When thoroughly dry, crush them in your hand and scatter them in your hens’ run. They’ll have fun pecking at them and get their calcium without realizing the source.
My brother saves shells for our hens too but he doesn’t take the membrane out. He just dries them well then crushes them. So the girls get shells with and without membrane and they haven’t picked up the habit of egg-pecking.
Brush or spray them lightly with oil.
Sprinkle with pepper, herbs and/or garlic salt, depending on the flavour you want.
Put them in a low oven to dry out – maybe 10 minutes at 250º.
If you want them a bit toasty, broil them for a few seconds until the tops are lightly toasted. Turn them over and do the same thing.
Then cut them in cubes. Voilà – croutons.
Choose your grapefruit carefully. The heavier it is, the juicier it is. Heft them and compare. Look for ones that are kind of shiny. They have thinner skins. My mom taught me those two things. But she didn’t teach me the best way to cut a halved grapefruit.
Special grapefruit utensils are best. See the curved blade and serrated edges? A slight curve on the knife means you cut along the curve of the fruit all the way down. The serrations make the cutting easier. Put your knife between the white peel and the fruit itself and cut around the edge. Avoid cutting into the white. That and the membranes between the sections are the sour bits.
Best way to eat it is with a grapefruit spoon. The serrated tip grasps the fruit section and helps pull it away from the membrane. When you’ve finished, use the spoon tip to scrape the remaining fruit away from the peel. No sourness, just lovely soft grapefruit segments and juice.
For cleaning metal woks, the best tool is a bamboo wok brush. You can get them in Oriental food supply stores (or click text or photo at left for my Amazon links).
Put the clean, wet wok on high heat on a stove burner to dry. It only takes a few seconds. Don’t touch it; it’ll be very hot. This dries it more completely than a cloth can and faster than air-drying, thereby avoiding the metal doing anything strange.
Do not use a brush like this on a coated wok!
One day I watched my mother with containers of cranberry juice and apple juice, a funnel and an empty juice bottle. She poured cranberry juice into the empty bottle to about 1/3 of the way up, then filled it with the apple juice. What is she doing? “Making cranapple juice”, she said.
I thought wow, Mom, you gotta get out more often. “They sell that, you know, already made up.” She looked at me – the look that only your mother can give you, that says “this is why I spent all those hours in labour?” She asked me “how much does it cost?” I said, “I dunno, they’re all the same price, the cranberry and the mixed cranapple and cranraspberry.” “And how much is a bottle of apple juice?” she asked. “Well, less than that.” “So what are you paying for in the cranapple? You’re paying for cranberry juice and getting mostly apple,” she explained, not convinced that I’d ever get the point on my own.
So now I too make my own cranapple juice. You can make all the other cranberry blends too, much more cheaply.
Bacon can be messy to cook. Sometimes you wish you just had a little bit ready to go, for a sandwich or a topping on a casserole. My father-in-law had a solution. Cook a whole pound at once, then set on paper towels to absorb the grease. Wrap the drained, cooled bacon in paper towels and put in a plastic bag in the fridge. When you want only a slice or two, just heat that amount on high for 10 seconds or so in the microwave. It will keep in the fridge for a week. If you don’t use bacon very often, you can probably freeze it when cooked.
Cleaning stained cups
If your cups are stained inside by tea or coffee, they’re easy to clean. Put a pinch of baking soda in the cup then add hot water. Let it sit 5 or 10 minutes, then just wash the cup with a cloth. Stain gone.
I discovered something – you can make cheese sauce in your microwave. I wanted just a bit of sauce and didn’t feel like messing up a pot and grater. So I put about 1/2 cup of milk in a bowl, added a tbsp. of blending flour, stirred it until it was mixed. Then I cut cheddar cheese in small pieces and put them in the bowl. I put it in the microwave for 1 minute on medium high. The cheese had started to melt, but not enough. I gave it another minute. Stirred it, and it was thick and smooth. One small bowl and a knife to wash, that was all. Now, I haven’t tried it in a larger quantity so I’m not sure how well that would work. I’ll let you know when I do. But for a little bit, on vegetables or in a casserole – it worked for me!
I got the idea from an interview on NPR with Harold McGee. He said you could cook polenta that way. That’s a thick corn meal mush, basically, common to Northern Italian cooking. It acts like rice or pasta, as a ‘holder’ for sauces or to accompany meats or vegetables. Usually, you pour the corn meal slowly into boiling water, then stir while it thickens. I use about a 1:3 ratio of cornmeal to water. McGee said he just put the same proportions of corn meal and water in a bowl and nuked it. I tried, and it worked. I nuked it for probably about 2-3 minutes all told (did it in 30 second intervals to check on its progress, so I can’t be definite about the time it takes).
Polenta made the traditional way is not difficult, but there’s a messy pot to clean and it can splatter all over your stove while cooking if your pot isn’t deep enough. So this is much easier. I put it in a deep bowl in the microwave in case of splatters, but there were none. Just lovely smooth polenta. (Photo of polenta and rabbit from Wikipedia)
A good wooden spoon is a joy to use. Sauces blend more smoothly, stews stir better, pots scrape out cleaner. You want it to be smooth and shaped so its contours fit the sides of the pots. A wooden spoon only gets that way through use. So look for an old one that’s been used enough to have the edges worn smooth and shaped to fit a pot. You could break a new one in, I guess, with enough time. But why if you can find one already smoothed and shaped so it does its job well and feels nice in your hand? Wash it with soap and hot water by hand, like a wooden cutting board. Do not put it in the dishwasher.
Simple as boiling water!
Yes, hard boiling an egg is simple – put it in boiling water and cook it until it’s done. But there are pitfalls, so here’s a few hints. (Soft boiling them is an art and science of its own learned only by trial and error. Try 3 1/2 minutes for a start.) To hard boil, put your eggs gently in a sauce pan and cover them with water. Bring to a boil and let them boil about 12 minutes. You can tell when they’re done by taking one out on a spoon. If the shell dries almost instantly, it’s done. If it doesn’t, put it back in and give them a bit longer. When they are done, run cold water over them immediately and let them sit in it a couple minutes. That prevents the black rim from forming around the yolk.
If you only buy supermarket eggs, you will never need to know this next tip. If you have truly fresh eggs, straight from the hen, do not try to hardboil them until they are about a week old.* A fresh egg simply will not peel cleanly. Clumps of white will come off with the shell. My aunt who raised chickens told me this after I had tried to make devilled eggs from fresh eggs. They were very sad-looking, those few I could salvage enough of the whites to stuff. The rest became egg salad.
Fresh eggs are lovely for softboiled eggs because you’re scooping the egg out of the shell so how well they peel doesn’t matter. And the taste is superb. Lastly, if you think your raw eggs might have gone bad, put them in a pan with water well up over them. If they stay at the bottom, they’re fine. If they float, they’re bad.
* I read in a magazine that you should add 1/2 tsp of baking soda to the water to successfully hard boil fresh eggs. There is an air pocket between the white and shell that increases in size with age. The baking soda mimics the aging process. I tried it, but didn’t find much improvement.