Sunday, January 23, 2011

Comfort Foods

Most of us have memories centered around a special dish or food that we enjoyed when we were growing up. A special dessert your grandmother used to make, a supper dish that was a family favorite, even something special your mom used to make for you when you'd been under the weather. Comfort foods. As good for the soul as they are for the tummy! Baked Macaroni and Cheese is one of those dishes for me. I worked full time the whole time my kids were growing up and I am ashamed to admit when I served them Macaroni and Cheese, it almost always came from a box. They loved it, but they didn't know any different. If I had started them out on Macaroni and Cheese the way my mom made it and then introduced them to Kraft Shells N Cheese in a box, they would have thought I have complained loudly. There is just no comparison.

Since both CHEESE and PASTA (any shape will do) are pretty high on Yeoldfurt's list of favorite foods, this dish is one of his favorites. When my mother made this, she didn't put meat in it because she generally served it as a side dish to meat, and she started with a thick White Sauce made from scratch, then melted cubes of cheddar cheese into it. I've added meat to it as a matter of convenience (one dish meals mean less work and less clean up!) and I usually melt some of the spicy Mexican Cheese version of Velveeta for the sauce ...also as a matter of convenience. If I didn't have a full time job that kept me away from home 10 hours of the day, I would make my cheese sauce from scratch too, but even with Velveeta, it's still really good.

There was one thing my mom did as a garnish that I have never done for Yeoldfurt. She would beat an egg with about two tablespoons of water and a little salt & pepper to make an egg wash. She would set that aside in a pie plate. Then she would put about a cup of crushed saltine crackers as a coating in a separate pie plate. In the meantime, she was melting a cube of butter in a small skillet. She would slice one good sized tomato in five slices (there were five of us), dip the slices in the egg wash, dredge them in the crackers and then fry them in the melted butter until they were golden brown on both sides. Just before she put her macaroni and cheese in the oven to bake, she would put these fried tomatoes on top as a garnish. It was a pretty garnish and oh so good!

When Yeoldfurt was leaving for work today, he mentioned that he'd like some Macaroni and Cheese for tomorrow's supper and I told him about the fried tomato garnish my mom used to do. His eyes lit up so we'll find out tomorrow night if he likes it as much as he thinks he will.

As I said, my Macaroni and Cheese is based on the way my mom made it, but tweaked to accommodate our busier lifestyle and Yeoldfurt's penchant for spicy. Yeoldfurt asked me to share the recipe, so here you go:

Meaty Macaroni & Cheese
2 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
4 slices bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled
(save the drippings!)
1/2 cup diced fresh onion
2 cups sausage links, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 lb Mexican Velveeta, cubed and melted
1 cup milk (add 1/4 cup at a time, mix well after each addition)
4 Tbsps butter

Fried Tomato Garnish (optional)
1 large firm tomato, evenly sliced
1 egg plus two tablespoons water, well beaten
1 cup Saltine cracker crumbs
Salt/Pepper to taste
1 cube butter, melted

This is what it will look like assembled & ready to bake:
Spray sides and bottom of a 9x13 deep baking dish with nonstick cooking spray, set aside. Cook pasta, drain and set aside. Cook bacon slices in oven at 375 degrees until crisp, approximately 20 minutes. Set bacon on paper towel to drain and pour drippings into a medium sized skillet. Add sausage and diced onion in skillet over medium heat until sausage is slightly seared and onions are translucent. Melt cheese cubes and 4 tablespoons of butter in the microwave, add 1/2 cup milk and blend well. Put cooled pasta in the 9x13 baking dish. Add sausage and onions and mix well. Pour melted cheese over top and stir to coat all of the pasta. Set aside while you make the fried tomatoes.

When you start frying the tomatoes, you want to set up an assembly line because they will cook very quickly. Melt the butter in the same skillet you used when you cooked the sausage and diced onion. Crack a raw egg into a shallow dish, add two tablespoons of cold water, and beat well. Add salt & pepper to taste. Crush the saltines and put them in shallow dish ...a pie plate works well. You need to have a couple of layers of paper towel on a plate next to the skillet to drain the fried tomatoes when they're done. Once everything is ready, set up your assembly line ...tomato slices, the egg wash, the pie plate of saltine crumbs, the melted butter in the skillet and the paper towel to drain that order. The tomatoes will only take a few minutes to cook once you get started, so now would be a good time to preheat the oven to 350 degrees. After all the tomatoes are fried and drained, arrange them on top of the macaroni and cheese.  What the heck, if you're feeling decadent, pour the melted butter from the fried tomatoes over the top too.  Everything is better with butter, right?  If that feels a little too decadent, you're just kidding yourself's not like this recipe would ever make it into the Heart Healthy magazines!  Now sprinkle the crumbled bacon evenly over the top and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes before serving. A nice tossed salad and some fresh or canned fruit for dessert and you have a complete, well-balanced meal.

If you want to make this ahead, you can cover it with plastic wrap and it will keep for several days in the refrigerator, or can be frozen for several months. If you plan to freeze it but want to use the fried tomato garnish, I would freeze it without the fried tomatoes and make them fresh before you bake it.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where to Begin

I don't think that either Yeoldfurt or I consider ourselves experts necessarily on prepping or long-term food storage. But since we started down this path a couple of years ago, we've learned a thing or two ...most of it the hard way. We've also accomplished a thing or two during that time. So since the real purpose of this blog is to share information, I'm going to try to share what we've learned. This post is my first installment on that effort.

Food and water are the most basic of necessities. Stockpiling these necessities is not a new concept but, in light of our floundering economy and rising costs, it is fast becoming a very popular one. There is so much to take into consideration when you decide to embrace this lifestyle. How many people are you planning to take care of ...for how long in a worst case scenario? Are you preparing for temporary hard times, or a full blown collapse of this economy? No one has a crystal ball and no can really prepare for every single contingency. You just have to take an objective look at your own situation, your own needs, and your own limitations and then do the best you can.

You will need space for your long-term storage. How many people you intend to take care of and for how long will determine how much space you need. Underestimating the space can be a serious pitfall. So calculate carefully and then round up on your estimations. I had a boss once that used to say, 'It always takes a third longer than you expect.' He was talking about estimating labor costs when bidding a contract, but I've found that 'a third longer' is a pretty good rule of thumb. So when you round up, round up by a third. It's much easier to find out you didn't need quite as much of a particular prep item, or didn't need quite as much storage space overall than it is to find out you needed much more.

There are two basic things you need to know before you can determine how much you need in terms of preps or storage space. You need to know how many people you are planning to support and for how long. Obviously you know how many people live in your household, but do you have extended family that you will accommodate if they show up on your doorstep? If so, it's much better to plan for them and have them not show up than to not plan for them and run short in a crisis. So decide how many people you want to accommodate in a worst case scenario. Next decide how many months worth you want to store. We decided on 12 months. The LDS church has always advocated a 12 month supply. It's long-term enough for you to get through most temporary personal crises and short-term enough to be manageable in terms of rotation. But I have known families who just keep a month or two ahead and other families that have literally years worth of staples. Decide what YOU are preparing for and plan accordingly.

Now that you know how many people you expect to accommodate and how long you expect to accommodate them in a worst case scenario, you can start your itemized list of what you will be storing. It can be mind-boggling at first. Somehow the hardest things to estimate for 12 month supply are the very things that are the most fundamentally essential to our daily life. Toilet paper is a good example. It's something we ALL use daily and would all miss dearly if it wasn't there. Yeoldfurt and I jokingly refer to it as 'rolled gold.' I say jokingly, but we take it very seriously. Off the top of your head, if you were new to prepping, would you KNOW how much toilet paper you would need per person for a 12 month supply? Before last year, I wouldn't have. For most people, their initial estimate would tend to be high because their estimate would be influenced by their keen desire not to be caught short. But investing more than you need of one item at some point robs you of the ability to invest enough in some other need. So it's important to be as realistic as possible in your estimation of quantities for all things. Breaking everything down into a one week or even a one day supply will simplify the task.

When we were just starting out, Yeoldfurt found a list online somewhere and built our list from that using Excel spreadsheet software. If you're building the list on the computer, any software will do ...but I highly recommend using a spreadsheet so you can easily sort. Most wordprocessing softwares will sort also if you set them up correctly, but it's not as user friendly. If you have spreadsheet software, that's definitely the best way to go.

Every item on Yeoldfurt's initial list was in alphabetical order. I decided early on that I needed to reorganize it into categories if I was going to be able to use it week to week. I also found that it included a lot of things that we didn't really use. Every family is different and has different needs. I'm the shopper and the cook in our household, so the list had to make sense to ME if I was going to be able to use it efficiently. Every person is different. Every family is different. You have to make sure the list fits your situation.

These are the eight categories that I used to organize our list:

Beverages & Related Condiments
Canned/Dried Goods
Cleaning Products/Chemicals
Condiments/Sauces/Salad Dressings
Cooking/Staples & Mixes
Personal Hygiene

An inventory list is only useful if it's kept current. When I pull something out of storage, I write it down on my grocery list for the following week. Then a day or two before I plan to shop, I add any items from the inventory list that we're short of goal on. When I get home from shopping, I update the quantities on the spreadsheet. It's really very easy once you get in the habit.

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Little Levity

At the request of my friend, Modern Day Redneck, I have been working on a serious post about how to calculate quantities in your preps.   I tend to get wrapped up ...and then tangled up details when I try to be serious, so I thought a little levity in the meantime was in order. 

I can't take credit for the following but it sure fits the bill.  I received it from my sister in Colorado and who knows how many hands it passed through before landing in her inbox.   So take it for what it's worth and enjoy a laugh break on me. 

(Author unknown, probably for good reason)

I had this idea that I could rope a deer, put it in a stall, feed it up on corn for a couple of weeks, then kill it and eat it.  The first step in this adventure was getting a deer.  I figured that, since they congregate at my cattle feeder and do not seem to have much fear of me when I'm around, it should not be difficult to rope one, get up to it and toss a bag over its head to keep it calm. Then I would hog tie it and transport it home.

I filled the cattle feeder, then hid down at the end of my rope.  The cattle, having seen the roping thing before, stayed well back.  They were not having any of it.  After about 20 minutes, my deer showed up - three of them.  I picked out a likely looking one, stepped out from the end of the feeder, and threw my rope.  The deer just stood there and stared at me.  I wrapped the rope around my waist and twisted the end so I would have a good hold.  

The deer still just stood and stared at me, but you could tell it was mildly concerned about the whole rope situation.  I took a step toward it, it took a step away.  Then I put a little tension on the rope.   Just a little.  That's when my education in deer wrangling began. 

The first thing I learned is that, while a deer may just stand there looking at you funny while you rope it, they are spurred to action when you start pulling on that rope.  That deer EXPLODED!

The second thing I learned is that, pound for pound, a deer is a lot stronger than a cow or a colt.  I could handle a cow or a colt in that weight range on the end of a rope and still retain some dignity.  A deer, however?  No chance!

That thing ran and bucked and twisted and pulled.  There was no controlling it and certainly no getting close to it.  As it jerked me off my feet and started dragging me across the ground, it occurred to me that having a deer on a rope was not nearly as good an idea as I had originally imagined.  The only upside is that they do not seem to have as much stamina as a cow or a colt.  A brief 10 minutes into the struggle, it was tired and not nearly as quick to jerk me off my feet again when I finally managed to stand up.  It took me a few minutes to realize this, since I was mostly blinded by the blood flowing out of the gash in my head.  At this point, I had lost my taste for corn-fed venison.  I just wanted to get that devil creature off the end of my rope!

I figured if I just let it go with the rope hanging around its neck, it would likely go off and die slowly and painfully somewhere.  At the time, there was no love at all between me and that deer.  At the moment, I hated that deer and I would venture to guess the feeling was mutual.  But despite the gash in my head and the several large knots where I had cleverly arrested the deer's momentum by bracing my head against various rocks, I could still think clearly enough to recognize that there was a small chance that I shared some tiny bit of the responsibility for the situation this deer and I were in.  I didn't want the deer to have to suffer a slow death, so I managed to get it lined back up in between my truck and the feeder ...a little trap I had cleverly set beforehand ...kind of like a squeeze chute.  I got it to back in there and I began moving up so I could get my rope back.

Did you know that deer bite?!?  

They do!  I never in a million years would have thought that a deer would bite somebody, so I was very surprised when I reached up there to grab that rope and the little fella grabbed hold of my wrist.  Now, when a deer bites you, it is not like being bit by a horse.  When a horse bites you, they come at you fast, bite and then let go.  When a deer bites you, they bite hard and hang on ...and then they proceed to shake their head like a pit bull.  Trust me, it hurts!  

The proper thing to do when a deer bites you is probably to freeze and draw back slowly.  I tried screaming and shaking instead.  My method was ineffective.  It seemed like the deer had a hold of me, biting down and shaking for several minutes but it was probably only several seconds.  But I, being so much smarter than a deer, tricked it. While I distracted it with letting it try to rip the tendons from my right arm, I reached up with my left hand and pulled the rope loose.  

That is when I got my final lesson in deer behavior for the day.  

Deer will strike at you with their front feet.  They rear right up on their hind legs and strike at you right about head and shoulder level, and their hooves are amazingly sharp.  I learned a long time ago that, when an animal is striking at you and you don't think you can get away easily, the best thing to do is to make a loud noise and make an aggressive move toward the animal.  With cows and horse, this tends to make them back away a little, giving you a chance to escape.  Deer are different.  

In the course of a millisecond, I could tell my plan wasn't working so I devised a different plan.  I screamed like a girl and tried to turn and run.  The reason I had always been told NOT to try to turn and run from a horse that rears up to strike at you is because there is a good chance that it will hit you in the back of the head.  Deer may not be so different from horses in that regard.  Besides being twice as strong and three times as evil as any outlaw bronc, this deer had wicked accurate aim.  The second I turned to run, it hit me square in the back of the head and knocked me down.

Now when a deer knocks you down, it does not leave.  I suspect it does not recognize that you are no longer a threat.  But instead of knocking you down and taking off, they paw at your back and jump up and down on you while you lay there crying like a little girl and trying to shield your head.  

I finally managed to crawl under the truck and the deer went away.  So now I know why when people go deer hunting, they don't bring a rope.  They bring a rifle with a scope to sort of even the odds.  All of these events are true, so help me God.

The letter was signed, simply "An Educated Rancher"

I guess this story was especially humorous to me because I happened to witness a similar incident in our very own driveway involving a rope, Yeoldfurt and a neighbor's stray emu chick. Seriously, I kid you not! No blood was shed, either by Yeoldfurt or the emu ...though the latter did have a few feathers ruffled before it was all over. But that's a story for another day.

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