DIY Dehydrated Snacks

I have had The Dehydrator Bible by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt, & Don Mercer on my shelf for months. I received it ages ago as a review copy from the fine folk at Robert Rose, and then I got busy with house projects, work insanity and summer fun. But now the weather is cooling and I’m feeling very nesty, which leads me to want to fill the larder. And though the bulk of the produce season is behind us, it really is the perfect time to think about squirreling away easy, healthy snacks. If you have wholesome things on hand to snack on when hunger strikes, it’s easier to eat well.

The appeal of having dried snacks is great, because they store well and are easily portable. Like all of the Robert Rose books, this is an in-depth primer on how to dehydrate foods at home. It’s an excellent guide for how to use a counter top food dehydrator. One of my favorite recipes in the book is for Maple & Whiskey Ground Meat Jerky – in an afternoon, you can turn a humble pound of ground beef into a tasty snack, without the preservatives and expense of store bought version. Home made jerky paired with some olives is delicious. Apple cinnamon oat crisps and pumpkin leather are a couple of other options that are tasty and easy to make.

The book also has a chapter on making crafts with your dehydrator, including “gingerbread” ornaments and drying seeds for seed saving. And the entire second half of the book is given over to recipes that utilize dehydrated foods, so cooking with what you preserved is effortless.

If you don’t have a dehydrator currently, keep your eyes peeled at the thrift store. I often see them for $10-15 each. If you get to be picky, choose a model that has a fan on it and the ability to have different settings, as they will have better air circulation. The Excalibur dehydrators are the gold standard, so if you ever see a square black one, snap it up! Though the Nesco brand is also pretty good.

So if you’ve been curious about learning how to dehydrate your own food at home, whether for snacks, camping food, emergency preparedness or just because you like to tinker around in the kitchen – I’d recommend picking up a copy of The Dehydrator Bible.

Bug Bites & Sun Burns – Summer Home Remedies

Time by the fire pit, watching fireflies, endless hours working on the garden on the quest for the perfect tomato – these are the hallmarks of summer; the things we spend day after winter day dreaming of. We have a selective memory in the dark days of winter. Those halycon summer days are bright and calm and pain-free. There are no bug bites or sun burns in the memories stored away in our minds.

But of course, in the real world, there are. This year is no exception. It’s been rainy and wet here in the midwest, so the mosquitoes and no-see-ums are out in full force. They are a downright nuisance. And when the sun does come out, we’re so unprepared for it that we forget the sunscreen when we head out to enjoy it. Bug bites and sun burns – summer.

So, once you’re hiding out indoors bitten beyond belief and the color of a lobster, what do you do? Of course, I try to think of natural home remedies to give a little relief, and these remedies frequently mean essential oils in our house. I’ve been building a nice library of reference books thanks to the fine folks at Robert Rose Inc. who have been kind enough to send me several excellent volumes for review. The tome I’ve reached for recently to alleviate our summer ailments has been The Complete Aromatherapy & Essential Oil Handbook For Everyday Wellness by Nerys Purchon and Lora Cantele.

It’s a comprehensive encyclopedia of essential oils and how to use them in aromatherapy and topical applications, including both the treatment of specific ailments (listed by type), personal care preparations (like shampoos and soaps), home cleaning recipes and massage blends. But of course in the Remedies section in Part 2, I made a beeline to – you got it – bug bites and sunburns.

The Insect Bite Paste (page 168) is a preparation some of us may remember from our childhoods – I know I certainly do. It’s simply baking soda, a little filtered water, and a drop of lavender essential oil mixed together to form a paste. You can then apply it to the affected skin to help soothe the itchiness and discomfort. I like to use well chilled ingredients when using a paste like this, as that adds to the soothing affect.

For sunburn, lavender is the star again. On page 314, a suggested topical application for sunburn relief is to mix a little aloe vera gel with lavender essential oil, and apply a thin film to the burnt skin. If you have an aloe plant, you can just cut off one of the leaves, slit it open and scrape out the gel – it’s such an easy plant to grow. They thrive in a pot in a sunny window and have minimal water requirements. There’s really no reason not to have one. But a commercial aloe vera gel will do – just be sure to purchase one that is pure aloe vera. Many store-bought gels have added alcohol (not good on burnt skin!), preservatives and fragrances – the last things you want on delicate, injured skin. And of course, well-chilled ingredients make the preparation even more soothing.

So – when summer gets the best of you, consider turning toward a home remedy to find some relief. And I would highly recommend grabbing this book if you need some guidance on recipes to use – for a variety of things.

Building a Homestead Library

Call me old-fashioned if you must, but I still love bound paper books. And if the Kindle isn’t charged or accessible, physical books are even more of a must have. Sometimes technology fails (even if that failure is me chronically forgetting to charge the e-reader).

Having a reference library for all things homesteading is a really good idea, because keeping all of the information about household and garden management in one’s head can be a daunting prospect. I like to focus on five key areas – cooking, gardening, home-keeping, health/beauty care and DIY/building. Some of the classics in my reference library are –

Home Herbal Remedies

Just in Case: How to be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens

Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

The Backyard Homestead Book of Building Projects

The Organically Clean Home

Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Beer Making Book

Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever

The River Cottage Bread Handbook

All New Square Foot Gardening

The New Organic Grower

The Backyard Homestead

The Milk-Free Kitchen

I’ve also had on my shelf for many, many months three titles by Robert Rose Inc. that I think are worthy of permanent addition to my personal library. I did receive complimentary copies for review purposes, but even if I hadn’t of I would’ve sought these titles out. Like the other Robert Rose book I’ve reviewed these books are all well-organized, comprehensive, have clear instructions/recipes/text and pictures that are both beautiful and informative.

The first of the three is The Best Natural Homemade Soaps by Mar Gomez. I’ve recently really gotten into soap making, and the step-by-step instructions in this book are great. The tone of the book is relaxed, like getting to chat with an expert one-on-one. And I really like the sidebars on most recipes with detailed information about specific ingredients, and explanations about why they work the way they do. The olive oil soap (page 51), lavender soap (page 111) and the oat soap (page 171) are all great recipes for the beginner soap maker to get started with. But with 40 recipes included in the book, there’s something for everyone, including those that have been around the block with making soaps from scratch.

The second book in the trio is The Complete Root Cellar Book by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie. I have spent year and years in mid-rise apartments dreaming of having a root cellar and now we finally own a house with a basement! When we were house hunting, I wouldn’t even consider places that didn’t have at least a partial basement – that’s how much my heart was set on creating a root cellar of my own. And what I thought was a complicated just-beyond-reach major construction project is actually quite doable, thanks to the clear options presented in this book. There are five basic root cellar options presented (in great detail, so you can actually build it and use it) – cold room, walk-in basement style, walk-in stand alone style, outdoor cellaring, and options for condos, town homes and those residing in warm climates. There are also sections on the practice of actually storing food in the cellar (including an entire chapter on pest control) as well as recipes so you can effectively cook from ingredients you’ve stored. The book is loaded with detailed diagrams and cutaways, so it’s very clear to see how to frame in walls, install ventilation and organize the room. I can’t wait to build – if we’re lucky, we’ll have our cellar situated by fall when it’s time to start storing the bulk of the harvest for the year.

The final book on the shelf is The Complete Homebrew Beer Book by George Hummel. We’ve been into home brewing for a few years now, but we haven’t done any since we moved. This book on my bedside reading table is my inspiration to pull out the brew kettle and get back in the saddle. It’s broken into three sections – beginner recipess, intermediate/advanced recipes and an entire section on “extreme” beers and other fermented beverages, including spiced beer, smoked beer, mead, cider and soda. The pumpkin ale (page 290) from this section really caught my eye – especially since I have a lot of pumpkin puree that is at it’s “best by” date that I need to find a use for. I think I just found a good solution, and now is the perfect time to start thinking about early fall brews. It only needs to condition in the bottle for four weeks before drinking, but personally I like to give it a bit more time so the flavors really develop.

So, now that I have a few weekend projects lined up for myself… I highly encourage you guys to pick up copies of these books and do the same. They’re great reads and excellent additions to any homestead library.

Winter Is Coming

Isn’t it interesting that it’s still technically autumn, and that winter doesn’t start for another few days? I always think of winter as showing up at some unspecified moment in November when all of the leaves have fallen and the first tentative snowflakes have flown. Also, colds. And dry skin, and darkness-induced depression. It’s hard to feel rested and happy when one rises in darkness, and darkness falls again before the afternoon passes by. In the month of December, the only waking hours I spend outside are in the dark (it makes me sad just typing that).

So with winter (colloquially speaking) comes winter maladies. What to do, what to do? Over-the-counter medications for colds and such make me feel loopy and weird, which most of the time makes the cold worse. Same thing with happy pills for the winter blues. And dry skin? I’d rather not be greased up in petroleum byproducts three months of every year.

The answer, as it so often does, lies in the kitchen. Home remedies have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance of late, and with good reason. Efficacy, affordability, sustainability, self-sufficiency, and quality control are all reasons why people are interested in learning about and making their own remedies to treat everyday complaints and issues. Not to mention the fact that DIY culture has a lot more cachet these days.

While the internet has a wealth of info about DIY herbal treatments, I prefer to keep a couple of reliable reference books on the shelf. What can I say; I’ll always inherently be a book person. Also handy if the interwebs is, you know – off. Weird concept in this day and age, but it happens. Hm, our children will likely never know an age without computers and the internet – we were the last ones. But I digress. Lack of daylight makes me a bit weird. Back to the reference books. A well-thumbed copy of The Green Pharmacy has been on my shelf for years. Husband picked it up for me as a Christmas gift – oh goodness – at least nine years ago. It’s basically an encyclopedia of common ailments and complaints, and which herbs/plants can be used to treat them, and why. Knowing the properties that plants have is key! Even nine years later, with much of the sections committed to memory, I still pick it up at least once a month. For example, last week I read the section on anxiety (yep, because I have that job – makes me all crazy-like). It has pointed me to the right bottle of supplements more times than I can count.

But I’ve come to a point where I don’t want to just buy the bottle, natural though it may be. I want to grow the plants, brew the tea, make the poultice, craft the salves. I have been, over the last few years, on this ever-broadening quest to have my life be more tactile; more visceral. So the logical next step for me is to start to understand how to be an herbalist. I needed recipes. And (as I come to believe more ardently every year) if you need something essential, the universe will provide to it to you if you are open enough to seek it out.

Over the last few months I’ve been in touch with the fine folks at Robert Rose Inc., a book publisher of all kinds of great titles, many of which are DIY-oriented. And that is how I came to land a review copy of The Essential Guide to Home Herbal Remedies by Melanie Wenzel. I don’t like, or find useful, every single review copy of books that land on my desk. But I usually get pretty lucky, because I’ll only take the time to review titles that speak to a specific need or interest I (and by extension, you, dear readers) have. This one is changing the way I approach my own health, and the health of my family in a very real, and very positive way.

First off all, the book is well-organized. There are individual chapters for distinctive groups of illnesses/complaints (women’s issues, common childhood illnesses, etc.), as well as an entire section on plant characteristics and identification – including a full color photograph of each plant that is profiled. So not only does the book outline which plants can speak to which complaints, but it also outlines specific recipes for crafting the treatments, and provides plant identification information – especially important knowledge to have if you’re foraging plant material instead of cultivating it (though it’s pretty important to be able to identify a plant in a garden setting as well). It’s one stop shopping for how to evaluate an ailment, collect the herbs needed (safely!) and whip up the remedy. It’s a book that’s absolutely aimed at the beginner, so it spells things out clearly with thorough explanations and a comprehensive view.

Being still relatively new to the actual process of creating and using my own herbal remedies, starting with the basics that use common ingredients is what I’m starting with. I’ve bookmarked three recipes from the book to try – Elderberry & Honey Syrup, Lemon Balm Spirit, and Roll-On Lavender.

I’ve been reading about elderberries for a while – they are very highly touted as being to alleviate the nasty symptoms of colds and flu, so I’m excited to try the Elderberry & Honey Syrup the next time I’m under the weather. And the nice thing about this syrup is it can store for about six months in the fridge, so you can whip up a jar at the beginning of the cold season and have it on hand for whenever you might need a tablespoon or two.

Lemon balm is an herb that has a calming effect, so it can be a supporting player to other cold and flu remedies. It’s also great as a mild sleep aid, and when used externally (just applied directly to the skin) can also help ease the pain from sore muscles or headaches. Lemon Balm Spirit is a simple infusion of the lemon balm in vodka, and also has a long storage life when refrigerated. I’ve got a packet of lemon balm seeds for the garden that I can hardly wait to plant so I can put this remedy in my arsenal. Though I may have to do a little mail order shopping – spring is a long way off, after all!

Roll-On Lavender I’ve tried already and am really loving. Lavender is also really calming (notice a theme here?) and is good for headache relief as well. The roll-on applicator makes using the oil (simply lavender essential oil diluted in almond oil) easy and mess-free. You simply apply it to your temples (or other pulse points if you don’t want it on your face) as needed. It’s definitely helped ease a free stressful moments for me in the workday, so I highly recommend lavender. And it just smells so good.

If you’re not in a position to grow your own herb garden (though really – most can be grown in pots on a sunny windowsill) you can certainly order them. Mountain Rose Herbs is one off the largest and most respected outfits.

I’m looking forward to actually being able to make more of the treatments and remedies my family needs in order to see winter through healthy and happy. Having Wenzel’s book in my toolkit will make it possible for me to really do that now – and I encourage you all to pick up a copy and give it a try!