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What’s Up with the Clumps of Crystals in My Laundry Detergent?!

Several times over the past years, I have wished with all my heart I could call Mr. Migaki, my favorite teacher of all time who sparked curiosity and the love of science in my fifth-grade self. I needed to ask him about minerals and crystals and why something called borax can be powdery soft one day and hard as a rock the next.

Dear Mary: Your Everyday Cheapskate column is one of the few emails I receive that I open and read every day, without fail. Both your product recommendations and your recipes are wonderful. Your Italian Sausage Soup and Bread Pudding recipes are five-star and often served at our house. Practically all of our dinner guests have raved and asked for both recipes!

I also use your homemade laundry detergent recipe, and it works well to clean our clothes, but I have a question about it. The last batch I made went into two clean gallon containers, and as I was pouring the last out of the first container, I got a lot of white crystalized lumps at the bottom. So I strained the contents of the second container into another jug and got a lot of the same white crystalized lumps from it. So:

1.  Did I do something wrong? The previous several batches were fine and lump-free, and I followed the same recipe with the same ingredients.  (I know you probably can’t answer this, but maybe other readers have reported the same phenomenon?)

2.  Do you know what these lumps are?

3.  Is the strained liquid going to be an effective cleaning agent? Where I live in Southern California we’re still under drought water-usage rules. I don’t want to waste a couple washer loads of water with useless detergent if I don’t have to. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated! Pat 

Simple Tips to Stretch the Food Budget

My grandmother always used to say, “If we didn’t need food, we’d all be rich!” This may be true. But then a life without food would be a little less pleasurable. Still, there are ample ways to make great food cheap, make perishable food last, and make the grocery budget stretch like nobody’s business.

The tips in today’s post are filled with practiced wisdom for practical solutions novel ideas and inspiring concepts that make cooking fun and rewarding for you and your family.

GRATE SAVINGS. You pay a lot to have someone else grate your cheese for you—at least two bucks a pound more than if you buy it by the block. You’ll also save by cutting up whole chickens, slicing your own pickles, slicing meat for cold cuts, and using a blender or rolling pin to make your own bread crumbs.

FOUND FOOD. You know that last slice of bread? Often it’s dry, past its prime and not enough to make a sandwich, so into the garbage it goes. Well, not so fast! Making your own breadcrumbs is as simple as whirring a few slices in a food processor blender until the bread becomes fine textured crumbs. Bake the crumbs on a baking sheet; 350 F stirring every 10 minutes. Depending on how much moisture you’re dealing with and the depth of the crumbs, it should take about 20 to 30 mins. Make Italian-style seasoned bread crumbs by adding 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning blend to every 2 cups to crumbs before baking. Cool completely then store in an airtight container.

VEGGIE BOUQUET. Store asparagus in the fridge in a glass of water (like cut flowers in a vase). It will stay fresh for a couple of weeks. Works with celery, too.

Stop Throwing Away the Citrus!

I have a confession. For years I would toss the beautiful bright flavor of lemons into the garbage. This sad situation is the result of cutting a lemon in half, quickly juicing it for some immediate need then tossing what’s left. Or, when facing a need for lemon zest, taking off what I need in the moment and giving these rest a toss. Ouch!

I’ve reformed, having learned a few tricks for using up all of the useful parts of a lemon (or other citrus) and preserving what I don’t need now to have it just as “fresh” and beautiful when I will need it later.

ZEST IT

My new routine is to always zest a lemon first, even if all I need at the time is juice or a twist of peel. The easiest way is to place the citrus over a piece of parchment paper, plate or bowl then run all over it with using a fine zester, scrape off only the yellow part of the peel, not the white pith beneath.

Once done, I take what I need, if any, then scoop all of the fluffy zest into an airtight container (or bag) I keep in the freezer, using a bench scraper to make sure I get every precious, flavorful bit. The zest is so fine, defrosting for use is never necessary. I just reach into my container of lemon zest and take what I need when I need it. It’s handy and just as fresh as if I’d started with a new lemon.

Add a pinch of lemon zest to just about anything to brighten it up—salad dressing, cookie dough, meringue ice cream her butter, meat marinade—even pancake batter! 

Trucs in the Kitchen

Fast food runs, deli detours and a grocery carts loaded with pre-prepared food can drain a food budget faster than a houseful of hungry teenagers. The secret for slashing your family’s food bill is to cook at home. And the way to become confident in the kitchen is to learn a few strategic “trucs” of the trade.

Truc (rhymes with “fluke”) is a French word that means a “trick,” not as in a magic trick or illusion, but rather a shortcut, gimmick, secret or way to do something better, cheaper, easier and faster.

PERFECT RICE.  Sauté 1 cup rice in two tablespoons oil in a sauce pan over medium heat until the kernels are well coated and begin to turn bright white. Add 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, stir and reduce to simmer. Cover and cook for 10 minutes undisturbed. Remove from the heat (do not peek) and wait for 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve. Multiplies well, use equal amounts of rice and water.

PERFECT BOILED POTATOES. Say goodby to mushy boiled potatoes that fall apart: Fill a pot with two parts water and one part vinegar. Add a dash of kosher salt and bring to a boil. Drop in the peeled potatoes and gently boil until desired doneness.

PERFECT CUPCAKES. To make rich, moist “gourmet” cupcakes skip the muffin tins and paper liners. Grease and flour heavy ovenproof porcelain coffee cups. Fill with your favorite cake or muffin batter to 2/3 full. Bake in preheated oven at 325 degrees F for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes then invert the cups to pop out the cakes.

PERFECT OMELET PAN. Any skillet can become your perfect omelet pan. The secret is making sure the omelet will not stick. Pour some kosher salt into the skillet and rub vigorously the bottom and sides of the pan with a kitchen towel. The salt acts like an abrasive to put a fine polish on the skillet. Discard the salt and proceed.

TENDER MOIST CHICKEN. When cooking a whole chicken, chicken parts or boneless skinless breasts in liquid (braising, boiling or stewing) make sure it never comes to a full boil, not even for a few moments. Once you see that liquid starting to move, turn the heat down so it remains just below the boiling point. This is the secret to moist and tender chicken every time.

FRESH BASIL. To enjoy “fresh” basil all year long, wash, pat dry between towels and then pick off the unbruised leaves from the stems. Pack them in a jar and cover completely with olive oil. Close the lid tightly and refrigerate. Use the “fresh” basil as needed throughout the year, also the wonderful basil-flavored oil.

QUICK CHILL. Champagne, beer and whites wines are best served very cold, around 43 degrees F. That takes at least an hour in the refrigerator. But you can cut that time to 20 minutes or less: Fill an ice bucket half full with ice cubes. Pour in several cups of cold water and add 4 tablespoons of salt. Plunge the beverage bottle into the ice bucket, adding additional water and ice so the bucket is full. In 10-12 minutes the beverage will be cold, let stand for 20 minutes to reach the ideal 43 degrees. Cheers!

Do you have a great kitchen trick? Share it with us in the comments below.

Which is Better Fresh or Frozen?

Frozen fruits and vegetables take a lot of heat because most people assume that if it’s frozen it must be of a lesser quality and nutritional value than the same items fresh in the produce department.

Is it true? Is fresh really better than frozen? And if so, is the difference great enough to spend more money to make sure we’re always eating fresh fruits and vegetables?

According to nutritionist Cynthia Sass, RD, frozen foods get a bad rap for being processed junk, but the truth is, some of the healthiest foods in the market are in the freezer section.

MATURITY. Ask any nutritionist and you’ll learn that the minute a fruit or vegetable is picked, it begins to lose nutrients. The amount of time between harvesting you eat it impacts its nutritional value. Because most frozen fruits and vegetables are frozen shortly after they are harvested, those items scheduled for flash freezing are allowed to fully ripen. That means they are chock full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Freezing actually “locks in” many of their nutrients.

On the other hand, much of the fresh produce in your supermarket was harvested 1,500 miles away—much of it in South America—and had to travel by truck to get to the store. It may have been picked before it reached its nutritional peak, then artificially ripened during transport.

NUTRITION. Frozen produce has been proven to be just as nutrient-rich, even superior to fresh, retaining most of their antioxidants and vitamins.

Scientists from Leatherhead Food Research and University of Chester, carried out 40 tests to measure nutrient levels in produce that had been sitting in a fridge for three days, compared to frozen equivalents. They found more beneficial nutrients overall in the frozen samples, in everything from broccoli to blueberries.

Of course, eating newly picked produce within minutes of harvest is the healthiest option. However, frozen can be almost as good and is often better than items sold as “fresh,” because unless you pick it yourself, you have no idea how long it has been since that produce was harvested.

ADDITIVE-FREE. Frozen goodies like spinach and strawberries have no additives because freezing preserves food—additives are not necessary to preserve quality. “Naked” produce (e.g. no added salt or sugar) is the norm. That’s why frozen fruits and vegetables carry a single word ingredient lists—just the fruit or veggie itself. Always check the ingredients, but I bet you’ll find at least a dozen varieties in the freezer aisle with absolutely nothing added.

CONVENIENCE. Even the freshest produce comes with a requirement of prepping. Sometimes that extra time requirement is just too much at the end of a stressful day. Know the feeling? Frozen produce, however, magically preps itself. It comes washed, peeled and chopped. Frozen produce can save you a ton of time, making it more likely that you’ll cook and eat at home rather than opting for take out.

Rejoice! March is the best time of the year to load up the freezer because frozen foods are on sale at their lowest prices of the year during National Frozen Food Month.

Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Buy Salad Greens in a Bag

I don’t buy bagged double- or triple-wash or any other variety of prepared salad greens that come in a plastic clamshell or bag. But not be for the reasons you might assume.

It’s not because I’m overly concerned that bacteria might make it through all that pre-washing in a chlorinated bath (although tests conducted by Consumer Reports did find bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination, when they tested 4,000 samples of all kinds of packaged greens from baby greens to spinach, traditional and organic). As creepy as that is to think about, the report assures that the contamination falls within the FDA’s acceptable levels.

It’s not even my concerns about just how long ago these greens were cut and washed. Granted, I am not a fan of limp, tired-appearing romaine, iceberg lettuce or cabbage. And even though I am a believer that once you wash, cut and prepare any kind of fresh produce—be it fruit or vegetables—the flavor and quality begin to degrade, that’s not it either.

How to Use Meal Kits to Cut Your Food Costs

Faithful readers will recall that my husband and I have been testing and enjoying one of the popular meal kit delivery services.

Since writing about that (see Dinner-in-a-Box is Not at All What I Thought) I’ve gotten the most interesting feedback! But first, a quick review:

From the meal kit delivery services currently available, I selected Home Chef because 1) our zip code is in its delivery area—nearly 90% of the country is, 2) it is the cheapest and 3) I predicted it would be the most family-friendly. Turns out I nailed it. Home Chef meals are absolutely delicious and use normal, fresh food—not exotic fare or ingredients we’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce.

A Home Chef meal kit includes all of the fresh ingredients and instructions needed to cook restaurant-quality meals for 2, 4 or 6 people in the comfort of your own kitchen, eliminating recipe searches and food shopping by sending everything required for that meal—perfectly portioned and ready to go. Seriously, Home Chef is like having your own personal sous chef.

Best Instant Pot Tips, Recipes and Accessories

Last week I turned to use my microwave oven only to have it glare at me with a fatal error message in its little display screen. What?!

I googled “Whirlpool” plus the error code and learned that the cost to replace the electronics that had blown out would be far greater than replacing the whole thing. Great. But not this week. Surely, I could get along without a microwave until some more convenient time to replace it, right? Wrong!

Every time I turned around it seemed I was reaching for that microwave. Within a couple of hours I realized that a microwave oven has become a staple item that is quite necessary in my typical American kitchen. But it wasn’t always that way.

I remember in 1971 when roughly 1% of households in America had a microwave oven. Most everyone liked the idea but it was also terrifying. The fear was radiation and the danger of standing within five feet of the thing and getting nuked. In 2017 a microwave oven is a minimum requirement.

Here’s my take: Instant Pot is the future’s “microwave.” While the Instant Pot company can barely keep up with the demand having sold more than 50,000,000 units so far, many people are still fearful that a pressure cooker is going to blow a hole in the roof, set the house on fire or any other number of irrational fears. Sure, pressure cookers are nothing new, but Instant Pot has taken this fabulous way of cooking to new levels of technology and safety.

Soon, I predict, Instant Pot will become an ordinary basic  kitchen appliance. New homes will come with Instant Pot built into the countertop. Top-of-the line cooktops will come complete with Instant Pot. And we’ll laugh about the days when people were afraid.

Instant Pot comes with an owner manual and recipe book. Both should be considered required reading but honestly, I found them to be unbearably boring while only marginally useful. What follows are the websites, tips, tricks and accessories that put me onto the fast track to falling in love with my Instant Pot IP-DUO60 7-in-1 Multi-Functional Pressure Cooker, 6Qt/1000W. I was cooking dinner the very first day, that’s how doable it is to master Instant Pot.

QUICK START

Perform the Instant Pot Water Test. Do not skip this.