28. April 2012 · Comments Off on Canning Homemade Fresh Salsa · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , , ,

I tried canning two pints of fresh salsa.

You know it happens to you, right?  Those food cravings.

Come on…admit it!

Sometimes you just feel like having something that isn’t sitting in your fridge or pantry.  In my case, it was homemade fresh salsa.  I like the salsa that you get in Mexican restaurants.  The kind that comes to you in a carafe and you pour it into a bowl with some fresh corn tortilla chips.

Last year — at about this time — the boys and I made Pioneer Woman’s Restaurant Style Salsa with cilantro and jalapeños fresh from my garden.  Since I put in my garden about 3 weeks late, I had no such freshness in my backyard and I had to settle for the ingredients from my local grocery store.

The recipe makes about 48 oz. of salsa…so this year I tried canning two of the three pints of it.  I had some wide-mouth pint jars, and it was simple to process the two jars in a smaller pot.

I consulted my handy-dandy Ball Blue Book for some guidance on how long to process the jars.  And here’s where I’m in a conundrum: I didn’t cook the salsa ahead of time.  I want “fresh” salsa.  So except for the cooking process during the 15 minutes in the water canner, I otherwise did NOT cook this salsa.

It appears there are numerous guides suggesting that a salsa mix needs to be boiled for 10+ minutes but found this recipe on Food.com where the author didn’t cook the salsa ahead of time.  There was plenty of lemon juice in the recipe (mine had the same amount of lime juice).  Seemed to be good reviews.

Since all of us in the house are blasting through this salsa at breakneck speed, I don’t think we’ll be letting these jars sit for more than a month or so.  The pint that I put in the fridge on Thursday is already almost gone.

What say you?  Do you think the 1/4 c. of lime juice that I squeezed into this recipe is enough to keep the yuckies at bay without boiling the salsa first?

First of all, an update on my iPhone cracked glass drama. I’m so happy that USAA called me this morning to tell me that my computer/media insurance rider WILL cover the dropped phone, I’m to get an assessment from Apple about whether we can just replace the glass…which they will cover. If Apple says “No, replace the whole phone.” then USAA will cover replacing the whole phone!

WOW! Now, before you all go running to USAA for computer/media riders, the adjuster made it clear that our policy is one of the LAST ONES to be worded such that it covers iPhones and by the end of 2012 ours will flip to exclude smart phones.

The moral of the story? Get the Apple Care or your cell phone provider’s insurance for your phone.

Now…back to the point of this post. Today I went to Walmart to get an Otterbox case for my phone. I wasn’t very happy with the Griffin Survivor iPhone case so I exchanged it. The Otterbox costs more — it’s probably the most expensive case there is. But hey — now I don’t have to pay to fix my phone, right?

My new Otter Box. The "Survivor" case I had before was a very bright pink, this one is more subdued. I like pink...in a subdued way.

I also needed groceries. For the first time in a long time I wasn’t squeezing in a grocery trip among several other daily errands. I could take my time.

As I used to do a lot more often, I began to take note of “new” products out there. And they got me wondering…

I saw a lot of stuff but these two products caught my attention.

First of all, I found this “Whole Grain (Hamburger) Helper.”

"Whole Grain (Hamburger) Helper". Plopped right next to regular Hamburger Helper.

Many of you know about my adventures with Hamburger Helper in 2010. And my adventures with “homemade” Hamburger Helper afterwards. (Maybe it’s time to make the homemade version for the kids again, by the way).

So I did some comparisons. I put Stroganoff-flavored Whole Grain Helper next to the Stroganoff-flavored regular Hamburger Helper to compare ingredients and nutrition facts.

I don’t see a lot of difference…take a look and tell me what you think?

The "Whole Grain" version is on the left, the standard is on the right. There's a little bit of calorie and sodium savings, but not enough for me to stop the presses and start buying it.

Here’s the ingredient list. Again, a few of the more chemical-y ingredients — such as MSG — aren’t in the whole grain version, but I was surprised at how much was still in the whole grain version.

I’d have been happier if they had removed that partially hydrogenated soybean oil.

The other product was with the Capri Sun beverages. I typically get my sons the “Roaring Waters” drinks, which are low-calorie alternatives to Capri Sun. But these Super-V drinks caught my attention:

Cue the John Williams theme! It's SUPER-V! With fiber, to boot!

We buy V-8 Splash sometimes, especially the Light Concord Grape flavor. But I try really hard not to make a habit out of substituting fruit and vegetable juices for the real thing. So I decided to let the boys try these in their lunchboxes. We’ll let you know.

PS: Does your school recycle Capri Sun pouches for Terracycle? Our boys’ schools do and it’s a great program. I’ve been promising myself a Capri Sun bag for a long time…maybe I need to actually do it?

I “won” this Keurig Elite from the HSC Charity Auction last fall.

Like millions of other Americans, we have become Keurig customers.  It’s like a revolution in coffee…Keurigs give you a “perfect” cup of coffee with very little work.  The American dream, right?

We got our first Keurig, a “Mini“, just before we moved from Nebraska to Florida in fall 2010.  After the movers took our regular coffee pot, it was a nice way to keep having our coffee in the morning.  It’s small and we didn’t have to keep coffee grounds on hand, just a box (or two) of K-Cups and some disposable coffee cups. That one ended up in Dave’s office.  We like how it turns itself off after the cup of coffee brews.  We get a bit paranoid about coffee pots being left on.

This past fall we got one for the home.  It’s been great.  When you register your machine with Keurig, you get coupons for free K-Cups.  BOGO for 2 boxes of 48 K-Cups.  This was a great deal after Christmas when the Starbucks K-Cups became available online.

K-Cup-brewed coffee is delicious and perfect every time.  No doubt there.

My conundrum: K-Cups are very wasteful and are expensive.  After all, traditional coffee pots brew through compostable coffee filters and then you can go on to compost the spent coffee grounds. More »

01. February 2012 · 3 comments · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags:

I’m baaaack….

I’ve been VERY scarce lately since I was out of town for 17 days in January.

So let’s play a little catch up, shall we?


First I want to show off our new toy, a SMOKER, which we bought with some money my parents had sent for Christmas.

Here it is!  Thanks to our local Bass Pro Shops and my parents!

Dave and I had been wanting a smoker for a VERY long time.  Experiencing some Thanksgiving turkey at Dave’s squadron that came out of a smoker cinched it.  The week before Christmas, we headed over to our local Bass Pro Shops (in Destin) where we chose a 30″ tall compact electric smoker.  The model we chose is relatively lightweight, was easy to use for day-to-day cooking, yet is big enough to handle a holiday turkey!

Which is why we bought it in time for Christmas!

The first thing we did?  Of course, a brisket!

Tasty, but not quite tender enough.  We have a lot to learn.

Before the Christmas turkey, we gave the smoker a test run with a small flat-end brisket.  We even stuck in a probe thermometer and geeked out watching the temperature hold around 150F as the connective tissues take time to break down.  But we didn’t cook it for long enough.  Parts of the brisket were tender, but many parts weren’t.  Tender or not, the smoke flavor was outstanding and we muddled through quite a bit of it just the same, the boys too!

Later in the week, after lots of internet research, we attempted our 13-lb. turkey.

We run the probe thermometer through the vent.  This is an inexpensive model from Wal Mart.  The probe line will get covered in smoke residue so I don’t recommend investing in a super-expensive one.  Just make sure it’s accurate.

It came out spectacular.  I’m awful at roasting turkeys in the oven.  Even with that pop-up thermometer, while the breast would be juicy and delicious, the thigh meat wouldn’t be cooked through.  Or if the thigh meat was cooked through, the breast meat would be dried out.  Ugh on both counts!

Our Thanksgiving turkey just before coming out of the smoker.  It was spectacular.

We had the thermometer alarm us when the temperature reached 155F, turned off the smoker, and then let “carry over” take the thigh temperature up to 160F.

For the first time, everything was cooked through properly.  We might have been able to take out the turkey a little sooner, the breast meat was borderline dry, but the dark meat was oh-so-perfect!

This morning I just put some Kansas City-style rub on a rack of spare ribs and in a couple hours I’ll be popping it in the smoker for 6-7 hours.  We tried this about a month ago and it didn’t cook nearly long enough.  This time we’re just going to let it go until the meat falls off the bone!

Let meat come to room temperature before putting it in the smoker.  Why?  Energy savings!  You can probably save about an hour of electricity that would otherwise be used to bring the meat from refrigerator temperature up to room temperature.

23. December 2011 · Comments Off on The Annual Holiday Open House…Cute Party Idea and Recipes to Share · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , , ,
Why invest in those complicated key-ring-like wine charms when you might have a house full of THESE?

I’d heard about it from one of the GeekMoms.  I can’t remember whether it was on GeekMom itself, or one of the GeekMoms referencing another website with this idea.

I went through my kids’ THOUSANDS of Silly Bandz and found some particularly fun ones that our guests would recognize.  Spongebob and Phineas and Ferb bands made it into the batch, along with some sports-themed ones.  Folks who had the wine got a laugh out of choosing what charm to put on their glasses from the 20-or-so I had set out.

Mr. Krabs from Spongebob.

Ferb from Phineas and Ferb.

Last night we had our annual holiday open house.  We’ve tried to do this every year…this year we almost DIDN’T do it because of Dave’s back surgery recovery.  If you had asked in mid-November, the answer would have been a resounding NO.  We didn’t even decide to proceed with it till after Thanksgiving.  So long as folks had about 2 weeks notice, right?

However, I think as time goes on over the years, planning for it gets easier and easier.  I set out the cookies that I’d made this week, and set out two fondue pots: one with cheese and one with chocolate.  Diced bread, fruits, veggies and pound cake all over.

I make something for my punchbowl each year too.  Last year it was a festive rum punch that was too sweet, IMHO.  This year I attempted homemade egg nog with spiced rum and I was impressed with the flavor and texture (and I was impressed with how quickly it was consumed).  I made a double batch based on Alton Brown’s recipe, except with Myer’s Spiced Rum instead of the bourbon recommended in the recipe.

I messed up by not taking pictures of my pretty punchbowl filled with egg nog.  So I found this picture to inspire you.

We also presented these incredible bacon-cream cheese wraps that we had tasted for the first time at someone else’s holiday open house last year.  I followed the recipe linked above, except I baked them at 375F instead of 350F.  Wednesday night I hand-rolled 3 lbs. worth of bacon roll ups!  Not to gross folks out, but the bacon grease gets into the bread some and then toasts the bread up really nicely.  Yum!  Seems like a rather campy, 1950s-esque hor d’oeuvre idea, but they disappeared very quickly!

My bacon-roll-ups looked like these.  Photo by Janetishungry.blogspot.com.

We had a nice time — because it was rather close to the long holiday weekend, many of our friends were out of town, but that was okay.  As usual, I made too much food, and I’m convinced we now have more wine and beer than we started with, thanks to our guests bringing so much!  Thanks to everyone who could make it.

04. December 2011 · 2 comments · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , , ,

I made these last evening also.  I didn’t have enough almonds, but had plenty of almond extract so these taste SO GOOD this year!


Cranberry Almond Biscotti. This is a recipe I’ve been making for over 10 years.  This is one sophisticated cookie…cranberries are always so, well, holiday! What’s cool is that the only fat in the cookie is in the eggs (well, the almonds, too, I guess)!!!! So that makes them as healthy as my Holiday Surprise Cookies, right???

So here we go…

The dough mixes up pretty straightforward in the stand mixer:

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti
From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

This dough will be sticky…be prepared to keep your hands floured for the next part:

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

Now, divide the dough into portions and pat it into logs of 2-3″ width onto an ungreased cookie sheet, or, in my case, baking stone.

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

You’ll bake these in two shifts. The first shift is at 325, so don’t expect the logs to be browned when they’re done, just a little puffier.

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

Remove these bars to a cooling rack. I use two spatulas, one on each end of the bar, to move them.

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

After about 15-20 minutes of cooling, you will then cut the bars into 1/2 – 3/4″ wide slices.

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

Move the slices back to the baking stone, this is going to bake at a VERY low temperature, so don’t be shy: pack ’em in!

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

These will bake at 300F for another 15-20 minutes, until super crispy-firm-dried-out. The way biscotti’s supposed to be.

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

Unfortunately, on this batch, there was leftover sugar on the baking stones from the Holiday Surprise cookies, so pardon the green sugar on the bottom.

From 2008 11 25 CranberryAlmondBiscotti

Happy Holiday Baking!

03. December 2011 · Comments Off on The Neiman Marcus Cookie: Legend Turned Family Tradition — from 2008 Post · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , ,

Another post from 2008, and the next cookie recipe headed into in my stand mixer this afternoon.  This isn’t really a Christmas cookie, but it’s among my most popular (after the Holiday Surprises).


I’m not going to waste time going into the legend of the Neiman Marcus cookie.  I will simply  refer you here and you can read all about the legend. Whether it’s true or not, every time I’ve made these cookies, they’ve been a huge hit and I’m always asked for the recipe. No problem! No big family secrets here!

Neiman Marcus itself has even embraced the legend and provides a manageable sized recipe also.

For the photos here, I’m making a 1/2 recipe from the version on the Snopes page. I did a full recipe on 11/22, and it filled the bowl to the brim when I added the chocolate chips and nuts to the mixer.

First you cream the butter and white/brown sugar. I’m very particular about this — I set the mixer on medium and let ‘er rip for about 3-5 minutes until it’s fluffy.

Then I add the remaining wet ingredients: eggs & vanilla. Beat it to a pulp for another couple minutes.

Then start adding the dry ingredients. Alton Brown and folks like that will tell you to sift all the dry ingredients together: all-purpose flour, blended oatmeal, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Then add it slowly as the mixer is running on low. I don’t do that…call me lazy. AB, I love you to death, but I just want my cookies! I add the dry goods directly to the mixer one ingredient at a time.

From 2008 11 25 NeimanMarcusCookies

Once the dough is all together, slowly add the grated Hershey’s bar (I ground up leftover Hershey’s Kisses from my Holiday Surprise cookies – refrigerate the chocolate for about an hour and then run it through the food processor), chocolate chips and nuts. You’ll want the mixer on the slowest setting possible, or you can even hand-mix it. The dough will be VERY thick, and my mixer actually struggles quite a bit on the full recipe once all the ingredients are added.

From 2008 11 25 NeimanMarcusCookies

Now you simply roll the dough into 1 – 1 1/2″ balls and pop them onto your handy-dandy cookie sheet or baking stone.

From 2008 11 25 NeimanMarcusCookies

A closeup of a finished cookie for your enjoyment:

From 2008 11 25 NeimanMarcusCookies

I’ll tell you what, you do this recipe right, and you’ll have mostly chocolate and nuts in each cookie, hopefully you see it in this shot:

From 2008 11 25 NeimanMarcusCookies
30. November 2011 · Comments Off on Holiday Surprise Cookies: Revisit of 2008 Post · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , ,

Instead of recreating a blog post about one of our favorite cookie recipes, I’ve “repurposed” my November 2008 post.  Many of the commercial links from 2008 had to be changed, so I’ve updated the links to the recipe, some of the ingredients I like and the cookie-making equipment I recommend.

Similar to 2008, this will be the first cookies we make for the season, and I the kids once again have to deal with unwrapping about 150 Hershey Kisses.

What I will do differently this year is bake and store the cookies in batches according to the filling.  In years past I’ve jumbled everything together: Timmy doesn’t like milk chocolate, Jacob doesn’t like dark chocolate!



The first batch of cookies: Holiday Surprise Cookies, courtesy of the Quaker Oats company. Hit the hyperlink to go to the recipe straight from the horse’s, er, Quaker’s, mouth.

I gave Dave the camera tonight and asked him to document our experience so I’d have some nice pictures with which to blog. He told me, “Okay, I’m going to be like Maryann!”. He did a great job, he took almost all the photos…

So, to start, we have to come up with a filling…this is the “surprise” in the cookie. In years past, we’d used Wilbur Buds, a Lancaster County, PA staple. In fact, the first time I made this recipe was to keep Dave and me from eating an entire bag of Wilbur Buds we’d gotten for Christmas in one sitting, I think. It was either 1999 or 2000…I can’t remember. The beauty of Wilbur Buds is (a) you can buy a combo pack of milk AND dark chocolate together and (b) the buds aren’t indivually wrapped.

If I’d had the foresight to order the Wilbur Buds ahead of time I would have. But it was much easier to pick up some assorted flavored Hershey’s Kisses from my local mega mart. As can be seen in this photo, we had a lot of unwrapping to do.

From 2008 11 14 HolidaySurpriseCookies

As the boys were unwrapping about 100 Kisses, in 3 flavors shown here, I was preparing the dough. It’s essentially a sugar cookie dough replacing about 40% of the flour with oatmeal.

From 2008 11 14 HolidaySurpriseCookies
From 2008 11 14 HolidaySurpriseCookies

Look at those oats — your cholesterol is lowering just looking at it, right? Don’t worry…won’t happen: there’s 2 sticks of butter in the basic recipe…and I doubled it tonight!

Once the chocolates were unwrapped and the dough was ready, I set up the assembly line in the dining room. The boys were great — Jake stuffed the chocolate in the dough, and Timmy rolled the little ball of dough in the colored sugar and placed the ready-to-bake cookie on the baking stone. My job was quality control — I pre-measured wads of dough for Jake to stuff so they’d be uniform in side, and I made sure the cookies were properly spaced on the stone.

From 2008 11 14 HolidaySurpriseCookies
From 2008 11 14 HolidaySurpriseCookies
From 2008 11 14 HolidaySurpriseCookies

Does that look holiday or what?

From 2008 11 14 HolidaySurpriseCookies

We tested the cookies, of course, and everyone in the Vollmer clan gave them a thumbs up!

25. November 2011 · 5 comments · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , ,
Pecan pie anyone?  This one is extra special!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Today the family headed over to the Yurack Family’s house.  Jim and Amy are friends from my dorm at Penn State way back when.  Amy lived across the hall my freshman year!  20 years ago!  The Yuracks have three kids, and let me tell you, when our two boys get together with the Yurack kids, happiness seems to abound.  They really do get along well, it’s nice to see the kids play good old fashioned games like hide and seek and tag.

Amy’s family enjoys a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, so when we accepted her invitation to join her and her extended family for Thanksgiving, she and I discussed some gluten-free variations on classic Thanksgiving dishes.

If you think about it, you can get away with quite a bit of the Thanksgiving dinner WITHOUT gluten or dairy, right?  Turkey, check.  Cranberry sauce, check.  Sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes, can be check if you easily substitute soy milk or non-dairy creamer.  Amy made GF cornbread from scratch, which she made into the dressing, check!  Easy easy!

Cooks all over have experimented and perfected other GF and dairy-free variations on Thanksgiving classics, such as this version of green bean casserole that sounds really yummy!

So I offered to try out a gluten-free/dairy free pecan pie.

Geeky fact: Did you know the pecan pie is one of a culinary class of pies called chess pies?  A Lancaster County, PA classic, the shoo-fly pie, also falls into this class.  So does the Derby pie.

It was very yummy!  The crust is to DIE FOR!  BUT:

  1. I wish I made more than the basic recipe for the crust.  
  2. I wish I used more pecans so they didn’t all float to the top.
  3. I wish I had taken the pie out of the oven sooner.

I should have taken it from the oven about 10 minutes sooner.  However, the critical flavors were exactly as they should have been: pie crust, pecans and syrup-y tastes abounded!

I’ll walk you through the steps…

First, the pie crust.  I had some Gluten-Free Bisquick on hand, and a simple Google search yielded an easy recipe (I only used the crust part of this recipe).  I pulsed the GF Bisquick with Earth Balance (Gluten free) Buttery Spread and ice water in the Cuisinart.  Lard or shortening would work for the fat, too.  Ball it up in a zip-top bag and chill for 3+ hours.

Here is the cast of characters for the filling.  This is from a basic pecan pie recipe on the Karo syrup label.  I used the Earth Balance spread in place of the butter.  Otherwise, everything else is the same.

The recipe doesn’t specify one way or the other, so I chop 1/2 of the pecans and leave the other half of them whole….well, halves…you know what I mean!

As for the crust, I had to work VERY carefully to keep it together, I might have needed more water to hold it together, so I used the zip-top bag to keep pressing it together while I rolled it out.

I cut open the bag, peeled back the top of the plastic, and then flipped it into the pie pan.

Like so!

I think I needed more crust.  I did the best I could to press the crust up the sides the best I could.

Whisk together the filling ingredients (except for the pecans).

Toss the pecans into the crust and pour the filling on top.  But I noticed a couple things when I did this.  (1) These pecans floated to the top and (2) I wish I had more crust.

It baked up really nicely in the oven!  Smelled SO GOOD!

The verdict?  The crust was WONDERFUL!  Think about it — no gluten means the crust has no choice but to be flaky, right?  I just wish I made more.  As for the filling, those pecans really truly did float to the top and the rest of the filling baked into a cakey-textured filling.  It was tasty, but I wish I had more pecans, more crust, and had taken the pie out of the oven about 10 minutes sooner.

24. November 2011 · 2 comments · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , ,

Let me start with a Dave Update: Dave’s days are doing pretty well.  He’s in a bit of a conundrum because as his leg muscles tighten up overnight, he awakens every morning with VERY uncomfortable leg and glute pains.  Within a few minutes of awakening, he’s much improved.  But he says that the morning pains are pretty bad.  He keeps meeting more and more people who have had variations on the spinal fusion he’s had and they all assure him that by 6 months he’ll “feel like a new man” or he’ll “feel like a million bucks” or he “won’t believe how much better things will be”.  My fingers are crossed!

As I’d mentioned in yesterday’s post, I made the sweet potato casserole I’d referenced.  This ended up being a very yummy, but plain, sweet potato casserole.  I made the recipe with six pounds of sweet potatoes and it filled up a disposable paper baking dish amply for Dave’s squadron Thanksgiving pot luck today.

I diced and steamed the tubers last night and mashed them ahead of time.  The steaming technique is faster than baking; I learned about this from Alton Brown’s sweet potato episode of Good Eats.  This morning, I just stuck everything in the stand mixer and let ‘er rip with the other ingredients.

It was then that I noticed that this recipe didn’t have any cinnamon or cloves.  This was a first for the few times I’ve made sweet potato casserole, but it turned out really good just the same.  I guess it’s more child-friendly that way?

Tomorrow we’ll be spending Thanksgiving with a family who lives near Eglin Air Force Base, right up the road from us.  We all lived in Irvin Hall at Penn State back in the day.  And now we’re practically neighbors!  Hubby’s in Afghanistan for the holidays, and wifey has a house full of relatives visiting and she’s doing a classic Thanksgiving get-together tomorrow.  The kids are looking forward to seeing each other, and Jacob has asked to bring his new Apples to Apples game to play.  I offered to bring several vegetable dishes and a pecan pie.  I’ll write about the pie tomorrow — it’s special and I don’t want to write about it until I can offer the thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict.

The paper baking pans are great!  These are by Hefty.

I know not everyone likes it this way, but I like the mini-marshmallows on top.  Because there simply isn’t enough sugar in this recipe, right?

There were two casseroles at the pot luck and this was all that was left of either of them after about 50 people went through the line.