Saturday, June 27, 2015

My parent's green thumbs

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled up to Michigan to visit my parents. They are getting ready to renovate their kitchen, which I can't wait to see when it is done. I helped them pack up items in the cabinets. I know this process can be an overwhelming feat, so having an extra set of hands to clean and pack items so they can be unpacked and ready for the new cabinets in a few weeks was probably pretty helpful. Like a lot of homes over time, kitchens can get dated, but what they will soon get to experience will most definitely make their cooking and family entertaining experiences very enjoyable. It will certainly have a modern country look, which makes it all the better in my opinion.

I haven't been up to Michigan in a few years, so it was a nice visit. It was certainly much cooler than we are experiencing in North Carolina.

Backyard beauties

Ma and Pa put in a new back deck a few years ago, which is really nice. It is made with composite materials that can stand those brutally cold winters and doesn't require painting. But what I was most impressed with was the flowers they have growing in the back yard around the deck. I've got to give it to them for their green thumbs. I didn't realize they had cut a piece of honeysuckle from our old farm in Ohio and have it growing in the back yard. And the peonies....oh my! So pretty.

Surrounded by floral experts

I am fortunate to have an extended family of floriculture specialists in the family. Ma has two associate degrees -- one in floriculture from The Ohio State University Agriculture and Technical Institute in Wooster, and one in fine arts from Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan. Pops has a degree in Animal Science from The Ohio State University, but does a pretty good job keeping those flower beds maintained. My husband used to teach floriculture at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, NC, and worked at a florist for several years. My daughter was on the nationally recognized FFA floriculture team at Chatham Central High School in Bear Creek, NC, where her team was 4th in the nation in 2013. Being surrounded by floral enthusiasts and having a creative itch, it came pretty natural for me to learn how to tie bows for wreaths and arrangements, as well as learning a few (and yes, only a few) botanical names of plants.

As I mentioned, I have a lot of creative interests and photography is certainly one of them. I happened to have one of my cameras with me while in Michigan and decided to get a few close ups of my parent's floral beauties. I think you will agree, they are doing a pretty good job. Enjoy!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Hand fans and Asian treats

I never thought I'd be so slack when it comes to keeping up with my own blog. I guess when you are a writer by trade it can be hard finding time to sit down and write for yourself, right? I guess it is time to pick up where I left off.

Yesterday I was on a  mission. The hot and humid weather we are experiencing so early this summer in North Carolina has been brutal, to say the least. After going to a Durham Bulls baseball game earlier this week in the 100-degree heat, I sure wish I would have had one thing: a hand fan!

My daughter's hand-painted hand fan
from Puerto Rico in 2009.
I was going to take this one shown on the left; a hand fan I had purchased at The Linen House for my daughter while on a family cruise trip that stopped over in Puerto Rico. However, I decided not to take it because it is hand painted and too much of a special souvenir from our trip. If I broke or lost it, I would never have forgiven myself. So I started thinking about where I could get an inexpensive hand fan. The light bulb went off! The Grand Asia Market in Cary, NC, would have them!

Found them!

The Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina near Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill has a large cultural base of Indians, Africans and Asians. I have never been in this particular market that specializes in Asian food and non-food goods. It is pretty good size, and I wasn't sure what to expect. As soon as I walked in, I saw what I was looking for: a basket full of different styles and colors of hand fans nestled on the floor. I was in luck! The best part was that the fans were under $5! I picked up a few $2 fans and a couple of $5 fans. I hit the jack pot! As I was digging around to find my favorite colors, a lady from Nigeria stopped and joined me. She said that she was getting ready to go on a missions trip to Haiti and needed one of these to keep cool from the heat. She, too, grabbed a $2 fan and off she went to finish her shopping.

Here is part of my stash of new hand-fans from
 the Grand Asia Market. Aren't they pretty?

Ducks and sweet treats

After gathering my pretty hand fans, I decided to take a few minutes to browse the store. sure was eye opening! I headed down a whole aisle that was dedicated to various types of noodles....and then there was an aisle with nothing but sauces! Now I know where to go when I can't find that unique Asian ingredient for my Chinese or Thai recipes at my regular grocery store. As a hobby cook, I felt like a kid in a candy store!

And then there was the butcher shop: Every kind of meat imaginable, including lots of duck, chicken hearts and fish. It reminded me of my trip to Chinatown in San Francisco many years ago. However, the only difference was that I really believe the Grand Asia Market is pretty sanitary compared to the many Chinatown shops hanging duck carcasses in their windows instead of coolers. I watched the Grand Asia butcher's prepare meat, and in such a popular store that attracts many cultures, it became apparent to me that this place had to be pretty sanitary or they would get written up by the health department. This is sad, but I have never tried duck, but I am tempted to try it sometime at the Grand Asia restaurant located in the store. It looked pretty good.

As I headed to the checkout line, I noticed a snacks aisle. I can't read Chinese, but I can see pictures that looked pretty tasty! Last year at Christmas time, my local Vietnamese nail salon ladies gave all of their customers a box of Asian wafer cookies. I'll admit, while it was a nice gesture, I was a bit apprehensive about sharing them with my family because I didn't know where they came from! Now I do! I saw a whole pile of those cookies at the Grand Asia Market.

As I was getting ready to get in line, I noticed a treat called a Choco Roll, so I got a couple and shared one with my husband. The product is made in Taiwan. We both agreed it was a really nice treat. The biggest thing we noticed is that it tasted like a classic strawberry wafer cookie wrapped in chocolate, but the taste wasn't like what we experience in the U.S. The strawberry wafer middle and the chocolate outside weren't nearly as sweet. To be honest, it was really good! Not having an over-powering sugar taste was nice for once. I need to go back and get more of these to have them in the house when we get a sweet craving. It was very satisfying.

Opening my horizons

For about 30 minutes I felt like I was in a different country. Every time a store clerk made an announcement, it was in Mandarin, which gave my experience more authenticity. It is amazing what a little cultural diversity can do for you....and who knew it is right in my back yard along.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Family First

Some parents talk about that first baby step or tooth, but I have a unique mommy first -- my daughter is the first person in our family to recieve the American FFA Degree. On November 1, she walked the big stage at the 87th annual National FFA Convention to receive her honor.

What is the big deal about this? Well, our daughter is a third generation FFA member and this honor is the highest bestowed to an FFA member. Less than one percent of FFA members receive this honor each year. My husband and I earned our state FFA degrees, but never got to experience this achievement.

Our daughter, Kaylyn, recieved her American FFA Degree on November 1, 2014 at the 87th National FFA Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
And, what is even more special is that our daughter is an animal science/agriculture education double major at Oklahoma State University. Meaning, she grasped what she learned on our family farm and in her high school agriculture classroom and is pursuing an opportunity to teach the next generation of agriculturalists. For this ol' farm gal and FFA mom, this is very special. Congratulations Kaylyn!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My Junk Gypsy Soul

You know how the old saying goes: The shoemaker's kids have the worst shoes.Why? Because the shoemaker is too busy making shoes for everyone else. Same is true for this ag communicator. Why haven't I written a new blog post in quite a while? Because I am writing "stuff" for everyone else! But that's okay. It keeps the creative juices flowing.

Recently I have become addicted to the Junk Gypsy show on Great American Country (GAC). I think I am so fascinated by it because they have a knack for taking old stuff and making it look cool. Plus, they do it cost effectively. My own Junk Gypsy soul has me excited about a couple of my own new projects. One involves testing out Annie Sloan chalk paint to redo an old rocking chair that was out under the old shed on the farm, and the other involves taking a pair of 1880s Singer sewing machine legs and redoing them so they support a table top. If the chalk paint project works out, I am using it again in the color white ochre to paint my parent's old bedroom suit that my daughter will use next year at college. (She also gets the teal rocker for college, too.) Not sure what I'll do once I refurbish the Singer wrought iron legs with some oil, but it should be snazzy and a great conversation piece when it is done. I like to sew, and this type of item will be one I can really appreciate. I am thinking of using old barn siding for the table top to make it personal. Reader friends, do any of you have suggestions I should consider?

Never a dull creative moment at my house. Stay tuned for the before and after pictures!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

NC Cooperative Extension Service -- Celebrating 100 years!

My husband, Sam, has spent over 20 years working for North Carolina's Cooperative Extension Service -- first as a horticulture extension agent, next as a livestock extension agent, and finally as director of our county cooperative extension service. But, those job titles don't really define everything that he does and the hours that go into his job. In fact, most of our state's extension agents wear many hats and participate in a lot of night meetings and educational programs. For example, not only does Sam oversee our county extension office, its agents and support staff, but he also has livestock, pesticide re-certification, and pasture management responsibilities, to name a few.

It still amazes me that this year is the program's 100th anniversary in North Carolina, yet many people have no clue how important this organization is or exactly what it does for our communities -- particularly those in rural areas.

What is the Cooperative Extension Service?  My definition.
The easiest way for me to explain what this organization does is by giving a logical definition. To me, cooperative extension is just that -- a teaching and service "extension" arm of our land grant universities. Here in my home state this includes North Carolina State University in Raleigh and North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro. Extension agents serve as teachers. They are specialist in various disciplines and can help lend a teaching hand to people in our communities who are eager to make things better. For example, if you are a farmer and need to learn about how to get soil testing completed for your crop fields or better understand how to treat certain weeds in your pastures, your local extension agents can help answer those questions -- free of charge! University professors and specialists can't be everywhere all the time, so this is where our extension agents come in to provide a valuable service. 

4-H is a part of the Cooperative Extension Service
A lot of people don't realize that the youth organization, 4-H, has a long standing history as being a part of the Cooperative Extension Service. If you grew up in 4-H and are now working in agriculture, you can probably thank your local 4-H cooperative extension service program for giving you a start. Whether it was going to a 4-H camp or raising a pig as a project, 4-H helps to develop our youth so that they can make a difference in their communities. To see how 4-H has grown over the years in North Carolina, check out this clip from our local PBS channel that was recently featured: 4-H link on PBS

What do you appreciate the most about your local cooperative extension service? 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pressure cookers can be a great tool in the kitchen

Back in my younger days I can remember going into my Grandma Hines' kitchen on Saturday mornings to be greeted by the rapid "tick, tick, tick, tick" sound of the pressure cooker on the stove top. The pleasant smell of a beef roast cooking consumed the air. Noon meals on Saturdays at grandma's were usually reserved for beef chuck roast, mashed potatoes, Amish noodles, homemade apple sauce and green beans with a little bit of half and half poured over them. It was a classic, hardy meal for my family who usually needed refueling after a hefty round of morning chores and to prepare for the next round of work in the afternoon. Anyone who ever had the chance to eat this particular meal always raved about it -- including me!

My grandmother passed away a couple of years ago, but her classic meal lives on. Every time I cook this same meal in my kitchen, the aroma takes me back to her kitchen. Funny how music and food tend to take you back to a special place in time.

Grandma's Techniques
Right after I married, I was visiting back home and asked my grandma if she would show me her techniques of cooking her classic Saturday noontime meal that was always so tasty. As I watched, I notice that she had the prep down like clockwork to ensure the meal was ready by a 12:30 p.m. serving time. At 10:30 a.m. she'd started her roast. Even if it only took an hour to cook, she knew how to keep the roast warm by letting it stay in its juices in the cooker until her sides were prepared. 

She could have chose to turn from her traditional ways and use a slow cooker to make a beef chuck roast like many folks do today, but it wouldn't have been the same. There was a graceful madness to her method, which included the amount of salt she used. Grandma loved her salt! As grandma guided me through the roast prepping process, I was amazed that I couldn't see the top of the roast as she prepared it for cooking. It looked like snow! I don't use quite as much salt as she used to, but you do have to use some salt to get the right flavoring.

One of the pluses of this particular recipe is that it is a feast you can complete in a timely fashion, and it taste delightful. I hope you enjoy what I consider some of the best comfort food around!

Step One:  The Pressure Cooker
I recently had to purchase a new pressure cooker. Between my husband and I, we wore out our other one. In this recipe, I am using a 6-quart, stainless steel, Presto pressure cooker. For cooking food, I prefer using stainless steel. Period. I save the aluminum pressure cookers for canning. Personally, aluminum is just too thin for me when it comes to cooking raw food in a pressure cooker, but it works good for hot water baths for canning.

Presto, 6-quart pressure cooker.  Do you notice the little black pressure valve on the right on the lid and the little hole in the handle?  Those are safety features! Don't let the pressure cooker intimidate you! The weight is in the middle.
Step Two:  Beef Chuck Roast
I have found that Costco has wonderful beef chuck roasts. They are huge! And yes, they will cram down into a 6-quart pressure cooker. You can even throw a frozen or partially frozen roast into the pressure cooker (if it isn't too stiff to stick out the top). It will still get done in an hour.

Step Three:  Preparing The Roast
Once you have your roast in the cooker get out the salt! Like I mentioned, I don't use as much as grandma did, but be sure to thoroughly salt the top of the roast. A good salt dusting is key, especially for a large roast. Next, pour enough hot water over the roast to cover it. If your roast is big and you are worried about water running over the edge, don't worry if you can't cover it all the way with water. It will do fine. See, I don't have mine fully covered.


Step Four:  Put the lid on and start cooking
Once you've prepped your roast, put the lid on securely (with rubber seal in place) and put the weight on top of the lid. I don't use the bottom rack that comes with the cooker, but you can if you prefer. You'll notice there is a safety valve on your lid. This is a good thing! Today's pressure cookers have safety features my grandmother's didn't, so don't worry about the lids flying off unless you are really careless!

Put your roast on medium high until you start to hear some steam working its way out of the weight on top of the lid. You'll also notice the lock on the handle will seal and secure (another good thing!). Once the weight starts to tick (and it may start ticking really fast), don't freak out and run for cover!  Just turn down the heat to medium or medium low until the ticking is steady and constant -- not wild! Once the ticking is steady, set your kitchen timer for one hour. After the hour is up, the roast is done! It is that simple! Here is what my pressure cooker sounds like when it is cooking steady:

Step Five:  Cooling off
Pressure cookers have safety features so we don't get hurt. When your kitchen timer indicates your roast is done, you'll need to let the pressure cooker cool. You can set it to the side on your stove top. The lid will not unlock until the steam is fully released. To speed up the process, I sometimes will run cold water over the top of the lid at the sink. I also will gently tap the weigh on top to see if the steam is out of the pot, but be careful doing this because it will be hot and you could get a steam burn.

Step Six:  Removing roast from the pressure cooker
Once the lid lock releases, take off the lid. You'll be pleasantly surprised to see a perfectly tender cut of meat ready to serve. Sometimes I'll brown the roast on each side in about two tablespoons of melted butter in a skillet -- assuming I can keep the roast together, because it will be wonderfully tender. In this case, the roast was just right and didn't need any additional cooking. See the nice color? Grandma always said the browning helped to warm the roast, but I think it was because it gave it some additional flavor and a nice brown color. This step is optional.

Step Seven:  Don't get rid of the beef broth
After you remove your roast, keep the broth because you'll need it to cook your Amish noodles. The broth is already nicely salted and has rich flavor -- perfect for cooking noodles. Just add more water to the broth in the pressure cooker (no need to dirty another pot) and bring the liquid to a boil. Add the noodles and cook for about 8 minutes. If you can't find Amish noodles in your area, you can find decent comparatives at your local grocery store. I prefer thin Amish noodles from Troyer's in Applecreek, Ohio. A few of the larger farm markets in North Carolina even carry the Amish Wedding brand noodles.

Step Eight:  Serve!
The nice thing about a tender beef chuck roast is that it is easy to pull apart with a couple of forks to get rid of some of the larger pieces of fat. After breaking up the meat and getting rid of the extra fat, you can place it on a plate by itself or add it directly to the drained noodles. Either way you can't go wrong.


Although I don't show it here, the best way to serve Amish noodles is directly on top of mashed potatoes! Yum -- a Dutch classic! Grandma, here's to you!



Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I am not lazy...just busy with life!

Back when I started my blog, I told some friends that my goal was to post several times during a week. Well, I obviously lost touch with reality! Here it is March 26, 2013, and the last time I had a post was May 22, 2012!  Yikes! Am I a slacker or what?

Being a writer by trade makes it tough to find the time to write for "fun," but I am going to try to do better. After all, there is always something interesting to write about, right?

ARC members watch as an Express Ranches employee
selects the best embryos from a beef heifer. Express Ranches
was one of the stops on our educational tour.
Last week I attended the Agricultural Relations Council (ARC) annual meeting in Oklahoma City. The group is made up of agriculture communications professionals from all over the U.S. During the meeting, several attendees said that they usually go back home feeling "recharged." You know what? I think they were right! When you get a room full of creative minds together, it helps you to feed off of each other to spark new ideas. You learn what works and what doesn't work, and soon you adapt those thoughts and changes to your own way of thinking. I believe we get caught up in the day-to-day world and forget that basic common sense and simplicity can often fuel a creative fire within us. 

So, I hope what I learned last week will "recharge" my battery so that I can be more consistent in my blog writings. I've got a few things up my sleeve...stay tuned!