Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Risotto Rice

If you plan to learn to make risotto, then you will need to learn about the various types of risotto rice available. You should learn about the various types of rice that work in risotto. Here are some of the most common rice grains and their benefits.

The most common type of rice is Arborio. This rice is readily available not only in Italy but in the United States. Arborio is on sale in the dried foods section of many stores, including specialty food shops as well as regular grocery stores. Arborio was developed in Vercelli, an area of Italy, in 1946, making it a newcomer to the world of rice cultivation.

When you are cooking Arborio, it will need to sit off the heat for a few minutes before it is done. While you can use Arborio for all types of risotto, it also works by itself. You can boil it and cover it with butter and cheese.

Baldo is another type of risotto rice. Baldo is a very compact rice and is very thin, making it appropriate for most types of risotto but also a great choice for rice salads.

The next type of rice that you can use for risotto is carnaroli. This rice has the heaviest starch component of any of the risotto rices. The starchy nature of carnaroli makes it able to keep its shape, and often its hardness, better than the other rice varieties. If you are interested in a harden grain of rice, carnaroli is your choice. The rice is very difficult to burn or to overcook, making it mushy, so if you are new to risotto cooking, you also may want to consider using carnaroli.

Originario is another type of rice. This one, however, should be used primarily for risottos with have sausage and other meats. Originario can be used in baked fish dishes and vegetable risotto dishes.

Other types of risotto rice include padano, maratelli, ribe, roma, sant'Andrea, rosa marchetti, vialone nano, and vialone nano gigante.

These types of rice are not as easy to use or as common as the other rices. For example, padano and maratelli are rices that can be used for risotto but that is great for soups. Ribe is a type of rice that should be boiled as most Americans do with their rice when they serve it with butter, gravy, or beans.

If you are going to experiment with risotto or other rice dishes, then you can try an exotic rice such as rosa marchetti. This type of rice is very round and does not look like traditional pasmati rice. Rosa marchetti is very rare and is available only in a small part of Italy. It has a very distinctive rice, however, and you should try it out if you want something a little different.

These rices are only a few of the varieties available. While most people think only in terms of brown, white, or yellow, rice is a much more varied grain than that. The next time you are shopping, check out the choices in rice you have.
by Julia Mercer

Old Navy: Great Family Store

When you have a family, shopping for clothes often presents one of the bigger headaches you will face in terms of ordinary tasks. Either your family members all have different tastes in clothing or you have to go to several different stores in order to find clothes that not only fit everyone, but do so at a reasonable price. Department stores have traditionally been a good resource for family clothes shopping, but things have been changing in recent years. Many department stores, in an effort to keep up with independent competitors, have been adding more and more brand name clothing to their racks. This has significantly increased prices in those stores. Meanwhile, the department stores and discount stores that don't offer brand names usually have clothes that are, shall we say, not very stylish.

One great alternative for you to consider as you deal with back-to-school and fall clothing purchases for your family is Old Navy. I have done a lot of shopping at Old Navy in the past couple of years and I am very impressed by what I've found. Here are just some of the reasons that I keep going back to Old Navy.

The Old Navy stores in my area are usually very large, and the floor space is used very well. There are always racks and racks of clothes, which means that you will be able to find something that you want. They have everything from jeans and t-shirts to slacks, button-down oxfords, and dresses. Don't forget about accessories. Old Navy also has a great selection of socks, belts, baseball caps, and bags.

Another thing I like about the selection at Old Navy is that they have something for every member of your family. They carry infant, toddler, and children's clothing, as well as teen and adult fashions. The individual size range is excellent, as well. In women's clothing, for example, I've noticed pants sizes ranging from 2 to much larger sizes.

Old Navy clothing is also noted for its style. They carry a lot of classic clothes, such as khaki pants and polo-style shirts, that look good no matter what year it is. But they also have a lot of modern clothes that keep up with the fashion trends of the day. So, for example, if flare-leg jeans and short blazers are in, you'll be able to find them at Old Navy right alongside all the classic stuff.

No discussion of Old Navy would be complete without mentioning their great prices. Their basic prices are lower than many similar stores, plus they always seem to have a sale going on or at least a bin of specially-priced items. I don't know about you, but I don't think I've ever been to an Old Navy without seeing an entire bin of t-shirts on sale for $5 or less. We can always use another t-shirt, right?

So if you are looking for an all-in-one store for your family shopping, give Old Navy a try. Check out your nearest location or shop online through the link right here at You will probably like their selection, styles, and prices as much as I do!

My Experience With Red Wing Boots

During my college years, I spent my summers in southeast Minnesota working in factories in order to earn money for tuition and books. The jobs paid poorly, as you might expect, but there was always something available and I was usually able to work as much overtime as I could handle, which really added up over the course of three months. The factories that I worked at of course had strict safety guidelines that had to be followed. One of the most common rules was that everyone had to wear steel-toed boots or shoes. Since the city of Red Wing was just a couple hours away from where I lived, I decided to try a pair of those famous Red Wing boots that I had heard so much about.

Almost every shoe store in the area carried huge selections of Red Wing gear, so I had no trouble finding a pair that I liked. Unlike a lot of safety boots on the market, the offerings from Red Wing were actually stylish and attractive. They didn't look big and clunky, and they also came in many more colors than just black. Overall, I was impressed with the boots right from the start. The only thing that had me a bit concerned was the hefty $125 price tag. That might not seem like much now, but I'm talking about nearly 15 years ago. At that time my Red Wings were definitely the most expensive clothing item I had ever bought.

The boots were hard to break in at first. It took at least 3 days before I could feel the stiff leather loosening up a bit. I won't lie: my feet were in agony during that time. It was all I could do to stand at my machine for the 8 hours of my shift. But once the boots were broken in, they became as comfortable as any other pair of shoes that I had. I could now see why everyone I worked with absolutely raved about Red Wings. And of course the steel plates in the toes and the non-slip soles worked exactly as they were supposed to. As I mentioned above, the boots I bought were very cool-looking. So once I had them broken in, I started wearing them even when I wasn't working. They looked great when paired with jeans.

The boots were very durable, as well. They held up for a good five years of both work and casual use, and probably could have been used for a couple more years. But I finally just got tired of them and wanted to change colors and styles. Overall, I would say that I got an excellent return on that initial investment, and am certainly glad that I took a chance on this brand that I had never tried before.

If you are looking for a pair of safety boots or shoes for work, then I whole-heartedly recommend Red Wings. They offer great protection in a comfortable, stylish, and durable package, which is everything you could ever ask for from a work boot.

Learn To Make Two Traditional Italian Dishes

Everyone should learn what the Italians know. Pasta is great. It is quick to make. It works well with plenty of dishes. Here are some traditional Italian dishes that should give you great opportunity to serve pasta.

The first recipe we will cover is beef and spinach lasagna. This recipe is a bit of a variation on the classic lasagna. First, by adding in spinach, you will be serving your family a serving of green vegetables without them balking. Second, this recipe is a no-boil noodle recipe, making it faster and easier to make.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Brown a pound of ground beef with one large, diced onion and a teaspoon of garlic. Once the beef is done, drain the fat from the pot.

Add two cans (15 ounces each) of tomato sauce, 1 1/2 cups of frozen spinach, one teaspoon each of thyme and oregano, and salt and pepper to taste if desired.

Cook this mixture for about 10 minutes until it is thoroughly mixed.

Next, you will need a greased casserole dish. Pour a cup of sauce in the pan. Top with lasagna noodles and then spread a thin layer of ricotta cheese over it. Keep layering the lasagna until you have no more ingredients.

Pour a cup of mozzarella cheese on top of the mixture.

Bake this food for 30 minutes until the top browns. For an especially cheesy lasagna, sprinkle lasagna on top for the last five minutes of baking.

Basil pesto is another great Italian dish to have over pasta. You will need to cook a cup of noodles to go with this dish. It works best with thin noodles, such as vermicelli or spaghetti.

In another pot, start working on the pesto. Roast three tablespoons of pine nuts in a skillet by placing them in a single layer in the skillet. You may use a small bit of olive oil if you would like, but it is not necessary.

The roasting is a quick process, and you cannot leave the skillet. It will only take two to three minutes. As soon as you smell the roasting pine nuts, take them from the skillet and put them on a plate to cool.

Next, you will need to break out the food processor. In it, you will put 2 tablespoons of garlic, 1 1/2 cups of basil, 1/3 cup of green onions, 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese, and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Once you have mixed these ingredients, pour in the pine nuts you earlier set aside. Then add in 1/3 cup of olive oil and salt and pepper if you would like.

The pesto now is done. You will toss is with the pasta you cooked earlier. This recipe makes 8 servings.

These two recipes are only a sampling of traditional Italian foods you can make in your kitchen. They do not require too many utensils or pots. Instead, you can make them with a minimal amount of mess in your kitchen. Remember that you can experiment and try to use fresh ingredients whenever possible, especially when working with herbs. Start with these dishes, and you will be a great cook in no time!
by Julia Mercer

Belt Sanders: Made for Heavy-Duty Jobs

If you are looking for a quick and powerful sander, then you are looking for a belt sander. This simple machine basically has two rollers that guide a sanding belt along as they sand wood. The sander also has a dust bag to collect the sawdust, a motor to pull the belt, and a switch to turn it on. In terms of power tools, the belt sander is very simplistic.

If you are in the market for a belt sander, then you will need to pay attention to the width and circumference of the belt. The largest belts will be four inches wide and have a two-foot circumference. The smallest belt sanders have only a one-inch wide belt.

Also pay attention to the weight of the belt sander. Some of them weigh fifteen to twenty pounds, meaning that they are fairly heavy for holding and cutting. In these cases, you can put your wood on a sawhorse and use the sander's weight to cut the wood. If you want to be able to hold the sander while you are cutting, then you will need to look for a lightweight variety.

It is important once you have your belt sander that you will need to clean it periodically. Cleaning the sander is simple and will do wonders to keep your power tool in good condition. You will need to purchase a crepe rubber cleaning block, which you will run across the sanding belt to clear up any residue that has built up.

It also is imperative to get a feel for how the sander works when you are planning to buy one. Do not be afraid to ask for help when you are out shopping. A good store will allow you to attach the dust bag to their displays and get a feel for how the belt sander feels to you. Some people like different types and curvatures of the handle, so you should watch for what you like.

Once you have your belt sander at home, try it out and think about the pollution. These sanders obviously give off a lot of sawdust, which is not good for your lungs. If your belt sander is particularly dusty or you will be performing a very big job, consider plugging your vacuum cleaner up to your belt sander instead of just the dust bag that came with it. The vacuum will get up more sawdust and will help keep your belt sander clean, adding to its life.

Be sure to read the instruction manual on your belt sander. Some sanders require the belts to be put in a certain way, or you can destroy them. If you are not paying attention or think you do not need the manual, then you are causing problems for yourself that could cost you in the end.

Become familiar with your belt sander before you use it. This power tool is so heavy-duty that you will need to have good control of it before you begin your work.

by Julia Mercer

An Introduction To The Band Saw

The band saw is one of the most versatile power tools you can own. The best characteristics of the band saw are its efficiency, precision, and speed. Band saws have more versatility than many other common saws, such as the circular or table saws. Instead of being able to cut only in a straight line, the band saw can cut in circles and other shapes as well.

The band saw first received a patent in 1808. At that time, it had a wooden frame. Two iron wheels were mounted on top of each other, and they were powered by water. The two wheels turned to cut into wood.

While today's band saws are more complex, they work on the same principle. Many band saws are small enough to fit on a worktable. These band saws typically have a 9-inch blade that will make most of the cuts an amateur carpenter will need. Other industrial-size models must sit on the floor and have blades upwards of 37 inches.

You determine the size of the band saw based on the diameter of the wheel. That helps determine the width of the board that can pass through the saw. While some band saws have three wheels that can pass through a wider board, these saws are not as precise and working with them can be more difficult.

In addition to the width of board the band saw can cut, you should consider the depth with which the saw can cut. This dimension is called the cutting thickness; it determines how high you can raise the top wheel above the platform on which you place the object to be cut. As expected, the smaller bench-top saws cannot cut as deeply as the larger floor models.

A third factor in comparing band saws is the thickness of the blade. A thicker blade will not be able to cut as well, as tightly, as a thinner blade. If you will be making primarily straight cuts and are concerned about the speed, however, consider getting a thicker blade, as it will work better for these cuts. Thicker blades are sturdier, making them better for quick cuts.

If your main interest is speed, then you also should look at the number of teeth the saw has. While most people will think, as it seems, that more teeth means faster cutting, the opposite is true. More teeth will slow down the saw because that will mean that more of the blade has to go through the wood. Instead, you will need a thinly populated blade if you plan to cut quickly.

The biggest drawbacks to using a band saw are that they are not portable. Even the bench top varieties are pretty heavy, so you will not be able to move them about quickly or easily. In addition, band saws do not work if you have to make a "plunge cut," meaning that you will cut deep into the wood. Band saws are not made for this type of cut, which you may use in furniture making or other projects. Instead, you will need to purchase an additional saw for this type of project.
by Julia Mercer

Personalize Your Room With a Beaded Lamp

Wire and coils are great for home decorating. If you are not sure, try a project today. Before you begin any wire project for your home, make sure that no one is allergic. Also make sure that you are not putting the wires where your little ones can get to it and eat it. You also will want to visit your local craft store and familiarize yourself with the wiring options they have available.

An easy starter project for wire is to make a beaded lampshade. For this project, you will need to gather the following materials: natural-colored 18-guage wire, 12 glass decorative beads in colors and styles to match the room, a 9-inch tall lampshade, a 13 1/2 –inch lamp base, needle, thread to match the shade, round nose pliers, and wire cutters.

You will need 12 freeform eye loops made from the wire to get started. These loops are for the glass beads. Then you will thread the wire through the loop. Add on the bead. Next use the round nose pliers to twist the wire in any shape you would like. Experiment with the bead. You do not have to have every wire shape exactly alike. In fact, it will work better if they are different. Do not put too much pre-planning into the bending of the wires. You will work better if you move at a creative, freeform pace.

Once you have all 12 beads on and the wires bent, then you will need to break out the needle and thread. Sew the eye loops onto the lampshade less than an inch from the base. Space them evenly so that they go around the entire lampshade. Now you can put the shade on the lamp and enjoy your work!

You can complete this project with any sized lamp, of course. If you already have a lamp that you are using, then you will need to determine how many beads and how much wire you need for your own project.

Also feel free to try variation on the beaded lampshade. One option is to use a gluing agent to add rhinestones or beads to the lampshade. This idea works best with light-colored shades that are made of a thick material.

Another popular choice is to add fringe or lace to the bottom of the lampshade. If you would rather a fully beaded look, you can wrap the lampshade with a beaded cloth. You can sew these materials on or glue them. Just remember to use glue specifically for this purposes because the light will get hot!

Another option is to remove the lampshade altogether. You can get a lower wattage bulb if you are concerned about it being too bright. Then you will add beading to the structure of the lamp base for an eccentric look.

Take some time to look around while you are at the store. You may be able to model your lamp after examples you see. Or you may find that you can use the inspiration of the craft store to lead you to try something new. Anyway you choose to do it, your home will have a great new lamp to show for your work.

Happy beading!

by Julia Mercer

Use a Soap Making Hobby to Decorate Your Home

If you are thinking of picking up soap making, possibly as a side business, then you will find that you will need a bit of experimentation first. Practicing your soap making skills will allow you to discover your special skills and discover what you think would be valuable enough to sell.

In the meantime, you have all of these soaps you have made, and you need something to do with them. You can toss them and consider them a business investment, but that would waste your money, time, and energy. You could give them to good friends and family members who know that you are experimenting. (It also will make them all the more proud when they see your later creations.) A third option is to use them to decorate your own home.

The beauty of using home-made soaps to decorate your home is that you will find that you can make the soaps in any shape, size, and color you need. If you have some that just turn out awful, which is to be expected when you are starting out, then put them in the bathroom to use for soap. No one will notice once the soap has washed a few hands.

There are a number of various types of molds you can use for your soaps, and you should take the time when you are beginning to experiment with these molds. The first type are the most common and the easiest to find. You can buy sold molds at your local craft store. These molds come in little plastic trays.

Soap molds have several advantages. First, they are made for making soap, so they are heat-resistant and non-stick. Second, you can find them in so many shapes that you can decorate your entire home. It is not uncommon to find soap molds in Chinese characters for your Asian-themed living room, cartoon characters for your son’s room, and hearts for your romance-laden bathroom. Look around, and you will find soap molds that fit your decorating style.

If you would like to be a bit more unconventional, though, try looking around for potential molds for soap making. You can begin with your trip to the craft store. Look at candy molds, tart molds, and plaster molds. These molds, while not made for soaps, can work for decorative soaps for your home.

Instead of making new purchases, though, you can look for molds in your own home. Consider plastic food containers, shoeboxes, piping, baby food jars, and any other container you find. Be sure to think about the pros and cons of each method of soap making before you begin, however, as some methods work better for different containers. Use wood, metal, plastic, paper, or glass containers.

These soap molds may be odd, but you can use them in various ways. A shoebox, for example, makes the perfect loaf soap. You can then cut it into "slices," and use it for several months in your bathroom.

Watch around you, and you are sure to find something that would work well for a mold for your soap. Pretty soon, you could have a house decorated with your own handiwork.
by Julia Mercer

Microwave Cooking Goes Gourmet!

Okay, so here you are. You have had a long day. You are tired, hungry, and...tired. You do not have time to break out a lot of dishes, chop everything, cook it, then clean it. Instead, you should explore the various cooking options you have with your microwave.

Television dinners and popcorn are not the only foods you can make in your microwave. Instead, you can make homemade chili, spaghetti casserole, and even shrimp risotto. Are you still not convinced? Read on to find out how.

For the microwave chili, you will need a casserole dish. Mix in a pound of ground beef, a chopped onion, and two chopped celery sticks. Microwave it with wax paper on top for five minutes. Stir, break up the beef, and microwave for another minute.

Next you will stir in a packet of chili seasoning, a bit of salt, a can of pureed tomato, 2 cans of drained kidney beans, and a 4-ounce can of drained green chilies. Cover the dish and microwave for 10 minutes, stopping to stir at intervals throughout the cooking.

Spaghetti casserole is a way to use up that extra spaghetti and feel that you are having something a little different. First, heat a tablespoon of olive oil. This step will take about 30 seconds. Then add in 1/2 pound of ground beef that is defrosted. Then you will need to 2 tablespoons of garlic powder, a tablespoon of oregano leaves, and red pepper to taste. Cover and microwave until the beef is browned.

This process goes more quickly if you stop the microwave and break up the meat at various points. Next you will add two cans of diced tomatoes or two chopped tomatoes. Stir in a 7-ounce jar of sweet peppers. Cook for about 5 minutes until the sauce bubbles.

Next, stir in a cup of cooked spaghetti that you have cut into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Microwave for four more minutes, add a cup of mozzarella to the top, microwave for 1 additional minute, and serve.

The final microwave dish is shrimp risotto. For this dish, you will need to gather these ingredients: 1 tablespoon of olive oil; 2 large garlic cloves, minced; 2 cups of chopped celery; 1/2 cup of chopped carrots; 3/4 cup of Arborio rice; 3 cups of chicken broth; a 7-ounce jar of sweet peppers; 1/4 cup of sun-dried tomatoes; 3/4 cup of peeled and cooked shrimp; 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.

Using a microwave-safe dish, pour in the olive oil, garlic, celery, and carrots. Cook for three minutes, stirring twice during cooking. Add the rice and cook 2 minutes. Stir in 2 1/2 cups of the chicken broth and cook for an additional 10 minutes, stopping once to stir.

Next add the peppers and tomatoes slowly and cook 8 more minutes. If the broth is absorbed and the rice is dry, stir in the remaining chicken broth. Otherwise, you can discard the broth.

Finally you will add the shrimp. Stir them in and cook at half power until the shrimp are warmed. Remove the dish from the microwave and top with Parmesan cheese.

These three dishes are great, microwave-friendly, and should get you started with better food.

by Julia Mercer

Ham Soups - Not Just For Cold Weather

Ham is one of those great meats that we love to eat, but we are always stuck with more leftovers than we care to have. Instead of ham sandwiches for a week, try these great soup recipes.

The first is ham and bean soup, a classic. This recipe calls for canned beans to make it easier and faster, but you can substitute raw beans that you have cooked if you would like. You will need these ingredients: a chopped onion, three diced celery sticks, a teaspoon of garlic, a tablespoon of olive oil, three cups of chicken broth, a large can of cannellini beans, a 15-ounce can of Italian tomatoes, 1/2 pound of ham, diced (or more if you want a meatier soup), and an ounce of angel hair pasta. The pasta should be broken into small pieces and should not be cooked.

You will need a very large pot for this recipe. A Dutch oven works great if you have one; if not, use the largest pot with a lid you own. Add in the onion, celery, garlic, and a fourth of the broth. Cook them on medium for about 5 minutes. Add all of the ingredients except the pasta. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook for 15 minutes.

Once the rest of the soup is blended nicely, add in the pasta and bring the soup to a boil again. You will need to lower the heat and then cook for about five minutes until the pasta is done. This recipe serves seven.

The next ham soup is a potato soup, always a favorite. This recipe is Portuguese and calls for kale. Many people mistakenly believe that they do not like kale. They may have had it once and called it quits. The leafy, green vegetable is very versatile, though. Even if you don't think you like it, try this recipe. You may find that you underestimated the taste of fresh kale.

You will need a good bit of fresh kale. Rinse the kale under cold water and tear apart the stems from the leaves. The leaves you have torn into small pieces should be about four cups worth. Put the kale in a container with cold water. Let stand while you begin the soup.

Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a small chopped onion, and two chopped celery sticks into a soup pot. Cook them until the onion and celery begin to get tender. Stir in four cups of chicken broth and 2 cups of cubed red potatoes. Add marjoram, thyme, and oregano to taste.

While you are bringing this mixture to a boil, pull the kale leaves from the water and add them to the pot. It is important to use your hands to pull out the leaves because you will be leaving the dirt they accumulated in the bottom of the container you use to soak them.

Once the soup is boiling for about 5 minutes with the kale added, pour in 1/2 cup of diced ham and cook for 10 additional minutes. This recipe yields six one-cup servings.

by Julia Mercer

Easy Steps For Drop-In Entertaining

If your home is prone to drop-in visitors who are not teenagers, such as your neighbors or church friends, then you probably know what it is like to seem totally unprepared for company. There are a few simple items that you can keep on hand that will help you to look like the ever-gracious hostess.

First, try mixing a salad dressing mix or powdered marinade with vinegar and olive oil. This ready-made sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. You can use it for an impromptu salad or vegetable tray. You can also use it as a dipping sauce for bread. If you have a sudden dinner guests and were having plain-old baked chicken, spice up the chicken and the sauteed veggies by brushing on your mixture.

To add a lemony taste, always purchase a heavy lemon when you are at the produce market. Bring the lemon to room temperature and squeeze with your hand a few times before you cut it open. Then cut and squeeze. You can add this fresh lemon juice to any number of dishes or even teas for a little zip.

When everyone is over for grilling, think past hamburgers and hot dogs. One of the easiest ways to grill is to use foil packets. You would pre-cut pieces of aluminum foil. They need to be fairly large. Everyone can put his or her favorites among the meats and vegetables you offer in a packet. Then put the packets on the grill. You will need to have some way to mark them, such as a marker used on both sides. Flip them once while cooking them so that everything inside gets done. Then, take them off the grill and serve. Clean-up is a snap. If you want to make the meal beforehand, make it and wrap individual servings in foil. Then everyone gets the same thing, but you still have an easy time after the party.

Keep a little feta in the refrigerator. This cheese is not one that many people have on hand all of the time, and there is no need to stick solely with feta. Blue cheese works well, too. If you have a chunk of a good cheese, you can crumble it over salads or soups or eat it with bread. It makes a nice addition to an otherwise bland meal. You also can serve it with bread and wine for a delicious snack.

Pick up frozen, cooked meats. While it will not work as well, you can have frozen, cooked chicken or other meats. If you really do have company often, then you should make a casserole or other dish with the already cooked variety and freeze it. That way a good meal is as simple as going to the freezer and heating when the boss unexpectedly arrives for lunch.

These few basic tips can help you to make yourself look more prepared than you really are. While you may like having unexpected company, you may find that you hate the rush to find something quality to feed your guests. Now, you have ways to solve that dilemma to make the whole visit more enjoyable.
by Julia Mercer

Easy, Classy Entertaining

While we discussed early some ways that you can always appear to be a gracious hostess, that listed was not all-inclusive. Here are some more great ways to impress the neighbors.

Do you know how much your family loves tacos? Well, do not underestimate the value of tortilla shells. These delightful wraps come in all sizes and colors. Look for colored shells that you can use for quick wraps or quesadillas.

If you want a quick variation on the classic French bread, try this plan on for size. Mix salad dressing mix with a small amount of olive oil. Then brush is on French bread and toast or broil. You will have fancy bread with little work of expense.

When you grill or bake chicken, make a little extra. You can keep cooked chicken in the refrigerator in a sealed container for up to one week. You can add it to a cold salad, use it for a casserole, make a stew, or have it by itself. It makes a quick meal when you need it.

Keep some scallions in the fridge. Also called green onions, this small, weed-like vegetable will add a garnish and a little taste to your meals. You cut off the roots and any brown spots from the onion head and then chop up the scallions. You can add them to baked potatoes, soups, or salads, or you can use them as a garnish with your main dish. There is no end to the useful of this inexpensively vegetable.

Keep almond, cashews, or pine nuts on hand to roast. You can toast almost any nut, and it gives them a richer flavor before you toss them in a soup or salad. You can toast nuts in two ways. First you can put them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. The second option is to toss them in the skillet. Put the stove on medium, toss the nuts in the skillet, and leave them for three to four minutes.

The key to toasting nuts and not burning them is that you have to watch them. You cannot leave them because the line between roasting and burning is so thin. Instead, you need to stir them once while cooking. Once you smell them roasting, take them away from the heat and put them in a bowl to cool.

Keep olive oil on hand but store it properly. While olive oil is great for bread dipping sauces, sautéing veggies, or other kitchen uses, it needs to be kept in a cool, dry place to retain its flavor.

Watch your pasta as you cook it. Be sure that it is tender enough that it will not harden when it cools. Drain pasta immediately and run water over it when it is done so that it will not continue to cook. Overdone pasta is mushy, and neither you nor your guests will enjoy it.

Keep a large loaf of bread or the ingredients to bake it on hand. You can hollow out a large chunk of this bread and use it as a bread bowl to serve piping hot tomato soup.
by Julia Mercer

Planning a Party for Teens?

If you will have teens at your place soon, then you need to be prepared. While there are no hard and fast general rules, your own teen will let you in on the local customs. Here are some things you can do to help your teen make his or her party a success.

First, be an invisible observer. Your fifteen-year-old does not want you hanging out in the living room with her friends. While you do not want to leave teenagers to their own devices without any supervision at all, know that you do not have to be there at all times. She will come get you if you need anything. You can slip in and see what is going on without letting everyone know you are there. Remember that your child is not seven anymore; you do not need to run the party.

Have teen-friendly foods on hand. Teenagers are great in the food department. They all like basic foods: hot dogs, pizza, and chips. Do not put a lot of time into fancy foods. If you do, you likely will be disappointed when your teenager and his friends do not eat them or even mock them. Stick with the basics. You can even order pizza if you want to be simple.

Make clean up a snap by having garbage cans readily available. One of the biggest problems with teen parties is that no one thinks about cleaning up. Okay, that may be a problem with adult parties, too. Still, the teens who come to your house will be more likely to clean up after themselves if you make it easier. Get all paper and plastic cups, plates, and utensils. Bring out the trashcans (yes, more than one if you have them) and put them next to high-traffic areas.

Tell your teen where the trash bags are in case he does not already know. Be sure that on your invisible visits, you check on the garbage cans. Although you should not interrupt the flow of the party to do so, do not hesitate to ask your guests to pick up after themselves before they move on to a different part of the house. You also should consider limiting the area that is open to food and drink.

As with the supervision, provide entertainment but don't. You should not have games to play. They are not children, no matter how much you think of them that way. Instead, you should provide possibilities for entertainment. Take your daughter to rent a couple of DVDs and break out your own collection. Have a stereo set up. If you are likely to have physical types, make sure you know where the basketball and the baseball and bat are. You do not need to direct teens, but you do need to make something available for them to do.

Last, you need to make sure you trust your child to invite quality people. If you have a well-behaved teen, chances are that you have no reason to worry. Help with the preparations for the party and then let your young adult take it from there.

by Julia Mercer

Asparagus Can Keep You Healthy

Asparagus has gotten an unfortunate reputation for being one of those yucky vegetables that moms make their kids eat, but that no one really likes. That is really a shame because asparagus is a healthy, versatile, and yes, tasty, veggie. Take the time to learn a little about asparagus and maybe you will want to add it to your diet.

Asparagus is a member of the Lily family. Farmers plant crowns of asparagus deep into the dirt. The crowns shoot up, sometimes several feet, until they can produce spears. Each plant has roughly a six-week harvesting period in which the plant is actively producing spears. Warmer areas will have less time between spears than asparagus grown in colder climates. Some plants can produce new vegetables within one day while others will need weeks.

Gardeners who grow asparagus leave their vegetable stalks after they have stopped producing spears. They will develop red berries, and these berries are what will allow the plant to flower the next year.

One of the reasons asparagus is more expensive than other vegetables, even in its native areas, is that it take up to three years before crowns begin to produce spears. Until that time, the crowns must be allowed to sit. The asparagus crowns will develop a heavy root system that is necessary for the production of healthy asparagus spears. Once the plants are settled, however, they last for up to 15 years with good care and maintenance. Asparagus crowns can grow very large, but they should not be cut back. A large crown indicates a healthy, and heavy-producing, crop.

After the asparagus crown stops producing, the farmer must replant the crop and wait three years to start harvesting again. Asparagus is a hearty crop and grows well in cold climates although it can and will produce rapidly in warmer areas. Asparagus cannot be grown in very humid climates, however. Michigan produces much of the United States' asparagus crop.

As a side dish or even an entree, asparagus is a great choice. This intense-tasting veggie has no cholesterol or fat and little in the way of complex carbohydrates. That makes is a must-have on any diet plan. In addition, asparagus is an excellent source of folic acid. Few people get enough folic acid, but it is very important, especially for pregnant women. One serving can provide up to 60 percent of one's daily need for folicacin, or folic acid.

Folic acid helps fight off disease and also is shown in studies to help prevent neural defects in babies. That makes it an absolutely necessary part of any pregnant woman's diet.

In addition to folic acid, asparagus spears have potassium, fiber, thiamin, and a number of vitamins. Many of the lesser-known minerals present in asparagus, such as rutin, are helpful for building up the circulatory system, which makes the vegetable great for your heart.

Asparagus is great by itself or with a little cheddar cheese melted on top. You also can warm olive oil and Parmesan to pour onto asparagus. It also works in soups, casseroles, and sauteed. Experiment with asparagus today. You are sure to find recipes you will love.
by Julia Mercer

Great Ideas for Your Holiday Parties

A holiday part is the perfect time to break out the fancy appetizers. These appetizers can get you started. Most of them are simple to make, but they will make a great impression on your guests.

The first recipe is for asparagus roll-ups. Do not let vegetable-phobia keep you from this dish. Cooked asparagus is delicious, and there are few people who truly do not like it.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Then, remove the crust from 20 slices of bread. (This job is a good one to assign to little people helping you cook.) Use a rolling pin to flatten each piece of bread.

In a mixing bowl, you will need to add in a four-ounce package of blue cheese, and eight-ounce package of cream cheese, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Mix these ingredients well. You may have to microwave them if you want to mix them because the cheeses will be firm.

Once you have mixed the cheese, spread a thin layer on each piece of bread. Put one asparagus spear on each slice of bread and roll up. Place the roll-ups in a single layer one to two inches apart on a greased baking sheet.

Brush melted butter over the roll-ups. Cook the roll-ups for 15 minutes. Before cooking, you can cut the roll-ups into halves or thirds if you are serving them as a finger food without plates.

Another dish you can try for a holiday party is bacon and Swiss bake. Leave your oven at 350 degrees for this dish. Mix an 8-ounce package of cream cheese, softened, with 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, a cup of Swiss cheese, shredded or grated, and 2 diced green onions. Be sure that you mix all ingredients well so that you do not have a bite of one flavor and then another.

When the mixture is well-blended, move it into a greased casserole dish. Crumble eight slices of cooked bacon and 1/2 cup of crushed butter crackers on top of the Swiss cheese mixture before baking it for 20 minutes or until browned on top. You can serve this dish with crackers for a great holiday treat.

A Strawberry Cheese Mold is next on your holiday list. For this recipe, you will need these ingredients: a pound of grated cheddar cheese; a cup of chopped pecans; a cup of mayonnaise; a small diced onion; salt; pepper; cayenne; and 12 ounces of strawberry preserves. You can mix in another flavor if you prefer.

Slightly melt and then mix all of the ingredients, leaving out the preserves. Once they are mixed well, use your hands to mold them into a ring. You also can use a pre-made mold if you prefer.

Refrigerate the mold for at least two hours before serving. When you plan to serve the mold, pour the mixture onto a plate and put the preserves in the middle. This dish makes an interesting discussion piece as well as a delicious and different treat.

Try these foods for your next holiday party, and your foods will be sure to be a hit.
by Julia Mercer

Entertain The Kids, Too

When you are having guest over, find out whether or not they have children. If they do, you will need to be prepared to entertain them as well, or at least you will need to be able to provide something for them to do. When the children get fussy, they are no fun. Mom and Dad are not likely to stay, and you will find that none of your guests can have a good time. When you are having children over, try these tips to ensure a good time for all.

First, provide alternate food for them. Find out from the children's parents if the children have certain food they do not like or if they have any food allergies. Then decide what you will feed the children. While Mom and Dad probably do not serve as short-order cooks at home, they probably are more lenient when they are away from home. To avoid problems with children eating, you can try cooking something, like lasagna, that children will enjoy.

Second, offer quiet forms of entertainment. Very small children may enjoy a board book. Older children can entertain themselves with books and crayons or with puzzle books. There may be times during the evening when you will want to ask the children to play quietly, so offer them something to do during this time.

The children, though, will not be content playing quietly for the entire time. That means that you should have other areas or toys for the children. If you have a backyard, make sure that it is clean and safe for children to play. Then let them run around outdoors when they need to release some energy. While you should not overspend on a single evening, you may want to consider purchasing a few small toys. Find out the age of the children. Toddlers will be happy with blocks or some other inexpensive toy. Entertain older children with puzzles or one-person games. Provide some way for the children to enjoy themselves without needing adults to entertain them.

You also should not expect too much from the children in the way of behavior. While they should be respectful, they should not be expected to follow the rules of formal dining. Set up a children's table. Set it with throw away or outdoor place settings instead of the finer dishes the adults may use. Make it a place where the kids can eat and laugh and enjoy each other's company.

Although you should make every effort to make each of your guests happy, do not be afraid to ask guests with small children to make them behave. Children should not eat from adults' plates (at least if the adults do not want them to) or talk so loudly that they interrupt adult conversation. Be polite but firm when this behavior happens. The parents should be willing to step up and make their children behave. If not, you have to be prepared to decide between asking them to leave and allowing your other guests to be unhappy.

Remember that if you want your evening to be a success, the children's enjoyment is important, too.
by Julia Mercer

Ensure Good Grilling

Grilling is a great way to add a little something extra to your food. Few people take good care of their grills, however. Doing so is imperative as you will need to have a clean grill to lengthen its life and to make sure you are serving good food to your family and friends.

Do not allow "self-cleaning" grills or other claims of low maintenance to fool you. Grills are low-maintenance, but they require your attention after every use. Before you start cooking, take the time to do some prep work with your grill. Get out oil. Olive oil works best because it is healthiest, but you can try peanut, vegetable, coconut, or other types of oil as well. Use a grill brush and put a bit of oil on the rack. That will make the rack "greasy," which will help keep food from sticking to the grilling surface.

You should have a grill brush on hand any time you are grilling. These brushes have very long handles so that you can reach the back of the brush without much effort. They also have hard bristles that will allow you to scrub the rack. If food gets stuck and you have to pry it off, you can use this brush immediately. Whether food gets stuck or not, however, you should use this brush when you are done cooking to get any particles off the rack.

When you have scrubbed the grill, clean out the ash pan. Many people believe that they simply can leave the fire pan with ashes and let them build up. Do not be tempted to skip this step, though. You will find that eventually you will have a very hard time getting charcoal to light because of the build up.

Dealing with ashes is just part of owning a grill. Some people try lining the grill bed with aluminum foil, but that is a very bad idea. While aluminum can stand very high temperature, it can still catch fire. Any object that you place in the grill bed besides charcoal can pose a hazard. Just accept that you will have to clean out your grill.

If you are using a gas grill or if you have electric briquettes, allow them to cool when you are done cooking. Then take them out and look through them for any bits of food or trash. Remove them so that they will not prevent full heating of the briquettes later.

Store your grill properly. After each use, let it cool and then clean it. Next you should put it away. The grill will be best in your garage or other covered area. If you do not have that option, though, at least put a waterproof cover on it. Protecting your grill from the rain can help you get more life out of it.

These simple techniques will help you enjoy great backyard barbecues for years to come. Remember to take care of your grill no matter how small or inexpensive it was. You bought, so you should take care of it.
by Julia Mercer

Add Pizzazz To Your Table With Decorative Napkin Rings

One of the keys to good entertaining is to know that the details matter. You should strive to create theme and atmosphere in each of your gatherings. The practical reality that faces many would-be hostesses and hosts is that they cannot afford to purchase new accoutrements for each occasion. There are ways to get quality results without buying expensive accents. One of the ways you can achieve quality decoration is to make some of the accent pieces yourself.

Napkin rings are one of those decorative pieces that can add something extra to your get-together without costing you. There are a number of ways to spice up the napkins. Do not just purchase a couple at your local mass merchandiser. One option is to make a beaded ring that will slip snugly over your napkins.

Fold your napkins and measure their circumference. You can purchase 20-gauge wire and cut it to the appropriate length. Add beading in elegant and matching patterns to the wire. Then use a jig to create a loop hold to put the beading together.

Another option is to use foreign language slips. This decoration is perfect for that Italian dinner or French brunch you are planning. You will need a 1/2-inch wide ribbon that is a light color. Pick out a paint pen in a complementary color. Write food-related words in the appropriate language. You can use the words for eat, lunch, dinner, food, good, "eat up," and other good food words. Wrap the ribbon around your napkins and tie in a bow.

Another option for a decorative napkin ring is to decorate your own ribbon. You can use any thickness of ribbon. Purchase a bit of trim that is narrower than the ribbon you select. Glue or stitch on the trim and then tie the ribbon around the napkin.

The fourth option you have is to bead the bottom of the napkins themselves. You can purchase either a think trim or very small beads. If you go the trim route, then glue the trim along the very bottom of the napkin. To make the napkin stand out more, then try putting the trim around all four edges. You can even add a tassel to each corner to make the napkin more elegant. Be careful, tough, that you do not take up too much of the napkin so that your guests still will be able to use the napkin for its intended purpose.

When you opt for the beading, be very careful to select thin beads. Make sure they can be attached easily. Stitch them along one end. Another choice is to stitch them in a pattern in each corner.

Experiment with your napkins and napkin rings. There are so many options available, and many of them cost only a few dollars. You should be able to find a napkin or ring design for any event you are hosting. Some of the options presented here, such as the beading, will be one-time decisions. Other options, like the gauge-wire loop, are for one-time use. Try them out. Find out what works best for you.
by Julia Mercer

Decorate Your Table With Wire Shakers

You can use wire decorating to make decorative salt and pepper shakers and other tabletop accessories for your house. To make the salt and pepper shakers, you will need 18-guage wire, glass shakers, a pair of round nose pliers, bent chain nose pliers, and wire cutters. The pliers and wire cutters are for your use in preparing the wire.

You will need to follow different directions if you have square or round shakers. Here are the directions for the round shakers.

Take the wire you have purchased. Create a loose loop at one end of the wire. You will then place the wire loop on the side of the shaker. Use your thumb to hold it in place and then wrap the straight end of the wire around the bottle's neck one and a half times.

Replicate the wire loop you made on the other side of the shaker and trim any excess wire. You can use the same procedure to make wire loops for the other two sides. Try making two of the sides smaller than the others for a patterned look.

If you have square salt and pepper shakers, you can play on the right angles in the bottles to make the decoration. Use the bent chain nose pliers. Bend the wire at right angles that get gradually smaller. That way, the wire will make a sort of on-going square.

Once you have completed the wire squares, then you will need to follow the same directions as for the round shaker bottles. You will place the wire squares against the edge of the bottle. Hold them and pull the straight end of the wire around the bottleneck. Wrap the wire one and half times until you can bend it downward on the opposite side of the bottle from where you are holding the squares.

Use the pliers to make the same continuous wire squares that you made on the other side. Use the wire cutters to trim the extra wire. You can then make the same squares on the remaining two sides of the square bottle.

These salt and pepper shakers will provide an interesting centerpiece on your table but don't stop there. You can use this technique on other bottles. If you gather large glass containers to use for canisters, for example, you can make large wire patterns on canister.

You also could make herb containers, or you could make decorative vases using this same technique. If you opt to make decorative containers, then you can put flowers in them or use them as storage containers around your home.

Think of this type of wire decorating as a unique way to add an extra flair to your home. You can use it throughout your house to create a unifying theme. You can use different colors of wire as well to add some variety.

Try these containers in the bathroom to store small toiletries or in your office for paper clips and other small supplies. Be creative in thinking of using these decorative jars. There are plenty of ways to make your mark on your own home in the decorating arena.
by Julia Mercer

Decorate Pillows for Your Bedroom

A few decorative pillows can make your plain beige comforter an item of beauty. It can add elegance to an ordinary couch or spruce up a windowsill by providing a place to sit and enjoy the outside. Here are two basic ways to add pillows to your home’s decorating scheme.

For the first project, you need a sixteen-inch square pillow and 20-guage wire. You also need one-half yard of braided trim with needle and thread to match. In the way of equipment, you should have a pair of scissors, a jig and pegs, round nose pliers, and wire cutters. You can use fabric glue if you would like.

The first step is to eyeball down about five to six inches from the top of the pillow. Either glue or stitch the trim to the pillow and cut off the excess. Next you will use the jigs to make various designs with the gauge wire. Make as many designs as you want. Make the designs in such a way that they will form a pattern to go across the pillow.

Use the needle and thread to stitch the wire designs to the edge of the trim. Put the charms in a pattern you designed on the pillow. Start with the center and work outward to make it easier for you.

There are many variations on this pillow design. You can use as many charms as you would like; you also may want to play around with the trim, trying out various widths and even more than one piece across the pillow if you would like.

A second pillow design is a rhinestone cross pillow. For this design, gather these items: 22 gauge wire, a jig and pegs, a beading attachment machine, such as the Be-Dazzler, #20 rhinestones, #20 tiffany settings, round nose pliers, flat chain nose pliers, wire cutters, seam rippers, scissors, a ruler, a needle, transparent nylon thread, a vanishing fabric marker, fabric glue, and a 12-inch square pillow.

You will need to use a seam ripper to take the stuffing out of the pillow when you first begin. That will allow you to have a flat surface on which to work. The next step is the preparation step and is very tedious. Take the time to do it right, though, or the end result will not be what you want.

On the front of the pillow, make a diamond design using the ruler and vanishing marker to guide you. Once you have the diamond, mark spot every 2 1/4 inches along the diamond. Then mark the exact center of the pillow and spots to the top, right, left, and rights of the center mark. These marks should be 2 1/4 inches from the center mark. These five dots will serve as the foundational markings of the cross.

Attach a rhinestone and tiffany setting at each mark you have make. Then you will use the jig to bend the gauge wire in squiggle formations between each tiffany setting, using the transparent thread to attach them. After you have the wire in place, re-stuff the pillow, and you are done.
by Julia Mercer

Create Bilingual Decoration In Your Home

Teaching your child a second language is a perfect way to enhance his intelligence and to help her gain valuable skills. If you are not concerned about weird looks from the neighbors or comments from the family, then you should consider a bilingual decoration scheme for your house. You can make this decorating scheme as intrusive or as subtle as you would like. Here are some ways to enhance bilingual learning through decoration.

You can create a cultural learning center once you have selected the language you will teach your child. You should look for rugs, paintings, and sculptures that match the culture you are trying to emulate. Also, look at the color schemes and try to emulate them. Each piece should have some meaning so that your child will be able to associate it with the language.

Next, you can put up posters with the names of various objects in your home. While that may sound silly, it is where being unconcerned with the neighbors comes in. Do what works for your family. Put up a poster with the milk, cheese, eggs, ice, and other items on the fridge. The closet door should be home to clothing samples marked with the language words for shirt, pants, shoes, etc. Be creative when you are picking out your poster locations. Put them in areas where everyone can see them.

Make a weekly bulletin board. It does not need to be elaborate. Instead, you can put up a cultural note every week along with the grammatical structure or vocabulary on the list for the week. You will need to learn verb conjugations and the verbs to go with those conjugations, for example. Put those words up on the bulletin board. Go over them throughout the week to make sure everyone is learning them.

Label your home thoroughly. You can make the decorations part of the decor or the organizational scheme of your house. For example, you can decorate index cards or use pre-printed stationery to label the places in various rooms – beds, tables, mantelpieces, walls, windows. The options are limitless. You can label colors, textures, and more using this method. If something may be difficult to understand, then label it with a picture so that everyone knows exactly what you are trying to say.

Second, you can organize with the labels. Mark the spoons with the language word for spoons. Mark the places where the building blocks or the model cars or the doll clothes go. Make sure your children know what the words mean and what goes where.

Use your imagination, and you can decorate your home in a way that will teach your children. Take opportunities to label items throughout your home or to use cultural pieces from the culture you are studying. While it may be difficult to fend off neighbors who must tell you how odd it is or roll their eyes when they see your living room decked out in posters with weather phrases, you are doing what works best for your family. And that it most important.
by Julia Mercer

Making Sunday Brunch

In many areas, Sunday brunch is a typical meal to have guests share with you. Brunch also is an alternative if you do not want to have someone over for dinner because brunch is much shorter and less formal. Try this menu the next time you have someone over to your home for Sunday brunch.

One option is to make a sun-dried tomato casserole. This dish may require a little more work than the average casserole, but the results are worth it. For this recipe, you will need these ingredients: a pound of Italian sausage without casings; 1/2 cup of chopped green onions; 2 minced garlic cloves; 1/2 cup of chopped and drained sun-dried tomatoes; four tablespoons of parsley (fresh if possible); five eggs; three additional egg yolks; a cup of half and half; a cup of whipping cream; two cups of mozzarella cheese; salt to taste; 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. You will need to use a glass casserole dish that is greased for this casserole.

Cook the sausage over medium heat in a skillet. You will need to break up the sausage into small pieces. When the sausage is close to done, add in the garlic and onions slowly. Saute them. It should take about five minutes.

Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes and a tablespoon of the parsley. Heat through and then put them mixture in the casserole dish.

In another bowl, mix the eggs and egg yolks. Fold in the whipping cream, half and half, and half of the mozzarella. Add the salt once you have mixed the other ingredients. Pour the egg mix over the sausage in the casserole dish.

Sprinkle the remaining ingredients on top of the egg mixture. Make the casserole for about half an hour. The top should get golden brown when the casserole is done.

Angel biscuits go really well with the sun-dried tomato casserole. You will need to prepare the dough the night before, but that will make the big day all that much easier. First you will dissolve a package of yeast in water. Then you will sift 1/2 cup shortening with 3 teaspoons of baking powder, 2 teaspoons of salt, 5 cups of all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup of sugar, and a teaspoon of baking soda.

Next you will mix the yeast you dissolved with 2 cups of buttermilk and then pour the buttermilk into the dry ingredients. This mixture will make the dough. Allow the dough to sit in the refrigerator overnight.

When you remove the dough from the refrigerator, use a rolling pin to roll it flat. Then use a cutter to cut out the biscuit shapes or make them by separating and flattening small balls of dough. Bake them for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Pull them from the oven and serve warm.

You can serve the casserole and biscuits with in-season fruit to complete the meal. Offer a variety of drinks, such as club soda and orange juice. Your guests will feel as if they are being treated to gourmet!

by Julia Mercer

A Brief History of Rice

While the history of rice may seem boring, it provides good insight into the various types of rice. People in various parts of the world cultivated the different types of rice for various needs, from climatic changes to cooking needs.

The starch we now call rice came to its contemporary name by way of ancient Egypt. The Sanskrit word was vrihi. The grain went through Persia, India, Greece, and Rome before it became known to the modern world.

The rice plant is an annual, meaning that it needs to be re-planted every year. This grain is, along with wheat, one of the most common foods in the world. Because of the extra energy that grains give, they are useful in parts of the world where food is scarce. Rice is one of the family of grains, along with wheat, oats, and barley.

Rice, known to the Romans as oryza, has two distinct family lines. The Asian variety, known as oryza sativa, and the African variety, called oryza glabberrima, are the two kinds of rice. The African type is grown near the Niger River, is not important in the worldwide rice market.

Asian rice is what we eat most often when we have a rice dish. The Asian variety is further divided into three groups: Indica, Japonica, and Javanica. Indica, cultivated on the Indian subcontinent, is the father to Basmati, which is Pakistani rice, Thai rice and American rices, called Patna. The Indica rice is long-grained and very narrow. The best part about the cultivation of Indica rices is that they have made those rice grains more disease-resistant than their cousins. They also are hardier, meaning these types of rice can grow in a greater variety of climates.

The Japonica rice grain actually originated in China but ended up in Japan. This rice grain is much shorter than Indica rice and is almost rounded. It is the foundational rice for Italian rice dishes. Japonica is a heavy starch and grows only in temperate climates.

Very few people recognize Javanica rice. Native to Indonesia, it is used only in that part of the world. This rice is a combination of the larger qualities of the Indica and Japonica versions of the rice grain. It is very long, like American grain rice, and very fat, like the Japonica rice.

Italy's relationship with rice is very interesting. Until the late 1880s, they had no specific relationship with rice. Instead, various farmers in Italy developed rice breeds, but there was no systematic approach. In many instances, Italian rice came about from spontaneous cross-fertilization with no plan in mind.

The Vercelli region of Italy became the home of Italian rice in 1887, however, when started purposefully growing a rice called Giapponino. This rice has changed throughout the last hundred years into the types of rice Italians use today to make the very Italian dish - risotto.

The combination between risotto and various types of rice is intriguing, as early cookbooks specified certain types of rice for certain brands of risotto. Today, even Italian cooks use a number of rice grains for any risotto dishes.

by Julia Mercer

Make A Wall Collage for Your Home

Are you one of those photo-crazy moms? Do you have more pictures of your children than you can count? If you do, then you likely are not able to display them using traditional photo albums or picture frames. Here are a couple of ideas for photo collages that can help you to show off those cute little pictures from last year's vacation.

The first option is very low-tech and pretty cheap. You will need poster board, scissors, and a themed set of pictures. Select the pictures from that vacation or the roll you took at Susie’s preschool graduation. Get out the pictures you want and then sit down with the poster. Find ways to display the pictures creatively. Maybe you got a great shot of your hubby, but there is an older couple you don’t know in the background. Cut them out.

Spend some time cutting around the pictures to focus on what you want to show everyone. Then place the pictures on the poster. Either keep them freeform, with nothing on the back, or put small pieces of double-sided tape on them. Work with the pictures until you have them arranged the way you want them.

Use photo glue to put the pictures on the poster. Make sure that you completely glue down the pictures. Let the poster sit for a few hours while pictures dry. Go back to them to make sure that they are glued on well. Once they are, take the poster to an office supply shop to get them laminated. While this design may be something that does not appeal to your more formal areas, it can work well in your children's room or in a family playroom.

Another option is to use a wall and commit yourself to putting up as many picture frames as you can fit. If you purchase those small, lightweight clear frames, you can put them up with wall adhesives. You will not have a million little holes in your wall, and the pictures will be easy to remove if you decide to change their location.

You simply go through your pictures and pick out the good ones. Then crop them if needed or group them together. Measure the pictures to see how many frames you will need. Then you just get the frames and put up the pictures.

This type of set-up works for a highly public area, such as the wall along the stairs, as well as more intimate spaces, like your bedroom.

While you should want your home to look nice, you should not be so concerned with the appearance that it has no personal touches. You should not have to make your home look like it is in a magazine in order to enjoy it.

Your children - and you - will remember the home much more fondly if it has mementos of your life in it instead of just artwork you have purchased elsewhere.

Remember that you can play around with these photo collage ideas if you want to use them elsewhere in your home. You have the pictures. Now use them.
by Julia Mercer

Televisions All Over the Country: Devastation

As blogs all over the country and probably the world are being written about the complete devastation Hurricane Katrina caused, I am glued to the television screen like countless other people.

We are grateful that because of the advances in television and media outlets, we can see these things as they are happening. But at the same time, we witness things that are more like we expect to see in third world countries. Refugees, pestilence, death and destruction, and right here in our living rooms it all sits while we feel helpless.

Right about the time we think that nothing can get worse, our screen shows us someone being rescued by the Coast Guard or a stranger helping another displaced soul walk through the flood waters to get to dry land. Suddenly there is a glimmer of hope that maybe the tunnel has a pinpoint of light after all.

In the past, before live news reports, we read of disasters in the morning paper or waited for Peter Jennings to tell us what was going on (if it was since the television era began). The newscasts lasted half an hour usually and we heard what happened. Then we forgot. Now it is 24 hours of live coverage and I don't see how anyone with a television wouldn't be totally overwhelmed with compassion.

We can send money but often we can't truly feel as if we are helping. Money that we give to a relief organization now will not be given to those faces with haunting and terrified eyes that we see on the television begging for food and water. We can't share the water we sit in our dry homes drinking while knowing there are tens of thousands of people who are very thirsty. That is when the frustration sets in.

That is not to say that we shouldn't donate money. We MUST! Donate as much money as possible and hope that somehow the immediate needs for food, water, and medical attention are somehow miraculously met.

There it all is, big as life on our television screens. It is a little too easy to armchair quarterback, but I find myself asking questions that can not be answered. It is a complete human disaster and I often wonder why media personnel walk along asking someone what they've seen or how they feel instead of dropping the microphone and giving a big bear hug. It's like they have lost everything in the world they own and someone is asking how they FEEL?!

It is like a war zone in three states and although many people and businesses want to help, there is no way into the affected areas at the moment. People are not even allowed to stay in New Orleans and our televisions show them gathering, walking, praying, and crying. In addition to all the lives lost, there are unimaginable numbers of people who have lost everything except the clothes they are wearing.

After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I heard a psychologist recommend that people do not stay glued to the television constantly in times of such disasters. Considering the staggering number of post traumatic stress cases that will be occurring in the aftermath that may be a good suggestion.

That does not mean that we can or should forget the suffering and tears of our gulf state neighbors, but maybe we can take a break sometimes, do something with the family, and so on. Most importantly, we all have to do what we can to help. Whatever form that comes in, it is a good feeling to know that we did something.

Repurposing Old Furniture for your New House

By Christina VanGinkel

Moving households can be fun, exciting, a huge headache, and more all rolled into one. It can also mean a need for new furnishings, which is unless you are good at repurposing what you already own. Too often, if something does not quite fit, we have been taught to replace it. If you already exist on a tight budget though, that may not be a viable option for every single item. Consider curtains, if you moved and the curtains from your old house will not fit the windows at your new house, you may have to purchase new ones if the windows at the new residence are larger. However, you could purchase fabric to lengthen the existing pair or widen them, so that they do fit your new larger windows. With eclectic a style that many people covet, the mixing of old and new fabric can be a unique way to bring a fresh look to your otherwise old curtains. Alternatively, if the windows at the new house are smaller, you could alter the curtains to fit, maybe even gaining two pair from one.

If you had a shelving unit in your living room of the old house, but have built-ins in the new residence, consider repainting the shelving for use in another part of the house, or cutting the shelving unit down to create a totally new shelving unit for wherever you may be in need of one. On the other hand, shelves that hung in a bathroom or bedroom could be used in the opposite room of the new house, depending on where you have the greatest need.

Bed frames are another item that can be altered. If you have a frame with headboard that just does not fit your room or looks too small for its new surroundings, change it. You can upholster a wood or metal frame, creating a brand new look and adding dimension to it using fabric. Then again, scrap the headboard completely, if the new room is smaller, and paint a headboard directly on the new bedroom wall, saving you space, and just use the existing frame to hold your box spring and mattress.

Couches can be hard to repurpose, they fit a space, or they do not, unless you take the time to consider different room layouts to make your old furniture fit the new space. For challenges such as a living room, draw a scaled map of the new floor plan, and try different traffic flows on paper before ditching the old and buying new, especially if money is tight. Alternatively, get rid of part of a set, say a couch, but keep its matching loveseat, needing then to add a recliner, which will not be nearly as expensive as a completely new living room set.

The best part of repurposing furniture from your old house for your new one is that things will still look 'new' in the new surroundings. Wall colors will be different, layouts will be fresh, and a coat of paint on old furniture or some fabric coverings can go a long way towards making all your old as good as if it were brand new!

Salad Provides an Excellent Light Meal

Sometimes for whatever reason, we are simply not hungry for a typical dinner. This is where an entree salad comes in very handy. If you start a collection of these types of salad recipes, they will be quite useful on those days you do not want more for your meal.

There are various ways to prepare a classic BLT Salad. For the first kind, simply layer lettuce (or your favorite greens), tomato cubes, crumbled bacon that has been cooked to a very crisp state, creamy ranch dressing (or whatever creamy type of dressing you care to use) and shredded cheddar cheese. Toss the salad and you just made a very fast meal. This works especially well if you already have leftover bacon from another meal that you can crumble.

For an alternative, make the salad with the same ingredients as listed above: lettuce or other greens, tomatoes, crumbled bacon, and shredded cheese. You will be making the dressing for this version and not using the ranch dressing.

To make the dressing, whisk all the ingredients together and pour it on the salad when you are ready to serve it. Dressing ingredients are:

1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons oil (vegetable or extra virgin olive oil)
1/4 cup vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Minced garlic (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon lemon juice

For another kind of entree salad, try Totally Festive Chicken Salad. Boil 2 1/3 cups chicken broth with 1 cup of uncooked rice (long grain) and then immediately turn it to a simmering heat. Cover the pan and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.

When the rice is finished, add 1/2 teaspoon of curry powder and 2 to 3 cups of cooked and cut up chicken (the equivalent of a broiler fryer chicken). The chicken should be diced into bite sized pieces.

Add 2 or 3 sliced green onions, a chopped yellow or red sweet pepper, and 1/3 cup or more of mayonnaise. Stir until all ingredients are well mixed and then chill it for a few hours. When it is time to serve, put a mound of the salad on top of salad greens.

For another great salad that uses chicken for the protein, try this pasta salad with chicken. The first step is to cook or steam 16 ounces of frozen broccoli florets (not chopped!). When it is finished, drain it very well (especially if you cooked it instead of steaming), and add a sprinkling of salt.

Place cut up (bite sized) pieces of cooked chicken into a bowl with the hot broccoli. The amount of chicken should equal that of a broiler fryer chicken. Add 8 ounces of *cooked* shell or elbow macaroni to the chicken and broccoli.

Add 2 tomatoes and 1/2 cup of red onion that you have diced. Sprinkle with pepper. Add 1 cup of your favorite Italian salad dressing and mix gently. This can be either bottled, homemade, or made from a mix. Be sure to allow this salad to chill for a few hours before serving.

If you want to serve more than just a pasta salad for the meal, try adding something as simple as dinner rolls and it will be a hit, especially on a hot day!

More Homemade Soup . . . Pass the Crackers!

Whether for lunch, the first course of a meal, or an entire meal all by itself, a big pot of soup simmering away for hours is one of the best comfort foods that we can enjoy. There are so many kinds of soup and they are very simple to prepare, so why not pull out a huge pot and start some "soupy comfort" bubbling away?

To make a white bean soup, cover 1 pound of dry navy beans with water in a large soup pot and allow them to soak overnight. Rinse them in the morning and re-cover with three quarts of fresh water. Add a smoked ham hock or ham bone and simmer for 2 hours. The pot should be uncovered.

Add 2 tablespoons of fresh parsley that has been chopped, 1 cup of diced onion, 1 minced clove of garlic, a few diced carrots, and 1 to 2 cups of celery (chopped fine and include the tops). Add salt and pepper. Simmer the soup, uncovered, for about an hour. Remove the ham hock or bone and cut up any meat that may have been on the bone to add to the soup. That's it, all finished!

Many of us have memories from childhood that include a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. There is no reason to serve that just to the children, make a light dinner out of it! Make homemade creamy tomato soup and serve it with grilled cheese, tuna salad with cheese, cheese quesadillas, or whatever else you choose. Add a salad and it's a complete meal.

To make the soup, start with 12 fresh tomatoes that have been pureed. Add 1 cup of chicken broth, 1 cup diced celery and 1 small diced onion and simmer this mixture for 30 minutes. In the meantime, mix 3 tablespoons of cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Add this to the soup.

Add 2 tablespoons brown sugar and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. When you are ready to serve, add as much light cream as you wish.

If you would like a potato based soup instead of tomato, try this potato and leek soup. First peel 4 potatoes and cut them into quarters. Finely chop the white part of 3 leeks (after making sure to soak thoroughly to get the sandy grit out!) and saute the leeks with 2 tablespoons of chopped shallots in 2 tablespoons of butter for about 5 minutes.

Add 1 quart of chicken stock, 1/4 cup chopped celery, and the potatoes that you peeled and quartered. Simmer for 30 minutes. Take the potatoes and leeks from the broth and mash them until they have turned into a puree. Return the mashed mixture to the broth and stir in 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup light cream, and 2 tablespoons butter. Season with pepper and salt and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes to heat thoroughly. Add fresh parsley and serve with croutons or crackers.

All that you need to serve for dinners with a bowl of hot soup is usually either a salad or a sandwich of some kind and you have a complete meal.

Cheese and Egg Risotto

Risotto is a traditional Italian dish. It is made from various rice grains grown in Italy. These two recipes are cheese and egg risotto mixtures. They are the most basic of risotto dishes.

The first recipe is the cheese and butter risotto. It is the simplest risotto dish out there, and if you have never made risotto, you should start with this one.

Cook one chopped onion with half a stick of unsalted butter in a medium skillet for ten minutes. The onion should get limp during cooking, but it should not brown. Add 2 1/2 cups of rice. You should stir the rice so that the grains get golden brown.

Add in a spoonful of vegetable stock that you have allowed to simmer while you were cooking the onion and rice. Permit the liquid to absorb and then add in a spoonful of the liquid repeatedly until you have added it all.

When the mixture is creamy but the rice is still a little hard, add in an additional half-stick of butter and 2/3 cup of grated cheese. You also can season the risotto with salt, pepper, oregano, and other spices as needed.

The next risotto dish also is an egg and cheese mixture. It is a bit more complicated than the first recipe, but it also is a beginner recipe.

You will need these ingredients: one chopped onion; 1/2 chopped garlic clove; one stick of unsalted butter; 2 cups of Vialone Nano risotto rice; one glass of fruity wine; five cups of chicken stock; 4 ounces of cubed Fontina cheese; and salt and pepper to taste.

Start by sauteing the onion and garlic with half a stick of butter. You will need to do so but do not let the onion get browned. In another small pot, you should bring the chicken stock to a low simmer.

Slowly stir the rice into the garlic and onion mixture so that the flavors all combine. The ingredients should get hot but not brown.

Add the wine to the mixture. The wine will evaporate as you cook it. Once the alcohol is evaporated, pour half of the still-simmering chicken stock into the rice skillet. Fold the cheese into the mixture. The cheese should get evenly distributed throughout the risotto.

Allow the dish to simmer until the rice absorbs all of the liquid you have poured in thus far. Add in the stock a tablespoon at a time. Each time, you should allow the liquid to absorb completely and then add a tablespoon more. This process is lengthy, and you will need to be at the stove the entire time.

When all of the stock is in the risotto, add in the seasonings. Cook the rice for about three additional minutes and serve warm.

These recipes are the basic ones you will need to know if you plan to become a risotto cook. Just remember that like many traditional Italian dishes, risotto takes time to prepare. Instead of trying to whip up a quick dish, making risotto means that you are spending a good amount of time coddling your dinner.

By Julia Mercer

Learning to Use Your Slow Cooker

If you have a busy lifestyle but are craving more home-cooked meals, you should invest in a slow cooker. These kitchen gadgets cost little - usually less than $40 - although you can choose from a wide array of deluxe varieties. They are worth the money because they will allow you to eat healthier and with little preparation time in the evenings. There are a few rules to remember about using slow cookers, though, to make sure that you have great meals when you are ready.

First, check the capacity for your slow cooker. Most standard models are 2 1/2 to 3 quarts, which makes a lot of food. If it is only you and your significant other who will be eating the meals, make sure it is going to be something you are willing to have as leftovers. If you live alone, know that you will be eating one standard slow cooked meal for the entire workweek, unless you have a very healthy appetite. You may want to consider purchasing a smaller model.

Next, note that most slow cookers come in low or high heat settings only. There is not much adjusting and evaluating involved, which is great if you have no ambitions of becoming a gourmet cook.

Remember that a slow cooker does just what the time implies. It cooks food very slowly, usually over several hours. You will not be able to put something in the slow cooker when you get home. Instead, you will need to plan to make time in the mornings to put food in the slow cooker. Even on the high setting, it will not reach very high temperatures. The heat should be contained as well, making your slow cooker safe to leave on. Getting up a little early is a small price to pay for a nice home-cooked meal when you get home, especially if you only have to do so every couple of days.

Also know that every model does not cook at the same temperature. If you are using a cookbook, you still will need to pay close attention to how long you cook the food. You may find that a recipe that calls for six hours on low only needs four hours for your slow cooker. Be prepared to adjust your cooking times accordingly.

You should use your slow cooker with the lid in place. That advice seems common sense, but many people lift and leave the lid off throughout the cooking process. Doing so allows a lot of heat to escape from the slow cooker. One oddity you may notice when you first get started is that these recipes call for very little liquid ingredients. That is because the enclosed cooking pot means little will evaporate. Taking the lid off repeatedly voids this process and could cause problems in cooking your food.

Finally, know that you can experiment some with your slow cooker once you get the hang of how it works. Some spices, such as basil, take on a much stronger taste because of the low evaporation and seeping used in slow cooking. Other spices may not taste as strong as normal. Be prepared to make some alterations the first few times you use your slow cooker. Once you get a few meals under your belt, you will be able to experiment with your foods and make what you really love.

by Julia Mercer

The Joy of Tomatoes

Although people throughout the world attempt to grow tomatoes, they are native to the very warm, humid climates in Mexico and other parts of Central America as well as South America. Tomatoes, known for their normally bright red color, are members of the nightshade family of fruits. The word tomato is itself from the Aztec word tomatl.

The fruit is an annual, which means that it flowers and dies in one season. That means that if you plant tomatoes, you must purchase new plants, or germinate seeds from your old ones, every year. The tomato plant is very woody. The stalk grows very quickly and can reach up to three meters long. The long stem of the plant is why most gardeners use wooden stakes to hold up the plant so that it does not overrun the other plants in the garden.

The plant will flower first. The yellow flowers will remain for days and then turn into the berry that is edible. In the wild, tomatoes are only one to two centimeters wide, but in the cultivated forms on modern farms, they grow several times that size.

You can eat tomatoes right off the vine. There is no need to cook this delicious fruit. Most people slice them and have as a side dish, or they put them in salads. You also can deep fry tomatoes, especially the harder green variety. In addition, they work in stews and soups, pasta sauces, casseroles, and other dishes. Tomatoes have an acidic taste, which makes them undesirable for some people. Their taste is rarely tempered by other ingredients, so be sure that everyone at the table enjoys the intense flavor before you cook up a great tomato dish.

Although many people consider tomatoes vegetables because of their flavor and the way we cook them, they are technically a fruit because of the heavy seeding and soft flesh on the inside of the berry. In fact, tomatoes are made up of a significant portion of water.

In the United States, the Supreme Court decided in 1887 that tomatoes are in fact a vegetable. While that decision may seem unimportant, it was very important to discussions of tax breaks in the nineteenth century. Imports of fruits were taxed heavily to encourage the fledgling U.S. fruit market. Growers who imported tomatoes from the West Indies wanted them considered a vegetable to avoid the tax, but the Supreme Court declared them a fruit, making them subject to the fruit import tax.

Tomatoes are a heart-healthy food. They have no saturated fat and no sodium, meaning they are an excellent choice for people with hypertension, or high blood pressure. They also are low calorie all around and add nothing to your daily cholesterol intake. On the vitamin side, they are a significant source of Vitamin A, which helps your eyes, and Vitamin C.

The fun history and nutritious value of tomatoes is all interesting, but you don't need to worry about all of that when you sit down to the dinner table with a tomato on your plate. You will get lost in the sweet and sour of this ancient berry sitting in your own kitchen.

by Julia Mercer

The All-American Vegetable: Squash

The vegetable that we call "squash," actually comes in a large number of varieties, based on the season. Squash are a member of the gourd family. Although the gourds are not all edible, squash are considered a table vegetable. They are native to the American continents and are a frequent side dish at American dinner tables.

The varieties of summer squash available are called by their color, such as the yellow squash. Winter squash tend to be named by their shape, such as the butternut squash. They are vine vegetables meaning that the vegetables flower above ground and can be runners if they are allowed a place to vine.

If you are planting summer squash, you will need to pick them before the rinds harden. They are best when they seem almost not ripe enough. Otherwise, the rind will take up too much room inside the squash and the meat will be hard. Winter squash, however, are best when they are allowed to harden.

When you are new to squash, you may be unsure how to cook it. Know that squash is one of the most versatile vegetables we have. If you are in the Deep South - or if you just like their cooking style - summer squash can be cut into thin slices, breaded and fried hard. You also can stew squash by cutting it up into small pieces and putting it in a pan with water and spices. Bring it to a boil and then let it simmer on low. Stewed squash takes a while to cook, and you need to be sure that you do not let it burn.

Squash also works well with sauteed meat or in casseroles. Because it does not have an intense taste, squash is a vegetable that you can toss in a casserole without it causing a problem for picky family members. You can grill squash as well. You can put it in large pieces on the grill. It is best to put aluminum foil under it, or you risk losing a good bit of the vegetable.

Some of the winter squash, such as the acorn and the butternut, can be baked whole. You also can cut them in half and bake them for 10 to 15 minutes, and they make a warm, delicious treat.

Besides being easy to grow and versatile, squash is very good for you. Acorn squash, which is dark green and rounded, has plenty of beta-carotene and Vitamin C. In general, squash is very low in saturated fat and cholesterol, making it an overall healthy food choice. It also has some lesser known minerals, such as niacin, potassium, and manganese.

Be careful if you are diabetic or are otherwise watching your sugars. Squash is a carb-filled vegetable, so you can get a significant portion of the calories from it as sugars.

However you choose to enjoy your squash, know that you are making a healthful decision overall. Adding squash inconspicuously to your diet means that you can enjoy the healthy benefits without noticing.
by Julia Mercer

Cooking Tips for the Beginner

When you first start cooking for yourself, you will run into some sticky situations - sometimes literally. Never fear. There are easy tips you can learn to help you navigate keeping food refrigerated, cooking, and cleaning. Here are some basics to get you started.

You can prepare a casserole a day in advance. If you know that you will be tired after aerobics on Thursday, put together a casserole Wednesday night. You will just need to remember to cook it a little longer or bring it to room temperature before you start cooking.

Mix one part baking soda and one part water to clean your plastic food containers. You need to scrub the containers with the mixture and then rinse with vinegar. Wash before using, but that should give you a good stain-free dish.

Did you forget to cover something you put in your microwave? If so, then you can clean the microwave easily. Put a sponge soaked with water in the microwave for two minutes. The moisture from the sponge will get into the air inside the microwave, loosening any grease. Then you will be able to wipe it out easily.

Speaking of your microwave, try keeping a cup of baking soda in it between cooking. You do not need to turn the microwave on with the baking soda in it. Just let it sit and absorb the odors. This trick works in refrigerators as well.

Line your baking pans with aluminum foil if you do not have no-stick pans. Doing so will allow you to remove the foil and rinse the pan when you are done. There will be no scrubbing involved.

If you are using your cutting board, you probably have discovered that one of the problems with them is that they slide. Dampen two paper towels and place them on your counter. Then put your cutting board on top. The paper towels will act as a buffer and will not allow the board to slip.

When you are adding food to a skillet that has oil in the bottom, tip the skillet away from you. The oil will move to the other side of the pan. You can add your food and then lay the skillet flat again. You will avoid the risk of splattering yourself with hot grease.

Did you get busy and not wash your casserole dish when you finished with it? When you find yourself in this situation, there are a couple of quick options for cleaning your cookware. First, you can fill the dish with water, toss in a dryer sheet, and leave overnight. If you make this error with a pot, you can boil water in the pot. The boiling will heat the pot enough to allow you to clean it off easily.

If you have not thickened a soup or gravy enough, there are a number of ways you can correct this problem. You also can use these tricks to turn leftover soup into stew. Try adding arrowroot, a tasteless spice, cornstarch, or flour. Add only a small amount at a time and give it time to soak in. another option is to turn down the burner. Cooking the soup for longer will give it time to thicken. You also can leave a casserole on the burner for five minutes after you pull it from the oven. That will allow it to thicken.

These tips are just a few of the thousands out there for cooking. Keep learning. You will master the art of cooking in no time.

by Julia Mercer

Safety and Fun with Jack-O-Lanterns

With Halloween in the not-to-distant horizon, you may be thinking of decorating the exterior of your home with holiday-themed items. One of the most basic Halloween decorations is the jack-o-lantern. Loved by adults and children alike, the jack-o-lantern can add an elegant or eerie glow to your house, depending on your desires.

Besides the design, the basic decision you have to make is how you will light your pumpkin. The first choice, and the one most people use, is the candle. There are a few tips to remember if you decide to go the candle route. The first is that you have to be very careful about safety if you are using candles. One slip, and they could fall and catch fire. They also get very hot, so do not allow children to touch the pumpkin if you will be decorating it with candles.

The best options for candles are a stubby taper or a votive. If you choose a taper candle, get one that has been used and is melted down about halfway. Scoop out a hole in the pumpkin and pour in some melted wax. Put the candle in the wax before it hardens so that it will stick in the hole you have made. You also can cut a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin and slide it over the candle, but this trick is a bit harder to do.

If you will use a votive or tea light candle, you can put it in the pumpkin on its own as long as it is in a glass holder that will protect it from catching fire to the pumpkin. Remember never to leave candle-lighted pumpkins on their own. Make sure that you blow out the candles before you retire for the night, or you could awake to a blaze before morning.

The second option for lighting your jack-o-lantern is to use a flashlight or plug-in light. Some hardware stores sell pumpkin lights. These small flashlights are battery-powered. Some have a steady beam while others blink. If you want to, you can decorate your pumpkins with several of these lights to give off a brighter glow. It also is safe to wrap the lights in plastic so that they do not get pumpkin guts all over them.

Other options are basic flashlights that you sit in the pumpkin. You also could try a plug in light if you are decorating your porch, for example, and will have access to electrical power. Using these lights gives you more control over the wattage of the lights so that you can have brighter or dimmer pumpkins.

A final lighting option is to use Christmas lights. Do not limit yourself only to white lights. Go for color to add a little splash to your jack-o-lanterns. If you are concerned about the wiring, cut a hole in the back of the pumpkin and string the lights through the hole. That will allow the lights to be inside the pumpkin without forcing them to touch the insides.

Be creative. Remember that there is no need to do the conventional. Look around you and make this year’s jack-o-lanterns all about fun.

By Julia Mercer