When I walked over to a friend's house early this week, she had brown paper bags of popcorn on the counter.  "Look at this!" she exclaimed, and told me all about it.  Now I'm excited to share it with you!

You don't need the overpriced, often chemically-laden bags of microwave popcorn; only a brown paper bag (lunch-sized), plain popcorn kernels, and toppings of your choice.

Put 1/4 to 1/3 cup of popcorn in a bag, and fold it over once. The original instructions, on Allrecipes.com, said to staple it once.  While I was surprised to find the metal caused no problem, I also found it wasn't necessary.  So I just fold the top over.  The original also said to add oil to the popcorn before cooking.  It works just as well without, and the oil soaks mostly into the bag, not into the popcorn.

Stand it upright, then microwave on high power until there are about 2 seconds between pops. On my microwave, that's right at 2 minutes.  My neighbors' takes 2 1/2 minutes.  Plan on between 2-3 minutes. 

Do not walk away during this time! There are reports of bags catching fire- so don't let it cook too long!

The bag will fall over during the last bit of cooking.  That's fine.

Top off your popcorn with a drizzle of melted butter and some salt, close the bag, and shake to coat.  I prefer 1-2 teaspoons of butter for a bagful, but use whatever you like.  It's easier to shake if you used the 1/4 cup of kernels.

You could also use butter spray, or olive oil, or coconut oil, Parmesan, cinnamon/sugar, Seasoned Salt, Ranch dressing mix powder, or cheese powder and a bit of cayenene and mustard powder.  The sky's the limit.

One of the goals last year was to learn what "volunteer" foods there were in my yard, and learn to use them.  Most people call these foods 'weeds', but that's just because they normally don't get used.  The definition of a weed is just a plant in the wrong place

One unexpected side effect of this project was that I do a little less weeding, and a little more harvesting!  Below are some of the 'free food' plants in my yard.

Should you want to try this at home, here are a few common-sense guidelines:

1) Eat it only after you're SURE what it is and if it's edible.  Look at different photos of the plant, or have someone who knows come check it with you. I prefer to identify it from two sources, to be sure.

2) Eat only the parts you know are edible.  Just because the leaves are edible doesn't mean the seeds are.  Remember the potato plant: the tubers (roots) are great, but the tops are poisonous.

3) Try a little bit first, wait a while to see if you react to it. Even if it's edible, you could be allergic to it. 

4) Notice where it's growing, think about if that's a problem.  Plants growing alongside busy roads will most likely have picked up extra chemicals, externally as well as internally. 

With all that out of the way, for additional information on the plants, try the database at Plants For A Future   and the identification handbook Common Plants of the Yard and GardenMy new favorite book is Wild Edible Plants; From Dirt to Plate, where the author, John Kallas, not only tells you what is edible, but how  to prepare it.
Lambsquarter, Wild Spinach
Chenopodium album L

EXCELLENT green, fresh or cooked.   I like it much better than, and have stopped planting, spinach.   It belongs to the same plant family as quinoa.  The leaves are a little thicker, like spinach, and have a slightly lemony/sour flavor.  They don't have the tiny crystalline structure that spinach has that leaves your teeth feeling gritty.  Most tender and flavorful when young.

Prickly Lettuce
Lactuca serriola L

Both this and Sow Thistle are good if picked really young.  I've eaten them in salads.  Older ones are more bitter and -surprise!- prickly.

Galium aparine

An interesting feature of this plant is the tiny, Velcro-like hooks all over it.  Because of these, the plant feels sticky.  You DON'T want to chew this up fresh; it'll stick in your throat.  It is supposed to be a very 'cleansing' plant; I make a sort of homemade liquid chlorophyll with it.  I grab enough to pack into a tight softball-sized wad, then put it in the blender with about three cups of water.  Blend until well pureed, then strain through cheesecloth or a doubled-up dishtowel.  An ounce or two a day is plenty, unless you want cleaned out in a hurry!

Shepherds' Purse
Capsella bursa-pastoris (L.)

My daughters love to nibble on the heart-shaped seed pods.  Leaves are good raw or cooked, but definitely best before the plant starts to get tall.  That's all I've done with the plant, though Plants For A Future lists a lot more possibilities.

Taraxacum officinale

Oh, you knew this one would show up on my list, right?  Is there a more common yard weed? 

I've NEVER thought they tasted good!  Apparently that's because I've been eating them plain; the old-timers who used these as an actual vegetable dish say to sauté them with onion and bacon for best results.  Leaves that have been well-watered and partly shaded seem to be the least bitter.

Common Mallow, "Cheeseweed", "Cheeseplant"
Malva neglecta

 Scientific names can be hilarious!  Take this one, for instance, or Tribulus terrestris(puncture vine).  Anyway, I digress...

 My children like the “cheesies” (round, button-shaped seeds) so much that one son transplanted some INTO his garden.  All parts of this plant are edible- root, stems, leaves, and fruits (cheesies).   They are pleasantly flavored, and can be used like okra to thicken things.  The section on mallow, alone, in John Kallas' Wild Edible Plants is worth the price of the book!

Redstem Filaree, Storksbill, Cranesbill
Erodium cicutarium

A couple of the common names refer to the beak-like shape of the seed pods.  This is a fairly flat-growing plant, unless there are plants close by to support it.  It grows in a rosette, radiating out from the center.  If you rub the plant, it smells a little like parsley.  It also tastes a little like parsley. :-)    I love it in salads.

Or, how to make storage space out of 'no space'.
A while back, I was looking through dehydrate2store.com and ran across this video on building a shelf for your dried food.  It got me thinking about my utility room: a narrow room, no space to set a shelf, but with unfinished walls, with studs exposed.  That could be turned into in-wall shelving.  So I sorted through my pile of wood, pulled out the electric saw, and learned how to use a nail gun.  (It’s loud, but quite fun; an amazingly fast tool.) Of course, you don’t need power tools; use whatever you have available.   Just cut boards slightly narrower than the width between studs.  Don't assume the studs are the same width apart the whole way down; most of mine weren't.  Where you can, nail through the stud into the board.  Where you can't do that, nail at an angle through the bottom of the shelf, so that it goes into the stud.  Put shelves far enough apart that whatever you want to store will fit, plus an extra inch or two to allow you to tip out the jar, can, or bottle. To keep things on the shelf, I ran nylon rope across the fronts of the jars.  It's anchored on both sides by looping it around nails sticking out of the studs.

If you want to build these someplace out in the open, you can use dowels instead of rope- drill holes through the sides of the studs for them to run through.  Or tack across some thin finish molding.  The whole thing will also look much nicer with some molding put on like a picture frame around the entire shelf.

This was a dividing wall, so there was sheetrock on the back of it.  I got some washable wallpaper for cheap at Big Lots (love the clearance there!), and covered the sheetrock with it before putting in the shelves.  I figured that it would (1)lighten up the area (2)protect and strengthen the wall behind, and (3) make cleaning it a whole lot easier, should something ever spill. 

I also hung a thermometer with a humidity sensor; to see what kind of storage conditions the room really provided. 

So, out of six feet of otherwise useless space, I can now store several dozen jars or cans. 

Do you have instant hot chocolate mix?  You can make a brownie in two minutes, counting cooking time.  You don’t even need a bunch of ingredients.

It will cost you about $ .30-40, depending on how much you paid for the packets.  The packets have about 3 Tbsp of mix in them: about 1 Tbsp. each of sugar, cocoa powder, and whey/creamer/milk powder.  If you have the kind of cocoa mix that you have to add to milk (instead of water), it's basically half cocoa powder and half sugar (i.e., 1/4 c. mix= 2 Tbsp. cocoa powder, 2 Tbsp. sugar).  You can use mix in any recipe that calls for both cocoa powder and sugar, as part of the ingredients.

I made these brownies three different ways, just to see what would happen when substituting different ingredients.  I've tried it with raspberry-chocolate mix, it's delicious.  Use whatever you have, play around with it if you feel like it, and if it’s not perfect, put a little more ice cream on top!

Version 1:  Cakey Brownie

2 packets of instant hot chocolate mix (I used Nestle Rich Chocolate because I found it in the back of the pantry)
2 Tbsp. sugar (use honey if you don’t have sugar)
1 Tbsp. softened butter, or use vegetable oil
1 egg
3 Tbsp. flour, or 1/3 c. quick oats (if you use a packet of sweetened instant oatmeal, reduce the sugar by 1 Tbsp.)

            In a microwave-safe bowl, beat together the mix, sugar, butter, and egg.  Stir in the flour.  Microwave for 60-90 seconds, until mostly cooked.  There should be a shiny, uncooked spot about the size of a dime or quarter.  It will finish cooking as it cools.  Serve with ice cream, and/or hot fudge sauce, chopped nuts, or whatever you have.


Version 2: More Chewy brownie

Use ingredients for Version 1, but beat the egg first by itself, and only use half of it in the batter.


Version 3: No Eggs (or oil/butter) in the House

Hey, this sounds weird, but what is mayonnaise made out of? Oil, and egg.  Mostly.  Look up “Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake; you’ll find some great recipes.

 2 packets of instant hot chocolate mix (I used Nestle Rich Chocolate because I found it in the back of the pantry)
2 Tbsp. sugar (use honey if you don’t have sugar)
1 ½  oz. Mayonnaise (use condiment packets, or use 3 Tbsp. from a jar)
3 Tbsp. flour, or 1/3 c. quick oats

Mix, stir, microwave for 60-90 seconds, until cooked.


This is what the batter using a whole egg looks like.

This is the same batter with only 1/2 egg in it.

The brownie after cooking: see that small shiny spot close to the center?  It's still a little doughy, but will finish cooking as it sits.

Simple, quick, and a nice size to use almost anywhere.

An old gardening neighbor, years ago, told me, "Make sure you have a place to sit on every side of your house, to enjoy your yard and nature."  This is a cheap and quick way to help with that.

Last week there was a baby shower at my house.  In addition to my kitchen-table chairs, I have about four folding chairs, which clearly wasn't going to cut it for the 43 who were invited.  What to do? 
About a week before the party, I happened to be flipping through the January/February 2011 issue of Fine Gardening magazine. (Reviews here, cheapest here.)
The magazine had instructions and photos for a “one hour bench”.  It looked very simple, and I have a big pile of old boards sitting around, so I decided to build three.  We didn't have exactly the right size boards, but made do.  For instance, the top is supposed to be made of two 2x8's.  I had 2x4's and 2x10's, so I used one of each.  It was time my 13-y-o learned how to build something.  He pulled out the table saw, then measured and cut with me.  (In hindsight, a chopsaw or circular saw would have been simpler.) I put the first one together while he watched, then he built the other two.  Afterwards, he and a younger son painted on some stain/sealer.  The only thing I had to buy for the project was the screws.  Very nice.

So does the bench really only take one hour?  Well, that depends. The magazine gave a list of what wood you needed, cut to which lengths.  If you went to Lowe’s, and had them cut it for you (which they will), and your wood was already cut, then YES, even a newbie could have this together in under an hour.  You might even get the stain on in that time.

So how did having the benches work out?  Well, they look great, are sturdy, and have been sat on a couple  times, by my kids.  The weather didn’t allow for us to be outside last-minute.  I borrowed chairs from a neighbor to use indoors.  Oh well. 

Upside-down, so you can see how it's assembled.  The 2x2's are the white boards here, sitting flush inside against the legs.  Use two screws to connect the 2x2's to the legs.  Then use four screws to go through the bottom of the 2x2's into the seat boards. 
This way, you have no screws showing on top. 
The 1x6's are connected to the bench by screwing them to the sides of the legs, 2 screws each side of a leg.  This makes a huge difference in the stability of the bench.

For a similar bench, see here or here.  If this isn't what you want, try 'the mega-guide to free garden bench plans'.  Some of the links don't work anymore, but it still has a lot to offer.

Materials list:

1x6 boards, 2 each 4 feet long, ends cut at 45 degrees, for the side reinforcement

2x12’s, 2 each 16 inches long, for the legs

2x2’s, 2 each 11 ¼ inches long, for inside reinforcement

2x8’s, 2 each 4 feet long, for the seat

12  2 1/2 –inch galvanized decking screws, to go in the 2x2's

8    1 ¾ -inch galvanized decking screws, to go in the 1x6's

Stain or sealer, if you want.