Zucchini Chips

Probably like you, I had an overabundance of zucchini this past summer, and I was on an endless quest to find different ways to cook the little (sometimes not so little) courgettes.

Zucchini gone wild

Uh-Oh. Big zucchini – BIG ZUCCHINI! This one was apparently hiding from me for a few days!

Zucchini muffins, zucchini bread, deep fried zucchini, roasted zucchini with parmesan, zucchini lasagna…

Yeah… you get the picture.

I actually read somewhere on a gardening blog that you should only plant ONE zucchini for every two people, lest you have too many to store.  I planted two.  I just couldn’t live without zucchini, and after I lost all my zucchini plants to squash mosaic virus a few years ago, I have planted at least two zucchini every year since then, one as a back-up for just in case.

Um-Hmm.  Then this happened…

homemade zucchini chips

The plants grew lush and full, and I was soon harvesting that many (above) zucchini almost every other day!  It reminded me of the great zucchini invasion of 2014…

too much zucchini

Then I saw a recipe for oven dehydrated zucchini chips.

“Seriously?” I said to myself, “is this the holy grail of good tasting, good for you snack foods?”

Almost.  On further reading, I saw that olive oil was involved.  Don’t get me wrong… I adore olive oil!  I just wanted to see if I could make a chip without oil and save a few calories.

If you know me, you know I absolutely adore experimenting in the kitchen, and my dear hubby is the best guinea pig ever!  So I dove in.

First, I used my handy-dandy mandolin to slice up the pretty green squash.  Easy enough.  Except, I will say, as my experiment with zucchini chips progressed, I found that the fresher the zucchini, the harder it was to get perfectly Sun Oven dehydrated zucchini chipseven slices.  The zucchini that had already spent a day in the refrigerator didn’t tend to crack or chip off as easily. Strange, but true.  However, you don’t want to wait more than a day or so from harvest to slicing, or the zucchini can get limp, and that makes slicing with a mandolin harder, if not dangerous!

I started out slicing the zucchini on the thin setting because I figured this would make the crunchiest chips. Well, at least I thought it would.

The sliced squash was laid in a single layer on parchment and sprinkled with my dry homemade taco seasoning (I got the recipe HERE), then placed into my SunOven.  I left the glass door of the Sun Oven slightly ajar so that the moisture could easily escape, and directed the oven just slightly off of direct sunlight.  Why?  I wanted to dehydrate the chips, not cook them!

Dehydrated zucchini chips

Zucchini chips just placed into the oven. You can see the temp gauge is right at 150, which is where it stayed most of the time.

They were done in about 2 hours, and they were good!  Not the best chip I had had in my life, but they were good and didn’t taste at all like zucchini.  The taco seasoning pretty much stuck to the chip, I assume because I sprinkled it on the chips as soon as I sliced them, so they were still pretty wet.  Aha!  See… no oil is needed!

Just a bit too thin. And the thinner they were, the faster they cooked…almost too fast!

But they were just too thin.  They were crunchy, but only the first bite into the chip was crunchy.  You see, first I got the crunch, but then I got a melt-in-your-mouth when you don’t really want melt-in-your-mouth kind of feeling. Harrumph! Besides, there was no way this chip would hold up to even the thinnest dip.

But the flavor was great!

One thing I noticed, also, was that the thinner chips dehydrated A LOT FASTER than the thicker chips.  Yeah, I know, Duh… but what I mean to say is that it dried exponentially faster!

So, I sliced some more zucchini on the medium setting this time, and with this batch I sprinkled on some Lawry’s Roasted Garlic Salt (my new favorite seasoning).

Yes, yes!  So Good!  Perfectly crunchy, and thick enough to use a light dip. And again…no oil!  I also tried a batch using just sea salt and then another batch with salt and black pepper.  Meh.  The truth is, the zucchini has such a mild flavor that you need stronger seasoning on the chips. So far, my favorite zucchini chip flavor is the Lawry’s Roasted Garlic Salt.

But, now I have a new quest… I need to find more flavors for my chips! I will spend some time this winter gathering recipes for chip flavors (please help), and then experiment again next summer when I have another over-abundance of zucchini. No oil zucchini chips

I would like to find a recipe for a homemade dry powdered ranch dressing mix to try as a flavoring for these chips.  I saw a recipe for this a few years ago, using powdered milk and other spices, but alas I did not save it and can’t find it anymore.

Sea salt and black pepper chips.

I wonder if it’s possible to make a nacho chip with homemade ingredients, or even sour cream and onion? Maybe barbeque? Perhaps you have a good homemade recipe for one of these flavors or maybe you have another suggestion?

 

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Strawberries Gone Wild!

I love strawberries and would eat them every day if I could.  Alas, strawberries are at the top of the list of the “Dirty Dozen”, and so I try not to buy any that aren’t labeled as organic, which means they are usually more expensive. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that I grow my own!

When I was a child living at home, my father always grew strawberries in our backyard… way, way back in the backyard.  I would help him pull weeds and trap slugs, but generally, strawberry growing was his hobby.  Now that I look back, I realize it was the solitude he enjoyed while gardening, and I must have been quite the pest!  My poor father was truly drowning in estrogen, having three daughters and no sons, and I am sure he enjoyed his quiet time away from his three incessantly chatty daughters!  😉

Mouse trap for organic pest control

Everyone likes strawberries… unfortunately!

The first year growing strawberries up here on our homestead, the harvest was just okay. Between the birds, the banana slugs, voles and the mice, we had a hard time getting any of the harvest for ourselves! And, since we didn’t actually live here yet, we had to rely on some automatic sprinklers to water the berry plants, and unfortunately no all the plants got the water they needed.  We planted Ozark Beauty and Quinault Strawberries, because those were the two varieties we found at our local nursery. That winter I covered the bed with a thick mulch of pine needles and oak leaves.  It worked and the strawberries came back thicker than they had been the previous year. But again, we had problems with critters.

Last spring I added some Seascape strawberries from The Sustainable Seed Co., along with the Ozark and Ouilette strawberries, to a new, raised bed.  I have been extremely happy with this “new-to-me” variety.  The Seascapes are fairly large with a very sweet flavor, and produce a fairly heavy crop in the late summer.

Nice!

This past winter, instead of applying the pine needle and oak leaf mulch, I used a frost blanket over the raised strawberry bed.

When I pulled it off this late winter, I was surprised to see some new growth already! Although the pine needle and oak leaf mulch had worked well, I was worried that so much organic matter might be harboring some pests, like the huge banana slugs that we encounter up here from time to time.  Well, the frost blanket actually did a better job, and I was able to check under it on warm winter days to see if there were any critters under there.  Since it kept the strawberry plants frost free and it was easy to lift the blanket to check for slugs, this is something I will certainly use from now on.

Even though I had been cutting off a lot of the “runners” so that I would have larger plants (and more strawberries) in the long-run, the plants continued to put out the runners, even in the fall.  And run they did, everywhere, apparently even during the winter under the blanket!

Strawberries gone wild!

After taking off the blanket off this spring, I saw that I needed to thin out a lot of the plants within the bed and also alongside the bed. In fact, some of the strawberries tried to set roots into our log retaining wall!

Silly plants!

So, here we were with quite a few “extra” strawberry plants.  Since I don’t have my permanent beds made yet, I had to find places to tuck the new plants. Once the permanent beds are done (another year away) I will be able to re-home these new plants into their forever beds.  And by that time, the original strawberry plants will be past their prime.  Strawberries produce best during their second year, and then usually decline in production after that.  But the runners are their way of renewing and giving us new plants.

Isn’t nature cool?

To keep out the birds, Ray built this great bird netting structure for me.  When I need to harvest the berries, all I have to do is throw the netting up over the structure to get into the bed.  It works really well.  Also, having the bed raised seems to deter at least some of the banana slugs.

We have been reading lots of books and have attended a few seminars on companion planting and land use, and realized that some of the new strawberry plants would be perfect in the pepper bed, because not only do the strawberry and pepper plants “like” each other, the large strawberry leaves would shade the soil around the pepper plants, keeping the soil a bit cooler and helping to reserve water.

I also have had a cute terracotta strawberry pot that we brought up from our previous home in the valley.  I had planted this with herbs years ago and it didn’t work very well.  So, since I had so many new plants, I decided to try the pot again.  So far, so good!

What have I done with all my strawberries?

Well, my dear husband and I just adore sliced strawberries with cottage cheese for an evening dessert.  It tastes like strawberry ice cream!

I also wanted to try out my Sun Oven as a dehydrator, and thought I would try out a batch of strawberry fruit leather.

First I washed and hulled the strawberries, then whirled them up in my little blender.

Next, I added some of our delicious honey, about 2 tablespoons, and set the pot on the stove to simmer.  The strawberry/honey pulp simmered for about 20 minutes and reduced in volume by about half.  Now the pulp was a bit thicker and didn’t spread so easily.

I placed some parchment paper on my cookie sheet and poured the pulp on.  Perfect.

Unfortunately, while carrying the pan to the Sun Oven, it tipped a bit and the pulp spread out a little more than I had planned, but I went ahead with the process anyway.

The Sun Oven worked great!  With the glass door propped open, it stayed at about 200 degrees, which was perfect!  Once I could lightly press my finger into the top of the thickest part of the pulp and nothing smooshed out, I knew the pulp was now fruit leather. You can also see that the fruit surface looks like leather!

I placed the pan inside on the table so the leather could cool down, and once it was cool, I used scissors to cut the leather into strips.  Don’t take off the parchment paper!   Now that the strips were cut, I was able to roll each one up, and then place into a glass mason jar for storage.  

That’s it!  Easy, peasy!  Nature’s candy!

Next week I am going to make some peach leather from my oldest son’s peaches.  Can you believe he already has ripe peaches?

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Perennial Herb Garden

Last summer I started a perennial herb garden just on the other side of our orchard.  Although I grew up eating fairly bland food and have cooked that way myself for years, as I get older I realize that I enjoy herbs and spices more than I thought I did!

Perennial herb garden

Here is my Perennial herb garden looking from East to West, with the oregano section in the foreground.  The oregano started out as one small plant, but has spread and will probably fill in the bed this year.

I decided to start a perennial herb garden because I found that buying fresh herbs at the market can be quite expensive.  Even when I find the price reasonable, sometimes I have to buy too much for the recipe I am following and end up wasting some of the herb.  So, I decided to start growing my own.  Of course I will continue to plant basil seeds every year, and red peppers to make my own red pepper flakes, but the perennial herbs seem to take care of themselves.  In fact, it’s rare that they get bugs.  That’s probably because of the aromatic oils in the plants themselves.  My only problem has been with our &%$#(@# vole that insists on tunneling right through my beds!

The rosemary plants look pretty good. They are fairly drought tolerant and have virtually no pests, but our honeybees will absolutely maul the rosemary blooms when they appear later this spring,

I grew rosemary for years at our old house and ended up with huge rosemary bushes that weren’t very well tamed.  Our kitty cat used to sleep under the rosemary during the hot summer afternoons and she would come into the house smelling like heaven!  I am just learning to cook more with rosemary, and made a delicious rosemary sourdough cracker a couple of years ago.

I have also tried growing oregano before and really enjoyed learning to make Italian and Mexican dishes with fresh oregano.  However, I have never grown sage or thyme, which I had heard are fairly easy to grow, especially in my 7B/8A climate. In fact, when our new house is finished being built, there is a hill right behind our covered patio where I will be planting thyme, as it is supposed to be a great ground cover.

I decided to locate the garden right behind the log retaining wall that is terracing our orchard because many herbs are deterrents to deer. In fact, my research reveals that deer detest rosemary!  We haven’t had a real problem with deer in our orchard/garden, but I’m all for double purpose plants!

So, I decided to plant the herb garden with the four basics:  oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. Did I just hear Simon and Garfunkel in my head? 😉  All of these are perennials.  Up in the garden I also have a few other perennial herbs including lemon balm, spearmint and lavender.

Growing lemon balm in a perennial herb gardenThe lemon balm is in a planter right next to the bee hives.  There is an old folk tale that bees will not abandon a hive (swarm) where lemon balm grows, so that is why we planted it there.  We also have another lemon balm plant right next to our bee watering pond, so you can see I put a lot of faith in some folk tales!  We’ll see how it goes this year.  Lemon balm was once called a “poor man’s lemonade” plant, because not very many pioneers had lemon trees, nor could they afford lemons, but lots of people can grow lemon balm!

I am keeping the spearmint plant contained in a large pot.  Spearmint is known to spread willy-nilly and is hard to get rid of once established.  That is why, even though it is crowded, I am keeping it in a pot.  I will find a wider pot for the spearmint later this spring, however, so it can spread it’s roots a bit more. But I must warn you, my plant kept trying to escape this past summer by producing runners down to the ground seemingly overnight!  Of course, these runners are what I snipped and used for my kitchen. I love putting a few bruised spearmint leaves in hot water with a touch of either honey or a few stevia leaves, letting it cool, then drinking it over ice.  Ahhhhh.  So refreshing on a hot summer day! Growing spearmint in a perennial garden

The lavender is located just above the log retaining wall, near the strawberries.  Lavender lavenderinfused water is also yummy, and I just love putting a few dried sprigs in my drawers for a fresh, clean scent.

My dresser drawers, silly.  🙂

When Ray and I went on a farm tour a couple of years ago, we visited a farm that specialized in aromatic herbs including lavender, clary sage and lemon verbena.  In their gift shop they gave away lavender cookies and let me tell you, they were absolutely delicious!  As you can see in the picture to the right, I haven’t cleaned the lavender bed yet, but I will get to that soon.  My husband gave me the beautiful garden armillary for our anniversary several years ago, and my father made the concrete pedestal.  When the lavender is in bloom, this is such a beautiful vignette in the garden. And the armillary actually keeps pretty good time!  Speaking of thyme…

Thyme

This is the thyme, which has spread triple from what I planted last spring.

All of the herbs survived well over the winter, despite all of the wind, rain, hail and snow, and are showing signs of good spring growth.

The sage is  the herb in my garden that looks the most winter worn, but it is showing signs of new spring growth, so I have faith it will do just fine. Ray and I can’t wait to try a new sausage recipe that uses fresh sage. Yummy.

I pinched a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme the other day for one of our new favorite veggie cooking with rosemary and thymedishes:  roasted root vegetables!  All I had on hand this time were potatoes and carrots, which is just fine, but parsnips, rutabaga, even radish works in this dish. Just a couple sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary, chopped fine, salt and pepper, drizzled with olive oil, and the vegetables come out browned and caramelized, seasoned to perfection. What temp to set the oven?  Just about anything from 300 to 425, so you can roast meat or bake bread while roasting these healthy and delicious root vegetables – just knowing that they will cook faster at higher temperatures  MMMMMMMMM…

 

And the cute little kitty reclining on a rock that you may have spied near the sage?  That is in memory of my sweet kitty, Missy, who was queen of our neighborhood for 15 years and will remain forever in our hearts.

Thank you for visiting my blog!

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Cooking With The Sun!

Look what I got!

Cooking with a Sun Oven

My new baby! I couldn’t wait to try out my new Sun Oven Solar Cooker!

I have been reading the Taylor Made Ranch blog for a couple of years now, and have been so jealous of Tammy’s beautiful Sun Oven.  I have several plans that I found (here’s a good one in Mother Earth News Magazine) to build my own, but somehow my husband and I have never found the time to build one.  When the Sun Oven went on sale this past fall, I jumped at the opportunity to own one!

The oven can do so many things.  Of course it can cook and bake, but it can also be used as a dehydrator and a water sterilizer!  Since Ray and I are trying to live a self-reliant off-grid lifestyle, we decided it would be a great idea to have several methods of cooking food, and the Sun Oven is one of the best off-grid cooking methods we have found!

Cooking in a Solar Oven

Wild blackberry pie filling – nothing better!

I couldn’t wait to try it out.  The oven was out of the box and cooking within an hour! 😉

For my first item, I decided to bake a blackberry cobbler.  Ray and I live in an area where wild blackberries are very abundant. Every year in July and August we gather the blackberries and either freeze them to use in muffins, infused water, cake filling, etc. or make blackberry pie filling. I can the pie filling in pint (for cobblers) or quart (for pies)sized jars. So, I got a pint jar of the blackberry pie filling and made the cobbler, then set it into the preheated Sun Oven.

Wow!

Just…          Wow!

Even though it was early November with the sun low in the sky, the cobbler cooked very well, browning nicely around the edges!  It was really good and I was so impressed! In a normal oven this recipe takes about 45 minutes to cook.  In the Sun Oven, it took almost an hour to cook.  No matter – it wasn’t using any electricity, natural gas or propane, so I was happy to let it bake away!  It was delicious!  (and gone within 24 hours 😉 )

Solar Oven Baking

The cobbler is almost done. You can see that it is starting to brown a bit around the edges. You can also see the temperature dial, showing approximately 340 degrees inside the oven.  Niiiiiiccceee!

Next I wanted to try cooking some kind of meat.  I had a pork loin in my freezer and I also had a bottle of Morse Farms Mandarin Jalapeno Barbeque Sauce, so I thought the two would make a wonderful pulled pork sandwich.

Cooking in a solar oven

Here is a pork loin roast sizziling happily away in my Sun Oven!

Without bothering to preheat the oven, I stuck the roast in and let ‘er go! No, I didn’t add any liquid.  The instructions that come with the Sun Oven says that it’s almost impossible to burn anything, so I decided liquid wasn’t necessary! Within an hour the roast was sizzling and browning and smelling oh so good.  I let it cook for about 3 hours, as the temperature never really got over 325 that day and actually hovered between the 275-300 degree fahrenheit range, due to the overcast skies.  What’s cool about this is that the oven was working much like a slow cooker or “crock pot” and I knew the meat would be good and tender after several hours.  After about three hours, I shredded the pork loin (easily done with 2 forks) and added about 1 cup of the marinade. But wait, there’s more!  I decided to try stacking an apple/raisin/walnut crisp on top of the now shredded and flavored pork loin.  The Sun Oven came with these stacking pans and they work wonderfully!

Here is the apple/raisin/walnut crisp baking, stacked on top of the pork roast! The smell coming from this box was amazing!

Here is the apple/raisin/walnut crisp baking, stacked on top of the pork roast! The smell coming from this box was amazing!

After just another hour, the pork was moist and delicious and the apple crisp was done.  I had dinner and dessert!  The stacking pans really come in handy.  If I was just a bit more industrious, I could have also put in a small loaf of bread on the rack right next to the pans!

Pulled pork in Mandarin Jalapeno barbeque sauce, with a slice of Swiss cheese on a hamburger bun. Sooooo Gooooood!

Pulled pork in Mandarin Jalapeno barbeque sauce, with a slice of Swiss cheese on a hamburger bun.

The pulled pork turned out very moist and delicious.  The apple/ raisin/walnut crisp was to die for!

The best part?  Nothing burns!  Really!  To be honest, folks, I am notorious for burning things.  In fact, when my kids were growing up they used to tease me and say that the smoke alarm was their dinner bell!  😉  Even after cooking the pulled pork for an hour in sticky barbeque sauce, they were very easy to clean up afterward.  I literally swished the pans with warm soapy water, rinsed them off and – et voila’ – clean!

Speaking of bread…

Cooking bread in a Sun Oven

Two full sized loaves of french bread happily baking away in the solar oven. They didn’t really brown much, but that’s okay because they tasted amazing!

I had to try baking bread.  French bread.  On a day with lots of white puffy clouds.

Hmmmm…  It was sunny first thing in the morning.  Not a cloud in sight!  So I made some french bread dough, let it rise, made it into loaves and let it rise again.  Just when I was ready to pop them into the preheated oven, a few clouds obscured the sun.  Then a few more.   Lovely.  Can you hear my sourchasm?

It didn’t matter!  It took almost 2-1/2 hours to get these loaves baked, but by golly, they baked.  And they were good!  The insides achieved a great crumb with really nice texture in spite of the weather.  I thought they would be concrete inside, or perhaps gooey, but no – perfect french bread minus the browning.  I read that I could get the bread to brown if I put either a sugar glaze or an egg white wash on the loaves, but that’s just to make them pretty.  We don’t care if our bread is pretty, we just want it to taste good!

My next experiment?  Brownies!  My youngest son was coming up for a day to help out with some of the heavy chores, and one of his favorite desserts is brownies!  Michael graduated from college recently with a Major in Social Science and a Minor in Sustainability, so he was excited to see how the Sun Oven performed.  Well…

Baking brownies in a solar oven

Mmmmm… these brownies turned out great!  And I didn’t have to worry about burning them!

These brownies turned out so good!  I could have left them in the oven just a tad bit longer, however, because the very center was a bit on the gooey side. Since foods cooked in the Sun Oven don’t burn, I shouldn’t have been so hasty to take them out. No matter, that’s how Michael likes them anyway!

So, what have I learned so far?

  1.  Cooking in a Sun Oven is a lot of fun, and it really does work!
  2. Food does not burn in the Sun Oven, so if in doubt whether the food is done, cook it a little bit longer instead of constantly opening the door to check it.  Every time the door is opened, you loose a lot of heat and it will take just that much longer to cook.
  3. The food cooking in the oven smells so good, it will attract various wildlife along with your local neighborhood dog.  Place the oven where you can see it at all times or, better yet, put it somewhere the dogs can’t get to it.
  4. Wear sunglasses.  The reflection from the oven can be blindingly bright!
  5. Use hot pads.  Yeah – for some reason I had it in my brain that these don’t get very hot.  They do.  If the temperature gauge reads 350 degrees, your food and pans will also be 350 degrees.
  6. Place the Sun Oven on a level surface.  Since I have been cooking during the winter, the sun is very low in the sky, so the Sun Oven is tilted at it’s max!  If you don’t have a level and sturdy surface, the oven just might tip over!

My next experiment is going to be making zucchini chips and hamburger jerky, because I am curious to see how the Sun Oven works as a dehydrator.

I am so glad we bit the bullet and bought this Sun Oven.  We still plan to build our own solar oven with the plans mentioned above (here is another DIY solar oven), because there will be days during the summer when we will want to cook down tomatoes for canning, bake bread, dehydrate vegetables and fruits, etc., all at the same time!

The solar oven is another important tool for our off-grid homestead.  On days when the sun is shining, even in the winter, we have a free energy source to cook food.  If the time ever comes that our well goes dry and we need to drink our collected rainwater, the solar oven will provide a way to sterilize the water and make it safe to drink.

Have you ever cooked in a solar oven?    0001

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