Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Present for YOU

Have the Christmas Crazies got you yet? Have you panicked and grabbed something you don't even want just to escape all the pushing, hurrying people and get a jump in line? Have you given in and gone for the gift card because you are just SICK AND TIRED of Christmas shopping? Have you looked around your house and been overwhelmed at the amount of work left to do and the unbelievable mess? Have you opened yet another Christmas card that arrived before Christmas and been overcome with guilt that you haven’t even started yours yet?

OK, so maybe I exaggerate, or maybe not. My cats and I spent the day baking cookies for a cookie exchange and wrapping homemade candy for the teachers at the middle school. I felt very on top of things, like I have this Christmas thing under control - as long as I stayed in the kitchen and didn’t venture towards the filthy living room with pine needles and dog toys covering the carpet. Or the laundry room with the kids hampers stacked in the hall outside because of the sheets, towels, and last week’s laundry already claiming the place. And I didn’t dare go in my office where the boxes are stacked waist deep and the Christmas wrapping covers the bed and the workbench is sagging with the weight of all the Christmas projects yet to be finished and wrapped. And let’s definitely not talk about the bathrooms, the barn, or the front porch that is showcasing my broken treadmill, a case of oranges from Florida, two broken flower pots (WHO did this???), and several mouse carcasses (grateful gifts from the cats now lounged in front of the woodstove).

As long as I stay in the kitchen I am on top of Christmas. Got it under control. Possibly you’ve noticed there was no blog post last week, and there wasn’t going to be one this week either, but as I cooked and wrapped today I thought about what I might be able to give you, dear reader, since I have no enlightening post prepared for the week. My day has gone swimmingly, but now dinner hour approaches and I honestly have no idea what to make for dinner. Nothing has been thawed out and my mind is occupied by the question of how to decorate these yummy chocolate-caramel delights (a recipe stolen from the York Daily Record’s Cookie Contest). It occurs to me, that maybe you wrestle with the same daily dilemma – what should I make for dinner?

So, as a gift to you I have posted a week’s worth of recipes. All are fairly simple to make and several utilize a crock pot, my favorite kitchen helper. Enjoy! 

May you holidays be filled with delicious food, precious children, beautiful music, and moments of wonder.

Blessings to you.

Bistro Roast Chicken
(adapted from Cooking Light)

2 T minced fresh tarragon (or 3 t dried)
1 T minced fresh thyme (or 2 t dried)
4 t butter, melted
1 t salt
1 t Dijon Mustard
½ t black pepper
1 roasting chicken

Preheat oven to 375.

1.     Combine first 6 ingredients in a small bowl.
2.     Remove and discard (or save for broth) giblets and neck from chicken. Starting at the neck cavity, loosen skin from breast and drumsticks by inserting fingers, gently pushing between skin and meat. Rub herb mixture under loosened skin and over breast and drumsticks. Tie legs together with kitchen twine. (I can never find any kitchen twine – my kids have other uses for it – so I skip this usually and it works out fine) Lift wing tips up and over back; tuck under chicken. (I can’t seem to figure out how to do this either – again it’s all fine) Place the chicken breast side down, on the rack of a broiler pan or shallow roasting pan (I put it in a stone cooker with lid).
3.     Bake chicken for 40 minutes. Carefully turn chicken over (breast side up). Bake an additional 40 minutes or until a thermometer inserted in the meaty part of  thigh registers 165. (Must confess that I never remember to flip the bird and I pull it out when the thermometer approaches 160 because I hate a dry chicken. It will continue to cook after you pull it out and we’ve never ended up with underdone chicken)
4.     Place chicken on cutting board and let stand 10 minutes before carving.

I’ve made this replacing the melted butter with lemon grapeseed oil – divine.

Beer Beef Stew with Dumplings

1 1/4 lbs beef, cut in small pieces
3 T flour
2 onions – sliced
3 carrots – sliced
½ pint beer
2 t mustard
1 t brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Dried herbs and/or steak seasoning (oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, etc.)

1 cup flour
1/4 cup butter, softened
½ cup  milk
1 tsp dried herbs
Pinch salt and pepper

1 Put flour in plastic bag and add beef. Toss to coat.
2. Put onion and carrots in crock pot, add beef.
3. mix the other ingredients together and pour over the beef.
4. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.
5. Combine ingredients for dumplings to make a soft dough (add more flour or milk if necessary). Shape in to small balls.
6. About 45 minutes before beef is finished, add dumplings to crock pot.
7 Turn on high, replace lid.

Note: Everything in this recipe is approximate, because I don’t have exact measurements and just “eye ball” everything. You really can’t go wrong here. I like to use a fairly strong beer like Yeungling.

Chicken and Cheese Enchiladas
(adapted from Cooking Light)

1 Cup chopped onion
1 ½ C shredded cooked chicken breast (about ½ lb)
1 1/2 C (4 oz) shredded reduced fat sharp cheddar, divided
1 C bottled picante sauce (or mild salsa)
3 oz 1/3-less fat cream cheese (about 1/3 cup)
1 t cumin
1 ½ T green taco sauce (optional)
8 six inch flour tortillas

Preheat oven to 350

1.     Place large skillet, coated with spray on medium-high heat. Add onion, sauté 6 minutes or until tender.
2.     Add chicken, ½ cup cheese, 1 cup picante, cream cheese, and cumin. Cook 3 minutes or until cheese melts.
3.     Spoon 1/3 cup chicken mixture down center of each tortilla and roll up.
4.     Place in 13x9” baking dish, drizzle with ½ cup picante sauce and taco sauce and sprinkle with ½ cup cheddar. Cover and bake 15 minutes.

This is absolutely yummy. It’s the dish I always make for other families when I have to take a meal to them. Never fails. I usually try to double it and freeze half so I have one ready to go.

Spicy Shrimp in Coconut Sauce
(Cooking Light)

½ Cup coconut milk
1 T fresh lime juice
1 t bottled minced ginger
1 t low-sodium soy sauce
1 t honey
½ t cornstarch
½ t chile paste with garlic
½ t bottled minced garlic
¼ t salt
2 t canola oil
1 ½ lbs large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 T chopped green onions
½ t crushed red pepper
2 cups jasmine rice (I serve this over coconut rice, see below – WOW!)

Combine first 9 ingredients in a medium bowl – set aside.

Heat canola oil or grapeseed oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp and sauté 2 minutes. Add green onions and red pepper; cook 1 minute. Add coconut milk mixture to pan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 1 minute or until shrimp turn pink. Serve immediately over rice.

Yield: 4 servings (1 cup shrimp mixture and ½ cup rice), 310 calories per serving

Quite possibly my absolute favorite recipe when served over coconut rice. 

Coconut Rice
(Nourishing Traditions)

2 cups long-grain brown rice
2 T butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
3 cardamom pods
2 cups chicken stock and/or water
2 cups coconut milk
½ t salt

1. Melt butter and olive oil.
2. Open cardamom pods and add seeds to the pan.
3. Saute rice in butter and oil, stirring constantly, until rice begins to turn milky.
4. Pour in liquid, add salt and bring to a rolling boil. Boil, uncovered, for about 10 minutes until water has reduced to the level of the rice. Reduce to lowest heat, cover tightly and cook forever or until done.

Dave’s Crab Chowder
(Shirley Pigliacampi)
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
3 T butter
3 cups milk
1 16oz can cream corn
3 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
¼ t salt
¼ t thyme
1 bay leaf
¼ cup dry sherry
8 oz crab
5 oz frozen baby shrimp

1.     Sauté onion and celery in butter until tender.
2.     Add remaining ingredients except sherry and cook 15 minutes or until heated.
3.     Add sherry and cook 2 minutes more.
4.     Remove bay leaf and serve.

We also add cooked diced potato and because Nick is allergic to shrimp, I usually double or triple the crab and occasionally add bay scallops. I don’t always use cream of corn either (to much sugar), so I add regular corn and a little cream. Be sure to use the sherry – it’s the key ingredient. We have this soup on Christmas Eve every year. (Shirley P is my other mom)

Honey-Hoison Pork Tenderloin
Cooking Light

2 T sliced green onions
2 T hoison sauce
2 T low-sodium soy sauce
2 T sage honey (isn’t honey, honey? Not sure this matters)
1 T hot water
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (1 pound) pork tenderloin
¼ t salt
½ t sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 400.

1.     Combine first 6 ingredients in a small bowl.  Pour ¼ C honey mixture into a large zip-top plastic bag; reserve remaining honey mixture.
2.     Add pork to bag; seal and marinate in refrigerator 20 minutes, turning bag occasionally.
3.     Remove pork from bag; discard marinade.  Sprinkle port with salt 
4.     Heat a large ovenproof skillet over med-high heat.  Coat pan with cooking spray.  Add pork; cook 2 minutes, browning on all sides.
5.     Brush 1 tablespoon reserved honey mixture over pork; sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Place skillet in oven Bake for 20 minutes or until a thermometer registers 160 (slightly pink) or until desired degree of doneness.
6.     Place pork on platter; let stand 5 minutes.  Cut pork across the grain in to thin slices.  Drizzle with remaining honey mixture.

I love everything with hoison, but this one is especially good.  It’s nice that it only has to be marinated 30 minutes – I’m forever forgetting to do the marinade until 5:00, and I still have time for this one.  I didn’t have an oven-safe skillet the first time I did this recipe, so I just transferred the pork to a casserole dish I had pre-warmed in the oven and it worked out fine.

Spinach Lasagna
(adapted from Prevention Cooking)

2 cans (15 oz) tomato sauce
1 can (28ox) tomatoes, drained
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon marjoram
½ teaspoon tarragon
2 teaspoons minced garlic
¼ t black pepper
1 package (10 oz) fresh spinach, chopped or 2 frozen, squeezed dry
8 oz no-cook lasagna (or cook your own noodles – better!)
1 container (15oz) ricotta
1 cup (8 oz) shredded mozzarella

1.     In large bowl, combine sauce, tomatoes, and spices.  Set aside
2.     Coat skillet with spray.  Cook spinach until wilted.
3.     Spread ½ cup tomato mixture in 13”x 9” baking dish.  Place 2 sheets lasagna on top.  Spread ½ of ricotta over noodles. Layer with ½ of spinach.  Top with 1/3 of remaining sauce and sprinkle with 1/3 mozzarella.  Cover with three more noodles, remaining ricotta, then remaining spinach.   Spoon on ¼ cup remaining sauce and ¼ remaining mozzarella.  Cover with three more noodles and top with remaining sauce and mozzarella.
4.     Cover and bake 30 minutes at 375.  Uncover and bake 15 minutes more.  Let stand 10 minutes.

Makes 8 servings
253 cal, 17g protein, 10g fat, 3g fiber

My Mother-in-law Margot will tell you – this is a really good vegetarian lasagna (and she would know!). 

Crock Pot Meatloaf
(I found this in my junk pile copied on an old "xerox" with the purple ink and don’t know where it came from! Maybe my high school home ec class?)
2 eggs
¾ c milk
2/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs
2 t dried minced onion
¼ t salt
½ t sage
1 t oregano
1 t basil
½ t rosemary
½ t thyme
¼ t tarragon
2 t minced garlic (or less if you don’t love garlic like I do)
1 ½ pound ground beef
¼ c ketchup
2 T brown sugar
1 t ground mustard
½ t Worcestershire sauce

1.     In a large bowl, combine the first 12 ingredients.
2.     Crumble beef over mixture and mix well (mixture will be moist)
3.     Shape into a round loaf. Place in a 5 qt slow cooker. Cover and cook over low heat 5-6 hours or until meat thermometer reads 160.
4.     In a small bowl, whisk ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce. Spoon over the meatloaf. Cook 15 minutes more.
5.     Remove and let stand 15 minutes before serving.

This is absolutely delish. I played with the recipe and added all the spices. I also used 2 pounds of beef. Everyone loved this recipe and I loved that I could make it at lunch time and it made the house smell yummy.
A few side dishes:

Oven Fries
(Cooks Illustrated)

3 russett potatoes (about 8 oz each), peeled, each potato cut lengthwise into 10 to 12 evenly sized wedges
5 T vegetable or peanut oil (or grapeseed oil)
Salt and ground black pepper

1.     Adjust oven rack to lowest position; heat oven to 475 degrees.
2.     Place potatoes in large bowl and cover with hot tap water; soak 10 minutes.
3.     Coat 18 by 12 inch heavy duty rimmed baking sheet (I used my stone) with 4 tablespoons oil (I didn’t use quite this much!) and sprinkle evenly with ¾ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper; set aside.
4.     Drain potatoes. Spread potatoes out on a triple layer of paper towels (horrors! Use dish towels!). Rinse and wipe out now-empty bowl; return potatoes to bowl and toss with remaining 1 tablespoon oil.
5.     Arrange potatoes in single layer on prepared baking sheet; cover tightly with foil and bake 5 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until bottoms of potatoes are spotty golden brown, 15-20 minutes, rotating baking sheet after 10 minutes.
6.     Using metal spatula and tongs, scrape to loosen potatoes from pan, then flip each wedge, keeping potatoes in single layer. Continue baking until fries are golden and crisp, 5 -15 minutes longer, rotating pan as needed if fries are browning unevenly.
7.     Transfer fries to second baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

I have to confess that I don’t always follow this recipe exactly. When I do the fries are perfect, but when I don’t cover them with foil or flip them, they still turn out pretty good. This recipe also works with sweet potato fries. I don’t usually coat the pan with oil; just really coat the fries with oil (maybe 2 tablespoons tops). Cooks magazine is for gourmets, so their recipes are always pretty complicated, but incredible.

Quinoa with Parsley and Pine nuts

Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add 1 cup plain quinoa.  Cook 2 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently.  Add 1 (14 oz) can fat-free, less-sodium chicken (or vegetable) broth; bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 15 minutes or until most of liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat; cover and let stand 5 minutes.  Stir in 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, and 1 ½ tablespoons yellow raisins.

This is way yummy, real quick, and super healthy! If you don’t have broth on hand, water works fine too.

(from the book So The Woman Went Her Way)
4 Tablespoons oil
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons salt

Put in a big bowl.
Pour about 5 cups warm water over the top so the sugar dissolves.
Add 2 packages yeast until it bubbles and then enough flour mixed in to make a kneadable bunch. 
Knead, set aside for 20 minutes or so.
Punch down.
Divide in to 2 or 3 leaves. ( I always make 3 BIG loaves)
Put in cake baking pan with sides touching.
Let sit another 20 minutes.
Bake at 375 for 45 minutes.

I know this recipe sounds loosy goosy, but it is awesome!  The author’s point during the story was that anyone can make bread, it isn’t that mysterious.  You can add other ingredients – different flours, beer, etc and it almost always works out.  It is classic – doughy and soft inside with a wonderful crust.  I make one recipe and freeze two of the loaves

And of course, a few sweet things:

Caribbean Dream Pie
(Enchanted Broccoli Forest)

Sweet Crumb Crust:
2 cups crushed graham crackers or ginger snaps
½ cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1/ cup finely minced pecans
6 T butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350.

1.     Combine all ingredients and mix well. Press mixture firmly into the bottom and sides of a 9 inch pie pan, building a ½ inch ridge around the edge. You will have more than enough to fill the pie pan – sprinkle the rest in another pan. Place both in the oven, and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

1 14 or 15 oz can sweetened condensed milk
1 T grated lime rind
½ cup plus 1 T fresh lime juice
2 bananas, peeled and sliced
½ a ripe mango, peeled and sliced (or chopped)

1.     Pour the milk into a medium –sized bowl.
2.     Add the grated rind and juice, and whisk for a few minutes until the milk thickens.
3.     Layer the banana and mango slices in the baked, cooled crust. Pour the thickened milk mixture over the fruit, spreading it into place. Sprinkle the top with the extra crumb mixture, and chill until cold. Serve cold.

Super yum. Kind of healthy.

Spicy Molasses Crackles
(Adapted from Weight Watchers)

1 C flour
1 C whole wheat flour
2 t baking soda
1 ¼ t cinnamon
1 t ginger
¼ t nutmeg
1/8 ground cloves
1/8 t salt
1/3 Cup butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
2 T Molasses
2 ½ T sugar

Preheat 350.

1.     Combine flours and next six ingredients.
2.     Beat butter with mixer at medium speed until creamy; graduatlly add brown sugar, beating well.
3.     Add egg and molasses; beat well.
4.     Add flour mixture; beat until smooth (dough will be slightly crumbly)
5.     Shape into 1” balls. Roll balls in sugar and place on sheets coated with spray.
  1. Bake at 350 for 8 minutes. Cool 2 minutes in pans. Remove and cool completely on wire racks.
 Yield: 38 cookies
1 cookie: 68 caloried, 1.8 g fat, 0.2 fiber

This recipe makes more than 38 cookies. These are yummy and always elicit recipe requests. They freeze well too.

Bourbon Fudge Brownies
(Cooking Light)

¼ cup bourbon
¼ cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups sugar
6 tablespoons butter, softened
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs

1.     Preheat over to 350
2.     Bring bourbon to a boil in a small saucepan; remove from heat.  Add chocolate chips, stirring until smooth.
3.     Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt, stirring with w whisk.
4.     Combine sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well combined.  Add vanilla and eggs; beat well. Add flour mixture and bourbon mixture to sugar mixture, beating at low speed just until combined.
5.     Spread batter in to a 9” square baking pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool in pan on wire rack.

Yield: 20 servings
148 calories, 5g fat, 1g fiber, 2.2g protein

These brownies are my go-to recipe and always get rave reviews.  The bourbon makes them taste like a rich expensive chocolate.  Don’t overcook – better gooey than dried out!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dangerous Soup

Soup for dinner last night. It’s that time of year. I’m a single parent this week and there were several places I needed to be at once, so last night it was soup from a box. The box irritates me because I can’t recycle it, but I suppose the trade off is avoiding the BPA lined cans. Over lunch I read an article in Time magazine about BPA and I’m going to steal shamelessly from that article for this post, since it was the inspiration.

We all know about the BPA (bisphenol-A) in plastic water bottles. That’s why we’re paying through the nose for the metal bottles these days. I’m also paying in terms of the number of times my kids have spilled the metal bottles because they don’t have those nice plastic flip tops the plastic ones have. Lately I’ve been buying metal bottles that come with a plastic spout, but wondering – does the spout have BPA?

Which leads to my next question? Just how bad is BPA? The science is not completely clear on that question. In Europe, the use of BPA in baby bottles has been in place for some time and in the US, companies (with any brains) are voluntarily removing it from their products. So someone knows something. Researchers have claimed that there is a compound in BPA that can interfere with hormones. It’s been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity and most alarmingly (for those people bottle-feeding), problems in the development of young children.

There are also plenty of studies that claim that BPA is harmless. Unlike other dangerous chemicals, BPA doesn’t remain in your system very long. In fact, the Time article sites a recent study that asked participants to either eat canned soup or homemade soup for five days. The participants who ate canned soup had their BPA levels increase by 1200%, while the homemade soup eaters had normal levels of BPA (whatever that might be).

Apparently 93% of Americans have detectable amounts of BPA in their system right now. How is this possible, you ask? I don’t even like soup. Because BPA can be found just about everywhere – lining of aluminum cans (not just soup), cashier receipt paper (try avoiding that), plastic water bottles, pizza boxes, soda cans, toilet paper, dental sealants (What? Someone needs to do the pro/con on this one), and some wine bottles (much to my chagrin). So it’s pretty much everywhere.

How do you avoid it? And should you? You know I’m going to say stay away from it. Although even I am at a loss for avoiding the BPA in toilet paper. But there are some things that are easy - 

  1. Give up your bottled water habit and buy a reusable BPA-free re-usable bottle. Not only will you avoid BPA, you’ll save lots of money and be doing a kindness for the environment.
  2. Make your own soup. If you’ve never done it before – consider giving it a try. Truly, nothing is easier to create than homemade soup. Just about anything works if you can make a broth. Broth is simple and free to make. The next time you cook a chicken or beef that has bones, save the carcass/bones (and the giblets – I don’t know what they are but they’re usually in a little bag stuffed inside your chicken) and put them in a big pot on the stove. Fill the pot with water and simmer it for as long as you want (probably at least 30 minutes). Done. Instant broth. I cool the broth and then freeze it in large yogurt containers which is about how much we need for a soup base. You can get fancy with your broth and add vegetables, spices, and salt or you can keep it plain and get fancy later. Truly, you can make broth. It is also possible to can broth in glass jars, but you need to use a pressure canner for this and I am still too frightened of my pressure canner to attempt it.
  3. Avoid cans of all types. Buy frozen vegetables (or better yet, freeze them yourself in the summer in plastic bags or can them with your pressure canner, you brave soul you).
  4. Make food that normally comes in cans yourself – cranberry sauce is super simple. I wrote about it last year. Ditto applesauce. There is no need to buy canned pumpkin either – if you cook up one pumpkin, you’ll have enough pumpkin puree to last you six months. I don’t know how much to worry about the BPA in pizza boxes, but this is something else you can easily make yourself.
  5. Just say no to soda. You don’t need it. Your kids don’t need it. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about a can of soda. Nothing. I could go on, but I’m sure you’d rather I didn’t.
I don’t know if BPA is harmless. I’m inclined to think that it isn’t on the basis that the products it is found in have become more and more plentiful in the last 50 years, as have the health threats that are linked to BPA. The parallel is too neatly drawn. Erring on the side of caution is smart, but making more of your own food fresh is good for reasons that go way beyond the potential danger of BPA. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hunting Treasure!

What did you do on the day after Thanksgiving? Hit the stores and grab up all those crazy deals alongside all those crazy people? Lay on the couch and rub your belly? Travel back from whence you came?

We still had a few relatives hanging about, so we took advantage of the gorgeous day and went geocaching! Ever heard of it? As my husband likes to point out, it is only a familiar term to the true nerds among us. We’re charter members.

Geocaching is treasure hunting with a GPS. It’s free to sign up at  Once you narrow down your choices to the caches you want to search for, you program your GPS (or download the geocache app) and off you go! The website lists how difficult the cache is to find, how tough the terrain is, what size the cache is, helpful hints and clues, and even notes from others who have found the cache already. Your GPS will get you within 20 feet of the cache, but then it’s all about the hunt. Our kids have become experts at searching out hollow logs, rock crevices, anything that looks a tad bit out of the ordinary, because that’s where you’re most likely to find a cache.

A cache can be anything from a magnetic key holder (a ‘micro cache’) to a plastic Tupperware tub. Inside the cache you will find an explanation as to what geocaching is (just in case a muggle stumbles upon the cache by accident), a log book, and sometimes trinkets. Trinkets are tradable items. You can take one thing out as long as you put one thing back. This is the part the kids really like. Before we leave to go geocaching, they comb their rooms for trinkets to trade – jewelry, matchbox cars, lego figures, plastic animals, key chains, really anything small that someone else might want. The junk drawer is always a good place to find trinkets to trade. On this past geocache, Addie came away with a jar of bubbles, Ian claimed crayons, and one young cousin found a really annoying birthday noise maker which he used to serenade us on our drive to the next cache (the WHOLE drive). On other searches we’ve found chapstick, craft kits, magnifying glass, super balls, sunglasses, hair accessories, and any number of strange plastic creatures that delighted the finder. My favorite find was on a particularly arduous, mosquito infested hike when the cache contained a bug-repellent wet wipe!

Sometimes a cache will have a “travel bug”. This is an object whose sender is trying to move it somewhere. It could be across the country or it could be to another continent. If you are headed that direction, you take the travel bug and place it in another cache closer to its destination. Its original owner can follow the travel bug’s journey online. Each time you find a cache and/or move a travel bug, you log back in to and make a note. If you’re an overachiever your account quickly becomes laden with a long list of finds. We rarely remember or have time to log back in, so most of our caches are recorded in our memory.

There are geocaches on all seven continents. There are geocaches in just about every Cracker Barrel restaurant gift shop. There are “cache and dash” geocaches alongside pretty much any road. If you looked it up right now, odds are you’ll find 50 geocaches within a 25 mile radius of where you’re standing. They are among us. And now you’re not a muggle (non-geocacher), so you know this. When you see a strange group of people traipsing around in a wooded area, you don’t have to wonder if someone’s lost their toddler, you can wonder if it’s a bunch of nerds searching for a cache.

We found four caches last Friday. One cache was a bit of disaster as I didn’t read all the clues provided and two of the kids wandered in to some sucking mud which sucked off my youngest son’s croc, never to be found again. This necessitated a quick trip back home for a change of clothes. Not a problem since this cache was less than a ½ mile from home. The others led us on a pretty hike down the rail trail and then a smelly search behind a crab shack. All caches are rated on a 1-5 scale for difficultly and terrain. We mostly stick with 1’s and 2’s when the kids are with us.

Geocaching is a great way to get your family outside together. No one can resist a treasure hunt. This time of year it’s not always easy to motivate young people to venture in to the great outdoors. But it’s also easier to find geocaches this time of year with no heavy foliage, sticker bushes, or poison ivy to contend with. Geocaching is also a great way to take a break when you’re traveling and need to get the kids out of the car. We’ve seen some beautiful places we would never have encountered had it not been for geocaching.

If you’d like to try it and don’t own a GPS (you need a handheld GPS because you’re car can only get you so far and most caches require at least some hiking), you can download a free app that will lead you to three caches and give you a tutorial along the way. The full-version app is $9.99. On the website you can find information on purchasing a GPS. It also has a cool scrolling banner along the bottom that lists the most recent finds as they come in. Today I watched as several caches were found in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Sweden. The site lists a running tally of how many caches have been logged in during the last 30 days. As I write this there have been 5,152,296. Betcha didn’t know there that many treasure-hunting nerds in the world!

When you look up a cache, many will list clues and sometimes encrypted messages (with the code). This makes it even more fun for the kids. On the website you can also see when the cache was last found and make sure it’s still viable. The person who places a cache (anyone can do this) is responsible for following strict guidelines and making sure the cache stays viable, so it’s rare for a cache to go missing (probably it’s just hard to find). I know, hard to believe there are people in this world with that much time on their hands!

If you own a GPS, you can sign up on the website for free and start seeking your treasure. Even if you download the app, you’ll still want to access the website for the more detailed information and to log in your finds.

Give geocaching a try. It’s got all the ingredients for great family memories – outdoors, treasure, adventure, challenge, and best of all – it’s free! Just beware of muggles and use stealth. Also, remember ‘cache in, trash out’ whenever you are geocaching and do your part.