12.16.2012

The Ice Cream Incident

As I wrote in my last post, I've been experimenting with my diet in order to alleviate my chronic sinus issues. This experiment began two weeks ago by eliminating gluten from diet. It was challenging and frustrating...dining out at lunch entailed research, cooking dinner was like doing grad school homework, and snacking, well, snacking resulted in lots of potato chips. :)

For most of the first week, I ate Quinoa Breakfast Porridge for breakfast, lunches consisted of leftover fajita filling from dinner earlier in the week, a rice noodle dish from one of my favorite Asian restaurants in town, and a veggie bowl from Chipotle, and dinner consisted of whatever I could throw together - mostly GF pasta, chili, or a hamburger with no bun. I did venture away from gluten-free one time and ate pizza, and as I wrote earlier, the result was not a pleasant one. Aside from that, I had been feeling great.

As week two arrived, I vowed to stick with the gluten-free diet, convinced that it was the problem. Then on Wednesday, I made a terrible mistake. I had an intense craving for Coldstone after I ate my bowl of chili at work, so I ventured out on a mission for ice cream. I made sure to select a gluten-free flavor (FYI Coldstone's "cake batter" flavors are not gluten-free) and mix-ins. The staff at Coldstone was careful to get clean equipment to mix my delightful treat, wish was a pleasant surprise to this GF newbie, and the result was a "Like It"-sized coffee ice cream with white chocolate chips, chocolate chips, and almonds. It. Was. Divine! And I returned to work a very happy girl.

Fast forward about an hour and a half when I realized I had a nauseating headache, and I was horribly dizzy. As time passed, the roof of my mouth began to hurt, my ears felt like they were going to explode, my nasal passages felt horribly swollen, and breathing was difficult. I muddled through it and the remainder of my work day, wondering where the gluten had snuck in. Later that evening, still confused by how I felt and the lack of correlation to my diet throughout the day, I posted to Facebook about it and mentioned that I was sure I hadn't eaten any gluten.

After several comments from friends questioning the Coldstone, it hit me. I realized, for the previous week and a half, I had inadvertently cut my dairy consumption as well as cutting out gluten. Milk has always caused digestive issues for me, so for over a year now, I've been using soy milk in my morning coffee, which is the majority of my "dairy" consumption. And over the course of my GF diet, I had eaten a little cheese on my chili, and my fajitas were served with cheese and sour cream (after which I felt a little crappy, but I blamed it on the chips at lunch). And of course, there was cheese on the pizza that made me feel so crummy the week before.

And now, the ice cream. The pieces were beginning to form a clear picture. Maybe gluten isn't my issue...but maybe dairy is? So, with the help of some awesome friends on Facebook, I decided I would let myself recover from "The Ice Cream Incident", then I would experiment with adding gluten back to my diet. I vowed that today would be the day. I felt great yesterday, and if I ate gluten today, I would at least be at home with my bed nearby to endure the misery.

Then I made a terrible mistake. The other day, before "The Ice Cream Incident", I bought some gouda. I LOVE gouda, and it was calling my name last night. I tried to resist, but I finally gave in to the temptation and ate a small amount thinking it wouldn't hurt too badly. Boy was I wrong! I went to bed last night in complete misery, and I woke up this morning feeling only slight relief. I'm just now, at 2pm, beginning to feel better.

So, the decision has been made. No. More. Dairy. Tonight at dinner, in the hopes of ruling out the gluten issue, I will eat something fabulously glutinous (yet dairy-free)...I just have to decide what it will be. Once that's done, and I know how it makes me feel, I'll know whether my problem is just dairy, or if gluten is also playing a role.

On Tuesday, I go back to the allergist, and I would really like to be able to tell her that I have solved the case of the mysterious sinus problems! And I really hope to return my diet to its new normal very soon...no more dairy and no more experiments! (Except for the pesky high cholesterol issue that's gotten worse since the last time I mentioned it here! But that's another blog post! LOL)

Enjoy your Sunday Funday, folks! :)

12.10.2012

Quinoa Breakfast Porridge

A few months ago when I found out my cholesterol was a whopping 256, I decided to try to eat a vegan breakfast, vegetarian lunch, and omnivorous dinner. It only lasted a few weeks, but one thing stuck...quinoa. I love it! And while most people I know eat it as a savory side dish, I (of course) went straight for a sweet dish for breakfast. When it comes to hot breakfast cereals, I cannot stand the pasty texture of oatmeal, but this dish makes a nice substitute.

Quinoa has a texture more like rice or cous-cous (cue The Man saying "food so nice they named it twice"), and for me, this is much more tolerable. Quinoa's mild, nutty flavor lends itself to a multitude of dishes, and it's considerably healthier than other packaged hot cereals: it's a complete protein and very high in fiber, magnesium, iron, and calcium. Vegetarians and vegans rejoice!


Every weekend, I make a pot of this wonderful hot breakfast and reheat a portion of it each morning. (It's a great dish for reheating!) It's simple, relatively quick-cooking, and it's a delightfully cozy dish as the weather gets colder. It's become a staple for me, and now that I'm eliminating gluten from my diet, this is a welcome mainstay in my diet.

Quinoa Breakfast Porridge
(serves 4)

1 c quinoa, rinsed
1 c water
1 c milk (use a dairy-free milk if it suits you)
2 T flax seed meal
1-2 T raw honey, to taste
cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
dried fruit pieces
nuts, chopped

In a medium saucepan, combine quinoa, water, milk, flax seed meal, honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and keep covered until the liquid is completely absorbed, about 10 more minutes. Fluff with a fork.

Serve topped with your choice of chopped fruit and nuts (and I add another tablespoon or two more of milk for extra creaminess).

Enjoy!

12.08.2012

Going Gluten-Free...And The Challenges Ahead

Yes, I know...it's been a while. I guess you could say I've been going through a bit of an identity crisis...or maybe an early mid-life crisis? (I have always been mature for my age, and I did give away my entire wardrobe...then I bought a new one! LOL) And now my life is drastically changing again...I'm going gluten-free. No, I'm not trying to be trendy. I actually have a pretty valid reason for this dietary experiment.

You see, for the past few months, I haven't felt well physically. Those of you who know me personally probably know that I struggle horribly with recurring sinus infections and migraines. On a daily basis, I deal with mild to moderate sinus pain and pressure and a low-grade headache. It's not fun by any means, but sadly, I've grown accustomed to it. I try to keep a positive outlook, but some days my body declares war. It's exhausting, and it's taken its toll on me over the last few months.

A few months ago, I had a CT scan of my sinuses, and then paid a visit to an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor who sent me home with antibiotics and scheduled a follow-up appointment. Six weeks later, when I went for my appointment, there was no difference in the way I felt, and my sinuses were still terribly inflamed, so he referred me to an allergist. She did a skin test for 126 allergens (yes, that's 126 holes in my back and arms) and sent me away with yet another antibiotic and a slew of other prescriptions. Now here I am, three weeks after all of that, and I don't feel any better...and I have an official diagnosis of chronic sinorhinitis. Sounds fun, huh?

So, last weekend, I made a decision to take matters into my own hands. I cut out gluten...completely. (Are you giving me the same strange look everyone else gave me?! Well, stop it because by Wednesday evening, I felt better than I have felt in years. Yes, I said years...lots of them.) After riding high for a few days of feeling better but still not fully convinced that gluten was a devilish beast, I got a little lazy last night and didn't really feel like cooking. Instead, I threw a frozen pizza in the oven...and proceeded to eat almost half of it. Yes, half...don't judge! :) I was hungry, and it tasted so good. And I figured the damage wouldn't be that bad...until I woke up this morning and felt like I'd been hit by a train. It was full-on body aches, a horrible headache, and a head so full of congestion and swelling that I got dizzy when I got out of bed. Happy freakin' Saturday! OK, I learned my lesson. It was a painful lesson, but I've learned. No. More. Gluten...Ever.

And now my life will never be the same. Lil Ol' Me, who loves to bake delicious, glutinous treats like breads, muffins, cakes, and cookies can no longer eat these things?! Seriously?! It's the end of the world as I know it. I've slowly come to this realization. Like the lesson I learned this morning, it's been a fairly painful realization. I've cried. More than once.

Luckily, the Internet is overflowing with bloggers who are faithfully posting gluten-free recipes with which I can experiment. Though I don't necessarily intend to join them as gluten-free bloggers, I'm not really sure where this journey is going to take me and this blog, but I hope you'll still stop by occasionally to visit. Your support means a lot to me.

The only thing I know at this point is that, after looking at gluten-free recipes I've found online, there are a ton of ingredients listed that I've never heard of. I have no idea what they do, why they're needed, or where to get them. Looking at these recipes, I'm lost. I have to learn to bake all over again. It's daunting, and to be honest, I'm a bit scared. But I refuse to live my life without baked goods and pasta...or with only store-bought, processed garbage.

Please join me as I wade through what feels like Jell-O on the path to gluten-free enlightenment. Advice is welcome, support  is appreciated, and recipes and tips are always welcome. :)

Thanks for listening. Mangia Bene (and gluten-free)!

9.24.2012

Crock Pot Pear Butter (Awesome Sauce)

This weekend, we were invited over to a friend's house to pick pears - I love free produce! I was busy with The Munchkin, so The Man went. When he left, I told him it would be great to have a couple shopping bags of pears...I said, "Maybe two bags." Lo and behold, The Man came home, backed his car up to the front porch, and unloaded four shopping bags and an outdoor trash bag...all stuffed full of pears!! I was immediately overwhelmed, and I began searching the Interwebs for recipes and ideas.


It was already dinner time, and I knew I didn't have anywhere near enough jars to make anything and get it canned before bed, so I settled on a recipe I found for Pear Butter. The recipe was a crock pot recipe and suggested at least 24 hours of cooking. It also didn't require peeling the pears, so I knew I could get a batch in the crock pot, let it cook overnight and while I was at work today, and it would be ready after dinner tonight. So away I went, washing, coring, and chopping pears.

The end result is fabulous, so I wanted to share it with you. The recipe I used comes from "Hey What's For Dinner Mom?", a blog I follow. It's a very simple recipe, using whole, fresh ingredients (which we all know I love)! :) Even if you don't usually keep whole nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla beans on a regular basis, they're worth having for this recipe. Find a friend with these items or splurge a little and buy your own - trust me, you won't regret it!

(makes about 7 half-pint jars)

10 pounds pears, cored & roughly chopped
1/2 t freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 t freshly ground cinnamon
2 vanilla beans, split & scraped (throw the bean in the pot as well)
1/4 c water
sugar (to taste - only necessary if your pears aren't quite ripe and sweet)

Place all ingredients in a large oval crock pot. Cook on low overnight.


Wake up to the fabulous smell of autumn, and joyously get out of bed to quickly mash the pears with a potato masher. Resist the urge to sit down and eat the entire batch...go to work. :)

Come home from work and have dinner with your family...resist the urge to serve this for dinner!

If you prefer a smooth pear butter, run the pears through a food mill, food processor, or hit them with an immersion blender (I used a food mill with the fine milling disk). If you like the chunkier texture, just mash the pears with a potato masher.


If you're canning: Transfer the mixture to hot, sterilized jars. Process in boiling water for 10 minutes.

If you want to eat it now: Skip the jars and grab a spoon!

Enjoy!

9.03.2012

Chewy Granola Bars

I've been testing granola recipes for years, and many times, the granola is baked, resulting in a crunchy, sometimes too crunchy, texture. This is fine for me, but The Man likes chewy granola bars...particularly, those made by a popular cereal company. However, I think they're terribly overpriced, nutritionally lacking, and stuffed full of mystery ingredients. So, when I came across a recipe on Pinterest lately for a chewy granola bar, I just had to try it out!

So I did just that, with a few modifications of my own, of course. Take a look at the original Pinterest version of the recipe.

This recipe is extremely easy...even your kids can help make it with some supervision...and you'll know exactly what's in it!

Note: When I make things like this (to replace a junk product The Man likes), I *must* get his approval, or he'll never eat it. Luckily, with this, I got almost instant approval!

(makes 10 granola bars)
1/4 c butter
1/4 c honey
1/3 c brown sugar, packed
1/8 t Kosher salt
1/2 t vanilla2 c quick cooking oats (not rolled oats)
1 c crispy rice cereal
2 T flax seed meal
1 T wheat germ
1 T wheat bran
2 T mini chocolate chips

Before beginning, line a small baking pan/dish with parchment paper, leaving enough length to be able to lift the parchment from the pan after the bars are set. (I have found, with some experimentation, that my square corner 9x5" loaf pans work perfectly for this recipe.) Set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine butter, honey, brown sugar, and salt. Heat until just boiling, stirring occasionally (be careful not to let it boil over). Remove from heat and add vanilla extract.

In a medium bowl, combine oats, rice cereal, flax seed, wheat germ, and wheat bran.

Add butter and sugar mixture to the oat mixture and stir until well-combined.

Spread the mixture evenly in the lined pan, and use another pan to pack the granola together as evenly as possible. Sprinkle with mini chocolate chips. Let cool completely before removing from the pan and cutting.

Store in an airtight container.

Variations
I've made a cranberry almond version for myself. I started by soaking 1/2 c dried cranberries in warm water for about 15 minutes. Then I drained them, prepared the granola as directed above, omitting the chocolate chips. Before I pressed the granola in the pan, I stirred in the dried cranberries and 1/4 c sliced almonds.

I've got a few other variations in mind that I hope to post later. What flavors would you like to try?

Enjoy!

9.01.2012

Unplanned Hiatus (and Other Updates)

Good evening all! It's been a while since we've spoken, and I must apologize for my unplanned hiatus. It's always a bit crazy around this house, but that last few weeks have been uniquely crazy. We recently began planning to build a house, which consumed many evenings and weekends, and for the past few weeks (yes, weeks), I've been sick with a terrible sinus infection. I've had a few, brief moments of relief, but this seems to be the worst sinus infection I've ever had. This evening, I'm feeling slightly better, but it's difficult to be hopeful that this will last...I'm trying to be optimistic, though.

Anyway, when we last spoke, we were challenging ourselves to eat better, and I hope you've all succeeded! I hope, too, that you are benefiting from the bountiful local produce available at farmers' markets in the area. We've only got about 6 more weeks of the farmers' markets, but I'm definitely looking forward to autumn produce: apples, pears, winter squash, etc...it also means football, chili, cozy hoodies, and beautifully colored falling leaves. It truly is my favorite time of year!

Speaking of eating better and getting healthy, I recently had blood work done to test my cholesterol levels. The Man had one a few months ago, and his was high, and given my family history and my recent promotion to the 4th decade of my life, I thought it might be a good idea to find out where I stand. Unfortunately, my cholesterol is through the roof...a whopping 256!! Because I'm in otherwise perfect health (minus the chronic sinus infection they finally diagnosed this week), the doctor has prescribed a cholesterol diet, fiber supplement, and red yeast rice (a supplement known to lower cholesterol). And I have to have another blood test in 3 months.

Then I began my research...like I do. I've discovered the keys to lowering cholesterol include the following:

  • decrease dietary cholesterol (less than 300 mg cholesterol daily)
  • increase soluble fiber (fruits, vegetables, beans)
  • increase whole grains (breads, pastas, brown rice)
  • increase omega-3 fatty acids
  • increase healthy fats (nuts, olive oil)
  • decrease saturated fats (meats, dairy, some oils)
My diet is pretty healthy as it is, though I like chocolate and the occasional [bag of] Oreo[s] (teehee), so starting today, for the next three months, I will be a vegetarian - that should cut out what little meat I eat and increase my soluble fiber intake. I'm also going to cut back on dairy - I already drink soy milk, but I am a cheese lover, so... :( We already eat whole grain breads and pastas and brown rice, and I've recently started making granola for my breakfasts, so incorporating more whole grains won't be difficult. I cook with olive oil, but I plan to start snacking on more almonds and less chocolate (and Oreos)... :( 

I'm going to track my food intake with MyFitnessPal, since it will track my cholesterol intake and give me a good idea of the big picture over a period of time. I fear, however, that not having a cholesterol lifeguard in my gene pool means all of this dietary change is pointless - every family member I've spoken to has shared their story of high cholesterol. But it's worth a shot since I don't like taking medications...especially at the tender age of 30. :(

That's all for now. Let's hope I can turn this around without medication! :)

8.11.2012

Streusel-Topped Peach Pie

I've had a few fresh, local peaches in the fridge leftover from canning last week, so today I decided to make a pie ('cause who doesn't like pie?!). However, I've been craving something sweet with a crunchy top, so instead of a top crust, I opted for a streusel topping. It. Was. Yummy!


Here's the recipe:

(makes 8 servings - or 1 if you're not willing to share LOL)

10-12 fresh peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced
1/2 c flour
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c butter, divided
1 pastry for a 9" single crust pie (I used a Pillsbury prepared crust because I had one on hand)
1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1/2 c rolled oats
1 t cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the pie filling: In a medium bowl, gently mix together peaches, flour, and sugar. Set aside.

To make the streusel topping: In a small bowl, melt 1/4 c butter. Add brown sugar, oats, and cinnamon. Mix with a fork until well-combined. Set aside.

Gently place pastry in a 9" pie plate and finish the edge to your liking. Scoop the pie filling into the crust and dot the surface of the filling with the remaining 1/4 c butter.

Top the pie with the streusel.

Bake for 45 minutes or until topping is a light golden brown.

Enjoy!

7.29.2012

Vanilla Peach Butter

Recently, a friend's mom gave me a huge bag of whole vanilla beans...for free! My mind instantly started wondering what I could make. My first vanilla bean adventure was Honey Vanilla Ice Cream, and it was fabulous. And over the last few weeks, since freestone peaches have come in season, I've been buying oodles of peaches! After I bought a 1/2 peck and a few of them got soft, I began thinking about canning them. So, my googling began. I wanted to make something with peaches and vanilla beans, and within only a few minutes, I came across a recipe for Vanilla Peach Butter. It sounded fabulous, so I decided to try it. The following week, I bought a 1/2 peck of #2 peaches - soft, bruised, or scratch-and-dent peaches for $4 (#1 peaches cost $9 for 1/2 peck). I knew I would be making this recipe, so the bruises and softness didn't really matter to me...they didn't need to be pretty!)

After I read through the recipe I found, I modified it slightly for my taste, and here's what I came up with:

(makes 11-12 half-pint jars)

1/2 peck peaches, washed & quartered (I left the peels on for extra color)
1 1/2 c sugar
1 t Kosher salt
2 vanilla beans, split

In a large, heavy pot, cook the peaches, sugar, and salt over low heat until the peaches are soft...almost mushy, about 5 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. To even out the consistency, mash the peaches with a potato masher.

Add the split vanilla beans, and continue cooking over low heat until the mixture has reduced to half its original volume. Continue stirring occasionally.

Once the mixture has reduced, remove the vanilla beans. Transfer the hot mixture to sterilized jars and process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. If canning isn't your preferred method, cool the mixture and transfer to a freezer-safe container. Freeze up to 12 months.

Enjoy!

Let Them Eat...Better! (A Series & a Challenge)

It's been two weeks since I last posted a challenge (last weekend, I was busy building a cabinet for extra storage in my kitchen - it was a blast!). Hopefully, over the last two weeks, you've been able to make a few trips to a farmers' market to gather some locally-grown produce. And hopefully, you've noticed a difference in quality - primarily, an improvement of taste. 

So now that you've been to the market, and you know what is being offered by the different vendors, I'd like to propose our next challenge. Are you ready for this? Let's try to buy all of our produce at the farmers' market instead of the grocery store. Do you think you can? I've actually already started trying to do this, and with the exception of a few last-minute items, I've done pretty well. How do you think you'll do? 

It's been fun to cook with only what's available at the markets...it's definitely led me to think outside the box a bit (and I got The Man to eat stuffed peppers!). I look forward to doing more new things with local produce. What do you think you'll eat in the coming weeks?

7.14.2012

Let Them Eat...Better! (A Series & a Challenge)

How have you all done with the first 3 challenges? By now, we all should have eliminated most processed foods from our diets, added more fresh fruits and veggies, and made something from scratch. Hopefully, we've all significantly cut down on our preservative and artificial coloring/flavoring intake. After all, why would you want to eat something with an unnaturally long shelf-life? And why would foods need added coloring and flavoring when nature offers up plenty of color and flavor?!

So...what did you make from scratch last week that you normally would've bought at the store? I made Whole Wheat Carrot Muffins to eat for breakfast, Chocolate Syrup for my morning mochas, and today, I made a fellow blogger's Honey Wheat Sandwich Bread, which is WONDERFUL! I need to make a few minor modifications to my muffin recipe, and I had some issues with the sandwich bread, but they were directly related to things I did...not the recipe itself.

So, let's talk about the fourth challenge. This week, I want you all to make a trip to the Farmers' Market. For those of you in the Springfield/Jacksonville area, you have several options (so no excuses!):
  • Old Capitol Farmers' Market - 4th & Adams (Springfield) - Wed & Sat 8am-12:30pm
  • Illinois Products Farmers' Market - State Fairgrounds Commodities Pavilion - Thur 4pm-7pm
  • Jacksonville Main Street Farmers' Market - on the square - Wed 4pm-7pm
Your assignment at the Farmers' Market is to buy some fresh produce and cook with it. Easy, right? 

Right now at the markets in my area, the following are just a few of the items in season:
  • Potatoes
  • Bell Peppers
  • Green Beans
  • Cantaloupe
  • Peaches
  • Eggplant
  • Summer squashes
  • Onions
  • Berries
  • Sweet corn
And the list goes on...

The point is, most of the items that are in season right now are very easy to cook with. And by buying locally grown food, you're getting more nutrient-dense, flavorful food, and you're doing (a part of) your part to support the local economy. If nothing else, Central Illinois residents, go get some sweet corn or some peaches!

Here's a super-easy idea, using several of the items on the list above, and it's perfect for grilling season and easily scalable to feed the masses. So fire up the grill, and try the following:
  • Wash enough potatoes to feed your army (about 1/4-1/2 lb per person, depending on the person and the rest of the meal). Cut the potatoes into 1" chunks and put them in a gallon size zipper bag.
  • For every 1 lb of potatoes, wash 1 bell pepper. Remove the stem and seeds, and cut it into 1" pieces and add it to the zipper bag.
  • For every 1 lb of potatoes, quarter 1 medium onion and add it to the zipper bag.
  • For every 1 lb of potatoes, add to the bag 1 T vegetable/olive oil, 1 t Kosher salt, and 1/2 t black pepper. Seal the bag and shake well to coat the veggies with the oil and seasoning. 
  • Dump the veggies onto pieces of foil (leaving the pile small enough to fold the foil into a packet - you may need to make several packets, depending on the size of your army) and seal the foil into a pouch of sorts. Put the packet(s) on the grill over medium heat, carefully turning them over after about 10 minutes. (This also works well in a cast iron skillet, if you happen to have one...just be sure to turn the potatoes to prevent burning.) These will be done in about 20 minutes.
Voila! Dinner is served! And all of the produce used can currently be found at the Farmers' Market!

Mangia Bene, friends!

7.08.2012

Whole Wheat Carrot Muffins

As I mentioned in my last Challenge post, muffins are a great breakfast item because of their convenience, but many of the packaged muffins available in the grocery store are more than one serving and stuffed full of ingredients I can't pronounce. I'm also a big fan of incorporating as much whole grain into my diet as I possibly can.

Also, today I'm starting Georges St. Pierre's Rushfit program. About 50% of every exercise program should be diet, and Rushfit is no different. The nutrition guidelines for the program are pretty simple: whole foods, high fiber, lean protein, and low sugar. Because Rushfit is a pretty intense workout program, I know I'm going to need to change my crappy breakfast habits and get the most out of every meal. So I decided to bite the bullet and turn on my oven in the middle of summer to test a few healthy modifications to my recipe for Zucchini Bread. The goal was to create a high-fiber, high-protein version. I substituted unsweetened applesauce for the oil, whole wheat flour for the all-purpose flour, and added flaxseed meal. And I used carrots from the garden instead of zucchini. 


These muffins smelled so wonderful as they were baking, and my mouth was watering in anticipation of a taste! As soon as they were out of the oven, I carefully peeled off the paper liner and dove in. The Man tried a bite...and then another...and then a muffin of his own, and The Munchkin sat on my hip, gleefully munching away at every bite I gave her. They have definitely received the Man/Munchkin seal of approval!



Here's the recipe:


(makes 24 muffins)

3 eggs, beaten
1 c unsweetened applesauce
2 c sugar
2 c carrots, shredded
2 t vanilla
3 c whole wheat flour
2 T flaxseed meal
1 t baking soda
1/4 t baking powder
1 t nutmeg
1 t cinnamon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line muffin tins with paper liners and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, applesauce, sugar, carrots, and vanilla. Add dry ingredients.

Fill muffin tins 2/3 full.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Enjoy!

Nutrition Information for 1 muffin:
148 calories
1 g fat
3 g protein
3 g fiber

7.06.2012

Let Them Eat...Better! (A Series & a Challenge)

Alright, faithful readers, we've completed 2 challenges so far - hopefully, we've cut out processed foods from most of our diet and replaced it with fresh fruits and vegetables. How have you done so far? I'll admit, I'm still falling victim to the convenience of packaged foods from time to time, but we all will. They're fast and easy, and quite honestly, sometimes it feels good to be bad! :) And the farmers' markets have helped me incorporate LOTS of fresh fruits and veggies!

Now, let's talk about the third challenge...

While we continue to cut out junk and add in the good stuff, let's talk about another replacement for some of the packaged junk...homemade food. For this challenge, let's make something from scratch that we would normally buy packaged. Now, I know it sounds daunting, but like everything else we've done, let's start small.

Are you like me? Does one or more of the following apply to you?

  • Are you addicted to those expensive coffee shop drinks?
  • Do you like the convenience of grabbing a package of muffins at the store?
  • What about bread?
I could go on, but I think you get the point. All of these things can be made at home...easily! Oh, and did I mention the homemade version will probably taste better, cost less, and be healthier because it contains NO chemicals? So what have you got to lose?! This is the time to toss out your fear of cooking...so let's talk about simple, easy things you can make at home.

Coffee Shop Drink:
I'll admit, I'm addicted to mocha lattes...and I mean, seriously addicted! At a cost of $5 per tasty, caffeine-laden, chocolatey treat, this little habit can add up quickly! And I have no idea what kind of extra crap (chemicals) I'm consuming. So...here's an easy solution. Do you have a coffeemaker? Or how about skipping a few of the high-priced beverages and saving the money to put toward a home espresso machine (don't fear...it's only $30!)?

Regardless of the machine you've got or buy, brew yourself about 4 ounces of double-brewed coffee or espresso. Add in 1-2 ounces of homemade chocolate syrup, and 1 cup of hot milk (for an iced drink, use cold milk and pour over ice). If you like the blended drinks, throw the whole concoction in the blender. Easy peasy! :)

Muffins:
Let's face it, muffins are good. Muffin top...well, not so much. :) Did you know most store-bought muffins are at least two servings? A regular serving size for a muffin is about the size of a tennis ball. If you don't know how big a tennis ball is, go to the store and look at one. Then compare it to your favorite muffin. How do they compare? And how many ingredients are in the list on the muffin package? How many of them can you pronounce? How about a muffin with 10 ingredients you can pronounce that only takes about 10 minutes to mix up? Here's a muffin recipe you can use for any fruit you've got on hand (or try it as written with zucchini since it's in season). Just bake them up and freeze them in a freezer bag. Each morning, pop one in the microwave for 10-20 seconds, and you've got breakfast!

Bread:
I *LOVE* bread. :) LOVE IT! One of my favorites is focaccia bread. It's a soft, flat bread, and it's great for sandwiches, garlic bread, or just plain. Think of it as a thick pizza dough (you can actually use it for pizza dough). In a few minutes, you can have the dough mixed, let it sit for a few hours, and bake it. Bread doesn't get any easier than this...no kneading!


So there you have it. Easy as pie, right? 

What do you plan on making from scratch for this challenge? Share your ideas in the comments, or feel free to ask for additional recipes or ideas. But most of all, enjoy the fruits of your labor! You're doing your body a world of good with these challenges, and I hope you'll continue on the journey with me!

Zucchini Bread

Zucchini bread is one of my favorite quick breads. Around this time of year, the zucchini is starting to look pretty awesome, so I usually stock the freezer.

To prepare zucchini for bread, clean it well, and peel it. Shred the flesh, and package in freezer bags in 2 cup portions.

(makes 24 servings)
3 eggs, beaten
1 c oil
2 1/4 c sugar, divided
2 c zucchini, shredded
2 t vanilla
3 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking soda
1/4 t baking powder
1 t nutmeg
2 t cinnamon, divided

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine 1/4 c sugar and 1 t cinnamon.

Grease loaf pans and coat with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, oil, sugar, zucchini, and vanilla. Add dry ingredients.


Divide batter evenly between 2 loaf pans. Sprinkle the top with remaining cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake for 1 hour. For muffins, 


For muffins:
Line muffin tins with paper liners instead of greasing and sugaring the pan. Fill muffin tins 2/3 full. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with about 1 t cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.


Enjoy!

Chocolate Syrup


We all know I'm a chocoholic, but I'm not really a fan of Hershey's syrup in the brown bottle. I usually make my own chocolate syrup to use in milk, coffee, on ice cream...you name it! It's insanely easy!

(makes 2 cups)
1/2 c cocoa powder
1 c water
2 c sugar
1/8 t salt
1/4 t vanilla

In a small saucepan, mix cocoa powder and water. Heat and stir until the cocoa dissolves. Add the sugar; stir to dissolve. Boil for 3 minutes over medium heat. Be careful not to let it boil over! 

Remove from heat. Add salt and vanilla. Let cool.

Pour into a clean glass jar, and store in the refrigerator for several months

Enjoy!

6.25.2012

Let Them Eat...Better! (A Series & a Challenge)

Well, it's time for Challenge #2! Are you ready?

Before we start, let's talk about the last two weeks. Our challenge was to cut out one packaged, processed food from one meal each day. How did you do? Please post a comment and share your successes...and/or struggles.

How did I do? Well...I did...ok. Our dinners are so much easier than breakfast and lunch, simply because dinner time is really the only time I stop doing everything else and just enjoy my food. I have a terrible habit of eating breakfast in the car and eating lunch at my desk while I continue to work. Busy Busy...and I hate this habit! So maybe I'll throw that one into the challenge a little later!

I digress...I slipped a few times over the past two weeks, but I did eat better than I had in the previous weeks. The good news is: the improvements I did make were improvements nonetheless, and that's what this challenge is about! We can't expect overnight changes in behaviors and habits we've had our entire lives. So we start small. Very small. :)

And now that we've cut out some processed crap-food, let's talk about the next step. Let's continue eliminating processed foods, but let's add to it. For this challenge, let's add something to our diet...how about  replacing that packaged item from the last challenge with 1 *FRESH* fruit and 1 *FRESH* vegetable each day. Surely you can do that! :)

Here we go! Mangia Bene, friends!

6.20.2012

Homemade Dishwasher Soap

Now, I know this blog is usually about food, but this isn't much of a stretch - dishes are part of playing with your food, right? And if you're anything like me, you want the dishwasher to do most of the legwork when it comes to cleaning up your cooking messes. So bear with me on this post. :)

The Mom and I have, for quite a while now, made many of our own cleaning products. However, we've never attempted dishwasher soap. I don't know that I can pinpoint the exact reason for our apprehension with this particular product, but last week, The Mom decided to give it a shot.

After we went to the Farmers' Market last weekend, she sent me home with a little sample of her creation. Since our tiny family of three can easily fill the dishwasher in a day (sometimes multiple times a day, depending on how crazy I get in the kitchen), it wasn't long before I had the chance to test out the new concoction.

The result: fair. The dishes came out with a bit of a film on them. The Man and I have had this problem before, and it's pretty easily solved by adding about a 1/4 c of white vinegar to the bottom of the dishwasher and running it again. When the cycle was complete, the dishes were sparkling!

Needless to say, I'm hooked, and the timing couldn't be more perfect since we've got one packet of dishwasher soap left in the cabinet! So today, I bought the stuff to make my own batch - all of these items can be found either in the laundry or dish soap area at Walmart. Here's The Mom's "recipe" and notes:

(washes 32-64 loads of dishes)

1 cup Baking Soda
1 cup 20 Muleteam Borax
1 - 2 cups Lemi-Shine (**Update: this amount will depend on your water and your dishwasher! Hard water will require more Lemi-Shine, while softened water may not require any at all. Experiment away! And let me know how much you ended up using. Like The Mom said in the comments below, this can greatly affect the price per load, so it's worth playing with.)


Mix all the ingredients together and place in an airtight container.  Done!

Use 1 - 2 Tbsp per load.

****If your dishes feel like they have a powdery film on them, put white vinegar in your "spot-reducer" dispenser of your dishwasher.  You can add more Lemi-Shine, too, if you want.

You can't really see it in the photo above, but I bought A&H Washing Soda today. It's in the laundry aisle right next to giant boxes of baking soda. I haven't yet used my version with the washing soda to see if it works any differently, but I'll let you know! :)

I also went ahead and used 2 c of Lemi-Shine since we have very hard water at our house, and we use Lemi-Shine in every load anyway.

As the "recipe" above suggests, you should use 1-2T per load. I'm going to experiment with this to find out what works for us, and I would suggest you do the same, since all dishwashers are not created equal.

Now let's talk about cost because that's an important factor in our house.

We usually buy the little packets of dishwashing soap, mostly for their convenience, and we've had good luck with them in our crappy dishwasher. A bag of a popular brand of these packets costs $8-$9. To be fair, we'll use $8 for the comparison. This $8 bag washes 32 loads of dishes, just like our mixture if you use 2T per load.

Cost of materials purchased:
1 box Borax - $3.38
1 box Washing Soda - $3.24
1 bottle Lemi-Shine - $3.96

Cost of materials used:
I would estimate the box of Borax would make 8 batches of dishwasher soap, and the box of washing soda will make approximately 6 batches. So...
Borax - $.42
Washing Soda - $.54
Lemi-Shine - $3.96

Total cost per batch: $4.92 (that's about $.15 per load of dishes compared to $.25 per load with the popular brand of packets)

Happy washing!

6.18.2012

Let Them Eat...Better! (A Series & a Challenge)

You may have noticed I haven't yet posted a second challenge post this week. I did this intentionally, but it seems I forgot to tell you about it! The reason I am waiting another week is to give all of you a chance to start on the first part of the challenge. I realized that I posted it after everyone had probably already done their grocery shopping for the week, so here's your chance!

If you did participate in the first challenge last week, how did you do? I did alright. I slipped up a few times, but I wasn't feeling well and really didn't have the energy for a couple days to think about it.

If you missed it, check out the first challenge. :)

Look for another post later this week for part 2!

Honey Vanilla Ice Cream

Though it's not quite officially summer, Mother Nature is trying to prove herself a little early with ninety degree temps and a barely tolerable humidity levels. On days like these, I believe there's nothing better than a decadent bowl of ice cream. So when my brother and I were trying to decide what to do for Fathers' Day, I seemed like a no-brainer to make homemade ice cream! But what flavor?!

A few weeks ago, a friend brought me a quart-sized storage bag filled to the brim with whole vanilla beans from his mom...for free! So naturally, my first thought was to make vanilla bean ice cream. But then I started thinking...like I do! I wanted to serve the ice cream with some fresh fruit from the market, and peaches just happen to be in season. Since we were planning to have a cookout, the idea of grilled peaches seemed brilliant! I'm also very interested in using alternatives to refined white sugar, and I just happen to have a fair amount of local honey in the pantry.

So I Googled. I found a recipe for Honey Vanilla Ice Cream that sounded absolutely amazing and would work very well with grilled peaches! After reading some of the reviews for the ice cream recipe, I decided to make a few changes, and it turned out to be some of the best ice cream I've ever eaten!


Here's the recipe:

(makes 1.5 quarts)
2 c milk
1 vanilla bean
6 egg yolks
3/4 c brown sugar
1/2 c honey
1/4 t Kosher salt
2 c heavy cream

With a sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise.

In a medium pan, heat the milk and vanilla bean to simmering, whisking occasionally to keep the milk from scalding. Do not boil.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, brown sugar, honey, and salt until light colored and frothy. While whisking constantly, very slowly combine the hot milk with the egg mixture. (You really will want to do this *very* slowly so you don't scramble the eggs! This is the part of making ice cream that requires patience!)

Once the milk and egg mixtures are combined, transfer the mixture back to the sauce pan. Cook over medium heat until mixture becomes thick enough to coat the back of a metal spoon. (Again, do not boil the mixture!) Remove from heat. Remove the vanilla bean from the mixture and scrape the beans into the milk mixture.

Strain custard into a large bowl through a fine mesh strainer, and stir in the heavy cream.

Cover the surface of the custard with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours. (Putting the plastic wrap directly on top of the custard will prevent a film from forming on the top.)

Once the custard is cold, freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions.

To grill peaches: Halve the peaches, removing the pit. Lightly sprinkle Kosher salt on the cut side of each half and place cut side down on a hot grill. Let the peaches hang out on the grill for 5-7 minutes. (Don't move them!) When the peaches have softened slightly and have a few good char marks on them, gently remove them from the grill. Serve warm.

Mangia Bene!

6.16.2012

Bruschetta

A few days ago, The Mom mentioned bruschetta. Instantly, I thought of my trip to Italy. After a few days in Rome, the second leg of the trip took my friend and me to Sienna for a few days. During our stay in Sienna, we decided to visit Monteriggioni, a walled town on a hill surrounded by vineyards (this is Chianti country, kids!). I had read about Monteriggioni's historical significance before we left on our trip, and I was very intrigued, and we agreed to give it a shot. Since this post isn't a history lesson or travel guide, I'll leave it to you to read more about it on your own. :)

 This post is about bruschetta...a wonderfully simply dish I first experienced inside the walls of Monteriggioni - half the plate was made with tomatoes, and the other half was made with cannellini beans. (This was also the first time I had a sip of Chianti, and I've been hooked ever since! Talk about a great day!!) Since that day, every time I order bruschetta, it has to live up to what I ate so many years ago. I have yet to have anything off a restaurant menu that even comes close, so today, I finally decided to recreate it myself.

Today's lunch using yellow cherry tomatoes left from last week...so yummy!
For me, this dish is about simplicity and quality ingredients. Fresh tomatoes are of utmost importance here. I cannot stress that enough. I think commercially-grown tomatoes taste like wax, so I suggest buying locally-grown tomatoes since they will give you the best flavor. Also, fresh basil is a must! The dried stuff just doesn't pack the same flavor punch. You can find this in most grocery store produce departments, but it usually looks pretty sad, in my opinion. I strongly suggest going to the garden store and buying a plant you can grow and harvest yourself. It's not difficult to grow, and you can use it in a variety of dishes.

I've seen a lot of recipes floating around on the internet that use everything from various cheeses to balsamic vinegar. I, personally, don't think any of this is necessary. Let the tomatoes and basil shine...and trust me, with quality ingredients, they will!

So, at the Farmers' Market this morning, I found some glorious red and yellow cherry tomatoes and a lovely loaf of ciabatta bread.

Aren't they beautiful?!
At that point, I was on a mission! When I got home, I picked some fresh basil (my plants have recovered fairly well from their stint as a beetle buffet), and the rest is history.

I wish I could describe how amazing this smells!
Here's what I did:

Tomato Bruschetta
1 quart cherry tomatoes, washed and diced into 1/4" pieces
3-4 T fresh, chopped basil
olive oil
Kosher salt
black pepper, freshly ground

Naked diced tomatoes waiting to get get dressed in awesome-ness!
Combine the tomatoes and chopped basil in a medium bowl. Toss with enough olive oil to lightly coat the tomatoes, about 1-2 T. Add Kosher salt and pepper to taste (I like about 1 t Kosher salt and 5-6 turns of the pepper mill on a fine grind setting).

Serve on toasted slices of good Italian bread and drizzle with a bit more olive oil.

White Bean Bruschetta
1 can cannellini (white) beans, drained and rinsed
olive oil
Kosher salt
black pepper, freshly ground

In a small bowl, gently toss the beans in about 1 T olive oil. Add Kosher salt and pepper to taste (I like about 1 t Kosher salt and 5-6 turns of the pepper mill on a fine grind setting in this topping as well).
Serve on toasted slices of good Italian bread and drizzle with a bit more olive oil.

A few notes:

  • The longer these mixtures sit in the fridge, the better they taste!
  • I toast my sliced bread on my cast iron griddle. The goal is to get the bread pretty crunchy so it will hold up to the juice from the tomatoes and not collapse when you pick it up. You can do this in a dry skillet, the oven, or even the toaster...whatever is easiest.
  • Some people rub the freshly toasted bread with garlic cloves, but I'm a bit of a purist, and since that's not how I remember having it in Italy, that's not how I do it (though it can be a great addition to the dish).
Mangia Bene!

6.10.2012

Let Them Eat...Better! (A Series & a Challenge)

Good evening all! You may have noticed the past couple weeks, I haven't posted a menu. I apologize for this, but I've been compelled, at least for the time being, to take this blog in a slightly different direction. I've felt that the weekly menus are lacking something - they don't truly share with you my passion for food.

In last week's post, I mentioned a challenge. And even though I'm pretty used to eating fresh, local, and organic (when possible), the challenge even seemed a bit daunting to me. So I've decided to try a series of challenges, making small changes that can have a big impact.

Let's start with why I want to do this challenge (and I hope you'll do it with me!).

The grocery store is full of junk processed food - cheap food with little to no flavor...or artificial flavors. Many of us have forgotten (or have never known) what real food *really* tastes like. We eat because our bodies tell us we need to, not because we enjoy the food we're eating, and I think that's backwards. We should eat for enjoyment for ourselves and those with whom we share a meal...not just to get rid of the nagging feeling in our stomachs! As a result, that nagging feeling will go away.

For me, eating is an experience...most often, a pleasurable one. If I have had a hand in growing the food (or being able to talk to the person who grew it), and I've prepared the food, the enjoyment of eating it increases exponentially. And I want everyone to know this type of enjoyment!

We're all used to buying brightly-colored packages of junk at the grocery store, and as a result of this grocery-store-junk-overload, we've deprived our bodies of the nutrients it needs to carry on its processes in an efficient manner. My belief is that our body is like a car. If you put bad fuel in your car, it won't run correctly. If you don't change your car's oil regularly, eventually, the engine will crap out. Your body works the same way...put junk in, get junk out. My goal is to reverse that.

Buying, preparing, and eating food shouldn't be a chore. It should be...well...an experience! This experience can be even more enjoyable with the right food and the right preparation. Both of these things take practice, so we're going to take a few baby steps to get to the ultimate food experience.

So here's the beginning challenge: For the next seven days, I challenge you (and myself) to cut out packaged, processed food from one of your meals each day. This means no boxed, bagged, or commercially canned foods and drinks...and no fast food. We'll make an exception for milk, since it *has* to come in some sort of container. Now, before you freak out, keep in mind: this is only one meal per day. Surely you can replace your morning bowl of cereal with a banana and a glass of milk!

If you think you're too busy to do this, you've already done your grocery shopping for the week, or you usually stop in a convenience store for your breakfast, just remember that most of the larger convenience store chains have fresh fruit and bottles of milk available for purchase. Most grocery stores will sell you a bunch of bananas and a gallon of milk during any of the 24 hours in the day. Excuse eliminated! :)

Give it a shot. I dare you! And if you slip, big deal. I'm not going to hunt you down. :) After all, you're doing this for you, not me, right? Just try again the next day...or at your next meal.

Are you on board? I'd love if you would comment with your plans for this challenges, your successes, your failures, and any questions you many have along the way.

Mangia Bene!

6.06.2012

Fruit 'n' Yogurt Drops

I originally saw this concept on Pinterest and instantly thought it would be a great way to get The Munchkin to eat yogurt (she isn't really a fan). And it's a frozen treat, so I figured it would be really fun for her.

I was a bit disappointed, though, because every recipe I found used fruit-flavored yogurt, which is usually either loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners (of which I am not a fan). So, in true foodie form, I decided to do it my way.

I bought a pint of fresh blueberries at the market this weekend, and I know The Munchkin won't consume an entire pint of blueberries before they go bad (well, she would if we would let her, but we try to provide a variety of fruits and veggies for her!), so I decided they would be a great flavor to add to the yogurt for the drops (and it's pretty!).


Here's what I came up with:

1 6-ounce container of plain yogurt
1/4 c fresh or frozen fruit
2-3 t honey

Combine all ingredients in a small food processor or blender and blend until smooth.

Pour the yogurt mixture into a plastic zipper bag, close it tightly, and snip off one corner of the bag (a very small opening works best - about 1/8").

On a sheet pan lined with parchment or a silicone baking mat, carefully squeeze out dime-sized dots of the yogurt mixture.

Whoops! :)
Did I mention to do this carefully? It comes out very quickly, so you may end up with a yogurt smear!

Freeze the drops completely, then transfer to an airtight container and store in the freezer.

When you're ready to eat the yogurt drops, only take a few at a time since they thaw pretty quickly.

By the time The Munchkin was ready for her afternoon snack, the blueberry yogurt drops were completely frozen, so I pulled the pan out of the freezer and plucked off a drop. She briefly inspected it and decided it was worthy of eating. Within seconds, she was asking for another. So I put a few in her snack cup.


After a few minutes of complete silence, she made her "all gone" grunt, so I put a few more drops in the cup, which she quickly devoured! When it was all said and done, she'd eaten 15-20 yogurt drops.

I'd say these are a win, and I plan to make some more with raspberries. :)

Enjoy!

Kale Chips

On Saturday, I made my weekly trip to the Farmers' Market and bought several things, one of which was kale. I've never tried kale, but it's a great source of vitamins and calcium, so I thought I'd give it a shot before it goes out of season. My biggest plan for kale was to make a snack for The Munchkin. I've read a lot in the past about kale chips, and as much as she likes crunchy things, I thought this would be an excellent thing to try.


This morning, I did a bit of Googling for ideas about how to make kale chips, and my search led me to one of my favorite food blogs: Smitten Kitchen. Here's her recipe:

1 bunch of kale, washed and dried
1 T olive oil
1 t Kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

While the oven is preheating, gently tear the kale away from the stem.

In a bowl, toss the kale pieces in the olive oil and salt.

Arrange the pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet (I used a silicon liner in my pan just to help with cleanup, but this isn't necessary), and bake for about 20 minutes.

Enjoy!

Now, I know how you're all just dying to hear my thoughts on the results. Well, maybe not, but I'm going to tell you anyway. :)

To put it simply, I wasn't a fan. There are several things I think could have played a role in this:
  • The kale was bought Saturday, but I didn't use it until today. I'm wondering if it gets bitter as time goes on.
  • The baking time in the recipe may have been a little too long. The chips came out with charred edges, and they had a bit of a burnt taste to them.
So, if I try this recipe again, I may either turn the oven temp down a bit or just decrease the time to 15 minutes. I'll also make the chips the same day I purchase the kale, just to avoid any bitterness that might occur after a few days in the fridge.

Have you tried kale chips? What were your thoughts?



Update: The Munchkin seems to like the kale chips. I'm going to hang on to them, if she'll eat them! :)

6.03.2012

My Farmers' Market Spoils - Week 3

For me, there's something addictive about the farmers' market.

Friday night when I went to bed, I told The Man I wasn't sure if I wanted to try to sleep in or get up and go to the farmers' market (it was his morning to tend to The Munchkin). So I didn't make plans either way. If I had made a plan, I knew I would wake up wishing I had the opposite.

I woke up at 6am Saturday...I laid in bed for nearly an hour, wishing I could go back to sleep, before I finally gave in. I got up, got ready, wrote a quick "Went to market" note for The Man, and I off. It was like I was being drawn to the market, even though part of me was wishing I was still in bed.

I arrived shortly after the official opening time, and the streets were already full of people. I like to get there early, mostly because there are several stands that sell out very quickly, and partly because I like to have the rest of my day to think of fun and interesting things to do with the items I score.

This week, I managed to get my hands on some strawberries (from one of the stands that sells out quickly), blueberries, plums, a cucumber, hydroponic tomatoes, kale, and green beans. Here's what I'm doing with the spoils:


  • Strawberries: The Munchkin and I will eat these, but probably not fast enough. So, I'm going to make something yummy with a portion of the quart of berries and a few stalks of rhubarb that are hanging out in the fridge.
  • Blueberries: These are primarily for The Munchkin, since she seems to eat them like candy. It's great because they are little nutrient powerhouses. (She hasn't turned blue yet, either, so I think we're safe.) The pint of blueberries I bought will probably get a little mushy before she finishes all of them, so I'll do something fun with a portion of these, too...maybe blueberry yogurt drops for her to snack on.
  • Plums: I bought two plums...also for The Munchkin. Though now that I'm thinking about it, a plum-blueberry galette sounds fun. I'll think some more on that, though.
  • Cucumber: I bought one cucumber, and I intend to eat most of it myself (sliced or in a salad), but The Munchkin will help me. Surprisingly, she likes cucumbers, and I'm cool with that.
  • Tomatoes: I bought a red one for me and a yellow for The Mom (she LOVES yellow tomatoes). I'll use this on the yummy panini I make (along with fresh basil picked from my garden) and in my salads.
  • Kale: Kale is new to this household, so we're going to experiment with it a bit. I bought one bunch of it, mainly to make kale chips for The Munchkin and me to try, but I want to incorporate it into an orzo dish for dinner one night this week to see what The Man thinks of it.
  • Green beans: I canned two pounds of these yesterday (made nearly 5 pints). I managed to get them snapped, cleaned, and in jars while The Munchkin ate her lunch, and I was so proud of my clever use of her high chair time! :) 
Look for recipes for these items a bit later.

Also, a few of my friends and relatives have asked me a question, and I feel like this is as good a place as any to answer it. The question: Do I plan my menu or shop the market first? 

This is really a matter of personal preference. I shop the market first. That way, I can plan my meals around the things I find. This makes it easier to eat local and in-season (in case you hadn't noticed, this is kind of a big deal for me). I can then go to the grocery store and buy only the staples.

At the Old Capitol Farmers' Market in downtown Springfield, I can find virtually everything: produce, meats, eggs, cheeses, breads, pasta, and all the baked goods you can imagine. So it's feasible for me to walk away with everything I need for the weekly menu. Maybe I'll challenge myself (and you) to shop only the markets for one week...see if you can skip your trip to the grocery store. Are you interested in taking the challenge?

I digress...

I suggest you menu plan and shop in whatever order suits you. It's not hard to guess, based on the season, what types of items will be available at the market, but keep in mind that things like the mild winter we had, pests, and other factors can change the availability of items from week to week. Also, if you're going to plan your menu before you hit the market, remind yourself that you may not find some of the items on your list. 

It all really depends on how much you're relying on local, fresh foods to complete your menu...

Stay tuned for the challenge...we might have to try this! :)

Mangia bene, friends!

5.25.2012

My Farmers' Market Spoils - Week 2

This week, rhubarb takes center stage in my produce basket!

Rhubarb and I have been buddies since I was a kid. My grandma grew rhubarb in the corner of her garden, and every summer, I would go to her house to help pick and cut stalks to be used in delicious pies. She didn't really need my help since she only had one rhubarb plant, but she never turned down my willingness to help. (Smart grandma!)


She would arm me with a small (a very dull, as I remember) paring knife, and we would go out to the garden to cut away. I remember hating how big the leaves where and how they always tickled my face when I would try to get to the bottom of the stalk to cut it. But I was thrilled to help, nonetheless, because I knew what the reward would be. :)

After we had cut all the worthy stalks, we would haul them to her picnic table and sit, straddling the bench. We would cut off the leaves (which are quite toxic if eaten) and the whitish bottoms of the stalks, and she always had a pot of water for cleaning the stalks. Then we would go to work, cutting the stalks into little chunks, about 1/4" in size.


We would measure 2-3 cups of the diced rhubarb and put it in freezer bags. She would usually use some fresh, but I can never remember a time when grandma didn't have rhubarb in her freezer. I bet if I paid her a visit right now, she could offer up several bags of rhubarb in mere seconds!

I distinctly remember two dishes my grandma made from rhubarb: rhubarb sauce (as she called it) and a very interesting rhubarb pie. The rhubarb sauce was basically rhubarb cooked with sugar until it got all mushy and basically formed something like preserves. It was great on toast...or a spoon...and it was always simple to make. The pie was unlike any other pie I've ever had. Most pies consist of fruit mixed with sugar and thickened with a starch of some sort. This pie, however, was made with those little chunks of rhubarb I so vividly remember floating in a wonderful custard-like filling. There is no top crust, but don't worry, you won't miss it! The custard filling forms a crunchy top that I cannot even begin to describe! And it couldn't be eaten without vanilla ice cream! :)

Ah...such fond memories! :)

Now a few facts:

  • There has been much debate over whether or not rhubarb is a fruit or a vegetable. I don't really care which it is...it's tasty!
  • Rhubarb looks like and has a similar texture to celery, but it is red/green in color and very tart. It is beautiful in both color and flavor.
  • The Man hates it with a passion!
Ok, that's enough facts...if you want to know more, Google it. :)

How about a recipe?

The following recipe is for the pie I mentioned above and comes from my great grandma Hattie. It's absolutely wonderful, and even if you don't like rhubarb, I strongly suggest you try this pie. It's definitely unlike anything you've ever eaten. (Oh, and don't forget the vanilla ice cream!)

Rhubarb Pie
1 1/2 c sugar
3 1/2 T flour
1/2 t freshly ground nutmeg
1/8 t Kosher salt
1 T butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
3 c rhubarb, cut into 1/4" chunks
crust for 9" pie (you only need one crust)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine sugar, flour, nutmeg, salt, butter, and eggs. Whisk until combine. Gently fold in the rhubarb and set aside.


Sprinkle an additional teaspoon of flour in the bottom of a 9" pie plate. Carefully lay the prepared, cold pie crust in the pie plate and give it a decorative edge.

Carefully scoop the filling into the crust.


Place the pie plate on a large baking sheet to catch any drips while the pie is baking. Tear aluminum foil into strips approximately 3" wide (you'll need about 3 strips of 12" foil). Fold the ends of the foil strips together to make one long strip, making sure the shiny side is continuous. With the shiny side of the foil facing out, carefully wrap the edge of the pie plate and connect the ends of the foil strip. Gently fold the foil over the edge of the crust. This will help prevent the edges from getting too brown while the pie bakes.


Bake the pie for 35-45 minutes until the filling is set, then remove the foil strip. Return the pie to the oven for another 5-10 minutes until the crust is a golden brown.


Let the pie cool completely before serving (with vanilla ice cream!). (This is the most difficult step in the process because the pie smells so wonderful, and it begs to be eaten. But I assure you, it is worth the wait to let it cool so the filling doesn't run all over the place.)

Enjoy! Let me know what you think!

A quick note about nutmeg: nutmeg can be found whole in most grocery stores and ground fresh with a microplane when needed. It's a little bit more expensive, but it's well worth the added cost because the flavor of freshly ground nutmeg is much more intense than pre-ground nutmeg, but pre-ground nutmeg will suffice if you don't have whole nutmeg on hand.


5.21.2012

Garden Update

Last night we got some rain. Well, actually, we got quite a bit of rain...and some sizable hail...all in the course of an hour. So this evening, I thought it might be a good idea to go check on the veggies in the garden. Here's what I found:

My onions are doing great! The tops are nearly three inches tall, and I'm so excited to have green onions (scallions) and yellow onions! But I'm getting impatient...

The parsnips and carrots took a bit of a beating from the hail last night, but there are a few of each with good, hardy tops. I'll keep succession planting so I can hopefully have plenty to can.

The peas are doing wonderfully! They're climbing the trellises like crazy, and we've even got some good pods forming.



Just a few of the many pods 

I sacrificed a pod to see how things were going...not bad!

A few of the pea plants were broken by last night's hail, but I think they'll pull out of it. I've still got eight square feet of space to fill with succession plantings, so I think we'll be alright. :)

Last week, I planted four new tomato plants to replace the four the critters ate. I also bought and applied a natural deer/rabbit repellent to deter future critters. But, alas, only two of them survived critters. And after last night, the remaining two are gone as well. :( However, I will not give up. I will get more plants this week, but this time, I'm going to go ahead and put the cages around them, and then I'm going to wrap the cages in some sort of small fencing. I'll teach those critters!

The two jalapenos and three of the four bell peppers are doing well, but the fourth bell pepper took a bit of a hit from the hail. I'm going to wait and see if it can pull through before I consider replacing it.

I think it's gotten a little too warm for spinach and arugula, but I do have a few sprouts popping up, so time will tell. On the other hand, the lettuce is doing quite well! I plan to get some more seeds in the ground this coming weekend to keep the salad bowl going.


Yum!

The green beans have barely survived the critters, but I'm still succession planting and crossing my fingers for a good crop.

And finally, the herbs. The parsley was slow to start and just started doing well last week. And then last night, the hail beat it up. The basil is also taking its sweet time, but the cilantro is growing like a weed! If any of you want some cilantro, please let me know! It's screaming to be a part of your next Mexican meal!


Did I mention that this smells absolutely fantastic?

So far this year, gardening has been a bit of a roller coaster. Between critters and hail, we've suffered a little bit of loss, but the amazing success of the peas and cilantro have given me hope. This is a learning experience, and I'm having a blast with it!

How are your veggies doing? Are they thriving? Are you having to overcome any pests?

5.19.2012

My Farmers' Market Spoils - Week 1

This past Wednesday, the Old Capitol Farmers' Market opened up. I just happened to have the day off, so The Munchkin and I drove up to Springfield, grabbed my friend Megs, and headed downtown to scope out the local produce. Normally at this time of year, the market is light on produce, but because of the warm winter, the stands were overflowing! We found everything from asparagus to zucchini! There were a few new vendors this year, and the veteran vendors were there as well.

The three of us strolled up and down the 3-block stretch of goodies, stopping to check out new things, and chatting up a few people along the way. It took us a little over an hour, and along the way, I grabbed a quart of strawberries, a pound of asparagus, two giant bunches of carrots (with tops so tall, they were cascading out of the basket on the bottom of The Munchkin's stroller!), some locally-made rotini pasta, and a raspberry lemon croissant to share (for good measure LOL).

To top it off, we stopped at Cafe Moxo for a drink, some people watching, and to share our croissant. It was a beautiful morning for the opening morning for our adventure, and we had a great time!

Here are a few ideas/tips for the things we picked up this week:

Asparagus
Asparagus can be a bit woody, so I strongly suggest resisting the urge to buy the fattest spears in the bunch. I tend to prefer the thinner stalks because they are more tender and flavorful.

To prepare asparagus for any kind of consumption, rinse it thoroughly, then hold one end of the stalk in each hand and bend it until it snaps. You may have to rock your hands back and forth slightly to adjust where the stalk bends until you find the weak point, but eventually you'll find it. Throw the bottom portion of the stalk in the compost or trash since it's probably tough. You won't miss it, I promise. :)

Asparagus ideas:

  • Grilled/Sauteed: Drizzle asparagus spears with olive oil and give a light sprinkling of Kosher salt. Toss the spears on the grill or in a skillet and cook until tender (about 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the spears), turning every few minutes to ensure even cooking. Or you could try this Sesame Asparagus variant, if you like sesame oil as much as I do.
  • Asparagus Frittata: Here's a good, simple frittata recipe.
  • Grilled Asparagus with Cilantro Lemon Butter: I like this concept since I have an abundance of cilantro in the garden, but I don't completely agree with the method or ingredients. I would use regular, unsalted butter (rather than light) and full-fat sour cream simply because I don't agree with all the extra stuff added to "light" versions of anything. I also wouldn't boil the spears before grilling...I would just put them directly on the grill. I'll give it a shot my way and see how it goes.
Strawberries
Fresh, locally grown strawberries are wonderful and taste a million times better than the ones you buy at the grocery store. The first difference I always notice is the smell. Typically, grocery store strawberries don't have anywhere near the aroma of farmers' market strawberries. The second difference is the color. The strawberries I always find at the store are mostly white in the center. If you do find a store-bought strawberry that is red all the way through, it's probably so mushy that you don't want to eat it. Farmers' market strawberries have an intense red color that goes all the way to the center, and they're not mushy! And finally, the taste. Farmers' market strawberries actually taste like strawberries! ("The schnozberries taste like schnozberries!" LOL) It sounds corny, but it's true. Do your own taste test, and see which one you think tastes better...I dare ya!

To prepare strawberries, rinse them well and remove the tops. That's it!

Strawberry ideas:
  • Strawberry Bread: The original version of the recipe I posted last week.
  • Ummm...fresh!: With farmers' market strawberries, you might even find that you don't need sugar. It's worth a shot, right? After all, we all need to cut back on sugar.
  • Cheesecake: If you're feeling really ambitious, make a cheesecake and top it with fresh strawberries (and I don't mean the boxed kind!). You'll appreciate the freshness of the strawberries in conjunction with the rich, creaminess of a good cheesecake. The recipe in the link just happens to be my favorite (and there are several variations listed at the end).
  • Buy lots of them: Clean them well, remove the tops, and freeze them for use year-round.
Carrots
Carrots come in an array of colors, and are wonderful fresh or cooked! Farmers' market carrots are generally sweeter than the store-bought carrots. You'll also notice that farmers' market carrots usually have smaller roots sprouting off, and they may not be as "pretty" and uniform as store-bought carrots, but looks aren't everything. It's what's on the inside that matters!

To prepare carrots, rinse them well. Peel them with a vegetable peeler and trim off the tops (and bottoms, if necessary).

Carrot ideas: 
  • Can them: I recommend hot-pack canning. There is a wealth of information on the internet, but check out the Ball website first.
  • Steamed: Bring a 1/2 inch salted water to boil in a large frying pan or saute pan. Add carrots, cover, and cook until carrots are tender and water has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
  • Carrot Rice: I found this recipe a while back, and the combination of ingredients intrigued me. I can't wait to try it.
What are your favorite recipes for these ingredients?

Menu: Week of 5/20

It's been an exciting week in our house starting with Mothers' Day on Sunday, my birthday on Monday, the opening of the Old Capitol Farmers' Market with The Munchkin and my good friend Megs on Wednesday, and ending today with time spent at the Highland Games and Celtic Festival (and later attending my cousin's high school graduation party). It's been a great week filled with great family and friends! I'm looking forward to the week ahead!

Here's what's on the menu this week (with fresh produce from the market): 

Sunday: Biscuits and Gravy, Market Strawberries - Sunday evening breakfast is catching on around here, and I love it! And the strawberries are SOOOO good - they taste so much better than the ones from the grocery store (which we think taste like wax)!

Monday: Chicken and Cheese Lasagna, Steamed Market Asparagus, Garlic Bread - I've been craving some lasagna, and I have some fresh mozzarella in the fridge that will make it so creamy and yummy. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Tuesday: Taco Pasta, Chips and Guacamole - This will be a great way to use up the 1/2 pound of ground beef from the burgers we had last week, and The Munchkin LOVES this meal. I don't think I posted my modified version of this recipe, so I'll have to do that this week...maybe Wednesday when I'm home with The Munchkin.

Wednesday: Meatball Subs, Chips - I'm going to hunt for some yummy bread at the Farmers' Market this week to make this extra-yummy! 

Thursday: Jambalaya - We weren't home tonight to have this (as originally planned), and we already have all the ingredients, so we'll just rearrange the schedule a bit and have it this week.  

Friday: Leftovers - I know, I know...Friday is pizza night! But we have another graduation to go to, so dinner will have to be quick, easy, and probably a "fend-for-yourself" kind of thing.  

Saturday: Cheesy Broccoli Chicken Orzo - This is another re-do from this last week...we've already got the ingredients, so I'm going to go ahead and use them up.

Mangia Bene!