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!


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!


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!



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!


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!


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. :)


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.


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! :)


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!