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.


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?


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!


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.


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


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! :)

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!

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.


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