Is It Spring?

Normally, I’m a red wine kind of gal, but National Margarita Day and unseasonably warm, spring-like weather has me craving cocktails and mixed drinks. I had set out to make a margarita one evening, but ended up making my favorite mojito instead. They are relatively low calorie and low carb. Not too much sugar and I use fresh ingredients. I have a weak spot for a well made mojito.

Muddle 1/4 lime wedges and 8 to 10 mint leaves in a glass.

Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of mint infused simple syrup,

1 to 1 and 1/2 shots of white rum and

a few dashes of Angostura Bitters (optional).

Fill glass 3/4 full with ice.

Top off with seltzer; then shake or stir well.

I’ve been experimenting with vanilla vodka. I bought some vanilla beans a few months ago to make my own vanilla extract and still have plenty leftover. I’ve been hearing a lot about vanilla vodka lately and thought I’d make my own. It’s the same method I use to make vanilla extract, only it takes a lot less vanilla and time. After a week to ten days it was ready for drinks, but two weeks later it was even better.

I have a long list of drinks I want to make with my vanilla vodka. I’m unsure about a few of them. I tried it with lightly sweetened tea. Not good. I rarely drink soda, but I have found a few small, local soda makers that use better ingredients. I mixed a shot of vanilla vodka with half a bottle of Uncle Scott’s Natural Root Beer (made in Mooresville, NC). Tasted like a root beer float and took me back to my first job at an ice cream shop in Eastland Mall. I also tried it with some old fashioned ginger ale (Blenheim, made in South Carolina, and Boylan made in NJ). Hello cream soda. Mmmmm… But because it’s so sugary, this drink is dessert. It’s a treat I won’t indulge in frequently.

Linsey had a request last week. She wanted barbecue and that was just fine with me. I couldn’t make it to the farmers market for our usual Grateful Growers pork shoulder, so I tried it with free range, organic chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s instead. I cooked it slow and low in lime juice, a little pomegranate juice, basil infused rum, garlic, salt and pepper. Then when it was fully cooked, I turned the heat up to let most of the liquid reduce down. The meat gets browned and caramelized and chewy on the outside. But after I used two forks to shred it, I knew it was too dry. Pork has lots more fat, and that’s why it makes such good barbecue. So I added several tablespoons of the pastured bacon lard, which I always have on hand and let it cook, low and covered for another fifteen minutes. The chicken was moist and tender, the way barbecue ought to be. It had a subtly different flavor which we all enjoyed. It was a nice change and a good experiment. I served it with roasted potatoes and cauliflower and my favorite sweet and sour slaw with fennel, onion, red peppers and cabbage.

Spring and warm weather makes me want to slow down. We’re not even into spring quite yet, and already I’m looking forward to long summer vacation days with no schedule to keep. The kids were out of school for two days a couple weeks ago. We spent one lazy evening making pasta, from scratch. Haleigh was bored and sulking because she’s grounded and couldn’t go with her sister and her father to run a few errands. Being a parent sucks sometimes. Even though the punishment was deserved, my heart hurt for her. So I let her roll out the pasta. I’ll admit that I didn’t think she’d have much success with this temperamental machine, but she cranked it out. She had fun. She got the hang of it quickly and had every right to be proud of that. And I was free to prepare the other ingredients. We enjoyed each others company. Cooking, talking and laughing with her in the kitchen like that was exactly how I envisioned it. There will be lots more meals prepared this way now that the girls are growing up.

This weekend time changes and the clocks spring forward. We’ll have another hour of sunlight in the evenings. It takes some getting used to. We’ll probably spend a lot of that time outdoors on sunny days, and we’ll inevitably lose track of time. I welcome those days.

Road Trip: Tampa, Legoland, Honeymoon Island and Savannah

I had this whole post typed up about the responsibility of meat eaters to know where their food comes from. Bla, bla, bla… Spent an hour writing it and linking lots of informative sites. Then realized it sounded a little preachy and a bit like vegan or PETA propaganda. I’m not vegan. I’m not a member of PETA. And I hate propaganda, so I deleted the entire thing. Instead I’ll just say this: You should watch this footage of a Butterball turkey plant located in my home state of North Carolina. And here’s the story from the Chicago Tribune that led me to it. Enough said. I’d rather post about our recent road trip to Tampa, Legoland, Honeymoon Island and Savannah.

We rarely travel during the winter, especially during the holidays. And when we did (many years ago) it was to go north to Pennsylvania to visit relatives there. It’s usually frigid and the last time there was a ton of snow on the ground. I love snow, but it’s bitter-sweet when it’s too cold to play outside. Beautiful to look at though.

But this time we traveled south to visit my sister in Tampa. We took the kids to Legoland (thanks Mom) and spent New Year’s Eve on the BEACH!! It was 78 degrees and my kids were in bathing suits and swimming in the gulf. It was kind of surreal to spend New Year’s Eve on a beautiful, warm beach. Aside from the strange, eerie fog that covered Honeymoon Island most of the day, it was wonderfully refreshing for my soul, not to mention all kinds of fun.. and relaxing.

Legoland just opened in October and it was crowded. All of the theme parks in Florida were crowded according to the news broadcast that morning. I’ve made the mistake of going to Disney during spring break and now I know that winter break is only slightly less crowded. But still we had plenty of fun. I had no idea that the Cypress Gardens were in the park and going in there was like warping into some kind of magical garden. It was quiet, peaceful and beautiful – a stark contrast to what was going on outside the garden. Cypress Gardens was Florida’s first theme park back in 1936. (I wish I had visited it before it was part of Legoland.) The Banyan Tree was one of the oddest, most magnificent things I’ve ever seen. You could sense the quiet awe from those of us admiring the tree. Roots literally fall from the branches in search of soil. Mother nature never ceases to amaze me. This horrible cell phone pic doesn’t do it justice. I got a new DSLR camera, but didn’t want to lug it around all day. I realized that it was a big mistake as soon as I stepped foot in the gardens. You should see this tree in person, if you ever get the chance.

We left Tampa on New Year’s Day and headed for Savannah. I love this city. The history. The architecture. The natural beauty. Spanish Moss hanging from nearly every tree. The people. We’ve visited quite a few times, but this is a town you want to keep coming back to.  (And I took my camera everywhere this time.) We splurged a little and stayed at the Hilton Savannah DeSoto in the middle of downtown so that we could walk out the door in the morning and start exploring. The hotel itself was beautiful and grand. The view from our balcony and the sound of church bells the next morning were breathtaking. (The biting cold and wind hadn’t arrived yet.)

We headed out in search of breakfast and bumped into to a local senior out walking his dog. He could tell we were looking for something and kindly offered to help. Apparently we were headed in the wrong direction if we wanted a good breakfast. He suggested Clary’s Cafe. The restaurant was established about a hundred years ago. The breakfast menu was amazing. I wish I had tried a bite of ‘someone’s pancake with the Georgia Cane Syrup, but I was just too full from my veggie omelette. Thank you to the gentleman that directed us there.

After breakfast we headed toward Forsyth Park. Beautiful. We were there for at least an hour and got some great photos.

Then we headed toward River Street to check out the shops. The wind began tunneling through the buildings.

Eventually we got to the cobblestone streets near River Street. The wind was downright painful by then and we ducked in and out of shops as quickly as we could and sought out sunny patches anytime we had to be outside for more than a minute. The Mad Hatter was a fun stop for the girls. They tried on some funky hats. I didn’t notice the sign restricting photos until my sister-in-law pointed it out, after I’d already taken a few. I’m glad I didn’t.

We visited an art gallery and I found some strikingly beautiful photographs taken at Bonaventure Cemetery. We also passed a couple of Savannah College of Art and Design student galleries that Haleigh (my budding artist) and I wanted to visit, but we were running out of time and the wind and cold was finally unbearable. Next time Haleigh. SCAD, the galleries and Bonaventure Cemetery will be our priority. Maybe our first mother-daughter trip.

My Mantra for the Week: “It’s the Little Things”

Christmas is six days away. I haven’t wrapped a single child’s present. I have gift baskets to assemble. And I had planned to have my kids round up their toys again so that we could purge some of the old ones before the new ones arrive. That last one probably isn’t going to happen until after Christmas. I decided to make my life easier by crossing off and postponing some nonessential things on my “to do” my list. I’m doing it to make time for the little things. My kids. This blog. Holiday movies with the family. Baking cookies, making crafts and playing games with the kids.

The stamp you see above came from Michael’s. It literally jumped out at me while I was fussing at London for trying to reach out and grab things off the shelves. We were at the 4th store, in search of a particular kind of label when I found myself on the stamps aisle. Just as I was getting into the “this is the part of the holidays I hate” spirit, I saw it. Just in time. I love inspirational quotes and phrases. It must have something to do with my love of words and meaning. They are like poetry or mantras to me. And that was my mantra for the day. “It’s the little things.”

So here are some little things from my week:

These orange, clove and cinnamon stick pomanders were fragrant and pretty. I found this little project while searching for craft ideas for Linsey’s class party. I was in search of something natural and fun. No foam or plastic and something that won’t break the bank, after all I usually end up paying most of the costs for these parties. A box of clementines, enough for a class of 25 and then some, was $5.99. The cloves, which I bought in bulk at Healthy Home Market cost me about $11.00 and I have a ton leftover. And I already had cinnamon sticks, ribbon, rubber bands and skewers (for poking holes and sparing little fingers) on hand. I also purchased wax paper bags to give the kids something to put them in when we were done. The entire box costs maybe a few bucks and we only needed half. So this craft costs around $20 for a class of 25. I heard one of the kids say that this was the best school party they’d ever had. Music to my ears.

It’s the little things, so we made homemade dark chocolate peppermint bark this year for the girls’ teachers. I used Trader Joe’s white morsels this year and instantly regretted it. Nestle’s Premier White Morsels are better tasting for sure. Even better than Ghiradelli’s white morsels, though Ghiradelli’s dark chocolate chips are great. They were still good of course, but not as good. Oh and if you are making them in a large sheet like I did, cut them into squares when they are firm all the way through, but still soft enough that they don’t chip and break when cutting. Think room temperature. Want to know how I know this? Last year I left them in the freezer for over an hour and every time I made a cut, they simply shattered. I ended up with a pile of irregularly shaped chunks of all sizes. What a disaster. And I recommend the chalky peppermint sticks instead of real candy canes. I can only find them at my least favorite store (a.k.a. Walmart) in the holiday baking aisle this time of year. They are easier on the teeth, the knife and the food processor. Dark chocolate, white chocolate and peppermint… yummy.

Bosky Acres, the goat cheese vendor at my favorite local farmers market usually sells these delicious pistachio and cranberry cheese balls around the holidays. She didn’t have any the week that I needed them, so I made my own. It was so easy, that I think I’ll always make them myself from now on. I used goat cheese from Trader Joe’s because I didn’t have enough of her goat cheese (which is waaaayyyy better in quality and taste). The shelled pistachios and organic cranberries also came from Trader Joe’s. All I did was chop 1/4 cup each of the nuts and cranberries together, rolled the cheese in the cranberry-nut mixture and pressed the pieces firmly in place. Simple. It’s the little things.

Grandma’s Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler

Grandma was right. This is definitely “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler”. I don’t recall ever eating this cobbler made by Grandma. She lived out of state and we didn’t get to spend much time together. Maybe twice a year when I was growing up. Even less when I grew up and had a family of my own.  She passed away a few months ago. But my Grandma was something special. She wasn’t stuffy and prudish. Nor was she soft and gentle. But she was warm and fun. She was known to enjoy a couple of beers and she loved to play cards… and smile and laugh. She was in a bowling league for decades into her ripe old age. She was a ‘people person’. I will always remember her smiling, singing and dancing around. And if she wasn’t doing any of that, she was humming. Always. While she worked on her crossword puzzles. Or even when she was just strolling around the room, with one hand planted firmly on her hip. She was a ‘lefty’, and I swear there is just something special about lefties. I do miss her.

I stumbled across her recipe for apple cobbler a week ago. And what do you know? It’s apple season and I had a ton of them in the refrigerator. This apple cobbler was meant to be.

What I love about the recipe (besides that it’s damn good)  is the simplicity. It’s so quick and easy that you could be eating it within an hour of starting the recipe. And it only contains staple ingredients you would find in most kitchens. You don’t need any baking powder (something I frequently forget to restock) or corn starch. It’s just apples, a little lemon juice, sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, eggs and butter. I followed the recipe nearly to the letter because I wanted to taste her apple cobbler. I only needed about 6 apples since mine were fairly large and I used the juice from one not so juicy lemon, which may have been more like 1 1/2 tbs. Her recipe also calls for “oleo”, which makes this recipe even more charming to me. Oleo is an old-fashioned term used sometimes for butter or oil, but usually for margarine. I used real butter.

I should also say that technically, this may be more of a “crumble” than a cobbler, just in case you are looking for a true cobbler recipe. I thought it was a little bit unusual that there was an egg in the topping. Most recipes only call for butter, flour and sugar in the dough. The egg though, is what gave it the extra crunch that I loved so much. I also love that the apple “filling” is just apples and a little lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. No milk or water to make it soupy. No flour to thicken it. No added sugar to sweeten it. Just apples!  (I say to you with both hands in the air! Do you know how happy this simple detail makes me?) I wouldn’t use Granny Smith or cooking apples for this recipe. It would probably end up too tart and too dry. But if that’s all you have then just add maybe a 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water or juice to the apples. They may also need just a few more minutes in the oven to get them nice and soft. I almost always prefer to use regular eating apples and cut back on the refined sugar in any recipe. I used mostly Golden Delicious and a few Pink Ladies that I bought from Matthews Community Farmers’ Market (my favorite source for locally grown food).

I’m not sure if any of you actually care about the quality of the ingredients that I use. But I have a feeling some of you might. So from now on I’m going to put my first choice for ingredients first and then, in parenthesis the more common substitute in a sort of sliding scale. If I use organic, obviously the regular stuff will work in it’s place. I won’t bore you with every detail on each ingredient, but I’ll share this with you instead. Most of my produce and the little bit of meat we consume comes from the Matthews Community Farmers Market. Everything is grown or raised within 50 miles and the produce is either USDA Organic, organically grown (without the costly USDA certification) or grown with minimal amounts of the safest pesticides or chemicals possible to save crops from complete devastation; and the animals are all raised on pasture. I am confident that this is true because these farmers and vendors feel as passionately about real, unadulterated food as I do. Some of them are members and supporters of Slow Food. The vendors and the patrons all care about things like sustainable farming and the humane treatment of animals. If they didn’t, they’d be selling at another farmers market. This is the best farmers market in the Charlotte/Matthews area, I assure you. Also I usually buy organic when it comes to these big three:  corn, soy and wheat products – to avoid controversial genetically modified food (GMO’s). I wouldn’t be as worried about these, IF they weren’t in the majority of the products found in grocery stores (in one form or another). So here we go:

Mabel’s “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler”

  • 8-10 local, organic apples, peeled and sliced (mine were not organic, but no detectable residues were found on the fruit upon testing, obviously commercial organic or regular apples can be used)
  • 1 Tbs. organic lemon juice (non-organic is probably okay when it comes to citrus juice)
  • 1 c. organic evaporated cane juice  (I used 3/4 cup since my apples were sweet and because I always try recipes with 1/4 to 1/3 less sugar at first. 3/4 cup was enough for our taste. Organic sugar or regular sugar works fine.)
  • 1 c. King Arthur’s organic all-purpose flour (Local and organic is better if you can find it. Hoffner Organic Farms has some, but regular flour will work, whole wheat flour is probably okay too)
  • 1 tsp. organic cinnamon (non-organic cinnamon will do)
  • dash of real sea salt (any sea salt or regular table salt)
  • 1 local, pastured egg, beaten (organic, cage free or free range or regular eggs will work)
  • 4 tbs. oleo (butter), melted (I used Kerrygold unsalted, which is pastured, but imported from Ireland. Organic butter or ordinary butter will work.)

Method:

Pour lemon juice over apples. Mix dry ingredients and egg until crumbly. Sprinkle over apples in 5 x 9 baking dish (a 9″ square pan worked just fine for me). Drizzle with the melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. “You can use peaches instead of apples if desired.”  (I’ll remember that when peaches are in season!)

Real Food, Busy Week, Charleston, SC

What a great week! Brian surprised me. He had planned a trip to Charleston for our anniversary. He arranged everything. Sitters were lined up. Hotel booked. We would leave on Friday, as soon as we could wrap up the work week. Meals were a little more hurried throughout the week and Haleigh’s rehearsal schedule is throwing me off. I’d forgotten to thaw the pizza sauce one night (which was leftover from a batch I made a couple weeks ago). Since we don’t have a microwave to thaw it fast, I had to come up with Plan B: a white sauce. I made a roux of one part butter and one part whole wheat flour. Added whole milk, fresh garlic and goat cheese. Too much milk. I reduced it, but not enough. It came out runny and practically disappeared into the crust. But the pizza was still awesome because the sauce and the toppings were so flavorful.

Homemade whole wheat crust, white sauce (flour, butter, milk, goat cheese), sauteed shiitake mushrooms and onions, aji dulce peppers, a few leftover chopped tomatoes, arugula and prosciutto.

My mom makes this wonderful dish with pork, kielbasa, hot dogs and sauerkraut served with mashed potatoes. It was one of my favorites growing up. Since we’ve cut back on the meat around here, I usually choose one of the three meats. This time it was kielbasa. And to put my twist on it and to save time, I made it a one pot dish with diced diced veggies and cubed potatoes, instead of mashed. I threw the sauerkraut on at the end just to warm it through.  This was quick and tasty.  Everyone loved it.

Sausage, Peppers and Potatoes

One day for lunch I used leftover rice to make fried rice. Saute onions in oil or butter. Push them aside then scramble some eggs  (we like a lot, so I use two per person).

One pot meal!

Add sesame seeds and rice. I like to get the rice nice and browned for great texture and flavor. The rice gets a little chewy and even a bit crispy in places. Sometimes I have to add a touch more oil and crank up the heat to get it that way. They don’t call it fried rice for nothing. Then I add the soy sauce and cook it for a little longer. A  tablespoon of butter right on each plate before serving is my little twist. Butter and soy sauce are so good together.

These bars are my “candy” and one of the few processed foods I buy regularly. They are filled with sugar, but the natural kind – from fruit. Dates. There is no added sugar, and usually five or less ingredients. I’ve only been able to find the Coconut Chocolate Chew flavor at Healthy Home Market. Luckily I don’t go there often. The Cashew Cookie is easier to find and has slightly less sugar. It’s good, but cashews and dates don’t tempt me the way chocolate and coconut can.

Chocolate Coconut Chew Larabar

Only five ingredients: Dates, Almonds, Walnuts, Unsweetened Coconut, Unsweetened Cocoa Powder -but 22 grams of sugar!!

This is a healthier snack. One I have more often… and guilt free! Apples dipped in peanut butter (no added oil or sugar, only ingredient is peanuts) and shredded coconut.

My apple dippers with peanut butter and shredded coconut.

And as for the weekend in Charleston… calming and delicious. I researched some restaurants before we went (something I always do before a trip these days) and we visited a few. If you’re ever in the Charleston/Mt. Pleasant area try The Glass Onion (my favorite restaurant – I had fried quail, greens and grits, also tried the deviled egg which comes highly recommended), Crave (I had scallops, lobster risotto and green beans) and Charleston’s Cafe (for breakfast I had the Southern Benedict – eggs, fried green tomatoes and bacon on french bread topped with hollandaise – one warning: “chippers” are potato chips, yummy but not a fan of chips for breakfast). There were so many great restaurants in the area. We visited the Charleston Farmers Market at Marion Square in Downtown Charleston and had lunch there. Brian had a delicious crepe from Charleston Crepe Company (in high demand, we waited around 15 minutes for this crepe) and I had a bowl of homemade lemon, chicken and rice soup. I love exploring places through food! Check out this Chihuahua we found occupying Charleston Saturday morning:

Healthy Home Market, Rooster’s and Other New Places

On Friday we ate at Roosters Wood-Fired Kitchen on Morrison Boulevard, across from Southpark. We chose this restaurant because it was casual, kid friendly and reasonably priced. They use local and organic ingredients when possible. The menu is a la carte, but not super expensive like you’d find in a fine dining restaurant. They bring bread out before the meal and the “kid food” was really good. Good enough for an adult. Mac and cheese was definitely made with real cheese and the chicken fingers were delicious. Haleigh ordered a burger which she and Brian liked. I didn’t try it, but it looked yummy. I had gnocchi and a salad. The portions were just right – more than enough for one person. Most restaurants give you enough for two or three. I don’t eat that much… neither does Brian. He ordered the pasta special and salad. I was hoping for more veg in our meals, but it was a la carte. Next time we’ll order another side vegetable. Linsey wanted to sit outside (which would have been nice – it was beautiful and comfortable outside), but when we walked in and saw the open kitchen we changed our mind. The atmosphere was cool. We’ll definitely go back for the food and the ambiance.

Oh and I just purchased a Groupon for Table 274 in Cotswold ($12 for $25). They have local menu selections. Can’t wait to try it. Yay Groupon for offering a discount for a restaurant that supports local agriculture! You can click on this link if you want the Groupon.

I was going to do some shopping Sunday morning and decided to check out Healthy Home Market on South Boulevard. I usually go to the one on Independence, which is smaller. After reading some reviews on yelp.com (to make sure it was worth the trip) I figured I check with Brian to see if he’d want to go. I’d read quite a few good things about their beer selection and I knew that would spark some interest for him. (He loves to try new brew and he’s rubbed off on me.) The beer selection was nice. They had some local brews and some organic ones. I even found a local one to try – Carolina Strawberry Ale. Pretty good. It’s not sweet or anything, but you can smell the strawberry. The bottle is cool and girlie. It’s girlie beer. I like it, but to be honest I don’t see Brian standing around holding one.

The girls were not happy that they had to tag along, but once we got there they were glad they came. They got a few treats and some chicken wings from the deli while I poked around and shopped. They have a meat counter – with local and grass fed beef and pastured chicken (and it’s way cheaper than the stuff I buy from the farmers market). They are at least twice the size of the Independence store. They had more deli selections and prepared food. More bulk items. (The selection and process of buying in bulk was intimidating the first couple times, but now I’m hooked. I’ll probably only rarely buy prepackaged flour, sugar, beans, salt, etc. It’s much cheaper and the quality is way better when you buy from bulk bins. Even cheaper than Trader Joe’s. Plus you can decide how much or how little to buy.)

Most of the produce is organic and some of it is local, or at least regional. And they have all the specialty items I use. I have a feeling Teeter and TJ’s will be seeing less of me. And they have these great classes, talks and community events. We’re looking forward to Customer Appreciation Day (Saturday, May 21, 1-4pm). Love this store.

I’m looking forward to exploring South End (downright excited about it actually). I am not familiar with the area at all, but that is going to change. They have the kind of natural and local food stores and restaurants that I like – all clustered together. I’m going to check out Atherton Market, right down the street from HHM and Berrybrook Farm, on East Boulevard next time I’m in the area.

Brian visited the Peach Stand in Fort Mill and discovered that they sell the milk we like. It’s just as far as my every-other-week-milk-pickup location, but (like HHE on South Boulevard) they have other local products that I’m interested in. Plus, I can make the trip on my own schedule. I can’t wait until we run out of milk so I can go check it out!

Naples and Exploring Natural, Organic Markets and Restaurants

Naples. Naples. Naples. I can’t wait to go back. As I mentioned in my previous post, we were in Florida visiting my sister last week. We decided to drive three hours and spend a few days in Naples during the work week. We stayed at the Best Western Inn & Suites which was highly rated on every site we checked. I can confirm that it was definitely a great place. The kids were thrilled. They were expecting the usual one-room-with-two-beds hotel room and had no idea what a “suite” was. (We’ve stayed in them before, but apparently they don’t remember.) It had a separate bedroom, large bathroom and small kitchen. The living area was nice and roomy all the rooms were very nicely furnished and decorated. There was a balcony with a couple chairs and a table. It was screened in, which was nice. Though the view was just of the pool and adjacent building… hey it was Florida. The pool is surrounded by lush, green trees and plants and brightly colored tropical flowers. So our view was what I’d call “tropical rain forest”. Oh and the building was made of beautiful stones, not some drab brick or stucco. I wish I had taken a picture. The first morning I woke up and looked out the sliding glass doors I felt like I was in paradise.

There were two separate pools and hot tubs (both nice) and they served a continental breakfast… which was nothing to brag about. I think I ate two hard boiled eggs while I was there and only to sustain me. They had white toast, waffles, apples, juice, cereal, oatmeal – nothing I want my family to eat in the morning. Haleigh usually ate toast and an egg. Linsey and London ate questionable waffles with “pancake syrup” (not to be confused with 100% Real Maple Syrup). I had a stash of organic apples, so we skipped their conventional ones.

Just a word about “pancake syrup” and sweeteners… Pancake syrup is usually made of corn syrup, sometimes high fructose corn syrup (sometimes both), and artificial coloring and flavoring and other disgusting additives and preservatives. (Click here for Aunt Jemima Ingredients and Nutritional Info.) My kids prefer it over real maple syrup which baffles me. At home Brian, London and I use the real the thing. I have made the girls pancake syrup the way my mom did when I was growing up – sugar, water and artificial maple flavoring – but won’t be making it again when this last batch is gone. We don’t use it much anyway and they’ll just have to learn to like the real thing, or go without. Luckily they also like fresh fruit and even peanut butter on their morning pastries. 100% Maple syrup is better for you than pancake syrup, but it’s still sugar. We rarely eat pancakes or waffles  anymore because I don’t believe they are healthy. Once you add the syrup, they pretty much become pastry. Newsflash: Pastries aren’t good for you. Pastries are a rare treat at anytime of day, especially breakfast.

I also don’t buy refined sugar at all anymore. We use mostly raw, local honey and 100% pure maple syrup for sweeteners when needed. I also use sucanat (whole cane sugar) or muscavado (unrefined brown sugar), which I get at a health food store, Healthy Home Market, and very rarely (mostly Brian’s coffee) we use evaporated cane juice. I usually buy organic and fair trade certified sweeteners. All of these cost more than refined white table sugar, of course. But we still spend less on it than we used to, because we eat so little of it – which is the way it should be really. I cut sugar out completely or at least by a third in almost every recipe.

While we were in Naples, we decided to kick typical vacation food to the curb and attempt to eat what we would if we were at home. To our complete surprise, we were right next to Naples version of Healthy Home Market, Nature’s Garden. And they had a cafe that served cold sandwiches, salads and a few hot dishes (chicken, rice and soups). We ate lunch there, twice. We tried to eat at a local restaurant that serves fresh, local and organic foods, but we were too late and it was a little more upscale than we expected. Not the kind of place you take three young kids on vacation. We ended up the Cheesecake Factory (blech!) that night. (Click here to see my review on Urban Spoon.)

Also across the street, though we didn’t get to explore it until the morning we checked out, was a group of stores called Food & Though 100% Organic Market. There was a small, boutique-like clothing and bedding store, gardening center, grocery store and cafe (wish I had known about this earlier in our stay). The organic clothing and bedding store was something new for me. I found my new favorite t-shirt – a 100% organic cotton “Eat Local” t-shirt. I would love to buy the bedding, but WOW! Not. Cheap. Eventually, I’ll replace all of ours, but that will take some time and planning. I also bought several packets of organic, heirloom seeds from the gardening center. I planted them yesterday!

The beach and the people in Naples were fantastic. What a melting pot. It was refreshing to be around such a diverse group and in such a beautiful place. In fact, many of the families we encountered weren’t even speaking English. Spanish, French, Italian, and others I can’t name. It truly felt like we had stepped into paradise.  We arrived late in the  afternoon on Tuesday. We had planned to walk out on the beach for a quick look and then go out to dinner. But after stepping out onto the beach, we changed our minds. We went and grabbed some sandwiches from that Nature’s Garden, ate and changed into our bathing suits. It was the best decision ever. We stayed to watch the beautiful sunset. When the sun finally disappeared completely, the people on the beach oohed and aahed and broke into applause. It was worthy.

After exploring Naples’ and Tampa’s natural, organic markets and restaurants, I realized that I have not done this enough in our own home town. I’m sure Charlotte has similar shops, and I know they have several restaurants I’d like to try. I mentioned that I was going to explore more of these stores in Charlotte to Brian and his response was, “I’m already ahead of you.” He found an app on his phone that lists “natural” places in Charlotte. At least once a week I plan to check out a new place. I may try the Healthy Home Market on East Boulevard this week. I’ve been to the one on Independence, but I’m thinking the East Boulevard store might have more to offer. We’ll see.

Tampa, Food and Surprises

Last week we visited my sister and her family in Tampa, FL. What a beautiful city! The weather was perfect. It was a nice 85 degrees most of the trip and the humidity hasn’t set in yet. We visited Tampa’s Lowery Park Zoo. This is the best zoo I’ve ever been to. Sadly Linsey and Brian missed out on it this trip. Linsey contracted a stomach virus and they had to leave almost as soon as we entered. She broke our hearts, crying in disappointment and discomfort when she finally decided to throw in the towel and go home. She’d been looking forward to the trip all week. She is finally feeling like herself again, five days later.

Next to the sick kiddos, the hardest part of the trip was finding real food. Luckily Tampa, just like Charlotte, has also been affected by the slow food movement. And thanks to a long growing season, it was no surprise that there were several local, organic, real food restaurants to choose from. Unfortunately many of them were expensive and too upscale for kids (of course) or inconvenient while vacationing and on the road. We shopped at Greenwise (Publix version of Whole Foods) for groceries. We found some grass fed beef there, which we used to make delicious burgers one night, and most of our usual staples. I wish Harris Teeter would open a similar, greener and healthier version of their stores. Maybe they could do it better. I still see things at Whole Foods and Greenwise that shouldn’t be on their shelves – typically in the middle aisles, where there is still too much processed food.

My sister planned a secret girls’ night out for us while we were there. What a surprise! She took me to a cooking store of sorts. They sell cooking supplies, but they also have a kitchen in the back where they have classes and demonstrations (fun!). Everyone was so nice. They had an “instructor” there that was into natural cooking. I so want to be in her class. The owner, our host, was funny and very entertaining and the “bartender” – a sweet, 70-something year old southern belle with bright red hair – carded me. (That’s right! As in asked-for-ID.) We were there for a charity event benefiting a temporary home for kids who are abused, neglected, etc. There was food and wine and shopping for cooking supplies at a 10% discount… yipee! If this store were in Charlotte I would definitely look into cooking classes or demonstrations. In fact there must be something like it here. I’ll be looking into that soon. Thank you so much Heather for a fun, memorable night.

Another surprise (I’m switching gears now) was a full-fledged, small, private farm smack in the middle of Heather’s residential neighborhood. We walked to it – twice. They sell fresh, pastured eggs, raw milk, honey and a few other things. The coolest thing is that you can just walk onto the farm and check it out. The first time we went a little girl that lived next door was our tour guide. There were chickens running around everywhere. The cows were in a small pasture and a few pigs were in a pen (not a good one on any level). We got there at milking time, so the girls (and I) got to watch the entire process – moving the cow into the stall, feeding it hay to keep it calm and happy, cleaning the underside and hooves of the cow and then attaching the pump to the udders. I was hoping they would offer us a taste. I wish I’d asked. I really want to taste the warm milk, fresh from the cow, just as it is described in a book  I recently read Growing a Farmer  by Kurt Timmermeister. It was neat to see the things I had read about in action. I’ve visited farms before, but not since reading this book and not on this small, yet diverse scale. The first time we only went for the orange blossom honey. It was yummy with a light floral taste and a hint of citrus. It’s even slightly orange compared to other honey. (Click here for an interesting article about the farmer, Marion Lambert, and his honey.)

Here a cluck. There a cluck. Everywhere a cluck, cluck.

Later in the week we needed eggs, so we decided to visit again. The girls were so excited and Brian wanted to see the farm as well. This time I brought my camera. We ran into the farmer on this trip, Marion Lambert. He explained in more detail what the cows ate -mostly alfalfa and grain. I wouldn’t exactly call these grass fed, though they are pastured cows. He only has a few acres, not enough to grass feed his small herd. And he doesn’t use organic feed. This is a simple farm. Not the idyllic, perfect one I have in my head. There are only a handful of those. But still, this is a natural farm. One I’d be happy to support if I lived nearby.

Several neighbors help out on the farm. The first time we visited we met a mother and daughter that volunteer and also benefit from the farm. They were walking and feeding a donkey who had some health issues. She mentioned that one of the pigs were hers. Which brings me to one thing on this farm that I would not support. The pigs are not well cared for. (It’s always the poor pigs that are mistreated! Usually the smartest and probably most aware animals on a farm.) There are three or four of them in a small pin, lined with some sort of metal floor along most of the pen. The back side is not lined with metal, and this is the pigs only mud source. There is no shade and no place for them to root – a pigs favorite past time. They looked listless and sad and they were filthy (pigs are surprisingly clean animals). I know that pigs are tough to care for, but it didn’t seem like anyone really cared at all. I wanted to ask about it, but I thought it would be rude to mention it on my first or second visit to the farm. Then again, maybe it wasn’t right after all – to keep quiet and look past the cruelty to the pigs, even though everything else on the farm seemed pretty good – and just to be polite.

It was a good trip (as usual). Visiting family is always fun, but when they live in a beautiful city like Tampa, it’s even better. During the week, when my sister and her husband were working anyway, we also visited Naples for few days. Wow! Great hotel, great location and a beautiful sunset. (More on that in a future post.)

Ballast Point Park in Tampa

Ballast Point Park in Tampa

Hillbilly Produce, Super G Mart, Harris Teeter and… Food Lion

I drove all the way out to Hillbilly Produce just to buy chestnuts this morning (they’re so yummy and good for you)… and they were sold out. The guy I spoke with said they probably weren’t going to get anymore in. Boo hoo hoo…  This is about the third time I’ve been here and I’m still not impressed. But I did buy 3 pie pumpkins for $5 and some more Grateful Growers pork chops while I was there. I was bummed that I missed out on the chestnuts.

While I was pulling away, I decided to check out the international food market, Super G Mart, across the street (where Bi Lo used to be). Several people, including my Korean mother have mentioned this place to me several times. I’m so glad I finally went!! Maybe it was meant to be… the first things I noticed was that they had chestnuts! They are the Asian variety I think because they are much larger than the ones you’ll find around here. I bought a huge bag of them – probably around 3 or 4 pounds. I’ve already roasted a few (in the microwave) and they are yummy. So I got what I was searching for, just in another place.

I walked in without a cart or basket thinking I was just going to look, but after my fingers and arms started cramping from carrying so much stuff, I decided to grab a basket. By the time I left, my forearm was sore from the weight of the basket and my fingers were cramping from carrying stuff that wouldn’t fit in the basket. Next time I’ll be sure to get the shopping cart.

The produce selection is pretty amazing. They have most of the standard stuff plus lots of exotics. They had my favorite Asian sweet potatoes (which are actually yams, I think and also really good for you) so I stocked up on bunch of small ones – perfect size for snacking. They taste much better than the standard sweet potato and are better for you. You should definitely try them if you find them in an Asian market. I also scored a couple of 2 quart sized, Low Sodium Kikkoman Soy Sauce on sale for $8.99 each. I picked up some enoki mushrooms and organic, non-gmo tofu. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten these mushrooms, so this is my “something new to try” for the week.

Tofu is something that I’ve eaten once or twice before. Even though this was a staple in my house growing up, I’ve never really given it a fair chance. I think my mom puts in her egg rolls (which I love, as does anyone who’s ever tried one), but I can’t really remember trying it any other way. I’m sure I must have as a child. Maybe that’s when I formed my unfair opinion about it. So it’s another food (like the eggplant) that I’m going to give a second chance. I don’t know how I’m going to use it yet.

Harris Teeter made me very happy today. I was out of milk, so I had planned to use some Organic Valley coupons there this morning. I decided to check the sale add before going and it’s a good thing I did. They were super doubling coupons! So all of my $1 off coupons were now worth $2! I got 4 half gallons of milk for $3 each, 2 small containers of heavy whipping cream for about $0.35 each and 2 bricks of cream cheese $0.59 each!! I also grabbed some of their eggnog. There was no coupon for that, but I couldn’t resist the thought of sipping a nice warm cup of eggnog (with a little spiced rum) with all this cold rainy whether we’re having. I also picked up some Lara Bars for $1 each (usually $1.50). I highly recommend these. They only have a few ingredients and no added sugar. My two favorites are the peanut butter and the cashew one. The fruity ones (apple and cherry) are pretty tart – too tart for my taste. I got Seattle’s Best Cinnabon coffee for $4 after vic savings and coupon and Starbucks coffee for $6 after coupon.

Seventh Generation products were also on sale. Some of them weren’t worth the small savings, but the detergent was on sale for $9 and I had $1 off coupons (but not subject to doubling). I also picked up the paper towels, toilet paper and automatic dish washing gel. The bonus is that more seventh generation coupons were generated when I checked out. I’ll be going back for more tomorrow probably.

Oranges and tangerines were on sale too. They are in season now and taste so good! I’m sure my kids will be happy to know that we have something besides apples in the house. This should hold us over until the clementines show up.

I forgot to pick up ginger root for dinner tonight, so I decided to run by Food Lion because it was convenient. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in there. I got the ginger, but also wanted to see if they offer any of the products that I usually buy these days. Nope. Not one. I couldn’t easily find any organic produce (though I just gave it quick look). Didn’t see any eco-friendly/safe cleaning products, though I do remember buying Greenworks there before. Food Lion, you guys need to get with the program. If this is your usual grocery store, might I suggest you step out of your comfort zone and venture to a Harris Teeter at the very least. This might be a good first step into a healthier lifestyle.

KYFT 2010

This weekend the girls and I, and a few of our friends, visited seven farms during the the Know Your Farms Tour. Twenty-seven local farms participated. Saturday we visited three: Birdbrain Ostrich Ranch, Grateful Growers Farm and Lewis Farm/Carolina Cattle Co. The ostrich farm was our first stop. The little guys were so cute. We sampled some ostrich meatballs. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but ostrich is nothing like the poultry I’m used to. If someone had told me I was eating beef, I would’ve believed them. Lewis Farms was more fun for the kids. They fed hay to the horses and there was a hayride tour.

The highlight for me on Saturday was visiting Grateful Growers. If you’ve read any of my earlier entries, you probably know that this is who I buy pork products from at the Matthews Farmers Market. It was nice to visit a farm that actually provides food for our family, and it was the only one we visited this go round. Linsey was very excited when she recognized Natalie from the market. I though we’d just be seeing a lot of happy pigs, but it turns out they grow other things as well for their own consumption: chickens, turkeys, mushrooms!! We ate lunch from their Harvest Moon Grille concession trailor. The GGQ (Grateful Growers pork barbecue) was good, but the pork burger with sriacha aioli and cheddar cheese on a homemade yeast roll – was devine! It would have been even better with the tomato. Haleigh ordered it without. This place has been highly rated (and not just by me), so if you’re ever in uptown Charlotte, hunt this orange concession trailer down!!

On Sunday we visited four farms that were really close together: Hartsell Farms, Bame Farms, Wild Turkey Farms and Landis Gourmet Mushroom (which is actually in an old cotton mill). We saw Fainting Goats, Belted Galloway Cattle and Gulf Coast Sheep (all endangered breeds) at Hartsell Farms. This is where I realized I had never really tried lamb before. I wish I’d though of it before we left and bought some while we were there. As soon as I figure out how to order some local, humanely treated lamb, I’m going to attempt cooking it.

Bame Farms was a small operation. The girls enjoyed playing with the antique corn sheller and grinder, but this is not the type of farm I want to support, at least until things improve for the pigs. I was really disappointed at how they were treated here. The pen was too small and the entire thing was just one large muddy mess, which I’m sure included the pigs’ own waste. This is better than a CAFO on a factory farm, I guess. But the chickens that we saw on the entire tour had better living arrangements than these poor pigs. I’m not saying that pigs should be treated better than chickens. However, this farmer claims that he grows the pigs to around 150 pounds (although they can get much larger). At best, that’s about 145 pounds more animal than a nice sized chicken. These guys need way more room to run than chickens do.

There were at least two faucets with water trickling out constantly and the pigs were completely covered in this dark mud/urine/poo mixture. (I’ll admit that the pen didn’t smell as bad as it looked.) The pen was no more than 10′ x 10′ and only about 3 feet high. It was covered, so the pigs wouldn’t have to worry about getting too hot. But pigs are smart and playful and enjoy running around every now and then. That was clear on every other farm that we visited. I wonder if these poor guys ever have the chance to set their feet on dry land (or whether some of them could even walk at all). Moving around in that gooey muck can’t be easy. If I remember correctly, they are fed mostly corn, which is not good. One of them appeared to be sick or injured. When asked about the pig, the farmer said he didn’t want to take it to the vet, because he feared they’d tell him to put it down. I’m not sure if he was looking out for the pig or his investment, but the pig should have been isolated from the others at the very least.

Wild Turkey Farms in China Grove was my favorite, by far. When I dream up an ideal, sustainable farm, this is pretty close to what I imagine. Everything they do here is done with care and respect for the animals, the environment and the consumer. The are even Animal Welfare Approved. All of the animals were pastured. The pigs live in huge, uncovered pens with a couple mud holes and ark shelters. There is plenty of grass under their feet. The cows roam in a huge pasture. While on our hayride tour of the farm, we could see them at a distance, relaxing under the cool shade of some trees, along with some protection – a llama (a couple of dogs also help with this). According to the farmer, llamas are extremely territorial and can sense an intruder from much further away than the cows can. They are also pretty fierce toward unwanted guests. The chickens also had nice sized pens on the pasture. The turkeys pen was a little smaller, but I’m pretty sure it’s due to their frailty. According to two different farmers on the tour, they are more difficult to keep alive and one of them isn’t planning to raise them anymore.

When one of the guests asked about slaughtering, which can be a touchy subject, the farmer didn’t flinch. The slaughtering company was in North Carolina and is family run. Based on what I had seen and heard so far, I believed him when he said it was a company he could trust to do the job with respect. I am considering ordering meat from this farm just to show my support for their high ethical standards. Standards so high, that some of their own family members and other farmers have given them a hard time about it. (Haters!)

The $25 that we paid for the ticket covered as many people as we could fit in one vehicle for both days. What a bargain. This annual tour will become a tradition for us. I highly recommend it, especially if you have kids. Even if you don’t care about the food aspect, this tour is such a fun learning experience.

Happy Grateful Growers Piglets

By the way, did you that NC is second only to Iowa in pig production, and that Smithfield is the nations largest pork producer. I wonder how Paula Deen feels about CAFO’s… Anyway, I won’t get all political on you, but if you’re interested in knowing how poorly these pigs are treated or how the waste is affecting the water supply, read this (please click the link), or do you own research.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers