Southern Cookbook and Good Home Cooking

Now that school’s out and I have all three girls home with me all day, every day, my time is even more valuable, especially to them. Apparently, along with all my other roles, I’m also their personal chef, activities director and event planner for the summer. They don’t know how good they have it. I try to remember this when they try to lay on the guilt with: “I’m hungry. I’m bored. Can we go somewhere?” HELL NO! I’m trying to write in my blog. Of course I didn’t actually say that.

One place we love to go is the library. It’s good, free entertainment and we get to bring home books to occupy them later. I owe my sanity to the public library (which is why I made a nice little donation when I heard my branch might shut down due to underfunding). That’s not the only reason I love it. I could spend hours in non-fiction, browsing the shelves in section 641. Food and drink. I’m a big supporter of borrowing books rather than spending money on new ones. Especially cookbooks, since I really only use them for inspiration. But every now and then, I find one I don’t want to return. I renew it until I can’t anymore. Art Smith’s Back to the Family, is one such book. The pictures are amazing and the food is good and simple. I’ve made bread pudding (twice), fennel coleslaw and a brunch dish that coincidentally called for a cheese I’d just picked up at Trader Joe’s that I’d never used before (manchego). As usual, I made a few changes to suit our taste and food choices and sometimes just to use what we had on hand. If you like southern food, I recommend this book.

I’ve made several recipes already. My favorite is the bread pudding. I strongly recommend drowning the raisins in spiced rum first. I let them marinate for about an hour in hot rum. And I served it with ice cream as suggested (homemade vanilla). It’s so easy to make, it’s scary.  Scary because it so damn good.

One night I was looking for a way to use some cabbage that I’d had in the refrigerator for a week and a half, which by the way was still crisp and quite fresh since it was freshly picked when I’d bought it from Matthews Farmers’ Market (best in the Charlotte area, hands down). Raw veggies and apple cider vinegar have great health benefits. The recipe is for Fennel Coleslaw. I substituted half the fennel with my cabbage and added a red bell pepper.  I love fennel and it has its own benefits, but I don’t think my family would love a coleslaw made entirely of fennel.

Late one morning, I was looking through the book and came across a recipe for Asparagus with Manchego Cheese. I had a smoothie very early that morning and was getting hungry. This recipe looked easy and tasty. The tomatoes, now in season and delicious, and of course the manchego caught my eye. Similar to the bread pudding recipe, it calls for bread cubes and eggs. I substituted the French bread with a very dense whole wheat sandwich bread and the asparagus with broccoli, because that’s what I had on hand. When I was a less experienced and less confident cook, I would pass on recipes unless I had (and liked) the ingredients called for, which was a big mistake. It turned out wonderfully, but I can’t wait to try it with asparagus (and a few other veggies, now that I think of it).

I encourage less confident cooks to take a chance and make changes to suit your taste or use what you already have. (America spends a lot of money and resources on wasted food.) My mom has this simple and awesome fried rice recipe that’s comforting and makes me feel like a kid again. It’s not like the fried rice you’d find in a Chinese restaurant. There is no soy sauce or eggs and aside from the Korean sticky rice she uses, it’s more like an Americanized version of fried rice. She uses rice, carrots, onions, celery, ground beef, salt and pepper (and probably some minced garlic). I made this recipe with sausage instead, again because it’s what I had on hand. The smell of the sausage with those ingredients reminded me of another one of her recipes for dirty rice, so I meshed the two and added curry powder and a little extra turmeric (because it has some great health benefits and to give it a beautiful yellow color). Don’t get me wrong, my mom’s recipes are already good and very special to me. They are my comfort foods, along with the rest of her home cooking. (Where do you think my interest in food and gardening comes from?) However, I’ll be making this mash-up of the two again and again.

Spring – Time to Grow!

The weather has been unbelievable. I think we skipped the harsh winter months and got a head start on spring. And now it’s like early summer around here. I’ve found myself still too warm in a tank, shorts and flops more than once this week. The garden is growing and I’m adding more plants each week. The tomatoes I planted a week and a half ago – are already flowering.

I’m planting mostly food, but some flowers too. We have a small lot and last year I had decided there was only enough room for edibles. Unfortunately, it occured to me later in the summer that a few more flowers would’ve attracted more beneficial insects. (I had to hand pollinate my zuchininis and pumpkins.) And pretty flowers are nice to look at.

This year I have decided that I’ll have a few more flowers and I want a little more than food from my gardens. I want them to add a little natural beauty to my yard. I’ve found quite a bit of inspiration for neat ways to label plants using old stuff like wire hangers, wood scraps and small bamboo stakes. I’ve just been too busy planting the last couple of weeks. I just can’t seem to pry myself from tending to the gardens. My farmers’ market trips aren’t solely about buying food  ready to eat. I look forward to see what transplants are available each week. I’ve got a total of seven tomato plants so far. Fennel seeds are sown. There are carrots, countless herbs, garlic, spring onions, garlic chives, lettuces, beets, peas, kale, spinach, blueberries and raspberries and a few surprises (some kind of squash, pumpkins or maybe melons). Volunteer seedlings are popping up anywhere I mix in my compost. I’ll let a few of them go to see what grows. I hope we don’t have a late cold snap!

I do already feel the effects of the mild winter. Critters are everywhere. Literally. I come inside and have to inspect myself for hitch-hiking pests. I usually find at least one of these:

And my plants are all under attack. I found this huge snail in my garden. He looked like he could do some damage, so I had to relocate him – probably permanently. So sorry little guy. I have to admit that the small act of killing critters foraging for food sheerly for their own survival, does make me think twice before killing even the tiniest insects. Laugh if you must. I wish there was enough food in my garden to go around, but a seedling is no match for a slug or a snail or catepillar. My beet seedlings get devoured by something the day they emerge. If I could just get them to wait a little while… they’ll be enough for them too. Me and the snail hung out for a bit while I decided what to do. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it, so I put him in the trash bin. There is plenty of food in there. If he makes it out, well then kudos for him.

Last year I sowed only five pea plants. All but two of them were hacked by cutworms. We never had enough to make a side dish and usually opened the pods and ate them straight from the garden. This year I planted twelve. One of my food discoveries in this journey is that I don’t hate peas after all. I just don’t like the stinky ones you get in a can at the grocery store. Frozen or fresh peas are a staple now. I’m excited and hopeful about fresh peas! I may try and grow fava beans too, if cutworms thin out my peas again this year.

I’m looking forward to long, warm lazy days.  I’ve made a kind of bucket list for the spring and summer.

I hope I get to take a nap in a hammock (have to get one first).

I’m looking forward to outdoor dinners with amazing food, amazing people and laughter and smiles and candles and pretty table settings.

I hope I don’t get too caught up in the day to day details and I find time to do all the d-i-y art and garden projects I have planned.

I want to eat a meal made almost entirely with ingredients from my own back yard.

I want to swap and share homegrown and homemade food.

I want to can tomatoes, at least enough to last through the winter. I’ve planted seven tomato plants so far, and plan to get three more varieties.

I want to freeze some homegrown veggies, like peas and squash and peppers, so that I can have a taste of homegrown veggies in the dead of winter, when I’m craving springtime.

And those are just a few things I can think of at the moment.

Words, Food and DIY Mania

You know those moments in life when something in your mind just clicks into place. Unrelated ideas and memories and thoughts are scattered and out of focus, and then something happens. It all starts falling neatly in line. You figure something out about yourself, or rather you figure out how a bunch of random things in your life all fit together. That’s what’s happening to me. And now it all makes perfect sense.

I have never been a “put together” type of person. I mean I know when I like something, a piece or pieces, but I just could never seem to make them all fit together. But I’ve been reflecting a lot this week and I’ve discovered how different parts of my life from as far back as I can remember, fit neatly into certain words. Traditional and classic, natural, rustic yet elegant and fresh, but somehow still quirky and messy, simple yet inspiring and with lots of depth and meaning. Maybe that doesn’t seem so simple to you. But to me, those words sum up my entire life. It may not be the way others see me, but this is what my soul wants. Now that I see it, maybe you will too. The best part, the “click” if you will, came not just with these words, but with a realization. How when things are going right, these words are filling me up. The parts of my life that work, are all inscribed with these words. I’ve always loved these words. They are inscribed in my soul.

So what does this have to do with food? I’ll tell you what this has to do with food. I want my food to be those words. Simple and rustic and messy (aka easy and minimalist). I want it to be natural, fresh, traditional and classic (whole, farm to table and prepared using old techniques and recipes). And I like to use new and unexpected ingredients (quirky). I want the food to be inspiring (beautiful and yummy) and I want it to be full of depth and meaning (deeply nourishing for me, my family and every lovely person sharing our table).

So I’ve been a busy girl. Trying to make the outsides match the insides around our house. Especially in the food areas of the house. The dining room, the kitchen and the back yard (where a lot of our food comes from and where it is sometimes eaten). A friend introduced me to Pinterest a couple weeks ago and it has me believing I can do anything. That is one inspiring website. So I’ve been working on several d-i-y projects and have already made two trips to my new favorite store, Hobby Lobby, and a few trips to Home Depot. I started with a white wash on the picnic table. DIY semi-fail. Not enough water, so back to Home Depot for sand paper and a hand sander to strip some of the paint off. The good news is it has the look I wanted and the bonus of this “mistake” is a table that’s as smooth as a baby’s butt. (Which is great for our butts.)

Rustic

Then a classic, elegant chandelier makeover. Spray painted it “oiled bronze” and made a cover for the chain. That’s right, as in I bought fabric and used my sewing machine! (Who knew buying fabric could be so intimidating.) The best part is that this upcycle cost me less than $6. The paint was on sale and I only used half a yard of fabric.

Next I made these quirky little napkins. I already had the napkins, so all I had to buy was black fabric paint, some foam brushes and letter stencils.  This cost me about $15, but I have plenty of paint and brushes left and the stencil is reusable. I have a ton of stenciling ideas swimming around in my head already.

Did you notice the rest of the table? I bought some rustic burlap fabric, which I just folded, ironed and tied with some natural twine I had lying around to use as a table runner. The centerpiece, candles and candle holders were all a bargain from a thrift store. The flowers and ivy were in the garage. The table cloth was already on the table and the mason jars and plates came from my cabinet. This rustic, quirky, elegant table makeover cost me maybe $15 total!!

And the day I painted the chandelier, I also spray painted jar lids with chalk board paint for easy labeling. Seems like a good idea, but they scratch easily. Maybe they need more than one coat.

And here’s something quirky. I found this basket and vase at the thrift store. The fake flowers, the aloe plant and pot and the pine cone were already mine. Cute right?

The mirror pictured above and the “Kitchen” sign also came from a thrift store. Trash to treasure!! You know what else? I took all of these photos with my new camera. I’ve been practicing a lot. Inspiration is a wonderful motivator! Can’t wait to roast my rustic whole, pastured chicken and serve it with some rustic, chunky roasted beets and carrots and a salad – farm to table. All natural and whole from the farmers market. Then share it with my family in our newly redecorated rustic, elegant, natural and quirky dining room. My soul is happy!

White Chocolate Cranberry Scones

Last week I received an email from my middleschoolers’ math teacher. I got nervous when I saw her teacher’s name in my inbox.

She’s been struggling in this class. There are only two weeks left to bring up her grade and I feared she was going to tell me that she was going to fail the quarter.

Instead, I was relieved to hear that she had seen real improvement and focus in Haleigh since they’ve been back from winter break. What a relief.

A Friday Treat was in order, to reward my girl for her hard work. Something sweet, but not too sweet.

White Chocolate Cranberry Scones

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups organic whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup organic sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 8 tablespoons real unsalted butter (cold or frozen, sliced)
  • 1/2 cup organic sour cream
  • 1 large pastured egg
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried organic cranberries
  • 1/2 cup white morsels
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds (optional)

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Process the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and butter in a food processor until everything is combined. (You can cut the butter into the dry ingredients by hand if you don’t have a food processor.) The texture of this mixture should resemble corn meal.
  3. In a medium bowl beat eggs and sour cream together, then add the flour and butter mixture to the eggs and sour cream. Mix until combined, but don’t over mix. Scones are supposed to have a rough, crumbly texture.
  4. Gently mix in the chopped cranberries, white morsels and chia seeds just until they are evenly distributed through the dough. You may find that you’ll need to use your hands to gently knead them in evenly and to bring the dough together, but don’t over handle.
  5. Dump the dough on to a floured surface and gently pat out into a large disk, about 3/4 inch thick. Cut the dough like a pizza into 8 pieces and place them on a cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Cool for 5 minutes (if you can wait that long).

(Click here for a printer friendly version.)

My kids loved these! They have a lot less sugar than a chocolate chip cookie, but the kids didn’t mind a bit. Other than that they aren’t much different from cookies. I might cut them into 12 next time and shorten the cooking time just a bit. One scone seemed like too much. You could also substitute almost any dried fruit and any kind of baking chips (or leave them out if you want). It’s a really versatile recipe and easy to tailor to suit different tastes. But make sure you use real butter. Margarine contains too much water which might make the dough too wet. And get unsalted. I never understood why recipes called for unsalted butter, but called for salt later all, until recently. Most cooks will tell you that unsalted butter is “purer” and fresher than salted butter. Salt can be added to improve any “off” taste and to preserve older butter. More care is taken with unsalted butter and therefore the quality and taste is better. At least that’s the idea. Some say that in today’s market, there isn’t really a difference between the two, except that one is saltier. Who knows. But just to be sure, I now only buy unsalted. I can add my own salt (which is probably better than theirs anyway.)

By the way, chia seeds might be hard to find, but they’re worth looking for. I get them at a local health food store, Healthy Home Market. They have more Omega-3’s than flax seeds and are rich in antioxidants. Those tiny black seeds remind of poppy seeds, so I sprinkled some on top.  Ch-ch-ch-chia! (Sorry couldn’t resist.)

Stevia – A Safe Sweetener?

I’ve heard of stevia and it’s refined cousins “Truvia”, “PureVia” and “Stevia Extract in the Raw”. But because there is some controversy over it, I lumped it in with the artificial sweeteners – Nutrasweet, Equal and Sweet’n Low and even with another natural sweetener, agave nectar, and just decided to avoid it. I lost all interest when I found out that Truvia was developed by Coca-Cola and Cargill and that Pepsico had their hands in PureVia.

Then last Saturday I sampled a stevia leaf and was quite surprised. It is pretty amazing how sweet it was. Definitely not what I was expecting. The sweet flavor even lingered in my mouth, as you would expect with any herb. I was intrigued, so I bought a few stems to experiment with.

How does it taste (fresh leaves)? The first time I used it I added about four whole leaves to my cup of green tea. I bruised the leaves with my spoon against the side of my cup then let it steep for about five minutes. I was unimpressed. Not that sweet. Next I decided to chop the leaves finely. I also used about three times as many leaves. Big difference. The tea actually increased in sweetness the longer it steeps. By the time I got to the last few sips it was actually too sweet. Some say there is a licorice taste to it, but I didn’t get that at all. It tastes similar to artificial sweetener, which was a slight turn off for me. However, if it’s a safe natural sweetener, I could get used to it.

Is it safe? Most of the controversy appears to be centered around the commercial sweeteners Truvia, PureVia and Stevia Extract in the Raw. The way I understand it, the refining process used to produce these commercial brands is what’s wrong with them – as is the case with nearly all other refined foods and additives, especially sweeteners. They have extracted something called “rebiana” (a.k.a. Reb-A) from the leaf and so they aren’t really stevia, the way high fructose corn syrup isn’t really corn. They are also blended with erythritol, a sugar alcohol (in fact Truvia has more erythritol than rebiana), maltodextrin or dextrose, cellulose powder (huh?) and “natural flavors”. I would also be weary of it’s use in prepackaged foods (which we’ll be seeing more often according to this article). More than likely food manufacturers will be using a refined mixture similar to Truvia, PureVia and Stevia Extract in the Raw.

On the other hand, the whole leaf from the actual stevia plant (fresh or dried) appears to be safe. (Whole foods usually are.)  Stevia (a.k.a. “sweet leaf” or “sugar leaf”) is a plant that’s been around for centuries. There have even been some studies that have shown it may improve glucose absorption (good for blood sugar) and may reduce hypertension. In fact diabetes and high blood pressure often occur together, especially in over weight individuals, and are risk factors for Metabolic Syndrome.  (See my previous post about it here.) If you use an artificial sweetener like the ones I mentioned earlier, this is definitely a better alternative.

How do you use it and where can I get it? I would stay away from the PureVia, Truvia and Stevia Extract in the Raw. You can make your own stevia extract by soaking lots of fresh or dried leaves in grain alcohol (like Everclear) for about a month, or even water (but less effective and less sweet). Dried leaves have more intense sweetness and can be ground into a powder. The whole, fresh leaves (I recommend mincing them first), the extract, dried leaves and powder can all be used as sugar substitutes, but since it can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar you will only need to use a small fraction of it. Click here for a stevia conversion chart. You would probably find the dried leaves at a health food market or a specialty store. Or you can grow the plant yourself. That’s what I plan to do.

My first attempt at "Stevia Concentrate", a/k/a really, really strong, super concentrated stevia tea. Easy. Steeped for about 10 minutes in hot, not boiling water. Tastes better than it looks.

My Two Cents About Metabolic Syndrome

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 75 million Americans suffer from Metabolic Syndrome. That adds up to roughly 1 in 4 individuals. And the prevalence is increasing significantly for adults and adolescents. Metabolic Syndrome increases risks for diabetes, heart disease and strokes. The Standard American Diet, which is high in carbohydrates and high glycemic foods (especially refined sugar) and low in nutrient dense foods (especially fruits and vegetables) is likely a major cause.

Metabolic Syndrome, if I understand correctly, is the bodies failure to metabolize food properly due to cell damage from eating too many unhealthy, high carb, high glycemic foods and from a generally unhealthy lifestyle. Cells become damaged and unable to absorb glucose which causes a rise in blood sugar. Insulin is the hormone that essentially allows cells to absorb glucose. The pancreas goes into overdrive and produces more insulin to compensate. The increased insulin affects the body’s ability to burn fat and can cause weight gain and obesity. The increased triglycerides (fat) in the blood stream cause arterial plaque to form. As a result arteries harden and narrow and that leads to hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease. Eventually cells become insulin resistant and the body stops producing it (Type 2 Diabetes).

Here are the risk factors according to the National Institute of Health:

  • A large waistline. This also is called abdominal obesity or “having an apple shape.” Excess fat in the abdominal area is a greater risk factor for heart disease than excess fat in other parts of the body, such as on the hips.
  • A high triglyceride level (or you’re on medicine to treat high triglycerides). Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. A low HDL cholesterol level (or you’re on medicine to treat low HDL cholesterol). HDL sometimes is called “good” cholesterol. This is because it helps remove cholesterol from your arteries. A low HDL cholesterol level raises your risk for heart disease.
  • High blood pressure (or you’re on medicine to treat high blood pressure). Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage your heart and lead to plaque buildup.
  • High fasting blood sugar (or you’re on medicine to treat high blood sugar). Mildly high blood sugar may be an early sign of diabetes.

What is interesting to me is that the disease is most common in people who are overweight. However, if you have it, then losing weight becomes more difficult. I sympathize with individuals who try really hard to lose weight. They exercise more, eat better, but still they struggle to lose a pound. It may help to shift the focus away from the scale and place it on health instead. Learn to eat more nutrient dense foods – foods high in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential fatty acids, fiber – rich with  antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties.  Understand that even if you aren’t losing weight, you are repairing your body. Once it’s working like a well oiled machine again, the pounds should come off. Don’t despair and don’t give up.

Here’s a list of some high carb/high glycemic foods to avoid:

  • soft drinks and other sugary beverages and foods
  • honey
  • refined grains (white bread, white rice)
  • potatoes (excluding sweet potatoes)
  • watermelon, pineapple and cantaloupe (Uh, oh!)
  • dried dates
  • over ripe bananas
  • broad beans (What? It’s true.)
  • baked beans
  • parsnips
  • cakes, cookies, doughnuts (duh)
  • pretzels, saltine crackers, chips
  • popcorn
  • pasta
  • cold cereals and cereal bars
  • beer
  • orange juice

It’s probably not necessary to eliminate these foods completely, but rather consume them in moderation. And when you do eat them, pair them with foods that have a low glycemic index, like fats and proteins. (Fats like olive oil, real butter, coconut oil are all good.) Also eat those high glycemic foods in their whole form whenever possible, i.e baked or mashed potatoes with the skin along with some butter (fat) and a dollop of plain Greek yogurt (protein). Switch to whole grains instead of refined ones – whole wheat bread, brown rice, etc.

Here’s a list of some nutrient dense super foods you should try to incorporate into your diet:

  • green tea
  • strawberries
  • blueberries
  • cherries
  • peaches
  • dried apricots
  • pomegranate
  • cranberries
  • tomatoes
  • kale
  • broccoli
  • spinach
  • avocado
  • garlic
  • onions
  • spices like cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, oregano, rosemary, cayenne
  • lentils
  • kidney beans and black beans
  • chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • quinoa
  • nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios and Brazil nut
  • mushrooms like maitakes, shitakes, cremini and portabello
  • Greek yogurt (plain, or sweetened with low glycemic fruit)
  • cottage cheese
  • seafood rich in Omega 3’s, like salmon

DISCAIMER: You should talk your doctor if you think this may be what’s preventing you from losing weight. This is just my $0.02 about Metabolic Syndrome!

A Taste of Autumn

The tomatoes are almost done. Preseason football starts today. I’m already anticipating autumn. As far as seasonal eating goes, it’s as exciting as spring. Even if it’s the polar opposite. Rich, heavy, warm meals. Soups. Stews. Warm spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cumin… We’ll be watching the football game on Saturday with a big bowl of chilli. (What else?) It’s supposed to rain all day, which suits me just fine. But a couple of weeks ago (and again tonight) I got a little taste of autumn, in the form of butternut squash.

I was delighted to find it at the farmer two Saturdays ago. I had never tried it until last fall, when I first discovered it there. It’s kind of strange that I had never seen it in the grocery store. It was there of course. I just hadn’t noticed it. There are a lot of things I never noticed until I started shopping farmers markets. Anyway, it’s now one of my favorite fall foods.

It tastes similar to pumpkin, but the texture is more dense like a sweet potato. If you’ve never tried it before, you should. Especially now that it’s in season. Like most winter squash, it can be prepared savory or sweet. Either way I like to cube it and roast it. My favorite savory recipe is simply olive oil, salt and pepper. Maybe some herbs or garlic to spice it up. Tonight I wanted something sweet. I squeezed some lime over it, then tossed it in butter and a little vanilla infused sugar and sprinkled a bit of salt and pepper over it. Then I roasted it in a 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes. I served it with chicken legs, which I roasted simultaneously in the oven with the squash, steamed broccoli (a little bit of water, covered in the microwave for about 4 minutes) and leftover beans (soaked over night, then cooked for two hours in water, onions, garlic and thyme). Very economical and nutrient dense. Simple. Delicious.

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