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.

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!)

Fall Food

Less than a week until Autumn. This is a bitter sweet time of year for me. I love the festivities – the new school year, Halloween and Thanksgiving, festivals or outings planned nearly every weekend, farm tours, pumpkin patches and then carvings, warm, spicy apple cider, football, slightly cooler weather… But the cold, the darkness and the lack of fresh produce are only a couple months away now. There is less variety at the farmers market and some vendors appear to be taking time off – much needed I’m sure, and well deserved. Or maybe it’s the lack of produce and the need to plant fall and winter crops.

Spaghetti squash was my “something new” for this week.

I didn’t think the two small, yellow ones from the farmers market would be enough, so I bought another one from the grocery store. There was little difference in taste.

This is a great low carb alternative to regular pasta. We were all skeptical, but once we started eating it was easy to forget that it was squash and not noodles of some sort. We topped it with a leftover meat sauce, sliced Italian sausage from Grateful Growers, Parmesan and parsley. Linsey even asked for seconds. London wouldn’t touch it (as usual).

Now that the weather is cooling off I find myself craving warm herbal teas. I had never thought to put rosemary in tea, and can’t remember where I got the idea, but I should have known. I love rosemary in everything else. And now I love it in tea. It’s so good for you. So’s mint. I made an herbal infusion of white tea with mint, rosemary and stevia. Sadly my mint isn’t doing well (which is a bit weird since it’s supposed to be so hardy, sometimes even invasive). Or maybe I just need to leave it alone for awhile. But this tea was so comforting.

I steeped the mint, stevia and rosemary first, until it cooled completely. Then I warmed it again and let the tea steep for a couple of minutes. Di-vine. I grew my own chamomile in the spring. It wasn’t very hardy and I only managed to dry enough buds for one cup of tea. I was surprised how much they smelled like apples. And that’s the flavor they impart in tea. I’m feeling inspired. There’s an herbal tea garden in my future – one with stevia, violets, lemon thyme, lemon verbena, more chamomile, mint and rosemary. Maybe jasmine and lavender.

Another highlight of fall – chestnuts! One of my favorite foods of all time. And my dear, sweet, very generous mother hooked me up! I’m feeling a bit gluttonous at the moment. Good thing they are so nutritious and low in calories compared to other nuts. Walnuts, for instance, have about four times the calories as chestnuts. There are about 170 calories in 100 grams of chestnuts. Chestnuts have more fiber, less fat and are loaded with vitamin C.  In fact, eating 3 ounces will supply you with almost half the daily recommendation. They’re also a good source of vitamin B, copper, folate, magnesium and manganese.

^^The girls sharing an after school snack – warm chestnuts.

I also find myself craving Korean food lately. I’ve been watching the Kimchi Chronicles on PBS. This show makes my mouth water. Also makes me want to visit my mother’s home land. One day…

^^Somen noodles cooked in chicken broth, garlic and green onions with turnip kimchi.

^^ Mandu soup again with chicken broth, garlic and green onions. Also fried egg and toasted seaweed.

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!

When Two Seasons Collide on a Plate

August might just be the best month for food (at least here in my region). There are still some tomatoes and summer squash on the vines. Some herbs and leafy greens are perking up again thanks to cooler temperatures. A few peaches and cantaloupes are left.  And now the first of the winter squash is being harvested. You can never really get bored when eating seasonally. Something new is always cropping up at the farmers market (or in the garden). And when two seasons collide on a plate, it’s a culinary dream. This week I have been successfully keeping things seasonal and simple. I don’t think I spent more than an hour on a single meal this week. (Well maybe the gnocchi, but that was my fault. Keep reading.) I cooked in bulk, made use of leftovers and kept recipes simple.

On Sunday we had chilli made with browned ground pork and cooked beans straight out of the freezer and tomatoes that had already been pureed and canned. (Why do they call it canning, if you put it in a jar?) All I had to do was chop some onions, peppers and herbs and throw it in a pot with my precooked beans and ground pork and a little seasoning. I did make cornbread from scratch (adding jalapenos and frozen corn for more yum).

“Meatless Monday” consisted of a stir-fry with seasonal veggies and shiitakes served with brown rice (cooked a double batch) and the best thing I’ve eaten in awhile: grilled okra. The simple recipe came from a friend. (Thanks Nisa!) I washed and dried the whole okra then tossed it in olive oil, salt and pepper. I skewered it, then grilled it on medium high heat for about 2 minutes on each side. So simple and delicious – it blew my mind. I thought I hated slimy okra. Now I can’t wait to get some more at the farmers market tomorrow! Revisiting foods you thought you hated, only to discover that you really love them… priceless.

Porkchops were on the menu Tuesday. I could eat vegetarian nearly every day, but after a Meatless Monday the rest of the family was ready for something meaty. I used my favorite pork chop recipe. I browned them, then let them braise in their own juices and some red wine, garlic and rosemary. They braised for two hours, but I wasn’t in the kitchen for that! I also made one of my kids favorite sides, potato wedges (olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper – 25 minutes in a 400 degree oven), and their not-so-favorite sauteed swiss chard (onions, garlic and olive oil). We also had a salad with homemade mustard vinaigrette (olive oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, honey, rosemary, salt and pepper).

Wednesday we had Baked Delicata Squash with Lime Butter. Delicata is a winter squash that looks kind of like a mini watermelon. I served it with leftover brown rice, lima beans (cooked in a broth made with leftover juices from Monday’s pork chops). We had salad again with homemade avocado mojito dressing (avocado, olive oil, a few tablespoons of Greek yogurt, mint, lime juice and zest, salt and pepper and a little milk to thin it out a bit). I also toasted the seeds from the squash (seasoned with olive oil and chilli powder). We sprinkled them on our salad to add a zesty crunch. The salad dressing was so refreshing and complimented the squash with it’s chilli-lime-butter.

Yesterday we had ricotta gnocchi. I always thought gnocchi was some fancy, technical Italian dish. It was so easy. Well… it should have been. I made it hard by trying to use a piping bag (which was way too small) instead of just rolling it into a thick rope and cutting it like the recipe instructed.  This was the most time consuming recipe of the week, but it can be done quickly if you don’t get in your own way. I used this recipe as a template for the gnocci, but replaced the nutritionally deficient and refined all purpose flour (bleh!) with 1/2 whole wheat flour and 1/2 brown rice flour. This made a dense, yummy gnocchi. But the sauce is what really made it tasty. I chopped and browned half a package of bacon, then removed the bacon bits and added  a couple tablespoons of chopped sage, about two ounces of gorgonzola and aji dulce peppers to the bacon drippings. I let that cook for a minute, then turned off the heat and added some broccoli I had steamed in the microwave and some thawed chopped spinach. When the gnocchi floated to the top of the boiling pasta water, I just tossed them straight into the spinach and broccoli mixture. I topped each plate with the reserved bacon bits. Oh, and I’m giving myself a pat on the back for remembering to double the gnocchi recipe so that I could freeze a batch for later.

Aji Dulce Peppers - Sweet and fruity like habeneros, minus the heat!

Tonight we’ll be finishing off the avocado dressing with our fish tacos (cod seasoned with lime, tequila and chilli powder, served with lettuce, tomato and green onions). And as for lunch, we’ve been enjoying leftovers and sandwiches. We had baked potatoes for lunch one day, which was a big hit with the girls. For breakfast we’ve had Greek yogurt which we flavor ourselves, cereal (not the junky, sugary ones), burritos (eggs, cheese and veggies) and stone ground grits with bacon, goat cheese, kale, tomatoes and onions (not those quick cooking southern style grits – mine are more like risotto and could easily be served for dinner). I’ve been snacking on another one of my seasonal favorites – goat cheese stuffed figs. They don’t have a lot of flavor on their own, but I’ve found that marinating them in a little bit of balsamic vinegar for just few minutes really brings out their flavor. I add a tiny bit of goat cheese and some walnuts then drizzle them with a little honey. Yum. So sad that fig season seems to be winding down. The balsamic marinated figs are also a great addition to salad.

Healthy Food Doesn’t Cost More. It Costs Whatever You Want It To.

I’m beginning to think that the cost of eating healthy is just another excuse used to defend apathy and poor eating habits in America. As a matter of fact, I’d even venture to say that, in general, around the world, including here in America,  the middle and upper class actually have poorer eating habits than those less fortunate. Those eating for survival and nourishment know how to find (and grow or raise)  inexpensive, nutrient dense foods. Eating healthy only costs as much as you want it to. EVERYONE can afford it.

The trick is to seek out foods that are nutrient dense and economical. Get the most for your money – whether you shop at the farmers markets (so doable, with a little common sense and practice) or a large discount super store. When it comes to produce, buy in season. Food is cheaper, more nutritious and tastes better when it’s in season. Don’t forget frozen fruits and vegetables, which are picked and frozen at the peak of their season and usually less expensive than fresh produce. Check the reduced section of your produce department for some really great bargains. If you can get there mid morning, you’ll find the best deals. Broccoli, peas, leafy greens, sweet peppers, squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, cabbage, lettuce,  berries, bananas, peaches, plums, apples, citrus are all affordable (in fact, usually on sale when they are in season). When they are out of season, your budget (and your taste buds) will take the hit.

Buy less meat and refined carbs and buy more beans! Dried beans are the most under rated, most economical, nutrient dense food money can buy. They can easily be served as a main protein at a meal. They are so versatile and easy to prepare – it’s plain crazy. Why Americans don’t eat more beans is beyond me.  Meat and refined carbs, on the other hand, are the least economical foods you can buy and too much of either is not good for you. Buy less and buy better quality. I don’t mean buy expensive cuts of steak or lamb. In fact I suggest very little red meat at all. Pork is a less expensive red meat choice. What I mean by better quality is pastured, grass fed, free range, organic, natural… whatever you can afford. But stick with cheaper cuts or ground meat if you are on a budget. Whole chicken is very inexpensive. You can easily learn to butcher it yourself. As for refined carbs, avoid them entirely. Instead eat small amounts of whole grain versions of pasta and bread. Make them from scratch (especially the sweet stuff) whenever possible. I’ve found recipes that are simple and delicious as well as some time consuming, artisan quality recipes. Cooking from scratch is the easiest way to self regulate consumption. The things that take the longest are usually the ones you should eat less often.

Buy less dairy and when you do buy it, don’t short change yourself by buying fat free or low fat. You pay the same amount either way, but since you are eating less meat, you can use that fat. Rich, full fat dairy products like whole milk and real butter are more satiating and less processed than their watery counterparts. The mantra is the same – buy less, but better quality. Choose more flavorful, protein rich varieties. A little bit of strong cheese goes a long way – sharp cheddar, Parmesan, goat cheese, blue cheese. Save even more by shredding your own cheese. $10 may seem like a lot for a unimpressive  block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it will probably last two or three weeks (at least). Cottage cheese is a little milder, but has a ton of protein and is very inexpensive. You can find ways to add it to just about any meal to increase the protein – something else you’ll need more of if you are cutting meat consumption. Greek yogurt is another nutrient dense dairy product that is not only high in protein, but also good for your gut. It’s the easiest way to get a daily dose of probiotics.

Don’t waste money on processed junk foods like breakfast cereals and pastries, snack bars, chips, crackers, sweets, sugary yogurts, boxed meals, frozen dinners, soft drinks (diet or regular), sugary “juice”  and koolaid. There are very little nutrients left in them that your body can actually use and they do more harm than good. VERY EXPENSIVE when you consider you aren’t really feeding your body anything nourishing.

Will work for food! Grow your own. Duh. This is by far the best way to get clean, fresh, local, in season food. Start small if this seems too daunting or you don’t have much space to work with. At least grow your own herbs. My garden is my favorite place to “shop”. Barely puts a dent in my food budget.

The other important point I want to make is this: be frugal. Make the most of ingredients. Use every part and everything that you buy. I am guilty of spending at least an extra $20 to $40 on food that we don’t need. It either gets wasted or it gets waist-ed (usually the latter). I now realize that it’s better to go shopping again if I run out of food, than it is to force feed the surplus to my family or throw it away. Be smart about what you buy and how much you buy. Americans typically consume too many calories anyway (in case you haven’t noticed.) Make stocks with scraps. Stretch expensive foods, especially meats and cheeses. Again save some money and do the work yourself. Cook from scratch. Make your own salad dressings (mind-blowingly easy) and sauces. Add beans often. Hummus (made from chickpeas) is cheap and easy to make, yet rich in protein.

“I don’t have time” is another excuse I just don’t get. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to make a tasty, nutritious meal. It only takes as much time as you are willing to spend. There are tons of books and websites to get inspiration from. You can easily substitute fresh, more wholesome ingredients. Take a more “rustic” approach to cooking. Less knife work (big chunky ingredients), simple ingredients and cooking methods, no fancy presentation. Slow cookers are a good way to save time. This book – Make It Fast, Cook It Slow – is an amazing book full of delicious, easy recipes. (Thanks Monica!) Cooking gets easier the more you do it, so dive in.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Throw Away

1. Leave that peel alone. It’s good for you. Lots of fiber. The fiber in the peel keeps the sugar in fruits and veggies from converting to glucose too quickly which keeps your blood glucose level more stable. And we all know fiber is good for… um… digestion. Besides leaving it on saves you the hassle of peeling it. Even when making mashed potatoes, I leave the skins on (tastes better that way too). I want my kids to learn to eat the peel on fruits and veggies, so I rarely ever peel anything that has edible skin. (I do not feed my kids banana peels or orange rinds.) Carrot skins are okay too! Just give them a good scrub with a vegetable brush. Also, did you know that you can eat the skin on kiwi and mango? Haven’t tried this yet, but I plan too. I wonder what other peels are edible that I didn’t know about…Also buy organic, other wise you’re faced with an unnecessary decision. To peel, or not to peel? (Some of pesticides still gets inside the fruit, so you can’t avoid it completely by peeling.) I just choose organic so I get the best of both worlds. Lots of fiber and no pesticides.


2. Zest those lemons, limes and oranges before you peel or juice them. Especially if you buy organic. The flavor of the zest is much more powerful and tasty than the juice. And the essential oil in the skin is good for you. You can store it in the refrigerator for a little while (maybe a few days to a week) or you can store it in the freezer. I have some there now. You can also dry it or make candied citrus zest (yum – and I bet the leftover infused syrup from the candying process is good too).


3. Don’t throw away the broccoli and cauliflower stalks. Peel the tough outer layer away and slice, shred or dice the stalk. I usually cut it into planks and cook it with rest of the broccoli, or dice it and add it to things like macaroni and cheese. It would work in soups and other pasta dishes I’m sure. And anywhere you might add some diced potatoes.


4. Save those tops and leaves! The top leaves of some root vegetables can be cooked as greens. Good luck finding these veggies with greens still attached though. Most grocery stores only sell the trimmed versions. A few better ones might have them with the greens. I’ve seen carrots with greens still attached at Harris Teeter. Farmers market usually sell them this way as well. Beet greens are great. I’ve tried the carrot tops without a recipe and ruined them. Next time maybe I’ll try something from this website. Mine were probably too old, causing them to be tough and bitter. Radish greens are also edible, though I haven’t met a radish I like yet.


5. If you do have scraps, save them for stocks! I keep a container in the freezer just for this. I add it to the pot when I make chicken stock and if it gets full before then, I just make vegetable stock. Tops of tomatoes and onions, celery leaves, etc. I also store the stock in the freezer if I’m not going to use it right away.

Compost what you can’t use for stocks. I also throw the veg leftover from making stock into the compost. Hardly anything is wasted around here. At least not on purpose. Compost is the best fertilizer for your garden. Even if you don’t have a vegetable garden, flowers and plants love it too!

Standard American Approach to Weight Loss Isn’t Working

I haven’t posted in a few weeks and every few days I come up with what I think is a great idea, but right now none of them seem that interesting to me. They all seem to be centered around weight loss, even though I hate the pressure that it puts on us – and even though I advocate eating for health and not necessarily weight loss. However, if we’re eating and living well, our appearance, which includes our weight, should reflect that. And right now, I’m stuck. I’m not unhappy with my physique, but I really want to lose those last 10 pounds. Or at least, I want to see some “trouble areas” tightened up. I stalled a few months ago and was just about to accept that this is the best I can do. But recently I’ve had several conversations and have been inspired by friends and family who are also struggling with this.

I think I know what my road blocks are right now – not exercising enough (which I am finally doing now and loving it) and eating too much, too late in the day. I’m not following my own advice on this last one. I was really gung-ho about switching up meals a month ago (i.e. a big breakfast and lunch and small dinner). But it’s proving to be difficult.

I haven’t been giving meal time the priority I normally do, and I’m still not doing great with keeping them simple. (Ugh! Where’s that Mark Bittman book?) Now would be a good time for me to really focus on that. I’ll be incorporating some leftovers from a weekend get-together into our meal plan this week, so I’ll probably freeze some of the groceries I bought for the week. It’s the perfect opportunity. I also am finally harvesting more tomatoes than we can eat, so it’s time to get to canning and freezing some of them. (Yay! Looking forward to home grown tomatoes in January!)

I know this will be an equally busy week for me, so I’m going to do a little inventory and plan some really simple meals. You know that excuse we give ourselves for eating quick, unhealthy meals or snacks or worse – picking up fast food? “I just don’t have time.” It’s really no good excuse, with some planning. And it’s a good idea to always have a few easy to prepare meals on hand for those times. Here are some examples:

  • Frozen leftovers. You can freeze just about anything. Pastas and soups freeze well and there are usually leftovers. If not, make a little extra next time. Most microwaves these days have some preset defrost settings and even if they don’t, just remember to thaw foods at a low temperature (maybe 20 – 30% power) for a longer period of time.
  • Pasta. I keep a couple different kinds of pasta and some canned tomatoes on hand at all times. At the very least, you can boil some pasta, open up a couple cans of tomatoes and add some veggies (even frozen veggies) and cheese. You can also make a classic white wine sauce with some wine (of course), olive oil or butter (not margarine) and garlic (three more things I always have on hand.) You can make a cheesy Alfredo sauce with a little bit of cream or whole milk and butter and some Parmesan. Add different combinations of fresh and/or dried herbs for some variety. (I’ve mentioned this before, but never under estimate the power of herbs. Most of them have huge health benefits and have been used traditionally for centuries to treat illnesses and alleviate an array of symptoms. Many are still used today. I think they can be effective for minor symptoms on a person who is in fairly good health. If your symptoms are severe, or your body’s immune system is already tapped out from an unhealthy lifestyle or disease, they would be less effective, I think, in alleviating your symptoms.)
  • Canned beans. Make hummus with chickpeas (garbanzo beans), fresh garlic (or powder if that’s all you have), olive oil, lemon juice, tahini (if you have it), paprika, cayenne, fresh parsley – or something like that. You could also saute some canned beans with onions and garlic, fresh herbs and whatever veg you like and throw that over some brown rice (another staple I always have on hand). Make a  quick soup with some Kidney beans (really good for you), chicken stock, onions, fresh tomatoes and whatever other veg you have on hand (zucchini, peppers, potatoes, kale, green beans, corn… you name it).
  • As for snacks, fresh fruit and veggies, whole wheat or gluten free toast or crackers with some cheese or peanut butter, a quick salad, a handful of nuts, a few cubes of cheese or homemade popcorn.
  • And for the sweet tooth how about some fruit (again) or some whole wheat toast with chevre or cream cheese and good quality jam (this totally curbs my cheesecake cravings, oh and try it with hot pepper jam… O. M. G.), some dried fruit or an ounce of dark chocolate (70%), and if you are craving ice cream, try some plain, Greek yogurt with honey (preferably raw and local), walnuts and blueberries (“super food”) or whatever fruit or nuts you like and anything else you might find in your favorite ice cream, like dark chocolate. Now don’t go crazy and crumble up cookies or candy bars in there. If that’s what you love, try to find a healthy alternative instead. Instead of Reece’s peanut butter cups (I used to love these Blizzards at Dairy Queen) maybe some real peanuts, a table spoon of peanut butter (with no added sugar) and some dark chocolate chips or shavings. Imma have to try that one soon!

Another bit of advice would be to change something – a habit… your surroundings… Let go of the Standard American Diet and step away from the Standard American way of dieting, i.e. low fat, calorie counting and substituting horrid  processed foods with slightly less horrid “reduced calorie” or “reduced fat” processed foods. This includes those frozen weight loss meals from Weight Watchers, Atkins and South Beach Diet. I should also include the Lean Cuisine meals. The fats in most “low fat” or “low calorie” processed foods are replaced with something worse – refined carbs, most often – sugar. The savory ones (like those frozen dinners I mentioned) are ridiculously high in sodium. These foods are actually worse for you. Yeah – I’m totally serious. Nothing about the Standard American Diet or the typical approach to weight loss is healthy or sustainable! Nothing. Period.  (Ah! There’s a title in there somewhere.)

Let’s face it. We’ve all tried this sort of dieting, and I’ve never met anyone that succeeded with long term health and weight loss. Have you? I’m not saying that people don’t lose weight this way. What I’m saying is that they rarely keep it off. The pounds come back fast and usually they gain more than they originally lost. In my brief research (and personal experiences), I’ve seen this fact repeated time and time again. So when someones tells me they lost weight with some typically American way of dieting and actually managed to lose weight, or maybe they “know someone” who did, the first thing I want to know is whether they kept the weight off. I especially love when they say something like “I lost a lot of weight on that diet. I should go back on it.” I watched this PBS special where a lady had eight or nine diaries or cards (?) from her past attempts at Weight Watchers… And she was doing it again. Huh? Repeating the same behaviors over and over again and expecting different results = insanity.

Try something new instead. Give your pantry and refrigerator a makeover. Kick this new age Standard American Diet and the Standard American approach to weight loss to the curb. Throw out all that junk. Eat a more traditional diet of whole foods instead – vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, dairy, meat, unrefined carbs – mostly prepared at home – real foods (not frankenfoods) that have been around for more than say, 50 to 60 years. It’s better for you and it tastes better. And don’t drink your calories. Skip sodas and juice. Make fast food off limits, period. I’d rather go hungry for awhile longer than stop at a drive-thru.

Next time you go shopping, don’t put anything in your cart that you know you shouldn’t eat. Be honest with yourself here. If you bring it home, there’s a good change you’ll eat it. Your family members don’t need it either. If they want junk food, let them go get it themselves. If they’re too young or unwilling to do that, then this might be easier for you.

You’re probably going to face some anger, maybe even tears, but don’t be too quick to give in – especially with kids. They are your responsibility. Plan to have a serious discussion and explain how this will benefit them as well – especially if they have health problems or weight issues of their own. I mean actually take the time to consider your approach and what you’re going to say. Who knows – your partner and/or kids might want this too. Maybe they’ll be indifferent. But, if you lose the battle this time, at least lead by example. Once they start to see how it’s benefiting you (and once they are more accustom to seeing healthier foods in the house) maybe they’ll be willing to give it a try.

Lastly, avoid pitfalls like binge eating. When I was a kid I remember watching some after school special about some girl who exercised like a mad woman and then snuck off to a distant convenient store and filled her basket with things like cookies and chips and soda. She locked herself in her room and gorged herself. Then she threw it all up and ate some more. If this is you, then – in all seriousness – get professional help. Stop reading this now and go call your doctor or at least call a friend. This is a serious eating disorder. But I wish they had toned the severity down just a little. Because there are more of us that binge on a smaller scale. There have been many times in the past when I’ve given in to temptation and eaten nearly an entire bag of chips in one day (some at lunch, some before dinner, some after dinner) or and entire sleeve or  batch of cookies, a double serving of ice cream – maybe even twice in one day, a double serving at dinner, and then a second double serving. This is binge eating too.

We can easily sabotage and entire weeks worth of weight loss in just. one. sitting. Not just because we ate those unhealthy extra calories, but because we’ll feel defeated and will be more likely to give in again next time. It will negatively affect our mood and energy level meaning we’ll have to work twice as hard as we did before. (This is also why eating to “feel better” is really an oxymoron. It won’t make you feel better. It will make you feel worse.) So don’t give up. We just have to admit that we’re sabotaging ourselves and stop repeating our bad habits. And soon, it becomes a lifestyle and not a diet.

I’m happy to say that I haven’t eaten a bag of chips or a batch of cookies in over a year. But I have been doubling up my portions while eating a late dinner too often (particularly carbs – rice, pasta and potatoes)! I’m going to work on modifying that behavior.

Every change you make toward a healthier lifestyle is empowering. Before you know it your will power, confidence and constitution will have snowballed into something fierce. Food temptations will tremble in your presence. No really – It gets easier as you become stronger.

Finding Motivation

I’ve been eating pretty well for over a year now. I find motivation in food itself (delicious, organic, seasonal produce, sometimes out of my own back yard, and well raised meat, etc.), T.V. shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and other blogs, websites, articles and books. The biggest motivator though, is the way I feel. I feel good when I eat well. I’ve been doing it long enough, that it’s become a lifestyle.

What I can’t seem to find motivation for is regular, daily exercise (other than working in my small garden, playing with the kids, household chores, etc. – all of which are exercise, but not vigorous enough for me anymore). Lately it feels like my muscles are deteriorating. And, now that I’m well into my thirties, my bones are probably beginning to deteriorate as well. I’ve noticed some weakness in my joints, which I find unacceptable at my age. I’m eating a healthy diet and my weight is fine, so that leaves me thinking I’m just wimpy, physically unfit. I need to bulk up so that my muscles can take some of the load off of my joints. My youthful flexibility is dwindling too. The years are beginning to catch up with me. Flexibility and strength can no longer be taken for granted. I’ll have to work for it.  Exercise is no longer an option. It’s a necessity.

So last week I did some soul searching. Why can’t I get my butt in gear? I can do lots of other things for my health – eat well, get more sleep, even stay moderately active. So what is my hang up in getting in a daily workout? I think it boils down to this: I just don’t want to give up an hour a day. That hour could be spent doing something else. Something less physically demanding and yet more productive like work,  gardening, cooking or spending time with the kids.

Regular daily workouts require a commitment. Doing it two or three times a week is probably enough for most people, and something is better than nothing. But I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t do it every day (or nearly every day),  it’s not going to give me the results and structure I need to form a habit and keep me motivated.

Years ago, when I was exercising regularly, I’d wake up early and sneak in a workout. Now I get up early to get in a couple hours of work before the kids wake. I realize though, that I have to do both. Simply because it’s necessary. Because if I don’t, I’m going to be nothing but skin and bones, which is just as debilitating as being overweight. When I’m just starting out, exercise is hard on my ankles, wrists and knees. In the past I’ve used this as an excuse to stop, but now I see it as motivation to keep going.

Exercise isn’t just good for physical fitness. It’s a mood booster. I feel empowered, strong and determined after a workout, which is why I prefer to do it first thing in the morning. It’s better than coffee. I feel it in my core. I walk taller, stand straighter and I just feel strong – mind, body and soul. Isn’t that motivation enough?

In short – yes! So I’m digging deep. I’ve been waking up even earlier every morning so I can do yoga or toning exercises. I’ve dusted off my old DVD’s (I almost got rid of those during the big purge) and I’m committed. It’s much too soon to pat myself on the back, but I think it’s going to stick this time. Something “clicked” this morning. I actually remembered how good it feels to be in the habit of exercising regularly. In a month or so I know I’ll be a little stronger. Wielding the shovel in the garden will be a piece of cake and I’ll be able to keep up with my kids. My body and mind will thank me. Besides, after just a few days, I’m already feeling pretty great – a little sore – but still, pretty damn great.

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