Warm and Cozy Hot Chocolate

We have an icky bug floating around the house. It’s just a cold, but there are five of us. And when we have an icky bug, it can take weeks to run it’s course through our family. We still have a few sniffles, but we’re almost in the clear. The little one started it all. She missed school last Friday because of it. And of course they had something special planned that day. It breaks my heart when they’re sick. It’s worse when they miss an event they’ve been looking forward to all week because of it. This called for a little extra mommy lovin’.

So I had to re-create “warm and cozy day” at home. Especially since she was fighting a cold. We made hot chocolate from scratch. I haven’t bought that stuff in the packets in over a year.  We used to always have it around. So now when I make hot chocolate, it’s extra special.

While I prepared the hot chocolate, she picked a spot and arranged our picnic blanket and her stuffed “aminals”. She came to the kitchen several times. She’d grab my hand and lead me into the living room and ask “Is this okay?” They are unbelievably cute when they’re three.

The cookies were Trader Joe’s Highbrow Chocolate Chips. We don’t normally have this kind of thing in the house, but they were leftover from an event over the holidays. I was saving them for an emergency, and this seemed like the right time. The warm, creamy hot chocolate and those crispy cookies were perfect together. She forgot all about school.

“Uh oh. I had a little accident Mommy.” No problem. I worried that the all that chocolate would keep her from napping, but she slept soundly. The fever never came back after that. I doubt it had much to do with our warm and cozy hot chocolate, but who knows. I let her believe it was the cure.

Warm and Cozy Hot Chocolate

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups organic whole milk
  • 1/4 cup organic sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • pinch of  sea salt
  • 2 ounces good quality dark chocolate (or 1 square)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon organic virgin coconut oil
  • splash of organic heavy cream or half and half (optional)
  • marshmallows are optional

Method:

  1. Heat milk in a small saucepan over low heat.
  2. Whisk in the sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, coconut oil and salt until dissolved.
  3. Stir in the chocolate until melted.
  4. Remove saucepan from heat and allow to cool slightly or add a splash of cold heavy cream or half and half, or a dollop of whipped cream. Throw in a few marshmallows if desired. Makes 2 servings.

I decided to add the coconut oil not just for a little more flavor, but to make it a little extra nourishing for my feverish lil’ pumpkin. And to strengthen my immune system, just in case I was next… I was.

Coconut oil has been used for centuries to treat illnesses.

The human body converts lauric acid into monolaurin which is claimed to help in dealing with viruses and bacteria causing diseases such as herpes, influenza, cytomegalovirus, and even HIV. It helps in fighting harmful bacteria such as listeria monocytogenes and heliobacter pylori, and harmful protozoa such as giardia lamblia. As a result of these various health benefits of coconut oil, though its exact mechanism of action was unknown, it has been extensively used in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicinal system. (from organicfacts.net)

I also had some homemade almond flavored whipped cream leftover from the a few nights before. Whipped cream is ridiculously easy to make from scratch. A cup of organic heavy cream, a few tablespoons of confectioners sugar and some almond extract, all whipped together with a stand or handheld mixer on high speed until thick and creamy. You can substitute with whatever extract you prefer. Store bought whipped cream isn’t anywhere near this good.

I doubled the recipe so I’d have enough leftover for the other two when they came from school. Friday treat!!

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.)

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!)

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!

4th of July Barbecue

It’s hot. Maybe too hot to grill. But we’re doing it anyway. Ice cold mojitos will keep us cool! Looking forward to burgers made with pork from local, pastured pigs and slaw made with Linsey’s cabbage from the garden, fennel – also from the garden – and onions and peppers from the farmers market. Veggie and mushroom skewers to round the meal out – onions, peppers and tomatoes (from the garden) and mushrooms. Maybe homemade vanilla ice cream sweetened with maple syrup for desert, using local milk, organic cream… topped with local, organic blueberries. Seasonal, local, home grown – and yummy! Happy 4th!

Fed Up with Food Restrictions

I’m really, really hating the food restrictions (gluten free and casein free). I know my last couple of posts sounded so positive and I’ve been trying really hard to be optimistic about the whole thing, but it’s wearing me down. It’ exhausting! Saying “no” to the kids (and myself) too often, finding gluten free substitutes for staples like bread and crackers (which so far taste horrible and are unbelievably  expensive), searching for gluten free recipes, missing warm, chewy bread… homemade ice cream and yogurt, macaroni and cheese… And you know what else? The second ingredient in soy sauce is wheat. Who knew!? (Hello? My mother is Korean… We use soy sauce at least a couple times a week.) I had no clue that gluten is in so many things – things I never would have even thought to check, like soy sauce. This gluten free thing may not go on much longer. Totally eliminating gluten doesn’t feel well balanced. This has been an eye opening experience and we’ll never go back to eating as much gluten as we were before, but my gut is telling me that a little is okay. All things in moderation…

I’ve been loosening up on the dairy a little (reintroducing it) to see if it negatively affects Linsey. A little goat cheese here. A little cottage cheese there. A little ice cream here and there. Sadly, she’s been getting stomach aches and digestive issues shortly after eating these foods. There also seems to be a slight increase in irritability and behavioral issues, but I can’t be sure.  She is so aware of the effects herself that she’s been reminding us that she should not eat dairy. She even admitted that she got a stomach ache after having a pretty small amount of ice cream. For her to admit that, is a major step on her part. I think the connection has been made for her and skipping dairy won’t be hard for her anymore. (Though I’m sure there will be occasions when she won’t be able to resist and will be willing to risk a stomach ache for something really yummy, like a little bit of ice cream. I think very small amounts every now and then are still okay.)

In light of the fact that she is most likely intolerant to casein (dairy), once we get her all better and give her a week or two to really make sure her gut has completely healed, we’re going to reintroduce some gluten and see what happens. My guess is that small amounts will be okay.

Now just some random stuff…

These came in the mail this week.

I’m looking forward to making my very own vanilla extract, vanilla sugar and having real vanilla beans to flavor foods (like ice cream)!

Here’s something else I love:

I had tons of mint growing in a container out front and I had to do something with it quick.  Having this mint infused simple syrup around is making it really difficult to drink unsweetened green tea. And do you see that wad of mint leaves that was left over? I worked really hard to fight an urge to put that in my mouth like chew (or dip, or whatever it’s called) to get the remaining sweet, minty syrup out of it before tossing it in the compost. I had a little argument in my head while I cleaned up the rest of my culinary mess: Don’t be ridiculous. If you stick that in your mouth, you’ve gone over the deep end. But wait… in the interest of frugality, using every morsel of food and not being wasteful… maybe I should. It took a couple or ten, fifteen minutes to come to my senses, but of course I couldn’t resist – and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It was unimaginably delicious and took me by surprise. I literally had to stop what I was doing, lean against the counter and savor the thing. I’d do it again (and probably will). I even pondered duplicating this in some way as candy. Maybe… candied mint leaves? This was definitely the best candy I’ve ever had! Pondering again…

This is not purple broccoli. It’s purple cauliflower. (I’ve had to repeat this several times to my family.)  I love how the farmers market broadens our view of food. Good luck finding it in the grocery store. Beautiful and yummy!

More goodies from the farmers market. I split these carrots in half, tossed them in a little olive oil, honey, salt and pepper, then threw them in a grill pan and roasted them in the oven. They were good enough to be eaten for dessert. Carrots lose their flavor quickly after being harvested and these are fresher than any you’ll find at the grocery store.

Proof my garden is organic. There are no pesticides here. I don’t mind sharing. There is plenty for everyone!

Food my kids love:

Guilt Free Banana Popsicles: Cut a banana in half, insert popsicle sticks and freeze for at least 2 hours (longer is better). My kids also love frozen grapes pierced with toothpicks. (Thanks mom!)

And of course their very favorite – kettle corn – a traditional part of our family movie nights!

Casarecce Pasta with Mascarpone and Sage-Walnut Butter, Peas, Broccoli and Kale

Casarecce

I had some mascarpone cheese that I’d bought a couple of weeks ago and have been trying to figure out what to do with it. Most recipes that call for mascarpone are desserts or sweet dishes and I knew I didn’t want to go that route. So I found this recipe (which actually came from A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop) and made it more nutrient dense by adding a ton of vegetables: fresh English peas, kale, chard and broccoli. I also used brown rice casarecce pasta (which I had never heard of before finding it at Healthy Home Market last weekend) instead of fettuccine to make it gluten free… and I substituted half the butter with bacon drippings leftover from breakfast. You can either use all butter or half butter and half bacon drippings, but I don’t recommend using olive oil, lard or anything like that. You’ll be sacrificing flavor. I doubled the sauce and cheese to make sure there was enough to coat the added vegetables.

Haleigh (my picky eater) loved it and asked for seconds. She didn’t mind that there was more veg than pasta and cheese or that there wasn’t any meat. Or maybe she didn’t notice because it all tasted so darn good. She loved the peas. She remarked that the pasta with the sage-walnut butter was good enough to eat by itself. But we all agreed that the mascarpone-Parmesan cheese mixture is what pushed this dish over the top. We’ll be making this again for sure. Here’s my seasonal, nutrient dense version:

Casarecce Pasta with Mascarpone and Sage-Walnut Brown Butter, Peas, Broccoli and Kale

  • 1 cup Mascarpone Cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
  • 2 to 3 cloves of Garlic
  • 1 cup Kale (cooked) – I used a mixture of kale and chard from our garden, but you could substitute any greens.
  • 1 cup fresh Peas (or frozen) – I used fresh English peas from the farmers market and a handful from our garden.
  • Parsley, optional (from our garden)
  • 12 ounces Pasta – I used organic brown rice casarecce, but you can use whatever you have on hand.
  • 6 tablespoons Butter – I used 3 tbs salted Kerrygold butter and 3 tbs bacon drippings.*
  • 1 cup chopped Walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh Sage leaves
  • 1 bunch Broccoli

Method:

  1. Combine mascarpone, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper in small bowl and mix thoroughly with a fork until smooth. Set aside and allow it to come to room temperature.
  2. Prep veg: Cut up broccoli and kale; mince garlic, sage; and rough cut parsley.
  3. Start pasta water. I recommend adding a tablespoon of salt to the water.
  4. Steam broccoli, kale and peas separately (because they don’t cook at the same rate and to keep their flavors separate). You can do this anyway you like. I’m all about short cuts, so I used the microwave. Put a small amount of water (1/4 cup or less) in the bottom of glass dish with lid (like Pyrex). Preferably a vented lid, but you can just leave one corner open if you don’t have vented lids. I also like to add a little salt to the water for broccoli. The broccoli took 3 or 4 minutes (start with 2 minutes, then turn, stir or shake gently and add a minute at a time until it’s crisp tender and beautifully green). The peas and kale only took about 2 minutes each. Make sure you run the vegetables in cold water when they are done, to stop them from over cooking. Squeeze the excess water from the kale. Set aside.
  5. Once the water starts boiling and the pasta goes in, melt the butter (and bacon drippings, if you’re using) in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, walnuts and sage and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Drain pasta when done, then add it and the vegetables to the pan with sage-walnut butter. Toss and cook gently over low heat for a minute or two.
  7. Serve pasta with a dollop of the mascarpone-Parmesan cheese mixture and a sprinkle of parsley. Yeah, you could just mix the cheese and parsley in with the pasta, but hey – a little presentation goes a long way!

This dish is versatile, as most pasta dishes are. You can use any pasta and just about any vegetable in any amount (though you may need to increase or decrease the cheese mixture and butter sauce to account for the change). There was enough left over for Brian and I to have for lunch today.

I  tried really hard to get the kids involved, but in the end the only cooperation I got was from London. She helped me wash the vegetables.

Bored with Vegetables?

It’s no wonder “dieting” never worked for me. Even to this day I associate “dieting” with carrots and celery sticks and salads at every meal. The very word evokes images of bunnies munching on lettuce and carrots. Plain, crunchy, bland, boring vegetables. And don’t forget fruit… Apple slices, pears, bananas, grapes… B.O.R.I.N.G. Then, when I started exploring new foods and new cooking methods I realized that the food wasn’t boring. I was just stuck in a food rut.

So what changed? I started shopping at the farmers market and learning about local and seasonal eating. My eyes were opened to a new world of food that I had either never bothered to pay attention to, or I had never bothered to try, or had thought was to complicated to prepare or too extravagant for my taste. The blinders were off and I even noticed and purchased new foods from the grocery store. A year and a half later, I’m still tasting new foods weekly, sometimes even daily and there’s no end in sight. Here’s Linsey taking her first bite of red corn:


Yeah. Red corn. That you eat, not a Thanksgiving table decoration. How was it? Meh. Tasted like corn that’s not quite in season yet – and corn isn’t in season yet around here. So if I can find it again when it is in season, maybe I’ll give it another taste. But it was fun to try. I also found multicolored popping corn in a bulk bin at Healthy Home Market. Can’t wait to try that. I especially love to see the confusion on my family’s faces when I bring home something that doesn’t look like the standard variety.

I’ve heard people say that they don’t like to cook. But I can’t help but wonder how that’s possible if you like to eat. I mean, most of us eat at least three or four times a day. Cooking takes some talent, but mostly it just takes practice, patience and a good cookbook or recipe website like allrecipes.com or epicurious.com. Don’t be afraid to try. Tell your guinea pigs (aka family) to be patient, open minded and supportive. (And if they aren’t, then tell them to shut up and eat.) They’ll learn to like these new foods and so will you. It’s normal human behavior to be skeptical of trying new foods. It’s what has kept us alive for thousands of years. You might have to attempt a recipe two or even three times to get it right, but it’s worth it. I strongly urge you to pay attention to ratings and reviews in the recipe websites. They’ll give you great hints and tell you how to avoid mistakes or make them better. It’s like free cooking school. Just get in there and do it. Eventually, you’ll gain confidence and learn which flavors and cooking methods work and which don’t.

Here’s a list of some veggie dishes we’ve had this week. Some of the recipes are new for me.

-Braised Fennel

We had this tonight and it was delicious and easy. Skip the water and just use broth. Fennel is so good for you. Click here to read about it’s health benefits. By the way braised simply means to cook (meat, vegetables, etc) by lightly browning in fat and then cooking slowly in a closed pan with a small amount of liquid (from dictionary.com).

Tonight's dinner: Ossabaw pork chops, roasted smashed potatoes, kale and swiss chard, and that's the braised fennel there in the front.

-Smashed Potatoes

I got the idea for this on Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello. He boiled the potatoes (I used the microwave) and then gently smashed them once with a spoon on a cookie sheet, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned them and then popped them in the oven. I used salt, pepper and chopped garlic. I put them under the broiler until the top starting turning golden brown and then sprinkled them with spring onions after I pulled them out of the oven. It’s so easy and good. You have to try this.

-Greens

Do not put vinegar on my greens. A squeeze of fresh lemon or lime, maybe. But no vinegar please. I like to saute them with onions and garlic in olive oil and then season with salt and pepper. Can’t get any simpler than that. Okay maybe you could add some shredded parm or goat cheese or you could cook them in a little chicken broth or add some soy sauce. Kale and swiss chard are in season now. Early spinach is here or just around the corner.

From my garden - kale and rainbow chard, along with some oregano and spring onions that I used for tonight's dinner.

And that was all from tonight’s dinner. Last night I made zucchini. I sliced it lengthwise about 1/4 inch thick and then soaked it in homemade dressing (balsamic vinegar, olive oil, honey, shallots, salt and pepper) for about 15 minutes. Then I grilled it (in a grill pan). Linsey raved about it. Brian and I both ended up giving her a few of slices from our plates because what parent says no to a child when they want more vegetables? We also had avocado and mango salad. I roughly cut them into one inch pieces and then squeezed a lime over it and threw in some chopped cilantro from the garden.

Salads don’t have to contain mostly lettuce or any at all for that matter. Use your imagination. I like a little fruit (dried or fresh) and nuts in my salads. Adding fresh herbs can transform a salad to something extraordinary. Quality dressing is a must. I strongly suggest you try making your own. It’s so easy and the taste is superior, so why not? My favorite is one part olive oil, one part balsamic, a little honey (more if you like it sweet, but try to cut back on the sweet stuff), salt and pepper. I put the ingredients in a mason jar and give it a shake. Make enough for the week (or more). Sometimes I add garlic, shallots or fresh herbs. You can use any oil, any vinegar or even fresh squeezed citrus. Use cheeses, buttermilk, mayo, sour cream or yogurt to make creamy dressings. Find healthier homemade recipes for your favorites online. The Joy of Cooking has tons of recipes and ideas for homemade dressings. The best part is that you can tailor dressings to suit your taste and standards.

Make fresh produce the norm at home. Save a few frozen bags for emergencies, and don’t even bother with the canned (maybe some tomatoes, occasionally). To keep things interesting, try new fruits and vegetables every week. Find out what’s in season right now, and start there. Produce that’s not in season will be low on quality and taste. Dig a little deeper in the produce department, but also try to find a farmers market that sells organically grown, local produce. The taste of produce this fresh and clean might surprise you. You should also try growing your own. It’s never too late to start a garden. Produce grows year round. Just search the web to find out what you should plant this time of year in your area. Start with container gardening if you are short on experience, time or space. Again the web has all kinds of info on container gardening. Harvesting food from your own garden then preparing it in your own kitchen and sitting down with your family to eat it feels so innately human and satisfying.

Try new cooking methods and recipes too. Before this journey I used recipes for the main dish and usually steamed veg then added oil or butter, salt and pepper. Steamed veggies are classic, but you can spruce them up with new flavors (pretty much the way you would a salad – vinegar, oil, herbs, etc.). Give roasting a try. Simply toss vegetables in olive or coconut oil, salt and pepper and roast at 400 degrees until they start to brown. Mmmm…

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Vegetables are not boring.

Food Myths and Slow Food Shortcuts

Ever heard the term “slow food”? The movement was basically created in opposition to fast food. We have a local chapter, Slow Food Charlotte. The idea is that food should be clean (free of artificial preservatives, coloring, irradiation, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, ripening agents, fumigants, drug residues and growth hormones), ethically produced and not overly processed. Food should be prepared from scratch, at home, using local and minimally processed ingredients – most of the time. (Notice I didn’t say something vague like “whenever possible” or “as often as possible”.) But we eat three meals a day and if we don’t use some shortcuts, we’d likely spend all day thinking about and preparing food. We have to find ways to simplify food preparation, without sacrificing quality, our health and the environment. But first, we have to change our thinking a bit. We need a reality check and we need to recognize some food myths for what they are.

MYTH: RECOMMENDED PORTION SIZES ARE UNREALISTICALLY SMALL

This is the biggest problem facing America’s health today. The amount of food Americans typically eat borders on and sometimes clearly crosses over to gluttony. It’s no wonder we’re a nation of obesity. And when a normal portion of food is placed before us, what do we do? We balk. We feel ripped off. We make jokes. We double or triple the recommended serving or go for seconds. Portion control is out of control. If anything, more often they are unrealistically large (like super sized drinks and fries). We need to eat less food.

MYTH: IT COSTS TOO MUCH TO EAT HEALTHY

Over and over and over again, I hear that organic, free range, pastured, grass fed and local food is too expensive, bla, bla, bla(sigh). It’s not. The truth is that most of what you find at regular grocery stores is junk and it costs too little.  We should be suspicious of it’s low cost and expect to pay more. Americans spend smaller percentages of our income on food than most other countries in the world. We are getting what we pay for -  low quality food. And thanks to the low costs, we’re also consuming too much food. If we add over consumption to the equation, I’m not convinced that it really does cost that much more up front. And you’re paying more for it in other ways – in the form of quality of life,  healthcare and environmental clean up. And, The sooner everyone lays this myth to rest, the sooner we can move on to the next problem.

MYTH: SWITCHING TO “HEALTHIER” VERSIONS OF FOODS WILL HELP WITH WEIGHT LOSS

Don’t expect switching to healthier versions of bad food to noticeably improve your health or help with weight loss. Better for you doesn’t mean good for you. Here are some foods that some might consider “better” for you: baked chips, pretzels, whole grain cereal, whole grain bread without high fructose corn syrup, low fat foods, foods with sugar substitutes (like diet soda), flavored low or no fat yogurt, flavored low sugar oatmeal, margarine, reduced calorie foods. And here are some brands that people automatically regard as healthy, even though they aren’t  – Kashi, Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers, Stonyfield… I know there are many more and I wish I had time to list them all.

I’m not saying some of these foods aren’t slightly better. A few of them are. What I am saying is that you will not notice improved health or weight loss if you consume these “healthier” versions regularly. If you want noticeably better health and weight loss, omit them completely. It does not matter how few calories or how little fat it contains. Especially when it comes to prepackaged processed food, the fewer fat and calories a food contains, the less nutrients you are probably getting. The nutrients  are most likely replaced with air and/or water. So stop looking at nutrition labels and health claims like “low fat” or “low sugar” and look at the ingredient list. Even foods  labeled “organic” aren’t necessarily good for you. Read the ingredient list. Ignore everything else.

Whole foods that only have one ingredient (for example, carrots only contain carrots) are good for you. If the ingredient list doesn’t contain items you can easily find in you pantry or refrigerator, then it’s probably not good for you. Eat a wide variety of fresh, organic produce. Eat plain yogurt or oatmeal and add fresh fruit, nuts and if you still need a little sweetness, add a touch of honey or pure maple syrup. Instead of soda, have water, milk, unsweetened tea or coffee. Instead of bread or pasta, eat quinoa or brown rice. Eat meat, but only a little. The fewer the ingredients the better. Ideally anything with more than five ingredients is junk. Foods your grandma (or grandpa) remember eating as a kid are probably okay. Fat and sugar are okay in moderation (sugary foods should especially only be consumed in moderation) as long as they are naturally occurring and easily recognized by your grandmother (lard, butter, fruits, honey, maple syrup). Exotic foods eaten for generations by other cultures are also okay (olive oil, coconut oil, bananas, coffee). They would be recognized by grandparents in other countries.

MYTH: I DON’T HAVE TIME

Sure you do, but striking a balance means something different for everyone.

For me it means being more flexible – preparing simple, healthy meals that taste great, but without taking too many shortcuts.  Before this journey and for many Americans, shortcuts in the kitchen too frequently lead to a pantry (and freezer) filled with boxes of prepackaged processed food. That’s not something I’m willing to do anymore. I’m not going to abandon my general slow food philosophy for convenience. Doing so would lead me right back to that unhealthy Standard American Diet. Here are some shortcuts I use:

  • Scale down recipes to around 5 ingredients
  • Keep dinner preparation under an hour
  • Double up recipes for leftovers (I make my own “microwave dinners” or lunches by dividing leftovers into small individual sized Pyrex containers with lids.)
  • Doubling up on prep work (washing and chopping enough veg, herb, garlic, etc.  for this meal and the next one or two)
  • Dinner planning (Once a week I jot down around five meals. I use this to create my grocery list, which cuts down on costs and waste. My goals are to include one protein (a small amount of meat, fish or beans), at least two or three vegetables and fruits (preferably seasonal and at least one raw) and occasionally one rice, pasta, grain or quinoa dish. We aren’t eating like birds around here.)

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!

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