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.

Is It Spring?

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

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

Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of mint infused simple syrup,

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

a few dashes of Angostura Bitters (optional).

Fill glass 3/4 full with ice.

Top off with seltzer; then shake or stir well.

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

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

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

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

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

Words, Food and DIY Mania

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

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

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

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

Rustic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!!

Pomegranates and Smurphat Family Recipes

I bought two pomegranates a week ago. I looked at them nearly every day and asked myself, “When are you going to crack those things open? What exactly are you waiting for?” My kids asked the same sorts of questions. Truth is I haven’t bought one in years. When I was growing up, my mom would buy them. But she lovingly did all the hard work and all we had to do was pick off the arils. I’ve bought them a few times since then, but was always disappointed and never felt they were worth the trouble. The seeds inside were hard and difficult to chew, making the little burst of juice hardly worth the messy, cutting, peeling, prying, plucking and seed spitting. Now, why did I buy these again? Oh yeah. They are good for you and yummy (even if they are a lot of work). They are rich in vitamin C, B5, potassium and polyphenols (like tannins and flavonoids).

Finally, I decided to open this baby up. But first I had to consult YouTube. Not because it’s all that difficult, but because I figured there was a trick to it and YouTube is my favorite site for how-to demonstrations. I found two ways to do it. Since I had two of them, I tried both ways. Yeah. I’m a nerd like that. The first method involves cutting the thing into manageable pieces then working the arils out by hand in a bowl of water. The peel and membrane floated to the top and the kernels sank to the bottom. Of course when you cut the thing open, just know that it has the potential to look like a scene from some gory horror flick. The juices splatter. In fact, I didn’t even notice they had splattered all the way up the wall and under my cabinets. Also found some on the the paper towel roll the next day. And on the canisters. And toaster. Meh… I prefer the second way, which involves “scalping” the top to reveal the sections and then slicing through the skin and prying the sections apart. It was definitely less messy. And the spoon tapping to release the arils worked okay. Though it didn’t really knock them off, the arils were loosened and easy to pry off after the spoon smacking. (I know, I know. I’m a food nerd.)

As it turns out, the seeds aren’t as bad as I remember. I wasn’t going to mention the seed spitting option to the kids unless they had a problem with it. I didn’t have to. The seeds didn’t bother them. One of them even liked the crunch. Huh. Me too. Go figure. And eating the pomegranate with the seeds is better for you. They contain healthy oils, micronutrients and fiber. Pomegranates are high in sugar. In fact, most of it’s calories come from this sugar. But the fiber helps keep blood sugar levels from spiking by slowing the breakdown of sugar in the body.

They make a great healthy snack all by themselves (I ate quite a few while writing this post), but they were also great on our salads last night:

Speaking of salads, this Sweet and Sour Slaw is what led me to the collection of Smurphat family recipes. Of course the recipe is good as is, but you know me – I added fennel, apples and carrots to give it my seasonal, nutrient dense twist.

The slaw recipe is my mother’s. I had misplaced my handwritten recipe and after searching everywhere, I suddenly remembered that she had submitted the recipe for the Smurphat Family Recipes. No she is not technically a Smurphat (that would be my late grandmother on my Dad’s side), and this recipe actually comes from my childhood neighbor. The recipes were gathered at a family reunion and the “Sweet and Sour Slaw” recipe was my mother’s contribution.  So I dug around and found the family recipe book in a closet upstairs. (Upstairs!?)

Even before I’d found this cookbook, I had been thinking a lot about family recipes. Since I’m cooking more traditionally now, I am always in search of old recipes. I love how naturally good for you they are and I’m fascinated that science is now proving that these tried and true methods and ingredients (a.k.a. slow food) are more beneficial to our health than we realized. Good, simple, unprocessed ingredients, food preparations and cooking methods that have been fine-tuned over centuries and handed down for generations – the culture, the tradition. I’ve been wondering how and what recipes I want to pass on to my daughters. And as I was preparing the slaw, I began thinking about my grandmother. She passed away a few months ago. I wondered which recipes she had contributed. So after dinner I finished my glass of Syrah while perusing family recipes.

As it turns out, quite a few of these recipes called for processed food ingredients like cream of mushroom soup and rolls of refrigerated dough, marshmallow creme, shortening and margarine. I was a little disappointed that these recipes weren’t very traditional, and in fact seem to come from the 50’s era of condensed soup and prepackaged convenience foods.

There were a few gems though. Even some traditional Italian and German Recipes. My grandmother’s recipe for “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler” was included and it just so happens that apples are in season. In fact, Saturday is the last day for apples at my favorite farmers market. Other than the “oleo” (margarine) that she calls for, the rest of the ingredients are pretty traditional. I’m excited to try it.

All this has me wanting to put together a collection of family recipes that use traditional ingredients and methods. You’ll probably be hearing more about this and more about traditional recipes and methods in future posts. I’d love to hear about your family food culture, traditions and recipes. Please feel free to comment below.

A Taste of Autumn

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

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

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

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.)

This and That

So I haven’t posted anything in awhile because I’ve been so busy. You might think that turning off the T.V. would give me more time, but it’s time slot was replaced quickly. I have to admit that I did kind of relapse. Season 2 of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution started this week and I like watching this with the kids. So, one show – THAT’S ALL! Turning off the T. V. was the best thing I’ve done in awhile. What a difference it makes. And I don’t miss my old shows a bit.

My garden is growing. The last couple weeks have been warming up. Mother Nature has been taking care of most of the watering too. I have to water every now and then, but mostly just the potted plants and newly planted stuff. A couple of my tomato plants may have been stunted by freezing temperatures a few weeks ago, but I’m hoping they’ll start taking off soon. The marigolds I planted seem to be keeping the bunnies out of my strawberries. They are flowering and berries are starting to form. I’ll be keeping a closer eye on them when the berries are close to ripening.

I entered a livestrong.com facebook contest with the above photo. Nothing special, I know. You’re supposed to post a picture of yourself or something that represents what you’re doing to be healthy. The best part is that they re-posted my picture on their wall! My organic garden provides nourishing food, exercise and meditation. Being outside under the sun, with dirt and plants – growing the very thing that keeps us alive – touches me on a spiritual level. I think my entry gets that across.  Voting starts April 18th by the way. I shamelessly beg for your vote. The winner gets and iPad and I want it! You can click here to see my entry.

The yard sale was a bit of bust, but we still got rid of everything. We priced everything really low and some of it we literally gave away. We had two tables of “free stuff” that grew as the day went on. I think people were so surprised that we were giving away such good stuff that they bought a few things just to be nice. So maybe it worked in our favor. We didn’t have the traffic we normally do, so that was a bummer. I love having yard sales. And not just because we’re making money and getting rid of stuff, though that definitely doesn’t hurt. I thoroughly enjoy chatting with strangers and neighbors.

The pack rat in me showed up for a minute as we were closing up shop. I actually considered putting everything back in boxes and trying again at the next community yard sale. But then I came back to my minimalist senses and we delivered two ridiculously full truckloads to Goodwill. I’m sure the unloaders were not thrilled to see Brian the second time around. It felt so good though when he pulled away with that last load.

Thanks to one of my wonderful neighbors, I’ve finally found a holistic pediatrician for the girls. Within five minutes of speaking to her, I knew I was in the right place. It’s a drive to get there, but it’s worth it. Linsey was not happy about the appointment. She told me the night before that she wasn’t going to talk, but the doc was so nice and easy to talk to that she opened right up. It’s nice to find a doctor that fits so well into our new lifestyle and shares our philosophy.

Speaking of our philosophy… Lately I’ve discovered that a few people aren’t quite sure exactly what that is. I’m a little surprised, but then again I think sometimes I make it sound complicated. Another reason it may be difficult to understand is that it’s always changing. We have the basics down, but I’m always fine tuning it. It might be easier to explain what we do eat rather than what we don’t eat, since we don’t eat a lot of the food you’d find in the grocery store and the Standard American Diet. Mostly we eat foods that people would have eaten a hundred years ago – in this order: vegetables, fruits, meat (mostly chicken and pork), seafood, dairy, beans and some whole grains. All of which are grown organically, free range, pastured and naturally and without hormones, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc. – the way they were grown a hundred years ago. And most of it homemade – the way it was made a hundred years ago. I grow what I can and we try to buy the rest locally, especially from growers that share our philosophy.

Really we’ve just gone back to our roots and try to pretend that prepackaged, processed foods and exotic foods from far away don’t exist (with a few exceptions – olive oil, some produce, tea, coffee, spices). It’s called slow food – “good, clean, fair food”. We try to eat a wide variety of foods, rather than the same thing every week. We eat less, and spend the extra money on better quality food. We do spend a little more (seriously, only a little more) than we used to, but we’re investing in healthier food for ourselves and our planet and we’re supporting the growers that are painstakingly providing it with their own blood, sweat and tears, even as they are barely scraping by. (And I thank you, from way deep down in my hungry little soul.)

Not everything we eat is like this though – maybe just 75% of it. As I’ve said before, I’m no purist and I don’t believe that any food should be off limits. We buy some produce, olive oil, coffee, tea and spices that don’t grow in our region.  I don’t make my own cheese or yogurt (though I may try it one day). I don’t always buy organic, but almost everything is (especially the dirty dozen and any products that contain corn, soy or wheat). We do take advantage of a few shortcuts and modern conveniences. I’m not stuck in some weird time warp, although I wouldn’t mind going back for a short visit. It would be eye opening and I could learn so much. We all could. There’s a saying that if your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, you probably shouldn’t eat it. Michael Pollan also sums it up nicely. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” 

I strongly urge you to read one of his food books by the way. If you struggled with food and weight, it might be the kick in the pants you need to change your life.

A couple other good books to get you started would be Real Food: What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. I especially love this last one. It’s also available on CD which is great if you spend a lot of time in the car. Check your local library. Seriously, stop dieting and read one of these. Worked better for me than any diet ever did.

TV Sacrifice

I’ve gone mad – or maybe I’ve come to my senses. I just deleted everything (except two movies and a couple of London’s favorite shows for emergencies) from my DVR. Not only did I erase all of the recorded shows, but my entire pre-programmed schedule for future recordings. I’m going cold turkey.

This morning I’ve been thinking a lot about my garden, about food and about life. I realized that in order for me to reach my goals, I’m going to need more time. Since I can’t add hours to the day, I’m going to have to budget my time better and declutter my schedule, the way I’m decluttering my home. My favorite things in life are my family and friends, food, my garden and this blog. In order for me to have time for all of this and the things that have to be done whether I like them or not, I’m going to have to purge some things. Bye-bye television and Netflix. A weight has been lifted (again).

Now I’m just going to ramble about some of my favorite things, namely food and gardening. I’m still trying to make the perfect loaf of whole wheat bread. I bought a loaf made by a professional baker from the farmers market and was relieved to find that her loaf was no better than mine. In fact, it was worse. It was just as small, dense and crumbly as mine was but it didn’t taste nearly as good. You may recall that the last loaf I blogged about here, turned out perfectly and I thought I had it all figured out. Well, I guess the stars and moon were aligned or it was a fluke. The loaf I made this week, with all my notes, tips and tricks, didn’t turn out as well. I think I let it rise too long. I still have a few tricks up my sleeve, so we’ll see.

I also made a French loaf, which would have turned out perfectly had I not burned it under the broiler while trying to get the top perfectly golden. But the first, slightly more ridiculous snafu happened at the beginning. The recipe said to make a well in the center of the flour, pour in the water then mix by hand. I had this picture in my head of flour piled right on the counter with a well in the middle, so I gave it a try. What I’m about to tell you is a gift to make you feel really smart. I poured the one and half cups of water into the pile and it immediately ran out all over the counter (facepalm). Duh. One and a half cups of water?! Good thing my counter is wide and I had cleared it off completely. Working quickly and using the dough scraper like a squeegee, I managed to incorporate all the water back into the dough and none of it hit the floor. Once I had it contained, I had to take a second to curse and then laugh at my stupidity. I wish I could have taken a picture of the mess, but my hands were covered in dough.

Backyard Produce delivered my tiny box of organic (and some local) produce on Wednesday. What a rip off. I basically paid $20 for a few small tomatoes and a couple of pears, a bunch of spinach, some blueberries and fennel.

I could have fared better at Harris Teeter. I purchased the deal from Groupon ($18 for $35 worth) and felt mislead by Backyard Produce throughout the entire process. I thought I’d be ordering the large $35 box of produce, which would have been great. The Groupon stated “packaging and delivery included”, but I didn’t think that meant that $12 of the $35 was going to be used to pay for the packaging. So $23 went toward about $15 worth of produce. They also charged tax (which I did find mentioned later, in the fine print on a separate page of Groupon). I had to subscribe to a weekly plan in order to use the Groupon, which would have been fine if there was some information on the website about how to cancel your account or change billing information. There is no instruction for either. I can put the next several weeks on “hold”, but that’s just not good enough. I had to email the company to get the account canceled. In the end, I paid $20 (tax and all) for $15 worth of produce. I guess, it might be worth $5 to have it delivered – if you weren’t planning to go to the grocery store at all. I also get to keep the packaging – a cardboard box dipped in wax and lined with insulation. That might actually come in handy once or twice before I have to throw it out. Be careful Groupon and Living Social customers. I did report my experience to Groupon.

On a brighter note, I’ve forgotten how much I love spring. Whatever happens to make plants and trees grow and flowers bloom, happens inside of me every spring too. And yet every spring I forget how good it feels, until it hits me. It feels like being born again. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the fact that I was born in spring, or whether it happens to everyone. My guess (and my hope) is that it happens to everyone. I’ve happily neglected the T.V. to spend more time outside – gardening.

Thyme and Mint (The snail is meant to keep the squirrels from digging.) Mojitos are in my very near future.

 

Herbs, Lettuce and some strawberries I found growing in a pot last week (safe from pesticides).

 

"TruGreen Tainted Strawberries" that I'm still thinking about eating. The rabbits have been nibbling on them, so I'm recycling plastic drink bottles to protect the leaves for now.

 

Inground Garden

 

Peas - Thanks Carrie!!

 

Linsey's Cabbage - Bonnie Plants 3rd Grade Cabbage Program (Cool!)

I’ve set a goal for myself that within a month or two, my purchases at the farmers market will be limited to local, pastured meat, eggs and cheese and other local specialty items like honey, mushrooms and my favorite stone ground grits. The plan is for most of our produce to come from our garden – tomatoes, beans, peas, chard, kale, herbs, lettuces, spring onions, sweet peppers, hot peppers, fennel, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions and a few fruits – strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, and maybe watermelon, pumpkin and winter squash. I plan to share and find ways to preserve by canning, freezing and drying what we can’t use. (See why there’s no room for T.V.)

Falling Off the Low-Carb Wagon and Gaining Weight

I didn’t think it would happen, but it did. We fell off the low-carb wagon. It all started during the holidays. Being around all those carbs and watching everyone enjoy them and saying no, was just too hard. If you remember, I was a little worried this would happen and wrote about it here. We didn’t just give up and dig in. It happened gradually. I didn’t even realize how off track we were until I stepped on the scale a couple of weeks ago. I’d gained about 5… okay more like 6 or 7 pounds in the last 4 months. Not too bad, you might say. But the truth is I can also feel the difference in my health. I’ve been having problems with digestion again and have noticed more bloating and fatigue. I’ve also noticed that I’m craving them again, and I miss not missing them.

Unfortunately, we had been eating more carbs on our meatless dinner nights. (Which we haven’t been doing every other day like I had planned, but usually 2 or 3 times a week.  When we do eat meat, we eat very little.) It’s more difficult to avoid carbs when you’re eating less meat. It takes a lot of work and planning and I’m still working on it. Some people even argue that humans shouldn’t be eating grains at all. (For more information read The Awful Truth About Eating Grains.) I’m not in that camp, but I do believe our dependence on grains (like our dependence on fuel) is excessive. I don’t believe we should be eating refined grains at all. We should only eat organic, whole grains, but still only in moderation. We should be getting the bulk of our fiber from fruits and vegetables, which are packed with lots of other nutrients, and not whole grains. (I choose organic whole grains whenever possible because they are not genetically modified and are chemical free. GMO’s and chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and additives) make over consumption of conventional whole grains even more harmful.) Enough about grains for now.

But part of me can’t help wondering if gaining weight in winter is what mother nature intended. During the winter months food is less abundant and there isn’t much variety, unless, of course, you’re at a conventional grocery store. However, if you are eating a more traditional whole foods diet –  seasonal and local – winter is not a good time for food. Traditionally, we’d have meat, grains, potatoes and other root vegetables, winter squash and greens and, if you are lucky and were thinking ahead (we weren’t) you’d have some out of season food that you had canned, dried, frozen, fermented or pickled. We did have some frozen basil and pesto, but that’s about it. So if we’re thinking in terms of how things were in simpler times (say, a hundred years ago) we’d probably be eating more carbs in winter because that’s what was in season.

We are less active in winter. It’s cold and there’s really not much to do outside. No grass to cut. No weeds to pull. Not much of a garden to tend to. Nothing to water. No bugs to hose off, knock off or pinch. It’s too cold to play outside for long. So we’re also getting less exercise. That’s not to say that it has to be that way. We can certainly go to a gym or even workout in the comfort of our own home, but generally this is what happens in nature. Winter is a time to relax before the busyness of spring comes along.

More carbs + less exercise = more fat. Maybe we should be eating less to offset the calories we’re not burning. Then again, maybe not. Fat keeps you warm. What is there to do besides hang out with family and friends and EAT! In the winter months, if you were living in a cave or had no central heating or electricity, fat might help you survive through the winter. So maybe… just maybe… this is the way it’s supposed to happen? Maybe this is the way we’ve evolved. This formula for fat may be a gift from mother nature to help us survive the cold winter months. Surviving cold winters is much easier for Americans today thanks to modern central heating. But it’s only been around, for the general population at least, for a couple of generations. Humans have likely been around for roughly 200,000 years. Americans have only had affordable access to central heat for maybe 100 years. (Heating a home uses a lot of energy, something else we consume too much of. We should be reaching for a robe or jacket instead of turning up the thermostat. Here is an interesting article about heating and cooling homes in America.)

So maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about the 6 or 7 pounds I gained. Maybe I’m just instinctively adapting to survive the cold winter the way our ancestors did for hundreds of thousands of years. After all, when spring comes and we’re back outside doing all that work – cutting the lawn, weeding, planting, watering and playing, we should be able to burn off a few more calories.

Regardless of whether or not it’s  natural to gain weight in winter, I know that eating refined sugar and carbs is not healthy. It’s time to break the addiction (again). The past couple of weeks I’ve been weaning the family off carbs (again). I’ve already lost 2 or 3 pounds and have been feeling better. But it’s time to step it up. The first day of spring is less than week away. I’m already seeing more produce at the farmers market and soon, I’ll be harvesting food and herbs right from my own back yard. No more excuses. Goodbye carbs. Hello strawberries, spring onions, lettuce, spinach, chard, asparagus… Mmm…

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