Southern Cookbook and Good Home Cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things You Shouldn’t Throw Away

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


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


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


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


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

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

My Sweet Tooth Returns – Sugar Really Is Like Crack!!

Every time I think I have it under control, it comes back. I don’t even realize it’s happening until I’m feeling icky, moody and have gained a couple pounds. And just in time for bathing suit season, no less!! Sugar addiction is a real thing, and it has me rethinking everything I’ve learned so far. For over a year now I’ve read countless articles, books, essays and blogs about nutrition and food (some insightful, some misleading) and it always seems to come back to sugar. Could this one thing be at the root of America’s health problems?

We all know that added sugar isn’t good for us, but I truly believe the situation is much worse than that. Most of us are suffering from sugar addiction. And I believe that most of us are in denial that the problem even exists. The average American eats 156 pounds of sugar each year. That is the equivalent of 31 five-pound bags a year – 7 ounces (just under a cup) a day. Most of the time we don’t even know we’re eating sugar. Prepackaged, processed foods, even savory foods, are laced with it.

There is enough evidence out there to say that sugar affects us in the same way drugs do. It’s mood altering, addictive and withdrawal symptoms occur when it’s taken away. I won’t to go as far as to say that sugar is equivalent to cocaine, but they are worth comparing. Remember that cocaine was once legal and also remember that it was one of the original ingredients and the inspiration for the name of America’s favorite drink. It was later outlawed and removed from the drink, but (interestingly) the amount of sugar in sodas and other junk food has gradually increased over the decades. I can’t help but wonder whether Coke, Nabisco, Kraft and other big names in the food industry (including fast food restaurants) will one day face law suits for covering up and down playing the addictive quality and health risks of sugar, similar to those faced by Phillip Morris and the tobacco industry.  I believe those companies know just how addictive sugar is. And they know that putting it in their food will keep us (and has kept us) all coming back for more.

Enough about added sugar and the dirty dealings of the food industry for now. That’s not the only place sugar is found. While whole fruit (not peeled, dried, candied, juiced, fruit sauce, etc.) is good for you, it does contains fructose (sugar), so there is a such thing as too much fruit. Milk also contains sugar. Unfortunately, in our society, our sweet tooth is so out of scale with nature and our bodies ability to metabolize sugar, that most of us probably don’t even really consider these whole foods to be sugary.

When sugar is eaten with the entire, original package – as delivered by nature (fat in the case of milk and skin, pulp, etc. in the case of fruit and veggies) – we’re much better off. We ingest less sugar because the fiber, fat and even the water in these foods fill us up and tell our brains that we’ve had enough. Dried fruit on the other hand, with water removed, or applesauce without the fibrous peel isn’t going fill us up until we’ve already ingested too much sugar. A couple of dried apricots halves aren’t going to be enough for most of us. But one whole, fresh apricots might just do the trick. The same goes with milk. If you drink a glass of  whole milk you’ll be more satisfied than you would if you drank the same amount of skim milk. The amount of sugar is the same in skim and whole milk (12 grams per cup). If you like it thin… I don’t know. Add water to it? Then at least you’re also cutting down the sugar.

Here’s something else to consider. There are about 145 calories in a cup of whole milk, versus 90 calories in a cup of skim. So only a third more calories – only 55 more calories per cup . The nutritive value is well worth the extra calories. Another way to look at this is that you could actually drink less milk if you drink nutrient dense whole milk in place of skim, and you’d save money. Milk costs the same per gallon whether you buy skim, 2% or whole. This is yet another example of how buying the real, whole, nutrient dense food is actually cheaper, not more expensive, than it’s processed, refined counterparts. And yes, skim milk is processed, refined whole milk.

But back to the crack. Sugar’s drug-like qualities aren’t the only reason we should avoid it. Simply put, we should be getting the greatest amount of nutrients for the least amount of calories. Study after study shows that limiting calories has the greatest impact on weight loss, health and longevity. And sugar has the least amount of nutrients for the greatest amount of calories. Added sugar, especially refined sugars like sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup (because it’s the cheapest, most widely used sweetener in the food industry) and even sugar substitutes have no place in our diet. No diet – anywhere… ever – recommends added sugar. Natural sugars, like honey and evaporated cane juice (still added sugar), may have some nutritive value, but still are nowhere near worth the calories. The only sugar we should be consuming should come from whole, natural foods like fruit and milk.

Meal Planning Saves Money and Time

Meal planning is a great way to save time and money. It’s nice to know “what’s for dinner” on those busy evenings when the house is buzzing with activity. Hungry kids doing homework and me running around the kitchen from the fridge, to the stove, to the sink to help a kid with homework or whatever the current crisis is and then back to the stove… and here we go again. Before I started meal planning, I would frequently forget a component or an entire dish at least once with every meal. We’re also more likely to eat a balanced healthy meal, especially over the course of week. And there’s less waste. The kids also seem to like the menu. They eagerly wait for me to post in on the fridge and then reference it nearly every day.

I usually go to the farmers market on Saturday. I’ll buy whatever produce is in season, some free range chicken (usually a whole chicken) and pastured pork (maybe pork chops, bacon, sausage, a roast or ground pork), maybe some pastured beef (rarely), some free range eggs, goat cheese, mushrooms, and what ever else I can find that looks yummy. I build my weekly menus from this trip and whatever is left from last week. I’ll plan four or five dinners, knowing I’ll probably improvise at last one additional meal during the week and we’ll probably have leftovers one night or eat with friends or family or occasionally eat out. I try to plan on using the oldest ingredients first. I start with the protein: meat at least twice, fish once, beans at least once (we eat vegetarian meals once or twice a week). Then I’ll just spread the produce out over the week. This usually inspires the flavors and cuisine of each meal and I start filling in with things I’ll need to pick up from at a grocery or specialty store. I start making a list of these items to the right of the page. I also make notes about how I’m going to cook something and whether it’s something I’ll need to get from the garden. This just helps me be more organized when I’m actually preparing the meal. I’ll attach any recipes I have and then I’ll clip it to the fridge. Voila!

Inevitably something will spoil or I’ll need to rearrange something, but at least I have an idea and “menu” (inventory, really) of foods to choose from each day.

Making gluten and dairy free dinners are easy enough, since we are already eating a healthy, varied diet. We just had to eliminate or find substitutes for things like bread, noodles and cheese. Surprisingly, eliminating dairy is a little tougher than eliminating gluten. Why gluten and dairy free, you ask? Click here to read my previous post and find out why.

So the pork chop dinner and the beans and rice dinner went as planned.

Pork chops with braised fennel, smashed potatoes and kale

However, I had a hard time making the corn tortillas on chicken taco night and was running out of time, so instead I pan fried the breasts, and we had carrots, greens, broccoli and brown rice instead. Another night I improvised with the some gluten free brown rice spaghetti noodles I found at Healthy Home Market. I fried some chunky bacon pieces and roughly cut huge chunks of green house tomatoes from the farmers market, onions and asparagus (which is the freshest, most tasty, in season produce I’ve ever bought from Trader’s Joes). I had fava beans leftover from the farmers market which I had shelled and blanched (to remove the waxy skin) earlier in the week and some leftover chickpeas from homemade hummus (yum – one of Linsey’s favorite lunches now that she’s gluten free). Of course there was some chopped garlic and fresh basil from the garden.

After I cooked the bacon and set it aside, I very, very, very lightly sauteed the veg in the bacon fat. I really just wanted them warmed, not cooked. I did reserved about half of the bacon fat for the sauce. So after I took the veg out, I added the rest of the bacon fat back in the empty pan and sauteed some chopped garlic for just about 30 seconds and then added some white wine, reduced it down for maybe five minutes then added some chicken stock. I thickened the sauce with goat cheese from the farmers market.  (We fudged on the dairy free dinner here.) Then I added the veg back in and poured it all over the noodles (which I had boiled and drained somewhere in there). I cooked it for another five minutes so that the veg and noodles could soak up some of that yummy sauce. I sprinkled a good bit of bacon (the only meat in the dish) over every plate. Oh my, was it good! This is a great example of a seasonal meal. (Oh, and no one even noticed that they were brown rice noodles.)

We never got around to “fish night” and “taco night” was a bust, so I added fish tacos to the menu for this week. Brian offered to cook this meal. It was delicious, healthy and not cooked by me! He cooked the fish in the cast iron skillet (don’t do that by the way – the fishiness seeps into cast iron and taints the next meal or two), but the fish itself was tasty. He seasoned it with some lime juice, tequila and chili powder (you go boy)! He made some guacamole (with help from Haleigh, his sous-chef for the evening) and sauteed some peppers and onions. We had some leftover brown rice in the fridge.  I chopped up some tomatoes and lettuce, and we used the corn tortilla shells I made yesterday morning. (I had fixed the dough from the night before by adding more masa harina and cooked them the next morning. My new tortilla press is awesome, by the way! Some people suggest using plastic wrap to line the press, but I suggest wax paper. Much easier to work with.) My taco was too stuffed to be eaten by hand so I just added generous dollops of guacamole and plain Green yogurt and ate it with a fork. YUM! I’m so impressed with his cooking skills!

The rest of this week’s meal plan looks like this:

Today

  • Korean Style Pastured Pork Chops (pastured pork from farmers market)
  • 1/2 Sticky & 1/2 Brown Rice
  • Broccoli (from farmers market)
  • Korean Style Greens (using beet greens from farmers market)
  • Kimchi
  • Lettuce (wraps, from garden)
  • Seaweed (wraps)

Wednesday

  • Brown Rice Pasta with Mascarpone (garlic, olive oil, chicken broth sauce for Linsey)
  • Greens (chard and/or kale from the garden)
  • Broccoli (from the farmers market)
  • English Peas (from the farmers market)
  • Salad (lettuce from the garden, green house tomatoes and onions from farmers market, homemade dressing)

Thursday

  • Whole Roasted Chicken (free range, pastured chicken from farmers market)
  • Roasted Beet Salad w/goat cheese (from farmers market), walnuts and homemade dressing
  • Roasted Carrots and New Potatoes (farmers market)
  • Salad (lettuce from the garden, green house tomatoes and onions from farmers market, homemade dressing)

Friday we’ll eat leftover or sandwiches.

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.)

Beans! Beans! They’re Good for Your Heart.

The more you eat them, the more you f…ight disease and signs of aging. Beans are one of nature’s most perfect foods. They are a rich with antioxidants and a good source of folic acid, vitamin B6, magnesium, iron and protein. They can replace meat in a vegetarian or vegan meal. (But be sure to add “good fat” to a meatless meal. Either by cooking drizzling with healthy fats or oils  – coconut oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, olive oil, butter or lard – or incorporate oily foods like avocado, olives or nuts into the meal. Good fats are friends and help the body absorb nutrients. Fats are also good for your brain, skin and hair.) It’s also a good idea to pair beans with brown rice or corn. Each lack one or more proteins, but together they are more complete.  Different types of beans have different health benefits. Oh and if you want to reduce flatulence, soak them over night, sprout them or get yourself some Beano.

brown rice and heritage mixed beans (cooked in homemade chicken stock, onion and garlic) with broccoli and pineapple-mango fruit salad (dressed with fresh squeezed orange juice, cilantro and chive blossoms and topped with avocado)

Beans are versatile and should not be overlooked or considered boring. For me at least, it’s just a matter of (1) taking the plunge and learning to cook them and (2) experimenting with recipes and combinations. Learning to cook with beans is like learning to cook with any other protein – chicken, fish, beef, etc. The possibilities are endless. I’m not sure why so many people turn their noses up to beans and only associate them with vegetarian or vegan eating. They should just be associated with healthy eating. And of course, you don’t have to substitute meat with beans. You can eat them together. I strongly suggest doing that. Yum!!

Here’s another reason to eat more beans – you get more bang for your buck. If the upfront costs of eating healthy is one of the things preventing you from doing so, then eat more beans. If you buy dried beans you can save a ton of money – especially if you buy from bulk bins. I also prefer dried over canned for a few reasons: (1) it’s cheaper (2) the lining in cans frequently contains BPA, a dangerous chemical with more evidence mounting against it every day; (3) canned beans are usually high in sodium; and (4) the texture (more bite, less mush) and taste is superior. That said, I do keep a couple cans of low sodium, organic beans in the pantry for last minute meal ideas. Dried beans take a little more planning.

Once you learn the basics, the rest is just experimental. I suggest soaking for at least 6 hours. They don’t have to soak overnight. Many times I forgot to soak the beans and changed my entire dinner plans before I realized this. As a matter of fact, they don’t have to be soaked at all. But they will have to cook longer and remember, soaking will reduce flatulence later. Your gut will thank you. Cook them in broth (for about an hour if you soaked them, 2 to 2 1/2 hours if you forgot). Tasting one or two beans at different times during cooking can help you get the texture you want. Once they are cooked, you can add whatever you want. As I said the possibilities are endless.  You can even take them out of the cooking stock just before they’re done and finish them in a saute pan with… anything. Use your imagination. I think I’ll try it sauteed with onions, garlic, tomato and basil next time (Italian style). Maybe even some red pepper flake…

The rest of this post is completely unrelated to beans. Just random pictures and words.

For Cinco de Mayo:

Pulled Pork and Goat Cheese Quesadilla (with brown rice and vegetables) - Click on the photo for the recipe.

Chorizo Fajitas with peppers, onions, tomatoes, cheese and plain yogurt.

Suggestion: Buy good quality blocks of cheese and shred or grate it yourself. You'll be amazed at the difference. If you only use prepackaged shredded or grated cheese, you don't know what you're missing. Try it! It's also more cost effective. I give the job of grating and shredding cheese to my kids, who love it. Then I store the excess in a container instead of a bag to prevent sticking. In case you didn't know, cellulose is used in prepackaged shredded cheese to prevent caking.

Mmmm. Refreshing Mojito with fresh mint from my garden.

Grossly malformed strawberries thanks to TruGreen. We won't be eating these. Click on the photo to find out what happened.

African Basil, Red Russian Kale, Spring Onions - All from my garden, used to make an "international omelet" this morning.

African Basil - Pretty enough to be used (and is used) as an ornamental. Heartier in colder weather than other basil, which is why it is sometimes considered a perennial. Taste is described as less minty and more clove like.

Blueberries! Fingers crossed that I get to eat the ripe berries before the birds this year.