Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Tale of Two Veggies.....

Last year, one of my goals in improving our eating was to include more fruits and veggies.  One way I was interested in doing that was by joining a CSA.
  • Those of you who aren't familiar with them, a CSA is community sponsored agriculture--a farm shares type of investment in a local farm. You might pay a set amount for a whole season (and get proportional shares of the crops) or you might pay a subscription amount per week or box of fruits/veggies you get.
Unfortunately, I found that out here, there isn't much active farm left (except for orange groves). But, luckily there are a lot of farm communities nearby (say w/in 50-100 miles). I found a co-op that several farms contribute to and then you purchase a box (paying by the size & frequency). Its all organic and....... it comes delivered to the DOOR! How awesome is that?

We signed up last June and I decided to start small-- a less frequent delivery but a bigger box. I figured that way we'd get lots of variety and maybe enough extra fruits and veggies to put something away for later. We started with every other week but I was quickly finding that with 2 (and a half) eaters, we just couldn't keep up and I didn't want to keep composting it all. So, now we're at once every 4 weeks and that is working out pretty well for me.

One of the most interesting things I've been learning is what's in season--right here, right now. Its really helped me in the grocery store, as I can look at certain fruits and veggies and now I KNOW right off the bat that they've been imported (probably from Chile, our opposite season partner). I've also been learning A LOT about new fruits and veggies. In our box, you get what's being grown at the partner farms. So, quite frequently I've pulled everything out of my box and had to check the packing list just to identify one (or more!) of the items. I'll admit that most of these things are not particularly exotic but with a Midwest/farm based food heritage, my food exposures were pretty basic. Fruits were apples, oranges, bananas. Maybe some peaches or apricots or grapes for excitement. Veggies were iceberg lettuce, canned green beans, peas, corn and the like.

With each box, I've been trying at least one new thing-- some I've liked and some well...... not so much. But I have to say its been a great example to the little people to see Mom and Dad dive into trying all these new foods. We've had a LOT less arguing and complaining when we are ALL trying something new!

Today I'm gonna tell you the tale of two veggies (I bet you were wondering when I was EVER gonna get around to those!) that if you haven't tried yet, you won't be sorry! To those in-the-know, these are AMAZING! But I definitely never would have tried either if they weren't staring me in the face every time I opened the fridge. So, while I can't magically send some to your fridge to stare at you, I will instead send my encouragement to get out there and TRY SOMETHING NEW!!

First up: LEEKS!
 The first leek we had looked about the size and shape of a green baseball bat! It was HUGE!!!! I had NO idea what to do with that thing. And, I'll admit it.... I kind of dithered, then I delayed and then I put it off a bit more until.... OH DARN, too wilted to use. When our next box had 3 of them, I knew I couldn't let them all go. So I flipped on the computer and did some research.


What in the heck is a leek? It turns out its a relative of onions. They are kind of like green onions from the land of giants. I don't have a great love of onions-- I like their flavor but they don't agree with my digestion and raw is completely out of the question. So I was a more than a little nervous about experimenting with them. But I gathered my courage and I started subbing leeks into any recipe that I'd normally put some onion into and WOW! great (light) onion flavor and NO digestive problems!

How to prep a leek: As they are often grown in sandy/gritty soil, you will definitely need to rinse these well. It is usually recommended to rinse AFTER you cut since the layers are so tight. You can either do one long cut lengthwise and pull the layers apart to rinse (kinda like celery) or slice them thinly crossways and drop into a bowl of water. Let the grit settle to the bottom and scoop the floating pieces from the top. When you are cutting, you typically only use the white and light green portions.

Veggie #2: Swiss Chard
We've been getting LOTS of leafy greens lately -- lettuces of all types, radiccio, spinach and lately chard. I've seen chard called "swiss chard" and "rainbow chard". If you haven't seen chard before, it looks like a big spinach leaf with a colored stem--this can be either light green or colored with pinks, oranges or purples! When we got a bunch of these leaves, with each stem's leaf around the size of an elephant ear (okay, maybe a baby elephant....) I was certainly a bit nervous. I freely admit that big green leafy things do still make me a bit anxious (the lingering 5 year old inside me, perhaps?) I do like spinach occasionally but haven't gotten on board (yet) with the great kale craze that's going on and not having much for southern relatives, I've not had any experience with many other types of greens (collards and the like).

I was greatly encouraged when several sites on the internet described the flavor of chard as being like a mild spinach. I thought "okay, I can do that!". The best suggestion I read was to blanch the leaves before adding to your recipe-- apparently this will reduce any potential bitterness that may be found in these deep green leafies.

To prep chard: Rinse and pat dry individual leaves. Cut out (or yank) the hard center stem and discard. Chop leaves into manageable strips or pieces. I cut mine into rectangles about 2" x 1" and that worked well. Drop into a pot of boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain well. Use any place you might use other cooked greens like baby spinach or kale.

I was so excited about chard that I've actually just planted 9 (!!) little baby plants into the beginning of this year's garden (along with some romaine and arugula). I'm very excited to see if baby chard tastes like baby spinach. I'll get to find out in a few weeks!!

Summary: Any place you would use an onion, you can use leeks. Any place you'd use a green like spinach, kale or collards, you can use chard.

One of the things I love about this recipe is that it took an old favorite (scalloped potatoes and ham) which had little nutrient value (besides calories....) and really beefed it up. Loaded with leafy green chard and leeks, it actually resembles a balanced meal!
Recipe: Scalloped Potatoes and Ham with Leeks and Swiss Chard
(This was for a VERY large casserole, 14" x 10" x 3")

8 medium/large russet potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly (about 1/8 inch)
1 LARGE leek (white and light green parts) sliced thinly and cleaned
8 LARGE ribs swiss chard, ribs removed, chopped and blanched in boiling water 3 min.
8 oz cooked ham, cubed (about 1/2")
8 Tbs butter
8-10 Tbs flour
6 cups milk

1) In your casserole dish, arrange potato slices in a single layer. Add approximately 1/3 of your prepared leeks, chard and ham evenly over the bottom. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the layer.

2) Repeat step one 2 more times (for a total of 3 layers)
3) Spread any remaining potato slices over the top.
4) Prepare thin white sauce:
  1. Melt butter in a large sauce pan over med/low heat.
  2. Sprinkle in flour, stirring constantly until all butter is absorbed and a paste forms.
  3. Pour in milk and whisk to dissolve any lumps.
  4. Cook over med/low heat until sauce begins to thicken slightly (it should be able to coat a spoon)
5) Pour prepared white sauce over entire casserole. Sprinkle salt and pepper over top. Cover casserole with foil.

6) Bake at 350 F for 60-90 minutes (until potatoes are cooked through and easily pierce with a fork or knife). Time will vary GREATLY depending on how thin your slices are-- the thinner you slice, the faster yours will cook!  Remove foil after 30 minutes of cook time. Replace foil if top of casserole begins to over brown. Enjoy!

Feel free to leave comments below. Have you tried either of these veggies? What did you think?

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Fallacy of "Healthy": Why you must read every food label

Americans know they are in trouble. We've seen the facts, figures and unflattering photos. We've got epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Now those problems are beginning to filter down to our children and we are realizing that "business as usual" isn't going to get the job done!

 It seems to me that one big difficulty in solving this huge dilemma we are facing is that there are a million differing opinions on how to deal with it. The one thing that most people can agree on is that the way we eat is the primary contributing factor to these rising health problems. While some people think its simply a matter of diet and exercise, the numbers show that we DO diet and that we DO exercise (or at least spend staggering amounts of money in the diet and fitness industries....) but there has been no positive change.

So, what is the solution? It's my belief that we have to completely rethink what we put into our bodies. Rather that focusing on quantity (calories, fat grams, carbohydrates) we need to be thinking about QUALITY.  One key finding of ALL nations and groups of healthy people (whole communities with consistently healthy weights, low incidences of type 2 diabetes, low levels of heart disease, etc) is that their diet is made up of mainly unprocessed foods (or minimally so): whole grains, dairy, quality proteins and fresh fruits/vegetables, all with no added chemicals- like artificial flavors, salt, sugars, colors or preservatives.

Is the food that you are eating really food?

Chances are, probably not. The food industry has decided to cash in on our concerns and it seems like everything you look at in the grocery store has some type of "healthy" label: TRANS-FAT FREE, MADE FROM REAL FRUIT, LOW FAT, NO SUGAR ADDED, MADE WITH WHOLE GRAINS, NO ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS and my personal favorite: ALL NATURAL.

None of these means anything, at all. Chances are, if you turn these packages around, you will find a long, long list of ingredients. Each probably processed to a fare-the-well.

To get the long term health we desire, we have to do our due-diligence. We've got to check EACH and EVERY item we put into our grocery carts. If you want to keep it simple, if something has more than 5 ingredients and any of them aren't things you'd stock in your pantry, put it BACK! Avoid products made primarily with sugar or white flour (also known as "enriched" flour). This will mean a few extra long grocery trips or even a few trips where you come out with half of what you needed or wanted. It might mean trying a different store than you are used to. A year ago when I began doing this, I had trips like these. Now, a year later, I know which products are quality, REAL foods and which to avoid.

As you start to really read labels, you'll be surprised at what you find.

Take the following as an example: Quaker granola bars-- the following is from their own product website, cut and pasted. Notice the buzz words: "whole grain", "no high fructose corn syrup"
Now, let's take a look at the back of the package (again from their own website):

How many different ingredients went into this "wholesome" product? I'm counting 37 ingredients. If you break it down into its individual components: sugar has been added 9 times in various forms including corn syrup and salt has been added 3 times. There is also the undisclosed "natural and artificial flavors".
Products like these aggravate me to no end. They advertise as a "healthy" choice and yet there is really nothing healthy about them. You'd be better off making a batch of oatmeal cookies at home and serving that up! Every time I go shopping or turn on the TV, I see some ridiculous food trying to pass itself off as healthy-- gummy candies (MADE WITH REAL FRUIT JUICE), sugar loaded breakfast cereals (MADE WITH WHOLE GRAINS), high fructose-artificially dyed yogurt tubes (LOW FAT). Most of these are geared towards kids and they wonder why we are unhealthy?!? Sheesh.
So, my advice to you-- Start now. Read! Read! Read! Forget anything you see on the front of a package, only the ingredients matter. If your family asks why you don't buy something, tell them. After a year of doing this for my 5 year old, he understands why I buy the food I do. He also understands what constitutes a healthy choice and what is a treat. If we each do this (and its never too late to begin!) we will begin to turn the tide and help our children lead healthier, longer lives.
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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Best of 2012

Doing a little end of year/beginning of year evaluations on myself. Overall I'm very happy with the changes we've been able to make around the house as well as our eating habits. There are still plenty of projects and goals for the new year, though!

Here are my personal favorite projects of 2012:

1) Dryer Woolie Balls: These had a minimal cost in both $$ and time. I still use them with every load of laundry (so pretty much every day). I love that I can add scent as needed, keeping a very, very light clean scent in our laundry w/o any softners or chemical additives!

2) Bye, Bye Papertowels: This project was also simple and cheap (is there a theme here?) I did have to go back and hem the cut edges of the washcloths I used, but that only cost me about 30 minutes or so of sewing. We keep these in a shoe box size bin right behind the kitchen faucet. Easy to grab and easy to refill. I have seen some people's "unpaper towels" projects with cute fabric on one side and terry cloth on the other side and then snaps on the ends. Then they roll the whole thing up on their paper towel dispenser. I love that idea but our little bin is soooooooo easy to refill (no snapping, no rolling) and if I hadn't wanted to cut the washcloths down to "select a size" paper towel dimensions (that we were used to using) there wouldn't have been any sewing at all. With a total cost of under $10, it also beats the pants of the cutesy ones. Now, I'll admit my cloths are just a basic beige (which thus far is hiding stains remarkably well) but no one is afraid to use them either as I've heard some people complain about with the fancy fabric rolled towels. I think the key to my long term success here is that I have a dedicated small bathroom size trash bin in the pantry to throw the dirty towels in. I have enough towels to fill my box 2x, so one set can be in use while one set is in the laundry.

3) Swapping coconut oil for processed vegetable oils: I wasn't sure if I would be tempted down the line to have a bottle of canola or vegetable oil on hand but once we used up what we had, I haven't needed to use ANY! Between olive oil, coconut oil and butter, I'm able to meet all of my cooking needs. No spray needed either! Silicone muffin liners have been a big help in this regard. I keep about half of my coconut oil in a oil dispensing bottle (that I got at the dollar store). I take the metal pour spout off and pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds and voila! liquid oil ready for pouring!

My Favorite Recipes of 2012:

We tend to go through cycles of eating a lot of one thing in particular and then getting into something else. But there are a few favorites that I tend to enjoy over and over again!

1) Muffins: I know I've done a few posts about muffins ( Pumpkin, Zucchini) but I also have a few favorites that I haven't posted up (like Banana nut).  I make a dozen or two with what ever fruit is on hand (or in the freezer) and use whole wheat flour. After they are cooked, I keep them in the freezer so they are always ready to go. They make a great, quick breakfast for me when I'm running late and  I also send them frozen with the little guy to school.  By the time he has is morning snack break, its defrosted and ready to go!  Right now in our freezer is whole wheat cranberry muffin with a cream cheese swirl. Yum!

2) Whole Wheat Waffles: I got a new waffle maker for my birthday (thanks Bro!) and I've been making lots of waffles since then (probably 4 or 5 huge batches). I get around 20 or so waffles from my mix , so I'm able to stock up the freezer for a few weeks at a time. Both little guy and myself have been enjoying them immensely. The last 2 batches have had chocolate chips stirred in and then we use strawberry or blackberry jam on top (instead of syrup) and its soooooooo good! But I'm almost out and that means I'll be probably be doing a big batch this weekend. I'm thinking that I might have to do the next ones blueberry!

3)Whole Wheat Baking Mix: If you grew up in a certain generation, Bisquick forms the basis of a lot of quick breads, breakfasts and dinners. But when you are trying to avoid processed food, things in boxes with lots of ingredients are incompatible. I love that my version of the baking mix uses ONLY whole wheat and that it mixes up in the kitchen very quickly.

4) Spinach & Basil Pesto: Maybe its because I just ate some last night but I love this recipe! I made a giant batch months ago and I still have cups of this stuff (which costs an arm & a leg at the store) in our freezer. Last night I wasn't too energetic, so I boiled up some whole wheat pasta, sauteed a salmon fillet (cut into chunks) and tossed the whole thing with 1/2 cup of pesto, delish! The whole prep was maybe 10 minutes of work (and that was mostly skinning and deboning the salmon!)

I'd love it if you left a comment below to let me know what was YOUR favorite post of 2012!

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Monday, January 7, 2013

Real Food, Real Easy: 100% Whole Wheat Waffles

So, with the new year comes a renewed commitment (for most of us) to do better, health-wise. A simple easy start is to make sure that you are eating breakfast everyday! In our busy lives, I know it can be difficult to make good choices-- when you are short on time, do you skip a meal or pick up something in the drive through? Neither is a great option.  Knowing that I'm always pushed for time, instead of making things everyday, I make up a big batch of food on the weekend (usually Sundays). Then I freeze or refrigerate the leftovers and I've got a healthy grab and go breakfasts ready anytime!

This recipe is a great substitute for prepackaged frozen waffles. A few minutes at the waffle-maker and you'll have a week (or more!) worth of ready-to-go WHOLE WHEAT waffles. Plus the base recipe is a wonderful blank canvas for add ins. My favorite stir-in is chocolate chips but you can also up the flavor (and nutrients!) with any kind of fruit -- think blueberries, sliced bananas or strawberries. If you are in a real rush, consider topping the waffle with cream cheese or peanut butter for a less messy, eat-on-the-run meal.(plus it'll get you a nice bit of protein as well!)

Recipe: 100% Whole Wheat Waffles
makes approx. 20 waffles (if 1/4 cup batter used)

3 cups whole wheat flour (I like white whole wheat by King Arthur or Trader Joe's)
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbs baking powder
2-2 1/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup melted butter or coconut oil (use refined to reduce "coconut" flavor)
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Optional add-ins:
1 cup- chocolate chips OR blueberries  OR sliced bananas OR sliced strawberries

1) Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Whisk to incorporate.
2) Add liquid ingredients and stir until well mixed-- start with 2 cups of milk. Add more until batter is pourable-- it shouldn't be either runny or pasty. Stir in optional add-ins, if including.
3) Heat up waffle iron. Butter or oil compartments as necessary.
4) Spoon or scoop approximately 1/4 cup of batter into center of each waffle compartment. If you have a smaller waffle-maker, this should fill it up. If you have a GIANT belgian waffle-maker like mine, you'll see that my waffles aren't quite filled up. This is okay because one, full-size waffle was TOO big!

5) Cook until LIGHTLY browned and set. This is probably less done than you'd want if you are eating them out of the cooker-- you are deliberately slightly undercooking to ensure that they don't get too dark when you run them through the toaster to reheat!
6) Remove waffles and set aside to cool completely.

7) Package in gallon size zip bag or other airtight container and freeze.

To Reheat: Take waffle directly from freezer to toaster. Cook on normal toast setting (with defrost, if available). Top with butter, syrup, jam, diced fruit, cream cheese, peanut butter or anything else I've missed!

We typically alternate waffles with some of the whole wheat muffins I've made (and keep in the freezer as well). I've also taken to experimenting with whole wheat bagel making. With a constantly changing flavors and types of whole wheat pre-baked breakfasts, the family doesn't get bored of one thing or option. Plus I love knowing that no matter how hurried I get, there is always something I can grab that isn't full of empty calories or tastes like cardboard!

 As always, feel free to comment below and let me know what you think of the recipe or how it worked for you!

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