Grateful Heart

Hi there, friends!  It has been some time since I posted to this blog.  I would say that I lost my steam over the summer, but it would be more accurate to say that the steam was directed elsewhere.  This is a blog about food, but this summer my energy went into making food.  And I don’t just mean cooking it.  Take a look.
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Petunias are not food.  Not that I’m aware of, anyway, but they were beautiful and colorful and they thrive in the heat.  So, while they’re not edible, they are a summer staple.  Side note: I have recently discovered edible flowers at my local grocery store.  Any tips on using them?

Now to the food.  I had a modest but productive balcony garden this summer.  I tried my hand at growing herbs again, with much more success, although it turns out cilantro is a wild and unpredictable beast.  Meals were incredible this summer, full of fresh thyme, rosemary, and basil, basil, basil.  I’m sad to report that after moving inside, my little potted herb garden died, but over the summer it was in full force.  I also grew cucumbers, a project that probably cost less than buying them at the grocery store.  They were not as large, but they were delicious and refreshing.
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Can you imagine how amazed and delighted I was to find this in the garden that I grew myself?  I squealed like a child on Christmas when I discovered the first tiny cucumbers growing and then again, louder, when I found this hidden under its big leaves.
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Not bad for a pack of seeds, some dirt, water, and sunshine. And love.  Lots of love.

Also bees.  (Save the bees – plant a garden.)

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And they were oh so refreshing! Cucumber water is one of my favorite summer beverages, hydrating and more cooling than anything else I’ve tried.
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I used my cucumbers mainly in salads and for fancy water, but the herbs did much more work, small and delicate though they are.  I’ve cooked dishes without salt and pepper because the herbs were that good.  I am partial to basil, especially since it grows like a weed, and two of my favorite uses were on pizzas, both regular and eggplant.
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In addition to planting things, I also learned more about regrowing kitchen scraps, one of my favorite things.  I’ve saved and regrown green onions before – talk about something that grows like a weed!  Below, I give you the results of saving and watering the base of a celery heart.  Yes, celery is inexpensive, but it’s the principle of the thing.  In this small way, my kitchen is self-sustaining.

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None of this was difficult to do.  It was fun, therapeutic, as they say, and I can’t tell you how good it feels to go outside to gather some of your ingredients for dinner.  After nurturing your plants, hoping and praying they make it, and finally bringing them into the kitchen, you can feel nothing but the most profound gratitude.  Toward the end of the summer, a gardener told me you can grow virtually anything in a pot on a balcony.  Look out, summer 2016! 

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Dating

Before I went gluten free, I’d grab a granola bar for breakfast or an afternoon pick-me-up in a minute.  Obviously they had to go out the door with the gluten, but there was another good reason to ditch them.  Two words: added sugar.  Like so many other processed foods, so-called “health bars” are usually loaded with sugar, preservatives, and other, well, stuff.  So it wasn’t really a tragedy not to have them anymore.  Still, I like the idea of a granola, health, or protein bar as long as it’s made well.

I’ve heard of people making granola bars before, but I never tried it until a couple weeks ago.  Here’s what started this: I bought the wrong kind of granola to put in my yogurt.  It had banana chips in it, so picky me went back to the store to buy the right kind.  I didn’t want to waste the banana chippy granola, though, so I thought I’d turn it into bars.

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I know what’s in my granola bars!

I searched the internet and specifically The Food Network, but all the recipes I saw included wheat germ.  Finally I found a fantastic gluten free recipe here.  It was really easy to follow and, like all of my favorite recipes, open for suggestions.  I followed the recipe but subbed in a little bit of my leftover granola for some of the oats and added chocolate chips per Steve’s request.

I haven’t been eating them for breakfast, but I’ve had them for an afternoon snack, and more than once they’ve saved me from going for something really bad like a candy bar or “candy coffee” (Hi, Starbucks.).

The ingredients were really easy to find – they came from the bulk and organic sections of Wegmans, and most of them are things I keep in my pantry anyway.  Except dates.  Can we just talk about dates for a second and how they look like bugs?   I’m not one to get squeamish with raw chicken or mysteriously congealed leftovers, but these?  Yikes.  I like them much better when they’re pulverized.

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Dates… charming, aren’t they?

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Pulverized

Weird squishy things aside, this recipe turned out really well.  The only cooking involved is melting the honey and peanut butter together on the stove and roasting your almonds and oats – if you want.  Once it’s all mixed up, it goes into a square baking dish and freezes for a while. Super easy and super tasty, although I must admit my bars probably had a little bit more sugar than they should have because I used honey roasted peanut butter instead of regular, but I could just cut down on the honey and take care of that.

FullSizeRenderThese are quickly becoming a staple around here.  You should definitely check out the recipe or find one that you like and try it.  Just don’t make the same mistake I did a few days ago and buy regular dates with pits in them (or if you do, remember to pit them first).  Your food processor won’t like it and neither will you.

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Ta-da!

 

The Ingredient Chain

If I had a nickel for every time I said or heard “Grocery budgets are all about planning ahead,” I wouldn’t have to plan anything.  Unfortunately, life is not so simple.  Since I’ve started trying to eat at home most of the time, I’ve developed a real love-hate relationship with planning meals.  I might have a vague idea of what I want, go shop without a list, and then realize I’m missing ingredients, or I might have the fridge and pantry fully stocked only to have my work hijacked by dinners out or busy days turning into exhausted nights when I’m grading papers instead of cooking dinner.  This can be irritating for many reasons, but the main problem for me is that I hate to waste money and food.  I can’t stand having to throw away something that was perfectly good because I forgot to cook it, but what bothers me just as much if not more is having to throw away the leftover food that I didn’t need for a recipe.  It seems like such a waste to have to buy more than I need of something and not have a plan for the rest.  And since grocers tend to frown on you slicing off what you need in the produce department and leaving the rest behind, we need a better idea.

I don’t have all the answers (or so I’m told), but I have recently come up with a kind of a solution to this problem.  This was really just a last-minute epiphany before I went shopping, but with more planning than I put in, it could really become a long-term groove.

It’s getting a little warmer outside (yay!), so I was in the mood for a burger.  Not just any burger, though – a black bean burger.  I have a pretty amazing recipe that includes sweet potatoes, leeks, and lots of spices, and I actually have started to prefer that to a “real” burger.  The problem is that this recipe calls for two tablespoons of finely chopped leaks.  I present to you what you can buy at the grocery store:
IMG_6708Yeah, so not exactly two tablespoons.  I’ve wasted leeks before, but this time I started thinking: what else can I do with them?  Is there a way I can use those leftovers to make another meal?  Well, yeah.  Potato and leek soup.  Just my luck, a five-pound bag of potatoes was on sales for $1.99 this week.  Into the cart they went.

IMG_6712-2But then came the next problem.  I don’t need five pounds of potatoes for soup for two people!  I also have found through trial and error and wasted food that I don’t need five pounds of mashed potatoes for two people.  Problem solved.  I decided to use the leftover potatoes that I didn’t need for the soup made from the leftover leeks to make a smaller batch of mashed potatoes and have it with chicken.

IMG_6716You see where I’m going with this.  You might be thinking “But wait, three chicken breasts for two people doesn’t add up either.”  Well, it doesn’t, but I’ll still cook the third and one of us will eat it for lunch. I usually cook chicken paillard, which is quick and easy, and for that you cut off the tenders.  I’ve used the leftover breast and tenders to make a version of chicken marsala served with rice or GF pasta, or I’ve cooked it and tossed it into a salad.  My point is, I’m not worried about the leftover chicken – it will find a place.

So what’s my point here?  If you can look ahead a few days – realistically look ahead, that is – you can actually plan meals with overlapping ingredients and save money and food.  I first had the idea of cooking the burgers, and when I started considering my leftover ingredients, I let those guide me to my next dinner.  It sounds like a Food Network challenge, doesn’t it?  (You heard it here first.)  In reality, I’m in a stretch of having great meals with just enough left over for lunch the next day and using everything I can.  Let the cycle continue!

What Gluten Free Looks Like

I made the decision to try a gluten free diet about six months ago with great results, but lately I’ve been hearing a lot of criticism of the GF diet.  Let me be clear: I do not have Celiac disease, and I have not been diagnosed with a gluten allergy.  I won’t go through this entire story again, but I learned that gluten (and perhaps more notably the chemicals used to treat wheat) can lead to inflammation, an underlying cause of several issues I’ve dealt with, including horrible sinus problems.  So I decided to try the gluten free diet to see if any of my symptoms let up, and they all did within a few weeks.  I honestly didn’t know I could feel so good, breathe so deeply.  Talk about a new lease on life!

So what’s my problem?  My problem is what I hear on TV, what I read in the newspapers, and what I hear from other people when I mention gluten.  “A gluten free diet is not for everyone.”  “A gluten free diet can be dangerous.”  “Doctors warn against gluten free products.”  When I first started hearing these claims, I listened.  After all, I don’t know everything, and I might have missed something in my research.   But here’s what I found: all of these claims assume that GF people are substituting every morsel of gluten with a GF substitute.  They fail to consider what else a GF diet can look like: tons of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, dairy, and naturally GF grains like rice and quinoa.  Depending on where you come down on meat and dairy, this list doesn’t look harmful.  When I first went gluten free, I didn’t run to the store to replace every wheaty product in my kitchen.  I began thinking about other foods I could eat instead.  So my problem is that many critics of the gluten free diet are completely ignoring the various other options – the bounty – that people can eat instead.

As I have continued along this gluten free path, taking many detours cheating along the way, I have purchased some gluten free products.  I’ve cooked gluten free pasta, and once in a while I will buy gluten free pizza dough.  There is a loaf of gluten free bread in my fridge right now.  Do I like being able to eat the same foods without suffering side effects?  You betcha.  But these are no longer staples for me.  Chicken is a staple, albeit more like a once-or-twice-a-week staple.  Tomatoes, bananas, apples, avocados, walnuts, almonds, beans, brown rice.  These are the things I’m buying every week (and much more – you should see my last grocery bill).  Since I went gluten free, I have eaten more fruits and vegetables each day than I have at any other point in my life.  One of the best things going gluten free has done for me is to seriously limit the processed foods I can eat.  Not only do they contain wheat, but they also tend to contain all kinds of yummy preservatives and other chemicals that make gluten look like child’s play.  Eating better and avoiding gluten has alleviated my inflammation, and it has also forced me to cook at home, helping me discover new recipes and ingredients along the way.

It’s frustrating to say the least to see people making such generalizations and assumptions about what a gluten free diet looks like and ignoring other possibilities.  I’m not advocating for anyone to go gluten free or vegetarian or vegan or anything else.  But I do want people to think about the foods they eat and to realize there’s more than one way to dodge the wheat and many, many other real foods to eat instead.  And tis the season – with farmers markets opening soon, it’s about to be easier than ever to eat real, good food.  Find your markets.  Befriend your farmers.  Thanks for listening.

Gadget Drawer

You can sink a lot of money into a kitchen.  I’m always talking about how cooking meals at home saves so much money, but let’s be honest: with items like three-hundred-dollar KitchenAid mixers on the market, your cash can disappear faster than your leftovers.  And you only have to turn on Food TV for a few minutes to begin feeling like the big, fancy appliances are essentials.  But for those of us who don’t cook in the kitchens of our Hamptons homes, essentials might be, like our houses, a bit more modest.

Don’t get me wrong: I have big dreams for my kitchen cabinets.  I want them filled with a stand mixer, a NutriBullet, a big food processor, an espresso machine… you get the idea.  But until that happy day (right – like I’ll spend all that money in a day!), I wanted to write a post about the smaller treasures that already call my kitchen home.  In fact, they’re so small, they all share one drawer.

IMG_6428 IMG_64311. The Palm Peeler

I’ve used peelers before, but this one is far and away my favorite.  Because it’s designed to fit into your hand, you have much more control over it and can apply more pressure without accidentally sending it flying across the room.

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I bought this at Wegmans for around five bucks and use it all the time for carrots (if you notice an orange tint to it, your eyes are not playing tricks), zucchini, and even eggplant.  It’s small but sturdy and dishwasher safe, the real selling point!

 

2. The Garlic Press

Life. Changing. I always cooked with garlic powder or salt, and while they still have their place, cooking with actual garlic is incredible.  Nothing smells as good as that first whiff of pressed garlic mixing into your soup… stew… chicken.  It’s magic.

 

This press also came from Wegmans for fifteen dollars.  It’s not dishwasher safe but redeems itself by coming with a handy little cleaning brush that snaps into the inside.

 

 

3. The Apple Corer

This gadget helps me to eat the entire apple.  Biting into an apple can be messy, and I usually give up before I’ve really eaten the whole thing.  This makes it much easier by just removing the inedible parts and leaving you with slices that are great for dipping into peanut butter.

 

This is from Ikea for under ten bucks.  Bonus: it comes with a cover for the bottom so that you don’t accidentally core your hand.  I don’t know if it’s supposed to be dishwasher safe, but mine is. 😉

 
 
4. The Citrus Peeler

Raise your hand if you enjoy peeling oranges.  Yeah.  Exactly.  I got this gadget at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and for two dollars, I think it’s the cheapest thing in the store.  Again, it’s contoured to fit into your hand, which makes it really easy to use.

 

The idea here is that you can use the “blade” to make several slices along an orange or other citrus fruit and then easily peel it.  Sometimes it takes a little effort, but it’s much easier than using a knife… or your nails.

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5. The Juicer

Finally, there is the juicer.  This is also from Wegmans (are you seeing a theme here?) and cost around fifteen dollars.  Yes, this is the same kind Martha Stewart uses, although in watching her show, I’ve noticed that she has this in at least three different colors.  All you have to do here is cut the lemon in half and squeeze.  Super easy, no seeds, quick cleanup.

 

There you are – the VIPs of my gadget drawer.  Together they may not even add up to the cost of half a KitchenAid, but they make cooking much easier, and they’re fun to use!  So the next time you see a kitchen toy you want in the grocery store, treat yourself.  You might just find your new favorite thing.

Till next time!

Spring Crafting

This post is not about food.  I know this is a food blog, and we will return to our regularly scheduled recipes soon, but for now, let’s talk about crafts.

I’ve always loved crafts – knitting, jewelry making, decorating cookies (there’s your food!) – really anything.  When I first started seriously cooking, I think it was the creativity that hooked me.  It was so much fun to try new recipes, but I always wanted to put my own spin on things.  And the more I cooked, the more I realized how truly awesome it is to make things myself.  Although I love my food chopper (I will never dice onions again.), I don’t mind peeling potatoes, chopping vegetables, or even washing dishes.  Sure, there are times when I’m in a hurry, but mostly I like the hands-on experience; I feel more connected to what I’m doing.

The same is true for home decor.  I love making wreaths, coming up with new ways to display books or pictures, and making rooms pretty, fun, and personal.  For me, adding my own creative touch makes it home.

Enter the necklace rack.  We have a lot of blue and gray in the bedroom, and when I saw this in Salvaged, our favorite little home decor shop in Delaware, I had to have it.  The pop of yellow was exactly what I’d been wanting.

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Before

Adorable, right?  And in terms of storing necklaces, it’s life-changing.  Ever keep them in a jewelry box?  You’ll spend all morning trying to untangle them!  I’ve been really happy with this display, including my ever-growing spider plant, but recently I’ve thought it needed a little something… else.  I’d written on my “home decorating” list to find something to hang up above the necklaces since it’s just blank space, but today instead of finding a thing, I found supplies.

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Mixing up paints – and yes, that’s Snow White on the tablet. If you’re not watching ‘Once Upon a Time,’ stop reading and go watch it now.

I went to Michaels just to browse around and found little wooden frames for two dollars a pop.  I’ve seen this kind of thing on Pinterest before, basically framed patterns, and they’re so cute and customizable that I had to have them.  I bought three frames and two pieces of scrapbook paper – I spent a whopping six bucks.  Yes, I had a coupon, and yes, we already had acrylic paints and brushes, but at most you’d spend fifteen dollars for this project – still not bad at all.  I painted each frame a different color and then cut the paper to fit onto the backs.  I tried to glue one, but it didn’t stick that well, so I ended up using Scotch tape.  Yes, Scotch tape.  That’s how complicated this was. IMG_6363

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It didn’t take long to complete at all – in fact, the hardest part was mixing up paints to get the colors right to match the necklace rack.  I wanted to stick with gray and yellow as the main colors, but one of the knobs has a blue flower on it, so I decided to pull on that.  Once these were done and taped up, I put Steve to work measuring, leveling, and nailing.  I’m kind of notorious for hanging things up a little crooked, so my hammer has been confiscated… permanently.

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My engineer. 🙂

And now, I present you with the finished wall!  It’s a really small thing that I did, but I think it makes a big difference.  It’s fun, it’s whimsical, and it’s my own.  Yes, this took a little bit more time than buying something and hanging it up, and it may not be as fancy as some of the things I could have found at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, or even Target, but it was fun to do, and it’s original.

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Ta-da!

Bonus: I didn’t realize until I hung these up that the necklace rack has yellow and white chevron and gray and white floral on it.  It must have been buried in my sub-conscious somewhere, because that’s exactly what I picked for the paper!  Sometimes the magic just happens.  This was a great way to spend the first Saturday of spring – try it out yourself with your color scheme and let me know if you have any other cute DIY projects!

IMG_6393Till next time – happy cooking and crafting!

Lesson the Second

In my last post, I talked about breakfast, and now it’s lunch.  I’m feeling a little bit of self-inflicted pressure to write about dinner next.

One of the most challenging things for me in eating well is eating away from home.  I’ve written about this before, when I went a week without restaurants, and in the process found that it’s not as impossible as it seems to eat well on the go.

Let me be clear: packing lunch is a pretty new thing to me.  Not since high school have I taken my lunch with me, well, anywhere.  And why would I when there are Paneras and Chipotles and Noodles and Cos. everywhere?  Well, for one thing, those ten-dollar lunches add up.  Fast.  So do the calories and grams of sugar in restaurant food.  But those things are easy to ignore or deny.  What really motivated me to steer clear of the lunch rush was going gluten free.  I was feeling so good that I didn’t want to risk running into something that would make me feel tired or sick, especially in the middle of a work day.

Even with such great motivation, lunch is a tricky thing because it takes planning ahead.  All meals do to an extent, but if I don’t have something ready for lunch the night before, I’m in trouble.  There are some days when I am home during lunch and could cook, but I’m usually trying to budget my time so that I can grade papers because a teacher’s work is never done.  But I have gotten into a pretty consistent groove of thinking and cooking ahead, meaning that I can simply open my fridge or my lunchbox and be eating in a matter of minutes.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that having my own kitchen has also made a huge difference in how much I cook and how prepared I am to pack lunch.  It can be difficult to navigate sharing a kitchen and fridge with multiple roommates who may or may not keep things clean and organized.  Say what you will about thriving in chaos, but for me organization matters.  A lot.  I’ve been planning a “tour of the kitchen” post for some time – stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite lunch dishes that are easy to make and travel well (or sit in the fridge well) in Ziploc/Rubbermaid/Tupperware containers.  Some are vegan, all are gluten free.

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Mushroom stew (recipe from Forks Over Knives cookbook). Served here with salad and polenta cakes.

 

 

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Grilled chicken and rice with steamed carrots and broccoli.

 

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Gluten free spaghetti with grilled vegetables – zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, red onion.

 

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Salad – spinach, mushrooms, bell pepper, carrot, raisins, sunflower seeds, red onion, balsamic vinegar. Vegan and raw!

 

I also pack snacks to go along with lunch and to get me through the rest of the afternoon – usually raw veggies or a banana/apple/grapes and almonds or a combination of those.  When I’m eating like this, I don’t have the 2:00 sugar crash, I’m satisfied, and I have so much more energy!  And let’s be honest: it feels pretty good to go home at night and not have spent a dime the whole day. 😉