April 29, 2010

Read Your Labels!

I've recently discovered an excellent, excellent resource that does a great job of helping to untangle the confusing web of which foods are o.k. to eat, and which are hiding awful secrets. Cook This Not That is the latest book from these authors, who also wrote Eat This Not That, which focused on what to order when you eat out. This newest book focuses on how to cook your favorite things at home, and points out how much money you save, how much sodium and saturated fat you can avoid, and how many fewer calories you will consume if you cook these things yourself, rather than buying convenience foods at the store or eating out.

It is full of charts and pictures of specific brand name products. There is everything from what to keep in your pantry, to how to equip your kitchen with quality products for $331! Another favorite thing for me are the 'matrix' charts in the book, which are picture charts of mix and match ideas for grilling skewers, stir-fry, etc. These charts promise to be a real boost of inspiration when you're tired of the same old combinations all the time. But this is just the beginning of the information in this book, and you should read it if for no other reason than learning why the USDA has managed to make the label "NO trans fat", somewhat meaningless. It's so important to get good information about what is being hidden in our food. Reading labels is one good way. If the label looks like the glossary of a science text - probably means you should leave it on the shelf. But it's also important to start making your meals from real food, raw ingredients, and non-mystery components.

This is what I made for dinner tonight from a recipe in this book.
It's grilled salmon with a chive, ginger, and soy sauce flavored butter. It gave me a nice reason to use some of our newly planted chives, and even decorate the plate with a chive flower! It was absolutely delicious and I can't wait to try more of these recipes. The book compares this dish to a similar dish at P.F. Chang's Restaurant.

  • 390 calories
  • 7 g saturated fat
  • 710 mg sodium
  • 734 calories
  • 14 g saturated fat
  • 1306 mg sodium
Now is this convincing or what?! Some of the comparisons are even more shocking, like the artichoke dip recipe in the book that has 520 mg of sodium, which they compare to the spinach and artichoke dip at Chili's that has 3320 mg of sodium. Unbelievable isn't it?!! Now compare these sodium numbers to what the Mayo Clinic states is a healthy range of sodium consumption for an adult per day, which is 1500-2400 mg. It's easy to see why we need to avoid a steady diet of some of these restaurant offerings, and that goes for some of what we buy at the grocery store too. Read the labels.

There's a newish movie/documentary out called Food, INC. , which I've heard about but haven't watched. It apparently uncovers some pretty horrid facts about what's in our food and how it's being produced. I'm half-way afraid to watch it, but I know I will since I'm becoming obsessed about the way our food supply is being ruined and frankly contaminated. Did you know that there is a soy bi-product in countless prepared foods that is not regulated for us, but the amount that can be put into animal feed is limited? O.K. - I'll stop - for now.

April 26, 2010

Herb Garden?

Since we aren't planting a real garden this year - due to putting the house on the market - we're scratching that itch by planting some herbs, and soon some tomatoes and peppers. Still don't know if the tomatoes and peppers will go into the garden or into some big pots that could be moved. We're still in "negotiations" on that decision!

DH made a stop at a really nice nursery in a neighboring town, and I potted up parsley, basil, rosemary, oregano, chives, and cilantro. All are pretty easy to grow, though cilantro is notoriously picky. We use it in so many dishes - Indian, Thai, Mexican - that I really hope it does well this year.

These chives were very root-bound, and that's one thing to watch for when you transplant little potted plants like this. It seems counterproductive to tear away some of their root system before planting them, but they will actually choke themselves if you don't. You just have to buck up and rip away!

So, here's my herb "garden" living on the patio table this year. It looks nice to me now, but I just wonder how many times I'll be running out there to put them under this table to protect them from the inevitable hairy summer storms?! It'll be worth it though - fresh herbs right at hand - mmmmmm...

April 22, 2010

Being Neighborly

One of our neighbors stopped over this week to ask if she and her husband could fish the bass in our pond. As she stepped onto the porch to ring the bell, she realized that she had stepped into fresh paint from my hubbie's most recent "get the house on the market" task. The paint was nearly set, so she barely did any damage at all, but she just felt horrible about it and said she felt especially bad because she had come to ask a favor of us! She apologized many times, and of course my husband assured her that it was absolutely no big deal, and that they were welcome to fish in the pond whenever they wished.

The next evening she came back with this beautiful carton of eggs from a local farm as a way to say thanks for the use of the pond, and sorry for the porch mishap! We thought that was so incredibly thoughtful. So many people are embarrassed when they make mistakes and can't bring themselves to make a proper apology, but she went above and beyond and offered a very neighborly gesture on top of the apology. It was a simple act, but certainly one of those things that restores your faith in people. In case we forget just how seriously God takes our attitude towards our neighbors...
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." Matthew 22:36-40

April 20, 2010

Waste Not

When we have guests for dinner, we often have lots of leftovers, since it's hard to gauge the appetites of guests, and I'd rather err on the side of "too much". That doesn't mean that I'm being wasteful though. Many times I will send people home with a goody bag, and if not, I find creative ways of using what's left - and that's a very pleasant challenge!

Our last company meal included a tomato sauce made with the very last of our own stewed tomatoes that were frozen last fall, and there was also a lot of fresh basil in the sauce. (It was paired up with grilled seafood - oh, so good!) It was no problem to use the leftover sauce and pasta with homemade meatballs the next day.

We also had a big fruit salad for dessert. This photo shows the end result of using those leftovers. I added pieces of poached chicken breast, cashews, and celery to the fruit salad, and then dressed it with a curried yogurt sauce - yummy! The dressing used the leftover yogurt fruit sauce from the company dinner. I used equal parts of yogurt and mayo, then added curry powder, and thinned it with orange juice. There was already a little honey in the yogurt I used, so you may want to add a little of that to your dressing. It made a very refreshing Sunday lunch!

Along with the yogurt sauce for our fruit salad dessert, I put out dishes of raw sugar, coconut, and chopped pecans as optional toppings. I paired these leftovers with three very ripe, organic bananas today, and made a delicious banana snack cake. There are plenty of recipes for this kind of cake on the internet, and I just looked for one that made a smaller cake.
As I normally do, I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for the white flour, and I used my leftover raw sugar in place of the regular sugar called for in the recipe. Then, rather than frosting this cake, I used the coconut and pecans as a topping. I just sprinkled them over the cake batter before it went into the oven. One of the best ways to get creative with your leftovers is to be brave in your substitutions!
I truly hate to waste good, wholesome food. I use this "creative cooking process" at other times as well, like when we buy a large quantity of something at a Costco-type store, or if for whatever reason the fridge fills up and we're in danger of having something go to waste. I will list what we have in large quantity on a wipe board on the fridge, so that we purposely reach for those things first, and I also brainstorm for recipe ideas that make use of these things. I am very careful though, about how long things have been living in that fridge - I've attended too many science labs in my past to take any chances now! But hey, even if we don't use all of a fruit or vegetable before it's too late, there's always that good old compost bucket, and that's a "waste" we can happily live with!

April 15, 2010

Happy Tax Day Congress

"Excessive taxation will carry reason & reflection to every man's door, and particularly in the hour of election."
Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, November 26, 1798

April 13, 2010

Keeping Leeks

Last fall we experimented with a way to keep leeks over the winter. We banked up the mature plants with grass clippings and crossed our fingers!

This week was the end of the experiment as we went out to the garden and started digging - well DH was digging as usual!

Not all of them were good, but these two beauties were just what we hoped for. Nice and firm and lots of white.

I brought them in and cleaned them well. If you slice them down the center and then cut them into half circles, they can be soaked in cold water to dissolve the dirt that creeps up into the layers. Then drain them well before you cook them.

I made a leek and potato quiche, which was very tasty. The leeks were flavorful, but very mild after all that time in the garden! I need to tweak this recipe a little more before it's posted though. It was based on a Cooking Light recipe, which I normally like a lot, but sometimes they go a little too far with the small amounts of fat and salt that they recommend. For example, the recipe called for one teaspoon of oil to saute a cup of leeks and a large sliced potato - can you say "sticks to the pan"!! There was also a lack of other herbs to make up for lowering the salt. I added a pinch of tarragon, which certainly helped. But we will do this dish again since it's pretty flexible as far as the kinds of cheese you use, and the add ins. I'll post the recipe when it's just right! BTW, notice the pretty little things in both of these photos. The chicks and the spring basket were gifts from my mom, and they came from one of my favorite stores here in town, which is unfortunately struggling under our current economic circus. I realized recently that I always take out-of-town company to this store, and I realized that my mom always buys me something special when we're in there! Hmmm...must check my subconscious behavior! Thanks Mom.

April 12, 2010

What's Up?

A walk around the house and garden this weekend revealed a lot of nice discoveries! The rhubarb is looking very vigorous, unlike last year when it had a soggy, stunted start. I just gave my last jar of strawberry-rhubarb jam to my niece, so it's good to see the new crop is on it's way!

Our asparagus is popping up too. This year will be the first time we'll actually harvest it - very exciting!

We had such a hard time with roses last year, and it's great to see them coming back so fully. I'm starting to really believe that the less you mess around with plants, and just let them strengthen themselves, the better off they are. Could it be that the nurseries are trying to convince us that we need twenty-five different tools and products to have nice landscape plants, when they might actually be better off fending for themselves???? And maybe more importantly, do we really want to grow something that has to be fussed over?

Here's a great example of a plant that has fended for itself for three years running now. It's my "miracle" mum! Once again it's growing on it's own after having spent a waterless winter in our garage. I love it! In the background of the picture you can see our iris bolting up. These are such pretty flowers to share with other gardeners, and they are practically indestructible as well. All of ours were given to us from several older gardens. DH moved them all last year and it never phased them.

And speaking of getting things from other gardeners, we were given an enormous number of strawberry plants last fall. Unfortunately you don't always receive these kinds of gifts at a convenient time, but when someone is ready to dig and share, you take it! We ended up leaving these unplanted until we weren't sure they would survive. We finally plopped them in this big pot, watered the heck out of them and after the first frost, they too spent a waterless winter in the garage. As you can see, they have survived and may even yield a little fruit - now wouldn't that be lovely?!

Another thing popping up in the yard are geese! We've had them land on the pond any number of times, but this is the first time they've hung out in the yard. I read that geese like open spaces where they can see predators from a long distance, which explains why golf courses are often nearly ruined by flocks of geese in residence. These two stood watch for a while and then slowly sauntered down to the pond.
Right now we have no need to shoo them away, but I will remember one tip from a "how-to" site for a long time. It said that if you shoot just one goose, and leave the carcass out in the area you're trying to rid of geese, they will interpret the space to be unsafe and they'll move along!!! Just look at this beautiful animal though - can you imagine shooting it and leaving it's dead body on our lawn to scare the others away?!! Yuck! However, I'm sure that if we had loads and loads of poo out there, it might become a more appealing idea - nah! Honk, honk.

April 7, 2010

Spring Ramble

It's a rainy day here, and a good time to blog, but since I'm still coming off of a very hectic few weeks, I seem to have no inspiration for a coherent post! So, I decided to share a random sampling of what's been going on around here.

Our Easter guests - DD and two friends from school. It was so nice to have them here and I thought it was appropriate that the Home Sweet Home sign was behind them. Hosting others in our homes is what makes it sweet, and we have been extra blessed lately. BTW - what can I say about the gal holding the pansies from the table? She just had a moment of artistic inspiration - ha! They were a lot of fun!

All of the food pre-prep and freezing that I did for the rounds of guests worked out beautifully. I would definitely go that route again. There were a few things that were last minute though, like this amazing green bean salad. Like my sister said, you could make a meal on this alone! It's full of good things like red bell pepper, Swiss cheese cubes, and toasted almonds. The recipe is on the recipe page. At the back of this photo you can see the beautiful mugs that my sister brought us from Alaska. The design series is called "Northern Lights".

She also brought us some wildflower seeds, and made this great apron for me! I love these beautiful Alaskan fabrics, and as you might be able to tell from this photo, I've been putting it to good use! Thanks again sis!

The daffodils/jonquils are back this year and our perennials are also coming back. Even the roses and our hydrangea seem to have survived our nasty winter. We didn't get around to our usual mulching of these plants last fall, but the snow drifts kept them buried all winter and I imagine that protected them just as well. It's always such a nice surprise to see what's coming up next!

Our favorite birds are coming back - the cardinals! There has been the most beautiful cardinal couple on our deck most mornings, but they are still very skittish and my DH caught this male in a hurry. We hope that as they get used to the movement in our house, we'll be able to have some better shots of both the cardinals and the gorgeous goldfinch and blue birds that are here as well.

DH also caught this amazing scene in the early hours of the morning this week. He's been watching the pond for ducks, geese, and our returned blue heron, and had the chance to see this beautiful reflection. If you click the picture to enlarge it, or just look carefully, you can see the three subjects on the hill, looking back at the photographer!

Hope you're enjoying your spring days too. Our next big task is getting our house on the market. Anyone interested in a lovely acreage in Iowa?!

April 3, 2010

Happy Easter

Easter flowers are blooming bright,
Easter skies pour radiant light,
Christ our Lord is risen in might,
Glory in the highest!
Mary Nicholson, 1875