Monday, February 28, 2011

You CAN cook fresh fish at home: Homemade Salmon Fillet with Sweet Potato Fries

I recently read in my friend Louise's blog that she didn't cook fresh fish at home. In the same week I spoke with at least 3 other friends who said a similar thing about being intimidated by cooking fish or thinking that cooking fish would stink up their house. I think I even remember my mom saying that to me a while back when I said I'd made salmon for dinner. Well, I want to set the record straight right here and now! Cooking fish is easy and it does not stink up your house if you do it right! Let's address these issues one at a time.

1. Myth: Cooking fish will stink up your house. There are two things you can do when handling and cooking fish that will leave you with a kitchen that smells only of the wonderful aroma coming from your oven.  The first rule of a non-smelly kitchen is to remove the wrapper that your fish came in and put it in your outside trash. Most smell from fish comes from the wrapper in your trash can. The second rule is never fry fish in your house! I grew up in the south, and know that there's nothing better than fried fish. But like we do it in the south, have your fish fry outside, not in your house.

2. Myth: Cooking fish is hard and should be left to professionals in restaurants. If you can turn on your oven, you can cook fish. The key to cooking good fish is to not over-cook it. I've cooked both farm raised and wild salmon and have found that the wild salmon needs less cooking time. As long as you watch the clock and take your salmon out of the oven at the right time or even a little early you'll have a delicious, healthy dish.

I tend to be more of a naked cook, meaning that I don't like a lot of sauces or embellishments on a good piece of meat or fresh veggies. We eat a lot of steamed or roasted veggies with little more than salt and pepper on top. The same goes for a nice piece of meat or fish. That said, below is a recipe for salmon with a simple sauce for those of you who prefer toppings on your fish. Along with that is a recipe for very simple sweet potato fries that my kids love! Speaking of kids, a family member said the other day that kids don't like fish. Well, I beg to differ! Salmon is one of my daughter's favorite foods. Maybe it's because we live in the Pacific Northwest, but fish is not an icky food in my house; quite the opposite.

Hopefully some of you out there who believed Myths #1 and #2 above will give this recipe a try and see how easy it is to prepare your own fresh, healthy, tasty fish in your own home!

Salmon Fillet with Dill Mustard Sauce
1 lb salmon fillet (preferably wild, but farm raised is ok)
1/4 C prepared ranch dressing (organic preferred)
1 Tbs prepared Dijon mustard
1 tsp dried dill weed
(if you prefer a crunchy topping, you can mix in a few Tbs bread crumbs to the sauce)

1. Run your hand across the top of the fillet to make sure there aren't any bones. If you feel a bone remove it with your fingers or a pair of pliers used in the kitchen.
2. Mix ranch dressing, mustard and dill in a small bowl. Mix in bread crumbs if you are using them.
3. Place fillet skin side down on a greased cookie sheet. spread mustard mixture evenly over top of fillet.
4. Place fillet in an oven preheated to 350 degrees and cook for about 15 minutes for wild salmon and 20 minutes for farm raised or thicker fillet. Salmon should flake easily with a fork when finished. If the salmon does not flake when you take it out and still looks too dark on the inside, put it back in the oven for 5 minute intervals until it's done to your liking.

Sweet Potato Fries
1 large organic sweet potato (red or white sweet potatoes are ok, red are sometimes called yams in the grocery although they really aren't yams...but that's a story for another time)
1 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 gallon zip top bag

1. Cut sweet potatoes into sticks that are fry sized making sure that no stick is more than about 1/4 inch thick in either direction.
2. Put fries into zip top bag then add oil and salt. Squeeze out all the air and zip the bag. Squish potatoes around until they are well coated with oil and salt.
3. Pour potato sticks onto a cookie sheet or baking dish in a single layer then roast for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees turning sticks over half way through cooking.


Check out Daily Organized Chaos' Wednesday Recipes as well

Morning Yoga Practice

I've been practicing yoga for about 7 years now. I feel much calmer, more balanced and flexible, both mentally and physically, after a yoga session. For the most part I practice yoga in a class setting at my gym. I enjoy the variety I get from a teacher and the feeling of community I get from being surrounded by people who are all working on the same pose at exactly the same time. Sometimes we all accomplish what we set out to do and sometimes we accomplish something different, but at the end of the practice we all feel better than when we entered the room.

Unfortunately my gym doesn't offer a yoga class every day at a time that works with my schedule. So I go when I can, but would like to do yoga more often. I've done yoga on my own a few times, but I find that I cheat myself when I'm practicing alone. I'll do only one Sun Salutation rather than the 3 or 4 that I should, or I won't hold my poses long enough trying to hurry on to the next one. I hurry through everything too much in my life; that's why yoga's so good for me. It makes me slow down and breathe and just be present in the moment.

So after I got my nifty smarty phone I went searching on YouTube for some yoga videos that I could follow along to at home. I do have some yoga DVDs, but my DVD player is in the living room, which is carpeted. Carpet and yoga mats don't mix very well for me. My kitchen, however, is wood, which is the perfect surface for a yoga mat and a YouTube video. I don't really watch a video while doing yoga anyway since I'm usually upside down or facing away from the screen. So the small phone screen was mostly irrelevant, but a soothing voice of the teacher was crucial.

The video I tried this morning was called Morning Heart Expanding Practice - Intermediate Practice on, The teacher is Dagmar Spremberg from Montezuma Yoga in Costa Rica. I was looking for a video that was about an hour in length, and this one lasted 49 minutes. There was a nice warm-up at the beginning, a few Sun Salutations, some warrior poses, floor stretches and a relaxing Savasana at the end all with the sound of the ocean in the background. I'm not sure I'd call it Intermediate level, though. It seemed like a slightly more advanced beginner level to me. I'm going to try the 44 minute Grounding Afternoon Yoga Practice at some point when I have a quite house in the afternoon...hopefully I'll get to do it before the kids are in college.

I really enjoyed these videos and found the teacher's voice very calming. My goal will be to add this practice to as many mornings in my week as possible. This along with my gym group classes will hopefully keep me a happy, centered and flexible Momma.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Falafel with Tzatziki Sauce

Today was a snow day and hubby had a hankering for falafel. I was pretty sure I couldn't make it taste like the ones we used to get from the food trucks that hung around the campus in college, but I thought I would give it a try. The result didn't have nearly the spices that those fabled falafel had, but they were fairly good all the same. I think when I make them again I'll up the spices a bit to give them more kick.

1 (15 ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tsp dried parsley
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 eggs
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 C ground flax seed
1/3 C coconut flour (can use bread crumbs or other flour)

Mash chick peas with a fork until they are fairly broken and smashed. Mix in all other ingredients with the smashed peas. Heat a skillet with oil or butter to medium low then drop chick pea mixture by heaping tablespoons into the oil. Flatten the patties a bit then flip to brown the other side. This takes about 3 to 4 minutes per side.  Alternatively you can bake/broil them in the oven. Grease a cookie sheet then drop mixture by spoonfuls onto the sheet. Bake at 350 for about 15 minutes then turn and broil on low for about 5-10 minutes until they are as brown as you like them. Serve with Tzatziki sauce.

Tzatziki Sauce
1 C plain yogurt preferably organic
1/2 cucumber, seeded and finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried dill weed
1/2  tsp salt
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tsp lemon juice.

Mix all ingredients then chill until serving.

I shared this recipe with the Homegrown Learner's Wednesday recipe Link-up

Friday, February 25, 2011

Chickens in the Snow

Those of you with chickens know that chickens generally do not like snow. I suppose if I were a chicken I wouldn't like it either. They have bare feet, and snow is cold! And it's unlikely that any bugs or worms are hanging out right under the surface of the ground when it's freezing. So there's not much chance of finding "wild" food while digging around in it. The main reason they don't like it is probably because it's unfamiliar to them, and unfamiliar rarely means good things to a chicken. 

Our younger chicks, however don't seem to have the usual aversion to snow. While the older hens are staying cooped up where everything is a soothing, although stinky, brown color the chicks are right out there in the middle of the fluffy whiteness.

I couldn't resist snapping a few pictures of the adventuresome chicks wondering around in their newly decorated garden. I even found one chicken who usually glows in the brown garden using her new stealthy camouflage to her best advantage.

At one point while I was watching the chickens stand around in the snow I thought I had a flock of storks rather than chickens. They were all standing on one foot warming the other one under their feathers!

Also notice our low rider black fuzzy footed hen in the bottom picture. I just love the way she waddles around. If it wasn't for the fact that all of those cute fuzzy feathers covering her feet get really yucky when it rains I'd want a whole flock of those just for the entertainment factor. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Primal/Paleo Experiment Day 4

Today is day 4 of my Primal/Paleo eating experiment. So far I have found this lifestyle to be fairly easy to follow. Dinners have consisted of a meat entree with a couple of veggie side dishes while lunch has been either leftovers or a couple of boiled eggs with fruit with a nut and raisin snack mid afternoon. As expected, Breakfast has been a challenge for me. I've been trying different dishes each morning to see what gives me enough energy go start my day while filling up my belly. Here's what I've tried so far:

Monday: Berry smoothie (gave me energy, but left me wanting something else)
Tuesday: Primal Porridge (gave me energy and definitely left me full. I almost didn't eat it all.)
Wednesday: Cinnamon Eggs (gave me energy and left me full, but wasn't my favorite meal)
Thursday: Orange and a slice of Coconut bread with nut butter. (gave me energy and left me full)

So far my Fruit and Coconut bread breakfast and the Primal Porridge are my favorite breakfasts. Primal Porridge takes more time than slicing and toasting some coconut bread, but it's a good alternative if I get bored with the other.

I'm also finding I'm not getting hungry while eating these foods. I have to remind myself (or have the kids remind me) that's it's time to eat. My belly's just not alerting me that it's empty and ready to eat again. Even at breakfast time I could wait quite a while before I eat and not feel like I'm starved. I assume that the foods I'm eating are just more satisfying than other foods. Whatever the reason, I feel like I'm eating less but feeling more full, which is always a good thing.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Primal/Paleo Lifestyle

Recently I started reading more blogs relating to healthy eating, urban homesteading, self sufficiency and the like. I ran across one called Crunchy Chicken by a lady who lives right here in the Northwest. She and I share a lot of similar ideas about how we want to contribute to creating a healthy family and healthy planet. In the last few weeks she's been talking about the Primal/Paleo lifestyle discussed on Mark's Daily Apple. How I understand it is this: Eat the way the hunter-gatherers ate; eat lots of meat, eggs, veggies, fruit, nuts and berries; skip all refined/packaged products, sugar, grains and dairy; exercise regularly but at a moderate intensity.

The more I think about this lifestyle, the more I like it. I've always subscribed to the theory that eating foods in their most natural form is the healthiest for our bodies. So I thought I'd give it a try for a couple of weeks and see how I feel. I'll try to document my progress and various recipes I try while following this lifestyle. For the most part my meals won't change all that much while eating this more natural way. Dinner usually consists of some sort of meat and a couple of veggie and/or fruit side dishes. So that will be virtually the same. The only difference is that I won't make pasta or rice go go along with it. Lunch will consist of mostly leftovers I think or an egg dish. It's breakfast that is really going to stretch my recipe muscles a bit. I'm a die hard cheerios eater...and that doesn't fit this lifestyle at all. I need something that's quick to make in the morning that's filling. So I'm on a quest to find a go-to breakfast that fits into the Primal lifestyle. Below are the 2 breakfasts I've had the last couple of days. I'm think the porridge I made this morning may be the breakfast I choose most of the time over these next couple of weeks. But it's not that quick to make. So I may have to make a large batch over the weekend to use throughout the week. Give these recipes a try and let me know what you think!

Primal Porridge
1/2 C Almonds (can use any tree nuts here)
1/4 C sesame seeds  (can use any tree nuts or seeds)
1 Banana
2 Eggs
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 C Almond milk
1/4 C ground flax seed

Mix all ingredients in a blender until well incorporated. Pour mixture into a saucepan and warm on medium-low heat stirring constantly for a few minutes until mixture thickens to your desired consistency. This shouldn't take more an a very few minutes. Top with berries, nuts or a drizzle of maple syrup. (note: sesame seeds will turn green when cooked. This will give your porridge a very slight greenish color. Do not be alarmed! The taste is still the same, it's just the color that's changed. If this bothers you substitute other nuts or seeds for the sesame seeds.  )

Primal Smoothie
1 banana
1 C Almond milk
1 handful of almonds or other tree nuts
1/4 C ground flax seed
1-2 C frozen fruit of your choice (i used frozen strawberries, blueberries and blackberries)
1-2 Tbs maple syrup to taste (sweeter fruits will require less sweetener, berries will require more)

Mix all ingredients in a blender then enjoy!

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I had never made meatloaf before tonight. I guess I was intimidated by it and thougth it was hard to do, but I was pleasantly surprised. We bought beef back in the summer from a small sustainable ranch in Oregon where all of the cows are grass-fed and humanely raised.  The beef is very lean and has a wonderful flavor. So, with that starting point I thought I could make some pretty nice meatloaf. As with all of the things I cook, I can't leave it alone, I have to "healthy it up" a bit. So instead of bread crumbs I used oat bran and rolled oats and I added some carrot puree just for fun. Here's the recipe.

1 lb ground beef
1/2 C oat bran
1/2 C rolled oats
1/3 C pureed carrot (could use any veggie puree, I think)
2 Eggs
1/2 C ketchup (no HFCS!)
1/3 C diced onion
1/2 C shredded cheese (I used cheddar)
1/3 C milk
salt and pepper to taste

1/4 C ketchup
1 tsp worcester sauce
1 tsp cider vinegar

Pour all ingredients in a mixing bowl, roll up your sleeves and mix with your hands. Make sure all ingredients are well incorporated into the mixture, then pour into a greased medium size loaf pan. Mix topping ingredients and spread on top of uncooked meatloaf. Bake at 350 for about an hour. Internal temperature should be 160 degrees.

I posted this recipe to Mary's What's For Dinner Wednesdays. Post yours too!


Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

Happy Hallmark Holiday to you all! Yes, I agree that Valentine's Day is a completely manufactured holiday meant to sell more chocolate and flowers. But I love chocolate and flowers, so that works for me! I also like the idea of a holiday made specifically to tell our loved ones how we feel about them. Yesterday my daughter and I sat at the table surrounded by stickers, colored pencils and cut-outs of hearts making cards for each other. Mine contained all of the corny sayings like "Bee my valentine" next to a drawing of a Bee. After discussing that Simpson's episode where Lisa gives Ralph a Valentine Card, I almost made one that said "I choo choo choose you", but I refrained. We had a great time crafting together for the sole purpose of telling our family how much we love them. Viva La Valentine's Day!

And what's Valentine's day without chocolate? Did you know that dark chocolate is good for you? I guess you could say it's good for your Valentine's Heart! According to,  "High in antioxidants known as flavonoids, dark chocolate delivers an awesome nutritional wallop. Studies show that modest amounts–no more than 1 to 2 ounces–eaten every day can reduce risk of blood clots, lower blood pressure, increase endurance, improve skin quality, and even sharpen problem-solving skills."

If you're looking for a good dark chocolate recipe to make for your Valentine's dessert tonight check out this Warm Dark Chocolate Pudding from Cooking Light. Although, when I make this recipe I will be using real eggs from our happy backyard chickens rather than egg substitute. :)

Happy Chocolate Day!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Quinoa for Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner!

I have eaten the same thing for breakfast for a very long time now with very few exceptions. Hubby usually makes pancakes or french toast on Sunday, so I'll switch my morning meal on that day, but otherwise I'm pretty boring when it comes to breakfast. I like to eat Cheerios with a sliced banana and rice milk. It fills me up, is sweet enough to satisfy that morning sweet tooth and is pretty good for me. But when I saw this recipe for quinoa pudding with cranberries and raisins from Poor Girl Eats Well I knew I'd have to shake up my morning eating habits to include this one every now and then. This dish uses milk and brown sugar along with the quinoa to make a creamy pudding that is further embellished with the cranberries and raisins. I think sprinkling some walnuts or slivered almonds on top would be very yummy as well.

Quinoa is an awesome food!  It has a very high protein content, between 12% and 18%, and contains a balanced set of essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It is a good source of magnesium, phosphorous, iron and dietary fiber, and it's gluten free! I heard recently that some of the poorer cultures  in South America have remained relatively healthy throughout history due to the quinoa that grew in their area.

Quinoa is great in savory dishes as well as sweet ones like this pudding. I've made a southwest quinoa dish with corn, tomatoes and beans that's really yummy. Throw in some shrimp or grilled chicken and you've got a complete meal in one dish.

Southwest Quinoa and Black Beans

1 tsp. vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed
1 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
1 can of whole kernel corn
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 C diced tomatoes

1. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic and saute until lightly browned.
2. Add quinoa and vegetable broth to the onion mixture. Stir in cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper.
3. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes.
4. Stir in corn, beans and tomatoes then simmer about 5 minutes until heated through.
5. If desired, top with grilled chicken or shrimp before serving.

I listed this recipe on Homegrown Learners Wednesday Recipe Link up.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Using leftovers: Butternut Squash muffins

I hate wasting food! Let me repeat that. I hate wasting food! I go to great lengths to not have to waste food. I have decent sized bags of brown bananas, almost wilted spinach and chicken carcasses in my freezer just waiting on me to use them. And I do eventually use everything in one way or another. The brown bananas get used in smoothies or banana bread, the wilted spinach gets thrown into soup and the chicken carcasses get boiled down into stock.

My hatred of wasting food leads me to make interesting things from leftovers. Yesterday I looked into the fridge and saw too many leftovers. I knew what I was planning to serve for dinner and some of the leftovers just didn't fit into that plan. So I improvised. I took some mashed butternut squash I'd made earlier in the week (roasted whole butternut squash in the oven at 400 degrees for about an hour. scooped out squash, mixed in about a Tbs of butter and a Tbs of sugar.)  threw in a few other ingredients and made some muffins. They actually tasted a lot like pumpkin pie to me. So I think it was a win. I think you could make the same thing with sweet potatoes, pumpkin or any other winter squash. Enjoy!

Butternut Squash Muffins
1 C butternut squash roasted and mashed
1/2 C sugar
2/3 C whole grain flour (I used spelt flour)
1/3 C oat bran or rolled oats
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 Eggs, lightly beaten

Mix all cooled ingredients then spoon into mini muffin tins. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15-20 minutes until tops are firm.

Friday, February 4, 2011

That Crazy Chicken Lady

Several years ago after moving into our suburban oasis, I read a book called A Slice of Organic Life. That book suggested that everyone could add a little bit of organic life into their own a tiny piece at a time. To that end, we purchased 6 New Hampshire Red laying hens, and my husband built a small coop to house them. I was fascinated by these creatures and would spend an inordinate amount of time just watching them wander around the yard. When a neighbor said she was getting out of chicken keeping and asked if we wanted her birds, I jumped at the chance to own a few more. Integrating the 2 flocks did prove to be problematic, but eventually they worked out their pecking order and settled down into their newly combined family.

Ordering chickens turned out to be a bit surprising. I had no idea that chicks were shipped through the regular mail. In the first couple of days of life a chick doesn’t need food or water to survive. Just before hatching the chick eats its yolk sack, and this sustains it for about 48 hours. In that narrow window, the chick can be mailed in a cardboard box alongside a few dozen of its siblings. Warmth is the most important factor for chick survival at that time, but the extra warmth of nearby bodies is enough to keep everyone alive for the short journey.

Every time you order chicks, the company asks if you would like a free exotic chick added to the order. This is code for ‘do you want us to throw in a rooster or two’. Each time I’ve said yes thinking that something free is always nice. But now that we have at least 4 roosters eating feed and strutting around our hen house, I’m not sure if free is always good. (The gender of some of our chicks is still unclear. So we could have more than 4.) The roosters do add an interesting dynamic to the flock, though. Adding that male element to the coop makes all interactions more exaggerated. The flock now has a clearly defined hierarchy and a literal pecking order. The lack of feathers on some of the hens’ backs is a reminder that those on the lower rungs of the pecking order do get pecked. The roosters are obviously in charge and walk around with a strut that lets everyone know they are the boss. When they find something interesting to eat they make a sound to call the hens over to investigate. And interestingly, the roosters don’t eat first when they find food; they wait for the hens to eat. I speculate that the roosters subscribe to the theory of ‘Happy wife, happy life’. Before we had roosters the hens had a very similar hierarchy amongst themselves. The main difference between the then dominant hen and the now dominant rooster is that the hen didn’t notify the other hens when she found food, but instead ate it all herself before others noticed. I guess she didn’t care what the others thought of her as long as they knew she was in charge.

Since that time we’ve raised 3 flocks of chicks to adulthood in our greenhouse and successfully integrated them into the main flock. After that first integration experience, I learned that to reduce the fighting that can occur when new birds are introduced to the flock you should introduce the new birds at night. Just sit the new birds on the roosts next to the main flock while they are sleeping. In the morning the old birds and the new birds seem to think that everyone has been there all the time. I guess the fact that chickens have brains the size of walnuts comes in handy once in a while.

After a while we realized that the first small coop just wasn’t large enough to house our growing flock. Having too many chickens in too small of a space results in pecking and fighting during the nightly race to see who gets the good spots on the roosts. My husband added more roosts to the coop, but even with that added space, it was clear that the coop just wasn’t large enough to accommodate the size flock we seemed to be building. That’s the thing we learned early on about chicken keeping…it’s addictive. Once you have a few chickens you want more and more and more until your friends and neighbors think you’re that crazy chicken lady. So, I did some research on chicken dwellings and came to the conclusion that a simple metal shed building from the hardware store could be altered fairly easily to meet our needs. It was economical compared to buying or building a wooden coop and it was likely to last longer as well. After cutting a few holes in the back of the shed to allow the chickens to exit into the fenced chicken yard, cutting and screening ventilation holes, making raised platforms for the nesting boxes and adding some ladder-type roosts that leaned against the wall, the coop was ready to go. The feeders hang from chains attached to the ceiling, and the waterers sit on pier blocks in the middle of the coop. So far this setup seems to be working pretty well. The only issue we’ve had with our metal coop is the sliding door that came with it. Manure buildup keeps getting into the rails on the bottom of the door making it hard to open. So if you’re considering using a prefab building for a chicken coop, get one with a swinging door rather than a sliding one.

For the first couple of years we let our chickens free range in our yard. I was a bit nervous at first about just letting them roam around wherever they pleased. Would they run away or walk into the street and get hit by a car? Would they wonder into the neighbor’s yard and cause havoc? But I was pleasantly surprised by their behavior. They seemed to stay fairly close to our house wondering just far enough to see what was in the bush at the corner of the yard or to eat the berries along the fence line. And when it started to get dark in the evening they would amble back to the coop and put themselves to bed. All that was left was to close the coop door on them to keep them safe from nighttime predators. It was also fun to watch them wondering around the yard looking for interesting things to eat or patches of dirt in which to sit. But after a while I noticed that they kept digging up my flower beds to make dirt baths, they were pooping all over the deck ( and everywhere else) and eating the berries along the fence line…that we were growing for ourselves. So we decided to put up a large fenced-in area for them walk around in when they want to leave the coop. Now they can poop wherever they want, they can dig all the dust baths they need and eat anything that comes inside the fence. And all the while I can walk around on the deck in my bare feet without worrying about stepping in something nasty

Keeping chickens has had many benefits for our ‘farm’. Other than the obvious benefits of pure entertainment and having fresh, healthy and nutritious eggs anytime we like, our garden has seen many advantages to having the chickens nearby. Living in the Northwest, slugs are a constant issue, but since chickens started roaming our yard, our slug population has seen a dramatic decrease. Additionally, our compost is much richer now that the manure from the chicken coop gets added to it regularly. This year, I planted Pumpkins and zucchini directly into a pile of compost and despite the awful weather we had last summer, those plants continued to produce throughout the summer and into fall.

I recently read about using chickens to weed the garden in the spring rather than doing it by hand or tilling. Since I hate pre-season weeding and don’t like to cut up my worms with a tiller, I thought I’d give this method a try. The first few week of having chickens in the garden was miraculous. The garden went from completely weed covered to almost bear ground in no time. The chickens also managed to dig up a potato I’d missed in the fall, but my husband snatched it before the chickens realized it was something they could eat. One thing I forgot to do was to remove the landscape fabric that lined the walkways of the garden before letting the chickens have free reign. They’ve managed to scratch most of it into tiny pieces. But I suppose with all of the time I’ve saved by not having to weed the garden I’ll have plenty of time to lay down more landscape fabric.

When we got our first chickens we really started to notice just how many sayings in everyday life come from chickens. “Pecking order”, “cooped up”, “flew the coop”, “ruffled feathers”, “mad as a wet hen”, “coming home to roost”, “feather your nest”, “nesting instinct”, “protective as a mother hen”. Can you think of more?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Making Homemade Versions of Packaged Foods

I don’t know about your family, but we eat too many packaged foods. From little cups of yogurt, granola bars, peanut butter crackers to fruit leathers, we eat a lot of them. When we run from school to martial arts to swimming to art class, it’s easier to just grab something from our snack box rather than making a fresh snack in our limited time. And when it’s the kids who pack their snack, making them prepare something is not really possible. I’ve done my best over the years to pick out the healthiest kinds of these packaged foods. I’ve eliminated the hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, and I’ve tried to get the ones with the least sugar, most whole grains and organic ingredients if possible. But even the healthiest of packaged products won’t be as healthy as something made at home with hand chosen ingredients.

The packaging itself is also one of my pet peeves. Why do snacks have to be in bags inside boxes inside bags inside boxes. I feel like I'm opening one of those little Russian stacking doll toys when I try to open something. By making snacks myself, I can eleminate the extra packaging and waste that comes with the grocery store versions.

To that end, I’ve been working on finding kid-friendly, healthy alternatives to these packaged foods that I can make at home and package myself for on-the-go snacking.

Banana Chips
The banana chips you buy in the store are, for the most part, fried in some sort of oil to make them crispy. Rather than take a perfectly healthy fruit like a banana and fry it in oil, I take the easier and healthier route to make mine. I finally got a food dehydrator this year and love it! Banana chips were my first project with my new toy. The model I have is one of the round ones with multiple layers of trays. This model was a moderately priced one, around $50, but there are big microwave shaped ones in the $130 range that would be able to dehydrate larger quantities.

The entire recipe is this: slice your bananas into quarter inch coins, lay them on the dehydrator rack and turn dehydrator to 115 degrees (lower temps preserve more of the enzymes and healthy bits in food whereas higher temps kill these). Dehydrate for about a day or until chips get slightly crispy. My whole family loves these banana chips. I think they have much more of a banana flavor than the ones from the store and they are healthier. Win-win!

And why stop at bananas? You can dry almost any fruit in your dehydrator. I’ve dried bananas, apples, pears, halved cherries, strawberries and pluots. One thing to remember when dehydrating fruit is that any fruit with a skin must be halved or pealed to allow the dehydration to occur inside the fruit. For example, a cherry or blueberry really should be cut in half or it will take a really long time to dehydrate. I tried to dehydrate a raspberry and after taking days to dry, it really wasn’t that tasty. So small cell fruit like raspberries and blackberries should be blended and made into fruit leather rather than dried whole.

Fruit leather
Fruit leather is really nothing but dried pureed fruit. The leather can contain any fruit or vegetable you want to mix into it. When I decided to make some I looked through my refrigerator and pantry to find any fruit or vegetable that was getting too ripe or just hadn’t been eaten lately. A couple of my favorite combinations are Banana-Apple-Sweet Potato and Cherry-Berry-Carrot-Apple. I found that I could sneak in about 1/3 vegetables without my kids noticing.

To make the puree, cut fruit and veggies into one inch chunks, put it in the blender with water, apple juice or any other juice of choice. Blend until totally smooth then pour onto the fruit leather tray for your dehydrator. You really do need one of these to make fruit leather or you are likely to end up with a fairly large mess in your machine. Dehydrate at 115 degrees for about 24 hours then try to peel up the leather and turn over to get the bottom side completely dry as well. My leathers never turned out perfect-looking. I always had cracks where the fruit contracted as it dried in random places. But regardless of the appearance, the finished product always tastes great, is healthy for you and has great kid-appeal.

Yogurt is usually over-packaged. I understand why the yogurt is sold in those little cups with the foil and plastic lids on top, and have been happy to have them so my kids could stick a straw through the foil to drink them with less mess than using a spoon. But the waste-hating part of me really doesn’t like the packaging waste that comes with them. These days I usually buy yogurt in the 32 oz or larger tubs rather than the little ones, but when I realized how easy yogurt was to make, I decided that making my own may be the best option for a healthy food and less waste. Yogurt cultures multiply best at about 100 degrees. Some ovens have keep-warm settings that will keep ovens at that temperature. If you’re lucky enough to have one of these you can make yogurt right in your oven overnight. If not, you may have a large cube-shaped dehydrator that would also do the trick. Otherwise, you may need to invest in a yogurt maker to make your own homemade yogurt. Yogurt makers aren’t expensive at all, and you would make back the purchase price very quickly if your family eats a decent amount.

To make your own yogurt you will need milk of your choice (I used rBst free skim milk.) and about 3 tablespoons of plain organic yogurt with active cultures. Scald your milk in a sauce pan then let it cool to room temperature before stirring in the plain yogurt until smooth. Pour milk/yogurt mixture into the vessels of your choice for making yogurt. Yogurt machines usually come with their own glass jars. If you are making your yogurt in an oven or dehydrator you will need to decide which glasses, jars or bowls you want to use. Turn your yogurt machine on according to its directions or set your oven or dehydrator to 100 degrees. Yogurt should be ready in about 10 hours. Mix in any fruit, jam, honey or other desired addition before eating. Refrigerate for up to a week.

Granola bars
I have a love-hate relationship with granola bars. I love the convenience of the pre-wrapped bar, but hate that most granola bars tout their health benefits when almost all of them are just a candy bar with some rolled oats mixed in with the sugar. They are also really expensive for what you get in that little box. This past summer I went on a quest to find a homemade granola bar that could pass for a store-bought one. My adventures in granola bar baking are chronicled in past posts. The first attempt was more cake-like, but still very yummy. Attempt #2 tasted a lot like a peanut butter cookie and less like a granola bar. Attempt #3 was apparently too healthy tasting according to my family so I didn't even blog about that one. I liked them, but I’m not really the one I’m trying to satisfy with these multiple attempts. But I hit pay dirt with attempt #4. This one tastes a lot like your typical chewy granola bar and can be adapted to taste like almost any flavor. Add chocolate chips or raisins or nuts to suit your taste. These can then be stored in the refrigerator and plopped into a plastic or fabric snack bag or a reusable container for snacks on the go. Even the kids can get these into their lunch boxes on school days.

Crackers, cheese-its, cereal and Pop-tarts
Crackers are one of those things that we all love but are ridiculously expensive and over packaged for the small quantity you get. It seems like we can go through a grocery store sized box of crackers in one sitting. And the number of ingredients in a cracker is kind of scary. When you really don’t need much more than flour and water to make a cracker, why are there dozens of ingredients in a store-bought cracker? For increased shelf life, that’s why. But when you make crackers at home you can include only those ingredients you need and want.

The basic cracker recipe found here is the backbone for making all kinds of other packaged treats. Put cheese on top or in the mix and you’ve got Cheese-its. Sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar and you’ve got cinnamon toast cereal. Then sandwich some jam or chocolate between two larger squares of dough and make a Pop-tart! The possibilities are virtually endless and based entirely on your personal tastes. And what’s the best reason yet to try these? They cost a tiny fraction of the grocery store price and waste absolutely no packaging! Ok, that’s 2 reasons, even better. One thing to remember when making any of these products is to make the dough as thin as you possibly can. If you have one, use a pasta maker to make the dough sheets even thinner. Thinner dough makes a crisper cracker!


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