Friday, June 25, 2010

You mango me crazy...

For the almost half of my life, I did not eat mangoes. I am not sure I had even heard of them until high school and the first time I tasted one it came from a jar and was packed in syrup. Since then, they have become pretty popular. They grace our smoothies, shampoos and flavor chewing gum. My kids love them and from Cinco de Mayo through the summer they are pretty affordable. Their health benefits are numerous: they contain phenols, a powerful antioxidant; they are high in iron; and contain vitamins A, E and selenium to name a few. So why do I HATE mangoes? Have you ever tried to peel and cut one? In the photo, you can clearly see the pit, yet whenever I cut one the only way I can distinguish the pit from the fruit is when my knife hits it. I have seen cooking shows where they score it in the peel and one well-placed horizontal slice yields perfect cubes, yet I have never had this work in real life. I have tried peeling and then slicing only to have mush on my knife and juice running down my arm. It's for these reasons that I avoid making mango salsa, mango smoothies or just buying them to snack on. They beckon you with their beautiful skins, painted various hues of red and green while concealing their golden-orange flesh which is so difficult to remove that you need to be a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu just to try. In spite of all these negative reasons I was convinced to buy some by a pleading seven-year-old boy and a very attractive sale price. I wish I could say this time was different but I could barely harvest enough flesh out of three of them to produce 2 cups of puree for ice cream. According to the recipe, three mangoes should have yielded enough for the puree and 1 1/2 cups diced to serve with the ice cream. Stinkin' mangoes!

Since our chickens began laying, we have had an abundance of eggs. So much so that we can usually give away a dozen a week. We scramble them, fry them, bake them, feed them to the dogs and sometimes even to the chickens. I've made chiffon cake, angel food cake and several quiches. Now that it is summer, egg production has gone down just when I found a new thing to do with them. My friend has a food blog and posted this recipe for mini frittatas. They were so easy to make and I substituted bacon and cheddar for the ham and parmesan since those were the ingredients I had on hand. They bake in a mini muffin pan so you don't have to worry about having the middle loose or your oven on for an hour in the summer. They were a big hit with my family and needless to say, we had no leftovers.

Speaking of eggs, remember how they were bad for you because of the cholesterol and needed to be avoided or at least consumed in moderation? Well avoid them no more, they are good for you! The whites contain the most perfect form of protein you can consume and the yokes are an egg-cellent source of choline, a nutrient required for healthy liver function among other things. New studies show that they may even reduce your risk of heart disease. History has demonstrated that food dietary guidelines fluctuate with the current scientific studies and hypotheses so how can we know what is best to eat? Don't be swayed by the trends and processed foods with healthy things added in. If it looks close to how it was created in nature, how could it be wrong?

Monday, June 21, 2010

I scream, you scream...we all scream over $20 ice cream!

Sometimes I feel like I was meant to live over 100 years ago. The idea of being self-sufficient and living a simpler existence is so attractive at times. I know if the women of that era could travel to our time and see our washing machines, SUVs and water dispensing refrigerators, they would probably be perfectly happy to trade places. It's just another case of the grass being greener on the other side.

My pioneering spirit has long desired to make ice cream from scratch. I received a hand-me-down ice cream maker this past winter and have been waiting for the scorching days of summer to bust it out. While traveling in North Carolina and Virginia this month, we ate a LOT of ice cream and some of it was homemade. There was definitely a difference! I couldn't wait to return home and make some for us. I decided that cherry vanilla would be our first flavor since it was my husband's favorite when he was a kid. I bought my ingredients only to come home and find that the metal container that holds the ice cream was missing the lid! In desperation, I went to Kohl's but could only find an ice cream maker that made 1 1/2 quarts. What is the point? There are four of us! It would take two batches just for all of us to have a bowl. I hit Target next and found one that could make a gallon and was the old-fashioned style with the wooden bucket. I was back in business! Our first batch was amazing, though the kids didn't like the actual cherries in it very much. Did they take into consideration the fact that I hand-pitted 3 cups worth for this ice cream and had red-stained hands the rest of the day? Of course not. There may have been too many cherries and I didn't chop them very small so they were pretty icy when you bit into them. My next batch was to be vanilla bean. I decided that I would use the finest ingredients to make the best vanilla bean ice cream possible. I already had good eggs (the recipe called for 8 yolks) and just needed some cream, half and half and vanilla beans. I went to Whole Foods so I could buy organic dairy products. Straus Family Creamery's adorable glass bottles beckoned me. They cost about 40 cents more than the other organics but I decided to splurge. While checking out, the cashier asked if I knew about the bottle deposit. Apparently it costs an additional $1.50 per glass bottle which is refunded if you bring the bottles back to the store. Too embarrassed to want to take them back and switch out for the cheaper cardboard cartons, I opted to pay the extra $3.00. Did I mention the glass bottles were adorable? In all my obsessing over the dairy ingredients, I forgot to buy vanilla beans. Not wanting to trudge back to Whole Foods, I hit my local Albertson's. This being my first purchase of whole vanilla beans, I was totally shocked to discover that they sell for $7 for ONE! Fortunately they were on sale or else I would have had to pay $10! Although my recipe called for two beans, I settled for bringing home one giant spice jar with one skinny crinkled bean. At this point, it was almost a $20 gallon of ice cream; I had totally lost my mind. I wish I could say it was the most amazing ice cream ever, but sadly, it was so rich we could barely eat it. At least it made a good berry milkshake and I have learned a valuable life lesson that just because something costs more, doesn't mean it's better.

This last week I signed on to the Bountiful Baskets produce co-op. Several of my friends have already been purchasing through it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. This Saturday morning, I was standing in line behind a warehouse and holding an empty laundry basket that was to be filled with a mystery assortment of fruits and vegetables. The process is actually very simple. You contribute on Tuesday morning towards the upcoming Saturday delivery. It is $15 for conventional produce or $25 for organic. There is a one-time charge of $3.00 added to your first order. Drop points are located around town and you select the one that is most convenient for you, then arrive at the scheduled time to pick up your produce. They have co-ops in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Texas and Washington. For more information check out their website here. I was very happy with amount I received and the overall quality was acceptable except for a little too much mush in one of the tomatoes and some slightly wilted lettuce. The lettuce did perk up once I put it in the fridge. My first organic purchase consisted of:

5 cameo apples
4 black plums
6 bananas
Somewhere between 2-3 pounds of white seedless grapes
2 grapefruits
1 pint blueberries
1 bunch celery
1 bunch of lacinato kale
4 tomatoes
3 avocados
1 head green leaf lettuce
1 head cauliflower
2 heads brocolette (A longer, thinner broccoli, it looked like what we grew at home)

You only participate when you want, so there is no obligation to contribute every week. I can't wait to see what my basket will have next week, and it also nice to have a laundry basket not filled with dirty clothes for a change.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The breakfast blues

For the past year, I have been fiddling around with pancake recipes. I used to be a die-hard Krusteaz Buttermilk mix user until I read the ingredients. The label begins innocently enough: enriched bleached flour, sugar and leavening, but it's the remaining ingredients that trouble me. Soy flour(not sure why this troubles me but I am sure with a little research I could pin it down.), dextrose, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, and mono-diglycerides (emulsifier). I decided that the "just add water" convenience of this product was just not worth consuming the questionable additives. In my journey to find the right recipe, I experimented with different flours, buttermilk and the ratios of the standard ingredients as well as an amount of batter that will make enough pancakes for my ravenous family. Feel free to use organic ingredients when available. Today I think I found a winner and here it is:

Semi-Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes
(Makes about 18 4-inch pancakes)

3 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons of organic cane sugar or regular sugar (organic cane has bigger crystals for a nice texture)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pint of blueberries
butter for cooking

Beat eggs with whisk in a large bowl until fluffy. Whisk in remaining ingredients except butter and blueberries until just combined. It is not necessary to be lump free! Set pan or griddle over medium heat and grease with butter(you will need to add more butter after each batch). You will know the pan is hot enough when the butter sizzles as soon as it is in contact with the surface. Ladle desired amount of batter into greased pan and top with 5-7 blueberries per pancake. Flip when the bubbles start to pop and cook for about one more minute. Serve with REAL maple syrup and enjoy!

Why real maple syrup? I know it is expensive compared to Mrs. Butterworth's but once you make the switch you won't want to go back. Just a comparison of the labels was enough for me. My bottle of the Whole Foods 365 Organic Grade A Maple Syrup requires refrigeration after opening and it has one ingredient: organic maple syrup. In contrast, Mrs. Butterworth's does not require refrigeration yet has an incredibly long shelf life. It's ingredients are: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, salt, cellulose gum, molasses, potassium sorbate (preservative), sodium hexametaphosphate, citric acid, caramel color, natural and artificial flavors. I recommend ditching the brown corn syrup and eating pancakes and waffles less often to compensate for the increase in the price of the syrup. The food conglomerates have created a way to produce cheaper "food" at the cost of quality. Real food costs more, but it is cheaper than the medical care that will be required to treat the diseases brought about by an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. We'll pay now or we'll later!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Good fences make good gardens...

Wow, if I had waited just 18 more days, it would have been a full six months since my last blog post. I debated whether or not to fully retire but slowly but surely the words are coming back. The last six months found our household with a new member, my bed-ridden grandma. It was quite the journey and we have seemed to returned to our normal routine since her passing almost two months ago.

During my hiatus, I planted a spring garden complete with peas, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini and cantaloupe. Gardening in the desert is not for wimps! Yes, we have a long growing season but if you don't hit everything just right, you may never see a harvest. I was overjoyed when my peas blossomed and produced the most delicious little green orbs. When my tomatoes were covered in delicate yellow flowers, I imagined them sliced and covered with basil and balsamic vinegar, but sadly our love story ended tragically. May was unseasonably cool and because of the evening temperatures being below 60 degrees, the plants never set fruit. The carrots and green beans tried to compensate and began to fill in nicely until the wind blew part of the garden fence down and the chickens wiped out the entire carrot crop in 15 minutes. Their scratching and digging severed the green bean and pea vines from their roots, thus ending their brief residence in my garden. I did not despair because there were tiny green buds finally coming out of the tomato blossoms. My little hens had also eaten the leaves off of the melon vines and all the cantaloupe blossoms but even these had overcome the tragedy and were returning to their growth cycle.

Yesterday we returned from a week-long visit to Virginia. I knew there was an intense heat wave while we were away so I fully expected to see a stressed-out garden when I returned. What I found instead was NO garden. The strong Vegas winds had once again blown the garden door down, but this time I wasn't there to prevent the merciless slaughter of that which I had poured my heart and soul into for the last few months. Honestly I can't blame the chickens for being chickens and I could have not been so lazy and secured the door better, but still...

Since chickens seems to be the one thing I am good at when it comes to producing our own food, we added three more to our flock. The new girls will lay white eggs which will nicely round out the colors in our egg basket. They should begin laying around October which will give us the possibility of up to 9 eggs per day. While in Virginia, I bought the first grocery store eggs I have had in about 8 months. I splurged on what seemed to be the best possible eggs the store offered. They were organic, free-range, Omega-3, etc. When I cracked open the first one I was greeted by a pale, yellow and runny yoke. It was quite different than the firm orange yokes that we have become accustomed to. My kids wouldn't eat them and when I tried one I found the flavor diluted and just plain wrong. I ended up hard boiling them so we couldn't tell the difference. The next day I was able to buy some at a Williamsburg farmer's market and they looked and tasted more like we were used to. (Confidentially, I still think mine taste better but don't tell Farmer Bill).

Even though it seems to be virtually impossible for me to have a garden, at least food is growing somewhere and I can buy it. Summer welcomes so many wonderful foods: berries, stone fruits, tomatoes, melons and artichokes to name a few. If you eat these when they are in season and not shipped from South America or artificially ripened, the flavor is incredible. I have found if I invest in a variety of the summer fruits and leave them ready-to-eat on the counter, my kids will snack on them all day. When you are feeling fancy you can turn them into light and refreshing desserts to enjoy on the hot summer nights.

Since we cannot live on fruit alone, I am working on ways to incorporate more vegetables in our diet. I would like to try at least one new veggie each week this summer to help break us out of our corn, peas and broccoli rut. Tonight we enjoyed grilled endive(pictured with grilled chicken) drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I got the idea from a magazine and it was enjoyed by all of us, even the kids. Our weather was not cooperating with my plan to grill outside so I cooked them indoors on my George Foreman grill. Simply slice Belgian endive in halve lengthwise. Brush halves with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place face down on a hot grill for about 4 or 5 minutes and drizzle with balsamic vinegar before serving. Next week's assignment: celery root.

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