A New Day

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Hello?

This space must feel awfully lonely and neglected.  It’s been nine months since I was last here.  Nine very busy months.  And no – not because I was gestating life, although it does bear some resemblance to such a life-altering time span when you think about it.

No.  For the last year (or more) I’ve been falling and stumbling and careening into what I can now say is the thing I’ve been meant to do my whole life.  And it’s only taken me 40 years to figure it out.

A few years ago (almost three, now, actually) I took a part-time job with a local charter school.  20 hours a week as an administrative assistant – making copies, answering phones, running errands, backing up the receptionist, et cetera.  I was somewhat over-qualified for the job, but that was okay because I didn’t really want anything too challenging.  I needed something to do a few hours a week, and this happened to be three miles from my house, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

At the time I didn’t realize how life-changing that little part-time job would be.

If you’re at all familiar with the charter school movement, then you probably know that making them successful and sustainable can be a daunting task.  When I started, this little school had 400 students (and was in its 7th year of operation). By my second year, and the school’s 8th, we had 700 students.  To almost double in size in one year is challenging.  It was clear that my part-time position was no longer going to suffice, so I went full-time last year.

At the same time, my husband and I decided that we would enroll our oldest in the school.  Its unique blend of academic instruction and character education appealed to us, and the convenience of having the kids where I worked was equally appealing.

I didn’t really understand it at the time, but something changes when your kid’s education is on the line.  You go from being merely an employee of an institution to being fully invested in its success.  It’s scary.  And exciting.  And exhausting.

What’s crazy is I always knew I wanted to work in education, but I also knew that I didn’t have what it took to be a classroom teacher.  It takes a special breed to work directly with kids all day every day, and I’m just not cut out for it.  More power to those that do – I’m grateful for them every day.

No, my calling is much more behind the scenes – building support for the school in the community.  Charter schools are a controversial, hot button topic, and there are people out there that wish they would just go away.  And I’m sure there are some that should, whether because those schools are financially unsound, poorly governed, or poorly conceived.  This school, though, is none of those things.  And I’m proud to be a part of it.

In fact, I’ve never felt so called to something in my life – outside of motherhood.  There are paths we take in life that, at the time, seem completely random, but for some reason we’re compelled to take them anyway.  I never thought, when I responded to a Craigslist ad for a part-time admin assistant (yes, I actually responded to a job posting on Craigslist), that I would be starting down a life altering, career changing rabbit hole.

This  new school year has been exhausting.  I’m managing people for the first time in five years, which comes with its own set of challenges (especially when you’re an introvert and just the thought of human interaction sometimes is more than you can handle).  The good news is, they’re all good at what they do, and I respect each one of them for the strengths they bring to their roles.  I’m also becoming much more involved on the institutional advancement side of things – fundraising, capacity building, community engagement, etc. Each day brings with it new learning opportunities, new successes (and sometimes new failures).

There are days when I’m just not sure that I can keep going – like there’s just too much to do and I don’t know where to begin.

In my old life I might have quietly turned away and moved on.

But the promise of what this school can be, what it can do for my own children as well as the hundreds of others that come through the doors every day, keeps me coming back.  And that makes it all worthwhile.

Each new day is a promise of something great.  I’m just where I need to be.  Life is good.  

Honey, Cake {Honey Cake}

First, let me just say that we’re not big on terms of endearment in our house.  We don’t call each other Sweetheart or Babycakes or Darlin’.  Or, god forbid, Lover (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little). Sometimes I’ll call my husband stinky, but that’s mostly a descriptor and not so much a term of endearment.

But today’s his birthday, so I’m throwing caution to the wind.

Honey, this cake’s for you.

Happy Birthday, Loverboy.

I married a man whose ideal dessert is yellow cake with white icing, so sometimes I like to change things up a bit in the flavor department.  This year’s cake is a variation on a basic buttermilk cake, but it uses honey granules in place of granulated sugar, and raw honey and honey granules in the cream cheese frosting.  It’s a honey cake.  For my honey.

I think what I like most about honey is that it has a sort of savory quality.  It’s sweet, but also a little salty.  Or musky.  Or earthy.  Or something. It has a complex flavor profile is what I’m getting at.  It works well in this cake, playing against the sour tang of the buttermilk and the cream cheese, and adding a slightly salty note to the whole thing.  It’s almost like a salted caramel, without the caramel or the salt.

It’s tasty, and I think you’ll like it.

Honey Cake with Honey Cream Cheese Frosting
prep time: 30 minutes (total, cake and frosting)
bake time: 25 minutes
yields: 2 eight or nine-inch layers

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks)
  • 1 1/3 cups powdered honey granules
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
  • 2 1/3 cups sifted whole-wheat pastry flour (I used freshly milled here)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon real salt
  • 1 cup cultured buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup raw honey honey
  • 1 vanilla bean, scraped
  • 16 oz. cream cheese
  • 4 oz. butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered honey granules

  1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease and flour two eight-inch round cake pans
  2. Sift together your flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside
  3. In the bowl of your electric mixer, beat 3/4 cups room temperature butter on high speed until light and fluffy
  4. Slowly add 1 1/2 cups of honey granules, beating on high speed for 3-5 minutes
  5. Beat the eggs together and slowly add, taking about 2 minutes
  6. Add 1/2 a scraped vanilla bean and mix to incorporate.
  7. Add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk in two parts – begin and end with flour.  Scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary.
  8. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans and bake at 350F for 20-30 minutes (mine were actually quite dark at the 24 minute mark).
  9. While cake is baking: combine 1/2 cup honey and scraped vanilla bean in a small saucepan.  Add a tablespoon of water and stir to combine.  Heat over low heat until it comes to a simmer.  Remove from heat and allow to cool
  10. Remove cake layers from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for 5-1o minutes.  Turn out onto a cooling rack and cool to room temperature.
  11. Brush the tops of your cake layers with honey/vanilla mixture.  Reserve the remainder to add to the frosting.
  12. For the frosting: place the cream cheese and 4 oz. of butter in the bowl of your electric mixer.  Beat on high speed until light and fluffy.
  13. On medium speed, slowly add the honey/vanilla mixture, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary.
  14. Add powdered honey granules with mixer running.  Scrape down sides of bowl as necessary.
  15. Frost cake layers as desired.
  16. Enjoy.

Nannerpuss (Or, If You Like, Banana Pudding)

This is a little glimpse into the inner workings of my squirrel-y gray matter.

I sat down to write this post this morning – a post about banana pudding (and an excellent one at that) – when I got sidetracked.  I was trying to come up with a title, and I kept getting stuck on the silly name that my mother had for banana pudding when I was little: nanner-poo (please don’t judge).  From there, I got an endless loop of this:

Do you remember Nannerpuss?  When my oldest son was around three years old, this commercial was popular.  A friend/coworker and I had a mild obsession with this obnoxious dancing and singing banana puppet – mostly because my little boy would sing that annoyingly catchy song in his adorable little three-year-old voice.

As an aside – what does a banana really have to do with pancakes, anyway?  Ponder that and get back to me.

And that jingle?  It really is hard to get out of your head.  So this morning?  When it got stuck in my head?  I decided I needed to share it with all of you so that you could share in my misery joy. Now you, too, can enjoy this little ditty every time you make this glorious banana pudding (nannerpuss) recipe.

You’re welcome.

Now, onto the recipe.  This is an adaptation of an adaptation, so forgive me for indulging in a little background first (as though I haven’t already been more than a little self-indulgent this morning – see above).  As a southern girl, I grew up on banana pudding – layers of  ‘Nila Wafers, sliced bananas, vanilla custard/pudding, all topped with a toasty meringue.  Delightful.  The one thing that always bothered me was that the pudding/custard didn’t taste banana-y enough.  And why should it?  It was vanilla pudding after all.

So, I set out to figure out a way to make my custard more banana-y.  Because, hey! why not?

I turned to my trusty pals at Tastespotting, knowing that someone, somewhere, sometime must have had a similar idea.  And lo and behold, I was right.  Boulder Locavore (who I love, by the way), posted this version a while back.  It was an adaptation of award winning Chef Alex Seidel‘s recipe, which calls for you to make a banana-infused milk before you begin to make your pudding.  You do this by steeping very ripe or roasted bananas in whole milk and then letting the mixture sit overnight to allow the flavors to infuse.  I was intrigued, so I thought I’d give it a go.  Of course, I changed things up just a bit (as I do), but mostly I followed the recipe fairly closely.  What resulted was the most flavorful, silky-smooth banana pudding I’ve ever had.  Try it – I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

Nannerpuss Banana Pudding

prep time: 24 hours

cook time: 15 minutes

yields: 12 servings

Ingredients

  • 30 oz. banana milk
  • 4 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 3 very ripe bananas (the skin on mine was almost black they were so ripe)
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
  • 2 1/2 oz. sugar
  • 1 oz. butter
  • 9 oz. sugar
  • 1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 5 oz. egg yolks (approx. 7 egg yolks)
  • 8 oz. whole eggs (approx 5 whole eggs, without shells)
  • 1 3/4 oz. cornstarch
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 2 ripe bananas, sliced
  • 1 box vanilla wafers
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  1. Begin a day in advance – place your whole milk, very ripe bananas, vanilla bean (seeds and pod), 2 1/2 oz. sugar and 1 1/4 oz. butter in a heavy saucepan and bring almost to a boil.  Remove from the heat, cover, and chill overnight.
  2. Strain the banana milk through a fine mesh strainer, pressing with a rubber spatula to extract as much liquid from the bananas as possible.  Discard the mashed banana and vanilla bean pod.
  3. Combine banana milk, sugar and salt in a heavy saucepan – bring to a simmer
  4. In a blender, combine egg yolks, whole eggs and cornstarch.  Blend on high to thoroughly combine.
  5. Once the milk mixture has come almost to boil, temper the egg mixture by adding a little bit (1/2-cup or so) of the hot milk mixture to the egg mixture in the blender while it is running.  Then add the egg mixture to the hot milk, stirring constantly to avoid curdling.  Be careful – it sets up fast.
  6. Stir constantly, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan as you do.  Remove from the heat if it starts to get too thick.
  7. Once the mixture is thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove it from the heat and pour it through a fine mesh strainer to remove any lumps.
  8. Add the melted butter, stirring to combine.
  9. Set aside to cool.
  10. Whip the heavy whipping cream and 1 tablespoon of sugar to stiff peaks
  11. To assemble – have ready 12 half-pint mason jars
  12. Place two vanilla wafers in the bottom of each jar
  13. Place two to three slices of banana on top of the cookies
  14. Ladle 1/2-3/4 cup of custard into each jar
  15. Place two more vanilla wafers and three more banana slices in each jar
  16. Ladle the remaining custard into each jar
  17. Top each jar with a dollop of whipped cream.
  18. Enjoy warm, or chill if you prefer.

PS – voting in the Marx Foods’ Integrale Gauntlet is still open (until 1 PM PST tomorrow, in fact), so if you haven’t already, please go take a look at my Risotto Carbonara recipe, and then click over there and vote (for me, if you’re so inclined).  Thanks!

 

Subscribing to a CSA Is Like Being on Chopped

For about four years now, I’ve been looking for a meat CSA in my area.  I’ve also looked into (but have never committed to) buying whole and half cows, purchasing pastured pigs and goats, heritage chickens and turkeys, all of which require a fairly large financial commitment and can result in a substantial amount of meat to store.  What I really wanted was a subscription service where I could pay monthly, quarterly or bi-annually and be assured a certain quantity of meat without having to commit to any one type or cut.

Finally, after much research and years of buying from a variety of local and regional farms either at the farmers market or at Harry’s, I decided to bite the bullet and test the waters with a local meat CSA.  Riverview Farms is a farm in northwest Georgia, about 50 miles north of where I live.  They offer both produce and meat subscriptions, but right now I’m only taking advantage of the meat (our garden is still producing, so we’re going to utilize that as long as we can).  They are a certified organic farm and they specialize in Berkshire pork and grass-fed beef. And they have a drop-off point that’s about four miles from my house.

We received our first box last week.  We pay $68 a month for 10 lbs. of meat.  This month we got a chuck roast (about 2.5 lbs.), two pounds of ground beef, two pounds of breakfast sausage, four bone-in pork chops (totaling a little over 2 pounds) and a pound of chorizo.  I love that we don’t know what we’re getting ahead of time, because it forces me to be creative with my dinner menus.  You can also place orders for certain items to be added to your box if you know there’s something you want.

lettuce, spinach and an egg from our own backyard

Tonight, I was struggling to think of something to make for dinner.  I knew I wanted to use some of the chorizo, and I’d pulled some spinach from our garden earlier in the day.  I also had some quinoa in the pantry.  I was drawing a blank, though, when it came to putting all of those things together into a cohesive meal – it was like a Chopped chef’s worst nightmare (although, on Chopped they probably would have thrown in peanut-butter or some kind of terrible fruit candy just to screw with me).  I decided to google those three ingredients, on a whim, and was delighted to find a recipe that fit the bill perfectly.  It even utilized those eggs I’d gathered.

I changed things up slightly by using fresh chorizo rather than dried (since that’s what I had), and I baked everything in the same pan I used to saute the chorizo, onion and spinach which resulted in a nice crisp brown crust on the bottom and edges.

Baked Quinoa with Chorizo, Spinach and Cheese
adapted from A Foodie’s Footnotes: Baked Quinoa with Spinach, Cheese and Chorizo
prep time: 20 minutes
bake time: 25 minutes
yields: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed
  • 1/2 pound fresh chorizo
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 cups fresh spinach, chopped
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 oz. shredded sharp cheddar cheese (about 1 cup)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F
  2. Cook quinoa according to package instructions
  3. Remove chorizo from casing and saute in a large heavy skillet or saute pan until browned. Break up the sausage as it cooks.
  4. Using a slotted spoon, remove chorizo from the pan and set aside.
  5. Add chopped onion to the fat rendered from cooking the chorizo and saute until browned and translucent.
  6. Add chopped spinach and stir around until wilted.
  7. Add the sausage back to the pan and remove from the heat.
  8. Drain the quinoa and place it back to the pan you cooked it in.
  9. Scramble the eggs and add them to the cooked quinoa along with 3/4 of the cheese and 2 teaspoons of the sage.  Stir to combine.
  10. Add the quinoa mixture to the sausage mixture and mix to evenly distribute the ingredients.  Spread it evenly in the pan.
  11. Sprinkle the remaining cheese and sage over the top
  12. Bake at 400F for 25 minutes, or until top is browned
  13. Enjoy!

Y’all, it was delicious.  I went back for seconds and my husband went back for thirds and fourths.  The kids were kind of indifferent, since the chorizo was spicier than what they’re used to, but I don’t think that will keep me from making this again.  I might try it with a milder sausage next time, but I’ll definitely be revisiting this recipe.  And I hope you’ll try it, too.  You could even do this as a vegetarian meal, eliminating the chorizo and spicing things up with some chipotles or chile de arbol.

If you try it, let me know.  I’ll be knocking on your door right around dinnertime.

Soda Crackers for Days

Do you know Martha Hall Foose?   I don’t, not personally at least, but I wish I did.  She seems like the kind of woman I’d want for a friend.  Warm, welcoming, funny, full of stories to delight your soul and your senses.  Plus, we’re both from Mississippi, and that’s an automatic bond in and of itself.  Us Mississippi gals have to stick together.

I was thrilled to be offered a review copy of her latest cookbook, A Southerly Course, in which she shares recipes and stories of life in the South.  As I flipped through the pages, I was struck by the sense of ease and comfort that seeps from the pages.  Her words are effortless and her recipes are inspiring.  She offers passages that are juicy, concise in their construction, yet rich in meaning:

Peeking beneath the table’s pall in the mythic South to see how its patent qualities of deep involvement with family, observance of ritual, and celebration of eccentricity play out around Southern food today has been quite a trip.  It has taken me on an inner journey as well.  My ambition to understand this mythologizing to which we Southerners are prone has had me up nights in the kitchen.  The myths themselves seem to begin with stories told around tables.

There’s a sense of front porch simplicity, of Sunday dinners on the farm, of family traditions passed down through generations.  She writes of a life with which I’m familiar, of hardship masked by the fortitude and grace of the people of this region.  My people.  Her people.  If you’re from the South, or even if you’re not (maybe even especially if you’re not), I highly recommend this book.  Even if you never attempt one of the recipes, you’ll delight in the stories behind them, and in the insight into this strange and rich subculture of America.

I really, really, really wanted to try the Skillet Fried Corn recipe.  When I first got the book, I flipped through the various sections, and the book just sort of naturally fell open to this page.  For years, my mother and I have romanticized my paternal Grandmother’s fried corn.  It’s what many people have come to call creamed corn, but it’s a far cry from what we know today as creamed corn.  I can picture it now, golden kernels of corn, dotted with a surplus of black pepper, fried in bacon grease.  The “cream” came from scraping the milk from the cob after you’d cut the kernels off.  Ms. Foose’s recipe is the closest I’ve come to something similar.  Hers calls for butter in addition to the bacon grease, and garlic (which I’m pretty sure my Grandmother never used), but otherwise it’s close.  Unfortunately, corn season has passed in these parts, so it will have to wait until next summer.

As it turns out, the first recipe I decided to test was used more as a guideline than as a formula.  I needed a soda cracker recipe, and hers was the first I came to.  I followed her ratios, but the ingredients are mine.  It was nice to find a simple, straightforward recipe for a cracker in a modern cookbook, though.  I think so many of us have come to rely on store bought crackers that we forget that they can be made at home.  And perhaps they should – there’s something personal about serving guests crackers that didn’t come from a sleeve in a cardboard box.  Plus, you can store them in adorable mason jars – there’s not much cuter than that.

Sage Cornmeal Soda Crackers
adapted from A Southerly Course by Martha Hall Foose
prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
yields: 180 crackers

  • 3 1/2 cups stone-ground white cornmeal
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
  • 3/4 cup expeller-pressed (non-hydrogenated) vegetable shortening
  • 2 cups whole milk
  1. Preheat oven to 375F
  2. Combine dry ingredients
  3. Cut shortening into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until it resembles course meal
  4. Make a well in the center and add the milk
  5. Stir to combine and knead to form a stiff dough.  If it’s too wet, add some more flour or cornmeal
  6. Turn dough out onto a well floured surface and roll to a 1/8-inch thickness
  7. Use a pizza cutter or knife to cut into one-inch squares.  Prick with a fork and sprinkle with sea salt
  8. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.
  9. Allow to cool before serving.

They were crisp and light, if a little dry.  As I recall, though, that’s a feature of soda crackers.  The cornmeal gave them some texture, and the sage was subtle but still noticeable.  They paired very nicely with a sweet potato bisque that I served for dinner.  I think they would also be good smeared with goat cheese and topped with tomato jam.  I was pleasantly surprised when the recipe yielded almost 180 crackers – Ms. Foose’s version says it only makes 60.  Not sure why the discrepancy, but I’m certainly not complaining.  We’ll have soda crackers for days.

>Staff of Life

>

I posted a status updated on Facebook the other day that read “I will never tire of the smell of fresh-baked bread. Never.”
There is just something about it that fills up your senses (like a night in the forest – name that song).  It envelopes you with its heady aroma, embracing you in a warm cloud of comfort. 
It smells good, is what I’m saying.  And, it’s good for you. 
There has to be a reason that grains have been central to civilized society for millennia.  Whole civilizations have been built on the fuel of grains.  Traces of grains have been found on 30,000-year-old Paleolithic-era grinding stones, indicating that even the earliest hunter-gatherers were supplementing their diets with grains.  One of the things that I learned in the Bread 101 class that Troye teaches is that fully viable grains of kamut were found in Egyptian tombs dating back 4000 years.  Grains store well.  Those little seed pods are perfectly designed to hold and protect the energy and nutrients contained within.  It is only when their state is somehow altered that they begin to release the goodness that is enshrined beneath the hard exterior.

For thousands of years, grains were kept in their natural state, and only ground when needed.  In the earliest of days, this was done by hand, using two stones with the grains pounded and rubbed between them until a fine powder was attained.  As time went on, more sophisticated machinery was developed to make the process faster and easier.  More recently, for the convenience of the masses, grains have been ground in tremendous quantities, the highly perishable parts removed, and then bleached and bromated to increase shelf life.  The natural state of the grain has been so completely altered that none of the nourishing properties that sustained entire civilizations for centuries are present.  In fact, the flour that most people use today (along with many other super-refined ingredients) can probably be linked to the obesity epidemic that plagues our country.

 
This is a big reason why I’ve started baking all of our bread at home.  It might also have something to do with the fact that I’m a control freak and I like to know exactly what’s in the food I’m eating.  Maybe.

Anyway, I’ve gotten our sandwich bread to the point that it very closely resembles the store-bought bread that we used to buy on a regular basis in both texture and flavor (which has been paramount in getting my 5-year-old to eat it regularly).  It’s soft, but still retains its structural integrity when sliced. 

So far it’s been pretty fool-proof, so I thought I’d share it with you here.

Whole-Grain Sandwich Bread
Prep time: 20 minutes
Rise time: 2 hours
Bake time: 20-25 minutes
Yields: 2 loaves

Ingredients
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon raw honey
1 tablespoon active dry yeast

2 cups warm water
1/4 cup honey or honey granules
1 1/2 teaspoons unrefined sea salt
4 tablespoons softened butter
6-7 cups freshly ground flour
1/3 cup flax-seed meal
1/2 cup whole toasted pumpkin seeds (optional)

Begin by stirring together the first three ingredients and letting them sit for five minutes.  You can let them sit longer, but then they’ll look like this:

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 2 cups water, 1/4 cup honey, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 4 tablespoons butter.

To this, add three cups flour.

Turn it on and let it mix, just until the flour is incorporated.  Add the yeast mixture and scrape down the sides.

It will be very wet.  Turn the mixer on low and add another cup of flour.

Allow that to become incorporated, then add the flax-seed meal.

Allow this to mix in, and add the pumpkin seeds (if you’re using them).  The mixture should begin to resemble dough at this point.  It will still be wet, though.

Add another cup of flour and allow it to become incorporated.  Keep adding flour as needed. You’re looking for the dough to clean the sides of the bowl.  In the next photo, it’s almost there, but not quite.  At this point, there is a total of 6 cups of flour in the bowl.

Add flour in half cup increments until the dough literally cleans the sides of the bowl.  In the photo below, I had added anther half-cup (for a total of 6 1/2 cups).  How much flour you add will depend somewhat on the type of flour you use (this is an equal mix of hard red wheat, hard white wheat, and kamut) and the humidity (if  it’s raining, you might need to add a little more flour).

Pardon the mess on my counters.  Here is a photo of it cleaning the bowl.  Once this is achieved, let the mixer run for 10-12 minutes to knead the dough.  At the end of that time, the dough should be somewhat sticky, but elastic.

Cover the bowl with a damp towel and set it in a warm place in your kitchen (I stick mine in the oven with the light on) for one hour, or until dough doubles in bulk.

It will happen, I promise.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and divide it in half.

Grease two loaf pans and form the dough into two log-shapes.  It doesn’t have to be perfect – as it rises, it will take the shape of the pan.

Cover these and stick them in the oven with the light on to rise for another hour.

Once they look like this, take them out and preheat the oven to 350.

Bake them for 20-25 minutes.  Halfway through, you may want to tent the tops with aluminum foil to avoid them getting too brown.

Let them cool in the pans for 10-15 minutes, then on a rack until completely cool.  They will keep in the fridge, or you can freeze them until you’re ready to use them.

Enjoy!

>Love

>

Heartwarming and heart-healthy blueberry cutout cookies
Obviously, Valentine’s Day is on Monday, so this is a topic that a lot of people are thinking and talking about.
Love.
For a long time, I didn’t really know what love was.  I mean, I thought I did – I thought when I found love, it would be exciting and romantic and bold.  It would be sweep-me-off-my-feet love.  I would see fireworks.
What I didn’t expect was that love would be quiet and unassuming.

When I met my husband, I was living in northern Virginia.  I had moved there with my fiance.  Yes, I was engaged at the time.  Engaged to a man, let’s call him M, that I had jumped into a relationship with immediately after ending another four-year relationship with someone else.  
Stable is what I was.  And using good judgement.
But, I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.  Had I not gotten engaged, quit graduate school and moved to Virginia when I did, I would never have met the love of my life.
I had been engaged for about a year.  We moved because M got accepted to Law School in DC.  We rented an apartment that was about an hour outside the city, and I took a position as an Assistant Manager at a chain bookstore.  He spent most of his time in the city, since the commute was so long.  We rarely saw each other, and spoke even less.  
I was depressed, and I knew in my heart that the relationship was over long before I ended it.  If you’ve ever been engaged and known it was the wrong decision, you know how embarrassing that can be.  You hate to admit to yourself and your friends and family that you were mistaken.  That you might have rushed into things.  That you might have been slightly desperate to feel wanted again. That you were weak.
So, there I was – working long retail hours and spending most of my time hanging out with other retail rats.  We would go out after work to a local bar and drink and listen to music and then I’d go home, get a few hours of sleep and wake up to do it all over again.  D (my now husband) started working as the receiving manager at the same store, and we struck up a friendship.  We mostly hung out in groups after work, and would often find ourselves talking about anything and everything.  He was a good listener, and I could talk to him about my relationship with M without feeling judged.  I could tell him how sad I was, how lonely, and he had an uncanny ability to make me feel better about myself and my situation.  He gave me courage.
I finally got up the nerve to end my relationship with M on New Year’s Eve, 2000.  We hadn’t even planned to spend the evening together – he was going to a party with his law school friends, and I was going to hang out with some of my friends from the store.  It was the right thing to do.  He acted surprised, but I don’t think he really was.  He went on to his party, and my New Year’s kiss was a peck on the cheek from my friend Sharron.
Valentine marshmallows
The very next day, I had my first date with D.  We went after work to a restaurant where he knew the bartender, and we sat and talked until they closed.  Afterward, we stood in the parking lot and talked for another hour or so.  
And then we kissed for the first time. 
I had never felt anything like it.  There were no fireworks.  Just a sense of calm and comfort.  From the top of my head to the tip of my toes, I was completely at peace.  I knew in that moment that this was the man I would spend the rest of my life with.  Nothing had ever felt so right.
From that moment on, we were inseparable.  We lived together for three years before we officially got married, but I think we were married in our hearts long before we made it legal.
Ours is not a perfect marriage, but whose is?  Even though we have our struggles, I love him more today than I did yesterday, and I know I will love him even more tomorrow.  To use an old cliche, he is my rock. 
When I’m sad, he lifts me up.  When I’m happy, he’s happy with me.  We complement each other perfectly.
When our first child was born, he jumped in with both feet.  He was a complete partner in the parenting process.  He was up with me in the middle of the night for feedings, and changed as many diapers as I did.  Watching our sweet firstborn sleep on his chest was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.  I loved him then.
The day we found out that our sweet baby had a congenital defect that required open-heart surgery, he held me and we cried together.  His arms gave me comfort and strength.  We supported each other through the shock and fear, and we came out on the other side resolved to meet this challenge head on. I loved him then.
When they wheeled our oldest into surgery, he cried harder than I did, and I loved him for that vulnerability.  I held him as his shoulders shook and his tears soaked the shoulder of my shirt.  And when the surgeon emerged nearly five hours later with news that everything had gone well, we both held hands and smiled with relief.  Those five days in the hospital were some of the most exhausting we’ve had, but we supported each other through the late-night ICU visits, through the early morning X-rays (which I couldn’t be a part of, since I was 5 months pregnant with our second child), and through the chest-tube removal (which he chose to miss because he’s slightly squeamish, but that’s okay).  I loved him then.
When our second child was born, and I went through a bout of baby blues, he was there.  He held me while I cried, and he told me it was going to get better.  He spent extra time with our oldest because I was so fully immersed in caring for the baby.  When I felt like a failure because I couldn’t nurse, he held me while I cried (again) and told me it didn’t make me any less of a mother or a woman.  I loved him then.
When I say things like, “I think I want to roast a whole pig this weekend“, he doesn’t bat an eyelash.  When I came home last weekend from a bread baking class with Troye and said, “I think we need to start grinding our own wheat”, he said “OK”.  When I told him I wanted to quit my job because I feel compelled to do something else, something more fulfilling (even though I may not yet know what that something is), he agreed.  He loves me.
When I watch him caring for our children in his gentle and loving way, I love him.  When he reads with our oldest and patiently waits as he sounds out the words on his own, I love him.  When he notices our youngest has a dirty diaper and picks him up without a second thought to change it, I love him.  
When he looks at me and smiles, I love him.
I can’t imagine my life without him.  Ours is not an exciting love story, but it is a true love story.  I know with every fiber of my being that we are meant to be together. 
I love him.  And he loves me.  And that’s all that matters in the end.
So how about you?  Is your love story full of fireworks?  Were you completely swept off your feet?  Did you know from the moment you met?  Or was your love more of the quiet, unassuming variety?  Let’s celebrate true love this Valentine’s Day.
For a printable version of the blueberry heart cut-out cookies, click here.
For a printable version of the Valentine marshmallows, click here.

>Black Bean Sliders

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Even though I haven’t been as disciplined about this 28-day challenge as I’d like to be (I mean, we just had cheese grits with dinner tonight), I have managed to break out of my comfort zone in many areas, and I’ve convinced my husband to do the same in many instances.
Take Sunday night, for example.  The Super Bowl.  One of the biggest junk food events we have in America.  
I wanted to make something fun and flavorful for us to munch on while we watched the commercials, (oh, is there a sporting event that was also happening between the commercials?  I’m not really sure) but I also wanted it to be healthy.  I considered a vegetarian chili, but I wasn’t really in the mood for chili.  I thought about turkey burgers, but we’d just had turkey a couple of days ago in pasta.  
I decided instead to do black bean sliders, adapting this recipe I found on the Whole Foods website.  I wanted mine to have a little bit of a southwest flavor, so I added some cumin and diced tomatoes with chillies to the mix.  I also sauteed some onions and red bell pepper to top them and mashed some avocado with lemon juice and pinch of salt to spread on the homemade whole-wheat

buns.  What resulted was a delicious, hearty “burger” that was full of flavor.  My husband and youngest son loved them.  The five-year-old ate his, but only after much consternation and complaining.  He’s just funny about beans (my husband has even tried to convince him that beans, beans they’re good for the heart…..).  I’ve eaten them as leftovers for two days now, and still haven’t gotten tired of them.  I definitely recommend this recipe, even if you like a good beef burger.  These are a really nice alternative.

Black Bean Sliders
prep time: 2-4 hours (for soaking beans)
cook time: 45 minutes – 1 hour (for cooking beans and burgers)
yield: 12 slider-sized patties, or 6 burger-sized patties
Ingredients
1 cup dried black beans, soaked for at least 2 hours
1/2 cup dried lentils, soaked for at least 2 hours
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup quinoa
1 egg
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup canned diced tomatoes and green chillies, drained
  1. Begin by placing black beans, lentils and diced onion in a large pot and covering with water by one inch.  Cook over medium heat until beans are cooked through.  Add the quinoa and cook another 15 minutes, or until quinoa is done.  Drain the mixture in a collander.  Allow to cool.
  2. Place cooled bean mixture in a bowl and mash with the back of a fork until most of the black beans and lentils have been mashed.
  3. Add the cumin, garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Add the beaten egg, and stir thoroughly to combine (use your hands if you have to).
  5. At this point, you can make patties and cook as is.  I did a few without the tomatoes and chillies for the kids, and then a few with.  Just stir the tomatoes and chillies through to combine.
  6. Form small patties – just big enough to cover the palm of your hand.
  7. Heat an iron skillet over medium heat and spray with cooking spray.
  8. Cook the patties on the first side until brown (about five minutes), then flip over and cook on the second side until brown.
  9. Serve on whole-wheat buns with guacamole, sauteed fajita vegetables, cheese, sour cream salsa, or whatever toppings you like.
  10. Enjoy!
For a printable version of this recipe, click here

>Free Market vs. Free Will

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Image obtained from Time.com


In this day and age, we look at this advertisement and scoff.  
It’s shocking, certainly, but we’re so far removed from it that it doesn’t really register as more than an amusing historical anecdote. 
Imagine advertisers using doctors to sell cigarettes today.  They’d be tarred and feathered.  They’d be brought up on charges.  They’d certainly be fined by the FTC.  And, hopefully, we as consumers would know better than to be taken in by their claims.  Because we do know better.  We’re informed.
The question I’ve been mulling over for a while now is whether this type of advertising is really any different from the myriad ads with which we’re currently inundated, touting the “healthful” and “wholesome” benefits of certain processed convenience foods.  
Foods like Cherry Pop-Tarts® that claim to be “baked with real fruit” but in reality contain 2% or less of dried cherries and dried apples (and that comes below the “enriched” flour, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose (another name for glucose), and sugar).  Or foods like “Whole Grain” Hamburger Helper® that contain 300 calories, 13 grams of fat and nearly 700 mg of sodium per 1-cup serving. Yes, I said ONE cup serving.  For real.

The advent of many of the convenience foods we know today came about in the wake of World War II, when men were off fighting overseas, and women, who normally would be at home keeping house and cooking meals, took to working in factories to assist in the war efforts.  There was a demand for quick, easy foods that women could quickly get on the table after a long day at work.  Frozen dinners and canned  fruits and vegetables (which could also serve as staples in your handy bomb shelter) became the norm.  Margarine became an acceptable substitute for butter because of rations.


But when the war was over, the companies who were making these items just kept on.  And advertisers figured out that they could convince people that they needed these products.  And so the vicious cycle was born.

And here we are today – in a country where more than half of our population is overweight and more than 30% of adults are obese.

Which brings me to free will.  My husband got into a discussion with a friend on facebook the other day that began with a comment about a cable news station and eventually turned to the subject of rising food costs and the inability of poor people to afford or source quality food in urban settings.  All of this got me thinking.

First, I know plenty of people with plenty of money who consciously choose to purchase low-nutrient convenience foods over fresh, nutrient dense foods.  Whether it’s because they’ve been convinced by advertisers that this is the best way, or because they just don’t care, I’m not sure.  I just know that it happens.  I often think that there are just as many undernourished middle- to upper-middle-class children as there are lower-class children simply for that reason.

Second, I wonder if people were taught how to advocate for themselves, would they be willing to do so ?  I know it is difficult for the poor in America – they don’t have access to good education, they don’t have access to quality food, they don’t have access to reliable transportation which makes it hard to find and keep a job, and the list goes on.   And because of that lack of access, the argument is that they need someone to come in and take care of them, to do for them, to provide for them.  Which, in my opinion, makes it appear that  people are incapable of doing these things for themselves. And by inferring that someone is incapable, aren’t you automatically discounting their ability and intelligence?

Being the cock-eyed optimist that I am, I believe we are all intelligent beings, and we all have the same ability to gain knowledge.  It comes down to the availability of said knowledge and a willingness to learn.  There was an article in Newsweek a while back called What Food Says About Class in America, and it spent a lot of time outlining the disparity between the foods consumed by those on the upper end of the income spectrum vs. foods consumed by those on the lower end.  Organic, local, seasonal, nutrient-dense foods for the “rich” Americans and calorie-laden high-fat processed junk- and fast-food for the poor.  And granted, that is true to some extent.

But I don’t believe that it has to be.

The article ends on an uplifting note, featuring a man who receives $75 in food stamps per week for his mother and himself.  They are both diabetic, and he understands that they both need healthy regular meals in order to regulate their conditions.  He is quoted as saying, “To get good food, you really got to sacrifice a lot. It’s expensive. But I take that sacrifice, because it’s worth it.”  He goes to farmer’s markets and spends time sorting through the limited produce at his local grocery to find the best of what they have.  He is an example of someone making the best of his situation.  He does it because he knows he has to.  He’s informed, and he understands that in order to survive (literally, because of his health) he has to eat healthfully.

Just like we now know that the cigarette ad at the beginning of this post is ridiculous, we should also know that most of the claims made by advertisers about processed foods are also pretty much lies.  You’re not going to be happier or healthier if you purchase them.  And those of us who understand this should make an effort to share that knowledge with people who may not have access to the same sources that we do.  I’m all for free markets, and I believe that companies and advertisers have every right (within reason) to sell their products.  I also believe that consumers have a choice, and if we demand better quality food then producers will have to provide it.  The laws of supply and demand still apply, and we don’t have to let the big food conglomerates continue to dictate that supply.  If we stop buying it, they will have to stop producing it.  It’s that simple.

This is a PSA/commercial that Beyonce did in conjunction with General Mills and Hamburger Helper® encouraging people to donate to food pantries.  Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think people need to donate to food pantries – absolutely. And I applaud Beyonce for trying to make a difference.  I just wonder why celebrities aren’t teaming up with local growers  (and even backyard gardeners) to encourage people to donate fruits and vegetables and whole-grain products.  Why do we give the worst quality foods to the people who need the most encouragement to eat well and feed their children well?

Why aren’t more celebrities partnering with organizations like Share our Strength?  Why aren’t more people  in general signing up to volunteer to teach people how to cook healthfully through programs like Cooking Matters?

With knowledge comes power, and the power lies in our hands.  We just have to choose to use it.  We have to choose not to be influenced by crafty advertisers whose sole purpose is to get us to spend money on products we don’t need.  And we need to figure out a way to help others do the same. 

If you read this whole post, thank you.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments. 

I’ll leave you with one final image:

This was my attempt at a home-made version of Hamburger Helper®.  It uses fresh whole-wheat pasta, homemade cheese, fresh tomatoes, and white-meat ground turkey.  My husband, who is an admitted fan of Hamburger Helper® and hates that I won’t let him buy it, loved it.  So did my kids.  It contains 213 calories, 6 grams of fat, 4 grams of fiber and 432 mg of sodium per serving.  It took me an hour, start to finish, to prepare everything.

And my oldest got to help me roll out the pasta – which he thought was super fun (he called it “driving” the pasta machine).  You can’t do that with a box of Hamburger Helper®.

If you’d like a printable version of this recipe, click here.

>Tahini Miso Pollock with Lentils

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As part of their Health Starts Here program, Harry’s Farmer’s Market (which is actually a Whole Foods Market, they just never changed the name after WFM acquired the store many years ago) is offering weekly classes to the participants of the Eat Right America and Engine 2 28-day challenges.  Every Monday, we meet in a different area of the store to discuss our progress and learn a little something about what Whole Foods has to offer in the way of foods that are appropriate for our new dietary lifestyle.  
It’s interesting, because all of the participants are at different stages in our experience with some of the foods that are being discussed.  There are some people who had never tried kale before they started this plan, and there are those of us to whom very few of the foods are new, we’re just trying to cut back on the amount of animal protein (in my case, mainly cheese and butter) that we consume.  
What’s particularly nice about these classes is that they feed us.  The first week we got to sample small amounts of soup, some prepared dips (hummus and guacamole) and a smoothie.  The second week, they gave us all a $10 gift card so that we could try some items from the prepared foods bar.  And this week, they did a cooking demonstration to showcase some healthier cooking techniques.  The Harry’s team members prepared a very filling meal of baked pollock with a tahini miso dressing, some steamed kale, a mixed green salad with balsamic dressing and topped with a variety of dried fruits and seeds, and a wonderful kale and avocado salad.

It was all good, but I was particularly struck by the pollock.  It was a fish I was unfamiliar with until last night, although I’ve since read that even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably eaten it.  It is often used in fish-sticks, makes great fish and chips, and can be substituted for cod or haddock in most recipes.  I enjoyed the preparation so much, I decided I wanted to make it for dinner the next night.  I guess Harry’s (and Whole Foods) knows what they’re doing, because I had to wait in line behind two or three other class members as they also purchased pieces of the wild-caught fish that was, coincidentally(!), on sale. 
Luckily, I had all of the ingredients for the dressing at home in the pantry and the fridge.  All I had to purchase in addition to the fish was a bunch of fresh parsley and a couple of lemons.  If you like fish, I recommend this recipe.  It’s super simple and super flavorful, and you could easily substitute another light white fish for the pollock (you know, if it doesn’t happen to be on sale this week).  I bet this dressing would even be good on salmon or another heavier fish.
I wound up with about 1.25 lbs. of fish, which translates to about five servings.  I realized after I’d left the store that I had written down the recipe for the dressing, but I had neglected to find out how many servings the recipe yielded.  I wound up putting all of the dressing on the fish, and it seemed to be an appropriate amount for the piece I’d purchased.
Tahini Miso Pollock
prep time: 5 minutes
cook time: 10-15 minutes
yield: 5 servings
Ingredients
1.25 lbs. of wild-caught pollock (or cod, haddock, tilapia, sole)
1/4 cup water
1 Tablespoon miso
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup tahini
1 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  1. Preheat your oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil (if using foil, spray it lightly with cooking spray).
  2. Rinse the fish and pat it dry.  Place it on the baking sheet.
  3. Combine the water and miso.  Whisk to dissolve the miso in the water.
  4. Add the garlic, tahini, parsley, orange zest and lemon juice.  Stir to combine.
  5. Pour the dressing over the fish, covering it well.
  6. Bake at 350F for 10-15 minutes (depending on the thickness of the piece of fish).

I served mine on a bed of lentils that I simply boiled in water and drained, then tossed with the juice of two lemons and a cup of chopped parsley.

Some notes:  I used red miso, and I think that the demonstration was done using white miso (which is milder).  Also, I wanted to use orange zest, but my husband ate the orange I had intended to use for lunch, so I used a tiny bit of orange extract instead.  It wasn’t the same, but it was alright.  The fish was very tender and flaky, and my husband went back for seconds and then thirds he liked it so much.  The lentils were great – definitely try this simple preparation. 

Enjoy!