6/22/14

Easy Yummy Nut Cookies and Biscotti - A Theme and Variations

My friend Diane gave me a simple recipe for a Peanut Butter Cookie she had made for a gathering of friends. "Only 4 ingredients," she noted, and it makes for a delicious, easy dessert. After tasting one, I got her recipe. If you ever need a baking project with children, I'd recommend these cookies… fun and yummy! The original cookie recipe is at the top of this post, followed by recipes based on the original which I've created. The biscotti variation is my claim to fame, however - Rick judged them the best biscotti I've ever made (and I've made many)! These are all gluten-free too. (NOTE: Ingredients in red type are detailed on my "ingredients" page.)


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Peanut n’ Honey Cookies (makes a dozen 2-1/2" cookies or 20 small cookies)
- original recipe from: 7 Secrets Cookbook by Neva and Jim Brackett, called Peanut Butter N Honey Cookies

2 cups dry roasted peanuts (lightly salted; if not salted add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt) *
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats (or one cup of flour)
1/2 cup honey (warmed in microwave - this is a critical step; it needs to pour like water and if too little the mix will be dry and if too much the cookies will be tough.)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place peanuts and oats in food processor and whiz for 1 minute until they are the texture of fine bread crumbs. Pour into bowl and add salt if using. Mix in honey and vanilla. Stir together and then mix with your hands. Dough should hold together nicely. If dry and crumbly add a bit of water; if too wet add a bit of flour (gluten-free flour, if GF is a concern for you).

Make walnut size balls and flatten on parchment-lined cookie sheet, then use fork to press down (use a cup of water to dip the fork into). The cookies don't spread while cooking, so they can be fairly close on the cookie sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes. Putting them on the top rack of the oven helps keep the bottoms from browning too fast. Watch them and remove from oven when they are just beginning to brown on the edges. You can take them out before they look like they are done. They over-brown quickly. Cool on a wire rack.


* Check the ingredients on your purchase of roasted peanuts. I assumed the ingredients would be just peanuts, salt, and perhaps some oil… but then I detected a sweet taste. Not only did the jar I had used include sugar AND corn syrup, but it even had added monosodium glutamate. Yuck! My next trip to the store revealed there is such a thing as a jar of roasted peanuts which only includes peanuts, so that's the one I stick with now.

 JUDY'S VARIATIONS:
1) Mix chocolate or carob morsels or broken pieces of hazelnut candy into the batter before baking and flatten the ball of dough with your hand, not a fork. Bake.
2) Make Thumbprint Peanut Butter and Jelly cookies: Instead of flattening and pressing the raw dough with a fork, press your thumb into the unbaked round dough ball, just enough to make a well while flattening the ball (not so deep that you go to the cookie sheet). Bake cookies as directed above for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and fill the well with 1/2 to 1 tsp of your favorite jam. Return to the oven to finish baking.
3) Add chopped dried banana chips to the dough before baking
4) Flatten unbaked dough ball with your palm before baking, then press a chocolate candy kiss onto each cookie as soon as you remove them from the oven
Be creative and make your own version!

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Judy's Almond Gingersnap Cookies (makes a dozen 2-1/2" cookies or 20 small cookies)

2 cups raw or unsalted roasted almonds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats (or one cup of flour)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 c molasses or sorghum syrup
1 teaspoon ground ginger root
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
optional: 1 tablespoon dried fine orange peel; 1/2 cup currants, raisins, or chopped dried plums

Place nuts and oats in food processor and whiz for 1 minute until they are the texture of fine bread crumbs. Pour into bowl and add salt and spices. Mix the maple syrup and molasses and warm them in a microwave - this is a critical step; it needs to pour like water and if too little the mix will be dry and if too much the cookies will be tough. Mix maple syrup, molasses, and vanilla into the dry ingredients. Stir together and then mix with your hands. Dough should hold together nicely. If dry and crumbly add a bit of water; if too wet add a bit of flour.

Make walnut size balls and flatten on parchment-lined cookie sheet, then press down to flatten the ball slightly. The cookies don't spread while cooking, so they can be fairly close on the cookie sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes. Putting them on the top rack of the oven helps keep the bottoms from browning too fast. Watch them and remove from oven when they are just beginning to brown on the edges. You can take them out before they look like they are done. They over-brown quickly. Cool on a wire rack.

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Judy's Peanut Butter and Jelly Biscotti

2 cups dry roasted peanuts* (lightly salted; if not salted add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt)
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup honey (warmed in microwave- this is a critical step; it needs to pour like water and if too little the mix will be dry and if too much the cookies will be tough.)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup jam (I used St. Dalfour's Red Raspberry, which is sweetened with grape juice, not refined sugar)

Place peanuts and flour or oats in food processor and whiz for 1 minute until crumbly. Pour into bowl and add salt if using. Mix in honey and vanilla. Stir together and then mix with your hands. Dough should hold together nicely. If dry and crumbly add a bit of water; if too wet add a bit of flour.

Separate the dough in 2 pieces. Working on a piece of parchment or waxed paper, shape one piece into a log about 2-3" in diameter, then flatten it to about 1/4" thick. Spread the jam to within 1/4" of the edges. Roll from the long side, making a log again. Repeat with the other half of the dough.

Move each log to the parchment covered baking sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Cut the logs on a diagonal into 1/2 inch thick slices. Return slices to the baking sheet, on their sides, and bake again for 10-15 minutes or until desired crispness. They over-brown quickly so watch them for doneness. Cool completely on a rack.

6/4/14

Life is but a bowl of cherries!

Not to be outdone by my strawberry harvest, my lone sour cherry tree is heavy with ripe fruit. The photo is this morning's harvest (minus those I ate while picking) and I've picked that much previously. The tree is a montmorency tart cherry. It's the only one of 4 cherry trees we tried to grow which survived. This one was planted about 8 years ago, and it's the only dwarf fruit tree which stayed short for us… the apples, pears, and peaches all grew 20+ feet. Without ever doing any drastic pruning, the cherry tree stands about six feet tall. At that height, it's very easy for me to trim, spray, check, and pick! I've read that sour cherries are easier for home orchards than sweet cherries, and my little tree has had no serious pests or diseases.

Montmorency is the most popular sour cherry variety for pies and preserves. I hand pit the cherries, which produce so much juice it looks like a scene from the opening credits of "Dexter!" If someone has a good cherry pitting tool, please let me know - I expect my harvest will grow in future years, so it will be worth investing in one. Once pitted, I either freeze the cherries in zipper pint bags, or use them fresh on granola or in smoothies. For a little sweetness, I use a combo of my own stevia extract (made from organic stevia leaves I grow) with a touch of maple syrup… wonderful mixed into Greek yogurt, our used in a pie. Cherries are high in nutrients and particularly good for sufferers of gout.

I've read recently about a cherry shrub called Nanking cherry, which I'm tempted to buy and plant. I've only found them online, not at any nurseries. If you are interested in sharing an order with me, just let me know!

5/29/14

Strawberries and Garlic

Don't worry, this isn't a post with a recipe using those two ingredients. It's a gardening update!

This has been a great year for growing strawberries in my edible front yard garden. The bounty I picked this morning is shown in the photo. Do you grow strawberries? If not, you should. They grow from Florida (February harvest time) to New Hampshire (July harvests) as perennials. Here in Tennessee, the month of May is my banner season for these juicy sweet berries.

My second favorite berry to grow, strawberries take just a bit more care than my favorite, blueberries. I find the biggest challenge is to keep the beds from getting too crowded with all the "baby" plants which the mature strawberry plants send out to root. When the weather is not too rainy, as has been the case here recently, the berries ripen without getting moldy or soft or dirty.

Here are ten of the many reasons I love growing my own strawberries:
  1. freshly picked strawberries have much more flavor than store-bought
  2. when you grow your own, you can wait to harvest them when they are fully ripened on the plants; those you buy are usually harvest a bit early, before the full flavor develops
  3. they are great to eat plain, added to fruit or veggie salads, topped with Greek yogurt, chopped and added to breakfast granola, chopped and used over a pie crust with a cream filling OR on shortcakes and topped with whipped cream (I did a variation on brownies last week), baked into quick bread, muffins, or pie.
  4. strawberries freeze well (wash, dry, and remove the stem end), either whole or sliced
  5. frozen or fresh strawberries are delicious in smoothies
  6. harvesting is spread over several weeks, so it's not overwhelming
  7. new baby plants are constantly produced, so you can start new beds, and - after a few years - replace the mature plants… free!
  8. non-organic commercially grown strawberries are highly likely to have pesticide residue (strawberries are the most chemically intensive crop grown in California) 
  9. in my garden, organically grown strawberry plants are not prone to diseases or insect infestations
  10. nutritionally, strawberries have high levels of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins
There's nothing quite like biting into a just-picked bright red strawberry still warm from the sun! By the way, if you live near me or will be visiting and you want to start your own strawberry patch, please let me know and I'll share my plants with you - that's the fun of gardening! Plant some between now and fall, and you can start harvesting some next spring.

And from the garlic patch….

My fall planting of garlic cloves has resulted in a patch of greenery. Plants of the hardneck varieties are sending up the tall, curled garlic "scape." Gourmet cooks cut off this top stem when it first begins to grow and is most tender, adding it to stir-fries and other dishes for garlic flavor with a unique decorative touch. Some garlic growers cut the scape off, so the plant will put its energy into the root. I love to cut them and use 3 or 5 in a flower arrangement, adding an unusual accent. Others use the scape as a ripeness indicator - when it unfurls and stands up straight, the garlic is said to be ready to harvest. Left on the plant, the scape will mature to form small garlic bulbs. These can be dried and planted, but will take more than a year to grow into a whole clove. My garlic is generally ready to harvest in June-July. Good thing, because I am nearly out of all the garlic I dried, froze, and otherwise preserved from last year's harvest. Garlic is even easier to grow than strawberries, so find a garden patch and plan to plant garlic this fall.

By the way, sorry for my lack of posts recently on this blog. My "day job" (commercial artist/designer) has been keeping me so busy, along with my many other interests and pursuits. I hardly have time to garden or cook, not to mention writing about it!

4/16/14

No Garden This Year

I've witnessed some expressions of shock when I tell friends I am not planting a vegetable garden this year! The key word here is "vegetable" - I have plenty of gardens outside of the 20' x 40' plot we've dedicated to annual veggies for several years. In fact, I've been working for the last 3 months cleaning up winter leaves and old growth from my "other" gardens! (One reason why I haven't posted here in so long.)

The vegetable garden is not being planted because it is being renourished this year. Since I've been doing year-round gardening for several years, we suspected its nutrients had been depleted and got a soil test done by the cooperative extension service. My 2013 veggie garden was disappointing (for many reasons, but weak soil is likely one). If you are a recent follower to this blog, you can look at the 2011 archives - during that year I posted my vegetable garden activity month-by-month for all 12 months. With stuff planted all the time, it's a challenge to find time for a good work-over. That's why we made the tough decision to keep the vegetable garden empty for a while.
Mushroom compost delivery

So we dumped a 10 ton load of compost from the local mushroom factory on the vegetable garden in December, spreading the mulch to cover the garden area, and then rota-tilled it in. Then I spread buckets of chicken manure, from my friend Susan's gorgeous egg-layers… a great source of nitrogen. Both the mushroom compost and chicken manure are too "hot" and strong until they have time to compost into the existing soil.

Some of Susan's lovely hens who contributed manure!
The next layer was dried leaves from the huge variety of hardwoods I raked off my other gardens, which will compost and decay, adding more nutrients. Once the weather warms up, we'll do a "soil solarization," covering the garden with clear plastic for 30+ days to help kill off blight and other soil-borne pathogens. I am also planning to add some worms and do some "green" manure planting… a crop which will add nitrogen and good stuff back into the soil, instead of depleting its nutrients. Hopefully, this will all result in a great vegetable garden next year.

Meanwhile, my cold frame has produced oodles of kale, lettuce, spinach and parsley through the cold season. Onions and garlic planted in the fall are green and healthy. The wild chickweed was abundant this winter - a great addition to salads and smoothies. My other recent garden activities have included planting a new asparagus bed in my edible front yard, transplanting additional wildflowers to the trailside wildflower garden I started on our "Darla Trail" last year, cleaning/pruning/feeding and other tasks on the many many perennial flowers, herbs, berries, fruit trees, and other plants I have going strong. I love springtime and gardening gives me a great excuse to use some of my "free time" in the beautiful outdoors. Go plant something yourself!

The edible front yard is growing fabulously - strawberries and blueberries are now flowering!

2/24/14

Back-To-School - Gardening School, That Is!

If you live anywhere within travelling distance to Asheville NC and you have an interest in
  • organic gardening
  • homesteading
  • permaculture
  • healthy soil
  • sustainability
  • raising poultry/goats/swine/rabbits
  • beekeeping
  • herbs
  • livestock
  • alternative energy
  • orchards
  • perennials
  • and even cooking
...it's not too late!

Sign up now for the Organic Growers School's 21st Annual Spring Conference, March 8 & 9. Two days packed with terrific workshops, hands-on projects, usable information, and excellent instructors. And it's cheap: $45 on Sat, $40 on Sunday. There is also an intensive Poultry course for those who want to attend on Fri, for $45. Courses are offered for beginners, advanced, and even commercial growers.

In addition, there is a seed & plant swap, an ongoing trade show (seed companies, garden suppliers, nurseries) silent auction, hands-on half-day workshops, nutritious food served for lunch/snacks, and lots of networking opportunities with other attendees.

This sounds like an advertisement, but I speak from experience. I attended the conference last year and took workshops on edible wild plants, medicinal herbals, growing garlic, and other interesting topics. I learned great new recipes and tricks in a Gluten-Free baking class. I found the instructors to be knowledgeable and organized, and I got good information from every class I attended. 'Wish I could go again this year, but overnight trips with our puppy are not on the agenda right now!

The Organic Growers School is a very active organization in North Carolina. The conference is held at the University of NC at Asheville. Link for more info:

http://organicgrowersschool.org/annual-spring-conference/

2/13/14

Why is corn so sweet?

Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health is a must-read for anyone interested in eating more nutritiously. Author Jo Robinson has compiled 10 years of research and data from historical documents, scientific journals, nutritional studies, academia, and other referenced sources to present a simple guide to choosing the most nutritious vegetables and fruit as part of our everyday diet.

This book explains how the wild ancestors of today's common fruits and vegetables were far more healthful than our choices today. Natural selectivity and the intervention by hunter-gatherers, farmers, scientists, and big business agriculture have bred nutrients out, often in favor of other qualities. Aren't these supposed to be the most healthy parts of our diets? Modern varieties are less bitter, not so chewy, larger, or in other ways more appealing to the human palate. They ship better and farther, ripen more evenly, or grow to a uniform size, making commercial successes. But science can now measure micro nutrients and analysis shows that these selective interventions have also depleted essential phyto-nutrients (ie. nutritional value in plant substances) from today's popular and most widely grown and marketed fruits and veggies.

Still, there are so many types of fruits and vegetables and so many varieties within each type, that - armed with the knowledge from this book - we can still fill our plates with the most nutritious choices. With each chapter concentrating on one vegetable, Robinson shares info and tips such as:
  • how the vegetable or fruit evolved from its wild ancestor plants
  • how our mega food industry grows, harvests, ripens, stores and delivers produce
  • specific varieties which are the most nutritious and why
  • what parts of the veggie or fruit you should eat
  • how to select, buy, clean, and store the freshest choices
  • the shelf life of phytonutrients
  • good alternatives to some of the most "popular" vegetables and fruit
  • how to prepare, cut, cook and eat to maintain the most nutrients (some recipes included)

This book is a real eye-opener. Without even considering genetically modified foods (GMOs), Robinson's  accounts of how our crops have been and are currently being mutated, modified, hybridized, and treated are astonishing, and, in some cases, disturbing to me. Check these tidbits:

CORN: 95% of the sweet corn grown today traces back to two mutant strains, one of which occurred when scientists exposed corn seeds to intense radiation during atomic bomb tests in the Marshall Islands in 1946. A geneticist later discovered, rather by accident, that this resulted in an intense "sweetness" to the corn kernel, and crossed it with other corn varieties to create a viable plant.

GRAPES: Since the 1960s, Thompson grapes, the common seedless green grapes sold at supermarkets, have been grown with the spraying of a plant hormone called gibberellic acid, for the sole purpose of elongating the grape and making it 75% larger than normal. Our grapes are "gibbed."

ORANGES, TOMATOES, BANANAS & OTHERS:  Many of our fresh produce selections are picked long before ripening, subjected to gassing in warehouses to make their skins turn the color of ripeness, then sold to us as fresh picked. I've cringed when reading labels on oranges which also confess to "added color."

Read this book (I'm starting through it a second time, taking notes now) and you'll learn things like:
  • currants are a healthy alternative to raisins
  • red and pink grapefruit are sweeter and nutritionally better than white varieties
  • 2000 types of bananas are grown worldwide, but Cavendish is the only one commonly sold in the USA
  • more mangoes are eaten daily around the world than apples
  • why dried plums are the new prunes
  • broccoli needs to be eaten soon after harvest to preserve its cancer-fighting properties
  • canned blueberries are better for you than fresh ones
Sweet potatoes I grew in '13 (clockwise): All Purple, Beauregard, and O'Henry
 I just finished the book, and I've been changing my vegetable choices based upon what I've learned from Eating on the Wild Side. I selected the varieties to plant in my new asparagus bed based on Robinson's recommendations. I've tried and enjoyed a new recipe for Garlic Roasted Cabbage. I've developed a delicious black bean soup recipe, made in my pressure cooker, and a yummy recipe for Braised Red Cabbage (I'll share these soon). I'm adding Haas avocados to more dishes - when they are not too expensive! I tried and like dried plums and even chopped some fine to add to my granola, discovering a tasty and nutritious alternative to raisins in future recipes. I am giving more points to the "all purple" sweet potatoes I grew last season, even though they are a bit drier when cooked than the typical orange-fleshed varieties. I understand better why picking your own garden varieties and buying from local farmers markets is so advantageous over buying supermarket produce. Do I prefer eating a pink lady to a granny smith apple? Sure, but my future choices will definitely to be swayed by what I've just read.

Thanks to my "wildside" friend Cathy for recommending this book to me! Put it on your reading list soon, and start getting more health benefits from the fruits and vegetables you eat.

View a video interview with the author, Jo Robinson.

1/2/14

Resolution to Lose Weight?


Fresh fruit is naturally gluten free.
If you've made a New Year's resolution to lose weight, I have a suggestion to help you… just stop eating wheat for one month.

I personally know about 10 people who are "gluten-free," which means they have cut out all products made with wheat, barley, rye. Only one of these acquaintances suffers from the serious gluten-intolerant condition of celiac disease. The others, like me, discovered the beneficial side effects of eliminating wheat and other gluten products from our everyday meals, forever.

Funny thing… all of these 10 people are either at a normal weight or are thin - in these days where obesity is running rampant. This says something, doesn't it? Like me, most of these friends dropped pounds within two months of becoming gluten free, and have had no trouble maintaining the lower weight as a result of their altered diet. Maybe they were at a heathy normal weight already, since they tend to be nutrition-conscious people, but I am convinced their lifestyle diet is a factor also - it is for me.

I'm not one to impose my eating habits on others, but I like to help those who seek assistance. Learning about healthy foods is one of my passions, and I get pleasure out of sharing the knowledge too.

My gluten-free way of eating was especially helpful during the recent holiday season. I know how gluten foods make me feel (gassy, bloated and other negative side effects), and I just have to think about this to motivate myself to pass on the crackers and breads, skip the pasta dishes, and avoid the cakes, cookies, pies, and other desserts. Doing so certainly helps me eliminate loads of refined sugar from my diet too, since most desserts are based on wheat flour. It actually makes me sad to see so many overweight people filling their plates with such foods, since I know that their health is being undermined, and that they would be much healthier and happier with weight loss.

Believe me, you don't go hungry on a gluten-free diet. There are so many good naturally gluten-free foods! I happily used raw veggies and my homemade gluten-free crackers for holiday dips, and I made sure I offered fresh fruits on the dessert table to my holiday guests as an alternative to the tempting baked goodies. I make gluten-free breads and desserts, as well as pasta dishes - many of my favorite recipes are on this blog, particularly my posts over the last 18 months of being gluten-free. Click on "gluten free" or "gluten-free" in the label listing in the right column of this blog to see some of them.

So many times I hear people react to my gluten-free food choices by saying things like "Oh, I could never give up bread" or "I can't deprive myself of spaghetti" or "But you need complex carbs" or "That's too hard - what would I eat?" How about just trying it for one month? If you are like me, you will see and feel positive results in that short time. January is a great time to commit to going gluten-free.

After more than a year of eating gluten-free, I wrote a report about what I learned and how I felt, which links here. In addition, here are a few simple steps to help get started with gluten-free eating:
  • Educate yourself about how to avoid gluten, by knowing what to eat and what to avoid. Here's a pretty simple starter list of what you can and cannot eat.
  • Read ingredients labels on packages, avoiding wheat, barley, rye, and their flours
  • Discover grains you've never tried, like quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, wild rice, and others
  • Try gluten-free pasta, bread, and crackers (read some of my favorites here)
  • Cook with non-wheat flours (there are many options, including all-purpose flour mixes which are gluten-free, like my favorite Bob's Red Mill brand).
  • You might need to "special order" certain dishes in restaurants, like a chicken salad without the bread or substitute cole slaw for macaroni salad. Most restaurants are happy to help. You'll notice that restaurants are jumping on the Gluten-Free Bandwagon and starting to offer gluten-free options, so read the menus.
  • Don't hesitate to say "no thank-you" to foods people offer you, and they likely won't be offended.
All this considered, do your body a favor by trying to stick it out for one entire month. See if it makes a difference to you. If your side effects are positive, and if you convince yourself that you have the will power to make new food choices, perhaps you'll alter your lifestyle diet forever, as I have, knowing that occasional exceptions are ok too, so long as you are not totally gluten intolerant.

There are many easy-read books on the gluten-free lifestyle. Wheat Belly was the book which convinced me to give it a try. Gluten free info floods the internet, with recipe blogs and oodles of tips. Gluten-free and ancient grains are some of the top nutrition trends for 2014, so you'll be hearing more and more about them. The big food giants are fast to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, and supermarket gluten-free products are multiplying rapidly. Just beware of the entire list of ingredients, since some of these products might have many ingredients you shouldn't be over-eating, as is the case with most processed, pre-packaged foods (sugars, additives, preservatives, artificial ingredients).

Good luck and let me know how you do.

P.S. My New Year's resolution is to paint more this year!!  :-)

My friend Ken's inn, Riverside Bed & Breakfast, offers gourmet gluten-free breakfasts which never skimp on delighting the palate!