12/23/13

Crispy Grain Crackers

Have you ever thought about making your own crackers? It's not too difficult, and you can use your own healthy ingredients (unlike most of those you'll find on the grocery shelves).

Going gluten-free prompted me to try some cracker recipes, and this one is now a favorite of mine. I like to make the dough and freeze it until ready to bake. You can get creative by mixing in various herbs, spices, and other ingredients... invent your own signature crackers! This version calls for cooked brown rice and cooked quinoa, but I've also made the crackers with only brown rice, and they were equally yummy. Next time I might try making these with some black rice!

(Foods in red type are detailed on the "Ingredients" page of this blog.)

Cooked Grain Crackers

INGREDIENTS
  • 2 c cooked brown rice
  • 2 c cooked quinoa
  • 2/3 c raw sesame seeds
  • 1/2 c flax seeds, soaked in 1/2 c water for 20 minutes (do not drain)
  • 2 T tamari soy sauce
  • 1 t salt
  • 3 T olive oil
  • Optional Add-Ins: dried herbs, finely chopped sundried tomatoes, hot pepper powder, spices, cracked pepper, powdered horseradish, granulated fine onions or garlic, chia seeds, poppy seeds

INSTRUCTIONS
Mix all ingredients - and your choice of "add-in's" - in a food processor to make a dough (add water if too dry). At this point, you can form the dough into two flattened balls or logs and refrigerate or freeze to bake later. Thaw in the refrigerator before proceeding with the steps below.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Using half the dough at a time, lay a flattened dough disk on a piece of baling parchment which fits into a shallow baking pan (I use pizza pans). Top with another sheet of parchment or waxed paper, and roll very thin (1/8"). Peel back and remove the top sheet. Transfer the flattened dough, on the parchment, to the ungreased baking sheet. Use a pizza cutter or knife to cut into cracker size, but don't worry about separating the pieces.

Sprinkle with coarse salt, if desired. Bake 25-35 minutes at 350 degrees, until brown and crisp. The outer edges may brown faster, so you can remove those crackers and continue baking the rest.

Remove to a cooling rack when browned and crisp. If you don't eat these all right away, store overnight in a brown bag to retain crispness. Whenever I've serve them, I haven't had any leftover to worry about! Makes several dozen 2" crackers.

12/12/13

How to Select Garden Seeds

Early spring lettuce, planted from thinning the original seed bed
Seed catalogs are showing up in my mail these days, and it is really tempting to make a big purchase! Just as many of my quilting friends have more fabric than they will ever use, some of us gardeners get overzealous buying seeds. Before you fill out your garden seed order, there are many factors to consider. Here are a few for you to think about:
  • Do you want to start some plants from seed indoors, before it's warm enough to plant outside (like tomatoes, peppers, basil, etc.)? If yes, you'll need sunny, warm indoor spaces. You'll need to care for the seedlings, transplanting as they grow, watching for mold, fungus, insects, etc. You'll need to time when to start your plantings to your locale, vegetable by vegetable, and you'll need to "harden off" the plants before they go permanently into the garden soil.
  • Would you be better off buying small plants for those warm weather crops from a local nursery? Many vendors now carry heirloom varieties, even big stores like Lowes and Home Depot.
  • Are you going to grow organically, and is it important to you that the seeds are also organically produced?
  • Will your garden grow only annual plants, or a mix of annuals, reseeding biennials, perennials?
  • Do you want to plant a cold weather garden (with cool crops like lettuce, spinach, peas), followed by warm weather veggies after the early ones are harvested, and perhaps even a fall planting of cool crops again?
  • Do you want to plant some crops from seeds directly in the garden (beans, carrots)? Some vegetables do not take well to transplanting, so keep this in mind.
  • Are you concerned about planting heirlooms vs hybrids? Are you going to save seeds? (if so, you may need to limit the variety of certain vegetables that cross pollinate - read up on seed saving.)
  • Do you want a big harvest of one item all at once (good when canning or pickling) or do you want to stagger the harvest over the growing season?
  • Do you have room for veggies that need space to spread, like squash, melons, sweet potatoes?
  • Do you want to set up strong supports to grow plants vertically, as with trellises needed for pole beans, or would you prefer "bush" and/or dwarf varieties which grow more compactly and without supports? I grow bush beans and midget okra, with no lack of flavor compared with taller varieties.
  • Do you want to experiment with new veggies or stick with "tried and true" proven winners? I've tried a few different types of jalapenos, but the old standard is my favorite.
  • Do you have a place to store extra seeds, where it is dry and cool?
  • Do you have gardening friends, neighbors, local garden clubs, and/or farmers markets which sell or exchange seeds? These choices might be especially well suited for your area, and already ear-marked as favorites by others.
  • What gardening zone are you in, and what are the best plants for your location? Dry vs. humid, long hot summer vs. short growing season… all considerations for what veggies and what varieties you select to grow.
  • What type of soil is in your garden - clay, sandy, rocky? How does your garden area drain?
  • How much sun does your garden location get?
  • Do you want to stick to vegetables exclusively, or mix in herbs and/or flowers?
  • And, perhaps most important, how much time do you want to spend gardening: prepping the beds, planting, thinning, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, treating for pests and diseases, and preserving? It's quick and easy (and inexpensive) to buy and plant seeds, so it can be very tempting to over-plant. I've seen new gardeners get overwhelmed and frustrated because they can't keep up with the gardening chores after planting loads of seeds, often surrendering to weeds and or pest infestations without getting much harvest.
I grow lots of basil so I can freeze many bags of pesto.
Seminole squash proved resistant to squash bugs.
Have I confused you? My quick recommendation, particularly if this is the first year you are gardening in a certain location, is to start small and keep it simple. Put your energy into making sure your soil is healthy and nourished - get a soil test kit from your local extension office and get the best analysis they offer, then amend the soil as needed. Set up a compost bin and learn how to use it, along with compost tea.

Once that's done, decide what are your favorite veggies and which of those are easy to grow and taste better when homegrown. Also determine what you are going to do with each vegetable crop your harvest - eat everything fresh, OR preserve by canning or freezing or dehydrating or pickling...?

I try to look for varieties of seeds which are recommended and suitable for my area, particularly if I buy from a seed catalog which is selling seeds for a big range of gardening zones. I know my soil is primarily clay, so that might influence the variety or type of veggies I grow (like growing carrots, for example). I look for seeds with resistance to problems I know I have in my garden, like squash bugs or tomato blight. Seminole squash was described as being naturally resistant to squash bugs, and I grew it successful last year. Ask local gardeners who match your gardening style (organic? heirloom seeds? permaculture?) what varieties they like best and have the most success with.
Heirloom chioggia beets grow well, and are tasty and pretty!

Just for fun, I usually try a few new and different crops each gardening year. Last year I tried growing small patches of a few grains - buckwheat, sorghum, oats, and amaranth - with mixed success. Roselle hibiscus was an experiment last season, and it will surely have a place in my garden again next year. I grew two different varieties of beans, and really liked one called Vermont Red Cranberry. However, dried beans are so inexpensive, I probably won't grow them again. One year I tried growing garbanzo beans, but each pod had only one or two beans, so I never bothered with those again.

Have fun planning your garden and let me know your successes and failures!

11/13/13

Cubes of a Different Color


Fresh pureed blackberries, from the Vitamix to the trays
You might have heard of freezing homemade pesto in an ice cube tray; it allows you to thaw and use small portions at a time rather than defrosting a big block. I've expanded on this idea to freeze many of my fruit, vegetable, herb and berry harvests. Of course, I use a set of trays dedicated to freezing food vs. water. Once frozen, the individual cubes are popped out and stored in the freezer in zipper bags. This method combines small portion size, minimized freezer space, convenience for cooking from scratch, and preservation of great flavors.

Freezing my harvests into cubes has additionally proven to be the best way to preserve certain items for off-season use. Cilantro is wonderful fresh, but loses its flavor when dried. It grows best here in the winter months, so I don't have it growing to add fresh when tomatoes are ripening and I make fresh salsa. Freezing makes cilantro available when I want to use it in summertime, with its flavor as close to fresh as I've found (read below how I prepare it to freeze in cubes). Also, putting fresh harvested and cured garlic in a dark, cool place works for short term storing, but, for me, the heads eventually start to sprout or shrivel up. Freezing into cubes preserves it for me to use year-round.

Basically, any juicy produce can be chopped fine or pureed in a food processor and then frozen as cubes. If the food is not liquid enough, I add a small amount of oil or some other liquid which matches what I'm likely to put in a recipe with the pureed item. For example, I chop fresh cilantro and mix it with freshly squeezed lime juice to freeze into cubes, since I'm likely to use the cilantro in salsa or some other Mexi-inspired recipe which includes lime juice.

Jalapenos and olive oil cubes (note the gloves!)
My Vitamix, the super blender I use for smoothies and lots of other food prep, is my kitchen aide when preparing fresh raw berries for freezing into cubes. The Vitamix action is powerful enough to pulverize the the seeds of raspberries and strawberries and create a thick smooth puree, no seeds detectable. Frozen into cubes, these make a great addition to the smoothies when the fresh berries are not in season. For harvests which don't need to be so finely pulverized, I use my food processor to chop the ingredients.

Some of my favorite veggies, herbs and fruits to freeze into cubes include:
  • Basil with olive oil (no need to add parmesan cheese and pinenuts/sunflower seeds yet - just add them when you are ready to make and use the basil in a pesto sauce)
  • Peeled garlic pureed with olive oil
  • Chopped jalapeno with olive oil
  • Chopped cilantro with lime juice
  • Pureed #berries
  • Pureed fresh ginger root
  • Chopped lemon balm with lemon juice
  • Applesauce (one or two cubes are a nice portion for adding to a cup of plain yogurt)
  • Fresh juice and pulp from citrus fruits (when my Florida friends bring some from their trees :-)
I use minced #garlic very frequently, like for my Caesar Salad Dressing and for Scampi. I keep a small jar permanently in the 'fridge, popping a frozen garlic cube into the jar whenever it runs empty.

Let me know your ideas for freezing in #icecube trays!
Pureed garlic in oil on the left, chopped cilantro in lime juice on the right


10/28/13

Get Regular

This post is for mature audiences. However, even if you are a "millennial" (born between 1982 - 2002) you could benefit from this information, considering the sorry state of the average American diet.

At his most recent colonoscopy, my husband Rick was diagnosed with diverticulosis, a symptomless condition of the intestines which seems to be common in our aging baby boomer generation. The suggested lifestyle change for people with diverticulosis is to add more fiber to the diet. Untreated #diverticulosis can become the painful diverticulitis, so it is important to prevent the condition from worsening.

NOTE: The Harvard School of Public Health recommends that children and adults consume 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories of food they eat each day. For an adult male between the ages of 19 and 30 who eats about 2,800 calories per day, that means 38 grams of fiber per day; for an adult female of the same age who eats about 1800 calories per day, that means 25 grams.

Anyway, the list of recommended foods for increasing #fiber in our diets which the doctor handed us didn't vary much from what we already eat, so that was a dead end. And our daily green smoothies also provide high amounts of fruit and vegetable fiber. But the doctor also recommended supplementing with "Konsyl", a #psyllium (pronounced "silly-um") soluble fiber powder. I liked the fact that he had suggested a natural product with no added sugar or artificial ingredients; psyllium is derived from the seeds of a plant called plantago ovate. Following the doctor's advice, we bought powdered psyllium at our local drug store. Since then I have been using a psyllium grown organically which seems to be ground a little finer too.

The instructions on the powdered psyllium said to mix 1 teaspoon with water or juice, one to three times per day… but it's a bit tough to swallow! I started thinking about how to make this fiber supplement more palatable. I had made a couple of candy truffle recipes, and I figured the powdered psyllium could be incorporated with nut butter, sweetener, cinnamon, and other good tasting ingredients, similar to the truffles. So I've created a recipe for a raw fiber bar, easy to make, which tastes like a piece of candy… and is delivering the daily recommended amount of psyllium fiber. My measurements were based on making an easy-to-eat daily portion of the fiber supplement, equivalent to 1 tablespoon (= 3 teaspoons) per day.

JUDY'S FIBER BARS
(makes 28)
My preferences for ingredients in red type in my recipes are further explained on the "ingredients" page


1 c psyllium powder
1 cup almond flour (or very finely ground almonds)
2/3 c nut butter (peanut butter, almond butter, etc.)
2 T carob powder* OR unsweetened cocoa powder
2 T honey
2 T coconut oil **
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t vanilla extract

Mix all ingredients in a food processor until completely blended and crumbly. Remove mixture and pat into a ball. Cut the ball in half. On waxed paper, form each half into a rectangle, about 2" x 6" x 3/4" thick. Make one cut lengthwise, then evenly space 6 cuts across the rectangle - this will create 14 pieces for each half of the dough. No need to break them apart; just scoring them will make it easy to break one off once they are refrigerated. Eat one piece every day, remembering to drink lots of fluids. It sort of sticks to your inner mouth and teeth, so remembering to drink is not usually a problem!

Refrigerate one of the 14-slice bars, and slide the other into a zip back and freeze until ready to use. Taking one daily, you now have approximately a one-month supply. This bar will help make you more regular, and could decrease the likelihood that you will develop painful diverticulitis. The recipe is #gluten-free also.


* I use #carob powder, which has a chocolate taste and no caffeine, but, more importantly, it is a source of soluable fiber and reputed to improve digestion, with other nutritional benefits.

** Coconut oil is solid when refrigerated, so it helps make the bars firm. I like the health benefits of coconut oil also. Olive oil can be substituted.

10/17/13

Mother Nature's Timing


All these tiny seeds from one poppy!
If you've been saving seeds from your own plants, you might have encountered the terminology "cold stratification." This is a process which mimics what Mother Nature does in the wild to control the timing of new seedlings. It is a necessary "pretreatment" for certain seeds (but not for all seeds), which will not germinate otherwise.

Cold stratification subjects the seeds to cold and moist conditions for one to three months (varies with species), either outdoors in the natural environment, or in similar conditions you create indoors. Without this exposure, the seeds will not germinate, so this requirement dictates the timing of next season's growth.

Take wildflowers as an example. If my wild poppies flower in May, I will leave the spent flower on the plant to create seedpods which ripen in late June. The pods bend over and dump hundreds of tiny seeds on the ground. If these seeds were to germinate right away, new young poppy plants would start growing right away and flower again in a month or two. But Mother Nature didn't intend these wild poppies to be flowering again in late summer. To prevent the dropped seeds from germinating immediately, cold stratification is required before wild poppy seeds will germinate. So they must be exposed to winter weather, sitting dormant in the soil before they can germinate and begin to grow the following year. So if I gather those seeds in June, store them in my 60°F basement in an envelope until next spring, they most likely will not germinate when I plant them.

For this reason, I commonly sow my wildflower seeds between September and December, directly on the soil where I want them to grow. I'm not fussy about this, since they'd normally just drop off the plant, so the most I might do is to rake the soil to roughen it, then throw the seeds out of my hand. This is how I scatter my collected wildflower seeds - poppies, black-eyed susan, oxtail daisies, blanket flower, larkspur, columbine, Mexican hat and others. This gives me a great crop of little seedlings in late winter, and they are strong little plants by the time the spring temperatures warm up.

But if you want to harvest and store seeds which require cold stratification - many seed catalogs and other online sources can identify the plants which require this for germination - and plant them early in the next season, you can artificially simulate nature's cold stratification process. Here's how:

Wild Columbine

1) Clean the seeds so no other plant materials (leaves, pods, etc.) are mixed with them

2) Place cleaned seeds in a zip bag with a paper towel or sterile vermiculite or sand, slightly dampened moistened but not so wet that mold will form. A little powdered fungicide can be added.

3) Store the zip bag in the refrigerator, preferably in the veggie/fruit compartment (temperatures from 34 to 41°F are recommended). Do not put in the freezer. Length of time in the fridge varies; do you research online or mimic your winter conditions.

4) Check seeds regularly for fungus or mold or early germination

Read more about cold stratification and about saving heirloom seeds.

10/14/13

Grow a Zinger of a Plant

One of my favorite new plants in the garden this summer has been a flowering shrub called "Roselle Hibiscus." Did you ever hear of Red Zinger Tea? Part of this plant forms the main ingredient of the tea, and gives it the distinct red color. Roselle's reputed health benefits - lower blood pressure, weight loss, lower cholesterol, improved hair health, and more - are important, and it is high in anti-oxidant bioflavonoids. I'm a tea drinker and was intrigued to learn I could grow this unique and beautiful plant in my own garden.

The idea to grow my own Roselle came from a lecture I attended on herbs for boosting the immune system by herbalist Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange was my source for heirloom seeds for Thai Red Roselle Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa). This is a sub-tropical plant, native to India and Malaysia, so I suspect it will grow as an annual here in my Zone 7 gardens. The seed company noted that, of the many varieties they tested, the Thai Red Roselle was the only one which began flowering by mid summer at their location in Virginia. Growers south of me have called the plant "Florida Cranberry" because of the tart taste and ability to substitute for northern cranberries. The seed company advises to grow Roselle with conditions similar to growing a tomato plant. Since I didn't learn about Roselle until March, I didn't start my seedlings until April. Only 2 of about 10 seeds I planted germinated, but two plants have turned out to be plenty for me. I started the seedlings indoors in a pot, in my south facing window.

The Roselle Hibiscus plant grows best in full sun, and I transplanted my 4" seedlings outdoors well after the last frost, into my new front yard edible garden, about 5 feet apart. Don't fertilize heavily or you'll get lots of leaves and no flowers. A bushy shrub with red stems and green leaves grew rather quickly for me, with lots of branching. A bonus to me is that the citrus-tasting leaves are edible, so I've been harvested the tender new ones for my green smoothies. The leaves can be added to salads and can be air-dried for later use too. Lovely pale yellow 2" flowers, deep red at the center, began blooming around mid July. Sadly, each pretty bloom lasts just one day, like other members of the hibiscus family. Even the spent flower is pretty though, with petals of pale coral soon dropping off.

The pod which grows after the flower dies is dark red and shaped like a big teardrop. This is the plant part which gets harvested. A developing seed pod is encased in this pod, in the "calyxes" (aka "calyces"), which are bright red points formed from the "sepals" of the flower. When these calyxes grow about 1-1/4" tall and full - which happens within a week after the flowering stage - they are harvested by snapping them off by hand or clipping them off so as not to damage the plant stem if they don't release readily. As of early October (our annual average first frost here is Oct. 15), I have harvested about 150 calyxes. The lovely shrubs, with a few stems now reaching 5 feet tall, are still flowering aggressively, so if I cover them on our coldest nights I can extend the season. I plan to leave some of the calyxes unpicked so the heirloom seeds inside can mature on the plant and I can save them for planting next year, even if I have to cut off a stem and let it continue to mature and dry indoors.

Iced Roselle Red Zinger tea - yummy!
Harvesting frequently increases the continued production of flowers. Commercial growers have hollow tubes to remove the inner pod, but, for my small harvests, I simply tear off the dark red calyxes at the base where they join the seed pod. (The seed pods are discarded or saved to dry for the seeds.) These tart, fruity pieces can be used fresh, frozen, or dehydrated. I boiled about 6 calyxes in a pint of water, simmering for 10 minutes, to make a fruity red tea. They've gone fresh into my smoothies too. I'm air-drying most of my harvest, to make my own tea blend, and I've tried freezing some in zip bags. I intend to try chopping some fresh calyxes to try substituting for dried cranberries in a quick bread recipe, so I'll let you know how that works. The plant naturally contains pectin, so it is often used to make jam or jelly.

I've started saving the Roselle Hibiscus seeds to share with friends, so let me know if you want some. I expect to have a few to sell or trade at our local Farmers Market plant and seed swap, coming up on Friday, Oct. 18 2013. Try growing red zinger in your garden next season!

7/11/13

Top 10 Reasons to Grow Blueberries

Yesterday's harvest: ten cups of yummy berries!
If I could only grow one fruit, it would be blueberries. I love them! This is the first year since I planted blueberries on this land 8 years ago that I will harvest enough without augmenting with a visit to a u-pick farm. Yeah!

Why grow blueberries? Because they are...
  1. packed with nutrients
  2. naturally pest- and disease-resistant
  3. low maintenance
  4. attractive additions to a landscape in all seasons
  5. easy to harvest
  6. heat, cold, and drought tolerant
  7. delicious
  8. eaten raw or cooked
  9. easy to preserve (freeze, dehydrate, jam)
  10. naturally sweet
Blueberries are great in these lemon yellow squash muffins!

Choosing a variety
Blueberries come in 3 basic types: low bush, high bush, and rabbit eye. Within each type, varieties can be chosen for harvesting in early, middle, or late season. Wild blueberries grow in many parts of the country, and tend to be smaller berries than the nursery varieties - but still wonderful. Check with your local garden centers and research varieties online to see which are best suited for your area. 

Some varieties are self-pollinating, but a bigger yield and extended season comes from planting more than one variety. I have several varieties, for a total of 12 bushes. Originally, I had carefully diagrammed which variety was planted in each spot, to help me keep track. Unfortunately, while moving some of the bushes around I lost track of what some of them are. No harm done - I love them all! My selection here in Tennessee  - zone 7 - includes Misty (a Southern high bush), Tifblue Rabbiteye, Climax Rabbiteye, Bluecrop high bush, Powderblue (a Southern hybrid), Sunshine (another Southern high bush), and Ka-Bluey® (a Gurney's Seed & Nursery Company hybrid).

How to Plant
Blueberries favor a sunny location, in soil with a pH of 4.5 to 5.2. This is higher soil acidity than most places have naturally, so it's often necessary to alter the soil they are planted in. A soil test can tell you the natural acidity of your planting bed, and you can adjust the pH accordingly.
 
In my area, blueberries are best planted in fall or spring. When planting new blueberry bushes, dig a hole about 2-1/2 feet wide and 1 foot deep - blueberries are shallow-rooted. Amending my heavy clay soil was essential. A rule of thumb is to plant the bush at the height it was in its pot, filling the hole with a mix of peat moss (naturally acidic), bark mulch (for good drainage), and good organic soil, at a 1:1:1 ratio, along with a dose of powdered garden sulfur (more acidity). Keep separate blueberry bushes at least 5 feet apart. Since the roots are shallow, mulching with 2 to 4 inches of bark mulch or pine straw will help keep the plants evenly moist, protect the roots, and keep down weeds. It will decompose to add nutrients to the soil also, so mulch annually.

Caring for the Blueberry Bushes
I add a dose of garden sulfur to each blueberry bush as the growth starts in early spring. Fertilizers like organic Hollytone are high in acid, and good for use on blueberries once the plants are established. Blueberries are high nitrogen feeders, so a dose of cottonseed meal is also good. 

You might not need to prune for the first 2-3 years of growth. Pruning should be done in mid or late winter, depending on your location. Remove dead, diseased or damaged canes, as well as low, small fine twigs. Prune to open the center and allow light and good airflow - especially important in humid areas like mine. Prune canes which are older the 6 years, and other canes by about 1/3, to encourage branching. A healthy bush could continue to bear fruit for 20 years or more.
Flowering ajuga brings bees to the blueberry flowers too.


Increase pollination
I am convinced that my blueberries produce well because of the ground cover I have planted around them - not to mention the abundance of additional spring flowers in my gardens. The timing of the blueberry flowers, in April, coincides with the flowering of "ajuga" (aka bugleweed), a hardy low groundcover which sends up a purple-blue spike of flowers. The bees flock to the ajuga flowers and visit my blueberry bushes at the same time, so cross pollination occurs successfully.
The berries don't all ripen at the same time

Harvesting
Usually blueberries within one bunch don't all ripen at once; you have to pick and choose the darkest ones, being carefully not to damage the unripened berries. The ripest ones often look like they have a powdery coating, which wipes away to shiny deep blue. If they are still a little pink, they won't be so sweet. With early, middle, and late varieties, you can extend your harvesting over a period of many weeks. Mine began to ripen in mid June and I still have lots which need several more weeks to ripen. As with any plant, it's best not to harvest when the plants are wet from rain or irrigation, since diseases spread more easily in those conditions. I like to harvest blueberries on a dry morning, before the sun gets too hot. I picked 10 cups yesterday (not counting the ones I ate!) Of course, it's hard to resist munching on a handful anytime I'm working in the gardens.

How to freeze
It's recommended not to wash the blueberries before freezing. My preferred method is to lay a big towel out and dump the berries onto it, spreading them in a single layer. If you've picked them with stems attached, rolling them around on the towel will make the stems drop off. The towel will absorb any moisture on the berries too. Some people like to freeze them in a single layer on a flat tray or pan to keep them from sticking together, but I haven't found this necessary. I measure 2 cups of berries into a freezer pint zip bag, shake to move them into the bottom corners, squeeze the excess air out, and seal the bag. I try to maneuver the berries around in the bag to distribute them evenly, then I stack the bags in the freezer. If I want to use them in the future for baking, I usually don't thaw - just take from the freezer, rinse and add them to the dry ingredients in the recipe. Frozen blueberries are fabulous in smoothies too.

Other fruits and berries I have tried or still grow have much fussier requirements than blueberries. If you are just venturing into gardening, I highly recommend you include blueberries in your plans. They can even be grown in containers, so get yours growing soon!

6/26/13

Weighing In on Gluten-Free

My Pumpkin Cranberry Bread is great with gluten-free flour.

It's nearly one year since I made a major change in my diet and became gluten-free. I wasn't suffering from celiac disease or even suspecting that I had a gluten intolerance. My gluten-free friend Kathy was visiting, and showed me the swollen joints on her fingers, resulting after she ate something in her travels which she didn't suspect had gluten - french fries with a breading. I had never seen such a reaction. Soon after that, another friend recommended I read Wheat Belly, a best seller about why modern wheat is causing so many of us to develop gluten sensitivity. By the time I finished the book, I decided that even if only 1/4 of the negatives the author attributed to gluten were accurate, I would be healthier without it in my diet. Now I am ready to report the positive side effects I directly relate to being gluten-free which have motivated me to stay on this regimen forever.

First I should admit that I am blessed with incredible good health. Other than a cataract in one eye at the young age of 43 and in the other at age 58, I have little more than a few occasional aches and pains to complain about. Certainly, factors such as genetics, environment, regular exercise, high activity, low stress, good sleep habits, preventive medicine, active social life, good living environment, normal weight, and medical screenings (mammogram, colonoscopy, dermatology body check) are part of my overall well-being. Undoubtedly, spending 24/7 with my best friend, business partner, and husband of 37 years, Rick, has an enormous positive effect on my life too, as does happiness in general. I count my blessings.

As the "Welcome" section of this blog states, my lifestyle diet for over 20 years has vastly differed from the prevailing American diet. Around the early 90s, my mother was living with Lupus, and Rick had been found to have abundant Epstein-Barr antibodies. So I plunged into learning how to strengthen the immune system with lifestyle choices. I researched healthier ways of eating, and eliminated foods and ingredients with artificial ingredients/colorings/preservatives, and those which are processed, genetically modified, raised in toxic conditions, irradiated, and/or void of nutrients. I was learning to cook all over again, substituting alternatives for refined sugars, trimming the fat from our diets, and experimenting with previously unfamiliar ingredients and recipes. Over two decades, my "eat"  and "don't eat" lists are frequently refined; I avoid foods raised inhumanely and in unhealthy environments. I don't buy imports from certain other countries, such as seafood from China, Thailand, or Vietnam. I favor locally grown, organic, seasonal, and wild harvested foods. I organically grow, preserve, and cook an increasing percentage of my diet every year, and I enjoy the process of "cooking from scratch." I buy beef, eggs, honey, chicken, and goat cheese from local friends and farmers. I buy monthly from an organic food coop, helping stock my pantry with good ingredients. About 18 months ago Rick and I also began drinking a green smoothie in place of one meal 4 or 5 days a week, using fresh greens and flavorful culinary herbs from my own gardens plus a variety of fruits and berries. Last November we started doing a daily glass of organic apple cider vinegar and local honey (served hot or cold) - which I think helps stop painful "charlie horses" in my leg muscles, among other attributed benefits. I drink water, green tea or herbal tea, and not much else except an occasional glass of red wine. So my diet definitely is a major positive factor in my overall health.

So what has the gluten-free diet done for me? Here is a list of my personal health changes I directly attribute to eliminating gluten:

Who's that chunky baby with my Dad - heavens, it's me!
Weight Loss - I don't own scales, but I knew my body was changing within weeks of going gluten-free by the fit of my clothes. For years, my 5'3" carried ±125 lbs., after peaking in the 130s in my late 20s. On two different doctors' office scales (that kind with the weights which don't lie) in the past 3 months - fully clothed, with shoes on, and after eating lunch - my weight holds stable at 115. I was never skinny - my thunder thighs as a baby turned into to "chubby" sizing in pre-adolescence. I'm not trying to brag, but it's nice to be back to my high school graduation weight. I haven't eaten sugary dessert type foods much for many years, but, since so many are made with wheat flour, staying gluten-free also helps me resist temptation. Coffee ice cream and extra-dark chocolate are still on my short list of occasional indulgences!

Weight Shift - For years, I've been unsuccessful reducing my "tummy" with diet or exercise. I never had a pregnancy, so stretched muscles were not my excuse. As the book title "Wheat Belly" suggests, and the content describes, modern wheat causes body fat to be stored in the "belly". After going gluten-free, my belly flattened.

Skin Improvements - I'm fair skinned with skin cancers in both parents, so I try to avoid sun exposure and get full body skin exams. I had had an itchy rash along my neck-hairline for decades which the dermatologist didn't indicate was anything too serious, but it was irritating to me. Dandruff shampoos, cortisone creams, and other treatments failed; going gluten-free nearly miraculously reduced the rash right away. My skin overall has a better feel now too.

Fast Healing - From a deeply sliced finger which happened about 1 week into the gluten-free diet, to any other healing my body required over the past year, all indications are that my immune system is quickly reacting and providing rapid healing. Even cold symptoms rarely last more than 1 day.

Improved Digestion - My stomach no longer "churns" or "gurgles" when I lie in bed at night, and I very seldom have any gas in my digestion any more. My first colonoscopy three months ago revealed just one small polyp.

Check my numbers: early this year I had my annual GYN physical, included a fasting cholesterol and full blood profile. My HDL (good) cholesterol was the best in the 13 years I've been keeping track, at 74, and the ration of cholesterol/HDL, which should be less than 3.5, had dropped from 3.3 in 2004 to 2.59. My glucose was down from 85 a year earlier to 80. Incidentally, I don't take any prescription medications; daily I take a 81 mg aspirin, red yeast rice, fish oil, lutein, and other vitamin/mineral/herb supplements.

I won't lie - being gluten-free is sometimes challenging and has required me to educate myself. Since I don't suffer from the very serious intolerance of celiac disease, I don't have to be "pure" so I can make a few exceptions. I won't turn down an invitation to eat homemade pasta! My friend Ken, who first share Wheat Belly with me, is owner/chef at a lovely New Hampshire bed and breakfast. He was so thrilled with his results of going gluten-free that he decided to make his business gluten-free, giving those with any level of gluten intolerance a great lodging alternative. He has also been successful in making his menu gluten-free offerings so delicious that guests who don't care or might be turned off by "gluten-free" don't even notice. We design and administer his website, and I learned a great deal when I helped write copy for his gluten-free info page about the complex process of eliminating gluten, not only from the menu, but from the entire facility and preparation process. It's amazing what was involved; read about it here.

Quinoa flakes are one of my new grain discoveries.

I'm gluten free at home and I make careful choices when eating out. At lunch, I've discovered that many restaurants will accommodate my requests for their sandwich offerings to be served without the bread. At home, I've eliminated wheat, rye, and barley flours from my kitchen staples, in addition to other ingredients where gluten hides, such as:
  • soy sauce [I buy San-J wheat-free tamari]
  • salad dressings [I make my own]
  • ice cream [beware of flavors with add-ins like cookies]
  • beer [I don't like it anyway]
  • spice blends [I mix my own from individual spices]
Being gluten-free forced me to discover alternate grains, which are delicious additions and substitutions in my recipes and meals - like quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, and black rice. I truly haven't really missed yeast breads, and I've had fun experimenting with gluten-free flours in my old favorite baking recipes (like biscotti, gingerbread, quick breads). I've ground my own flours from gluten-free grains, beans, seeds, and nuts - even from coconut. I've tried many new recipes for homemade crackers, pizza dough, pie crust, English muffins, and other baked goods which are usually made from gluten ingredients, and I'll continue to share my favorites in this blog. My trials have not all been successful, but I'm gradually creating a big file of delicious gluten-free recipes.

Big food companies are quick to jump on a bandwagon, and "gluten-free" is a new buzz word. Processed food and drinks labelled gluten-free fill the supermarket shelves, but they are not necessarily healthy foods. As with any packaged, prepared foods, you have to watch the ingredients. Many gluten-free baked goods substitute starchy flours or add stuff you don't need to make them taste better. I'm still discovering some gluten-free products which give me the best results in my recipes; Bob's Red Mill is a great brand, and their GF All-Purpose flour is my favorite flour mix (Pamela's GF flour made everything I baked with it too chewy); Thai Kitchen Stir-Fry Rice Noodles work well in stir-fries as well as in my oriental cold salads. Tinkyada is another good gluten-free pasta maker. Of course, the list of foods which are naturally gluten-free is long (fruit, vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, beans, etc.), so there's still plenty of great food to savor!

I don't fool myself with thinking that my diet will prevent me from ever getting a serious illness or disease. I've witnessed sickness and aging enough to know that my youthful wish for a long life has to be edited to a wish for a long healthy life. Unfortunately, we live in a very toxic world, where our air, water, soil, livestock, poultry, cleaning products, health & beauty aids, produce, and more are laden with poisons and chemicals. It's impossible to live a normal life and avoid such a list. I figure teh best I can do is to try to reduce my exposure to such things, while sharing my knowledge to help people, like you, become more aware, better educated, and able to make smarter choices to make your life healthier.

6/18/13

The Proof is in the Pudding



This pudding recipe is one of my favorite concoctions to make in a Vitamix. The basic recipe is for Mint Chocolate Chip pudding, but I've also come up with variations for turning it into ice cream, and for flavoring tips to change it into Mocha Pudding or Chocolate Mint Pudding and other delights. I'll never get tired of it!

The surprising main ingredient is avocado, but you'd never know it by tasting a spoonful of this rich, satisfying dessert. The avocado adds a creamy texture - of course, in addition to adding a boost of good nutrients. The avocado creates the green color to the basic recipe, or blends with chocolate in the recipe variations to make a rich cocoa cream.

If avocados are not in your diet, out of season, or too pricey for a splurge, see my substitution of tofu. Many other substitutions in the basic recipe are noted. The coconut oil is an ingredient you won't want to change however; it is liquid at temperatures above 75 degrees, but hardens below that temperature, so, when this pudding is refrigerated or frozen, the texture thickens partly because of the coconut oil. Besides, coconut oil is very beneficial and nutrient dense.

Mint Chocolate Chip Pudding

2 ripe avocados
1/2 c unsweetened almond milk
3 T honey
1 T coconut oil, warmed to liquid consistency so it mixes well
2 peppermint herbal tea bags
2 oz. dark chocolate bits (or broken pieces from a bar)

Remove the avocado skin and seed, and put the pulp into the Vitamix. Add everything else except the chocolate chunks into the Vitamix, tearing the tea bags to use the dried peppermint.


Run the Vitamix on 10 (the highest speed), mixing with the plunger tool, for 30-45 seconds, until a smooth green mixture forms. The mixture might get warm from the friction of blending, and this is the reason for not adding the chocolate chunks yet. (Actually, I made this mistake and it lead to the creation of some of the variations below.) Scrape the mixture out (this is the only hard part) and into a refrigerator container. When it has cooled, mix in the chocolate chunks. You can spoon the pudding into individual serving bowls to serve. If you are not ready to serve it right away, lay a piece of wax paper or plastic wrap over the surface or the avocado may oxidize and turn the top brown. You can alternately freeze the mixture and serve it as an ice cream, but I've found the timing a bit tricky… too long in the freezer and it's too hard. I'd suggest you try 30-45 minutes of freezing before serving.

VARIATIONS
Chocolate Pudding: Eliminate the peppermint. Add the chocolate chunks to the Vitamix with all the other ingredients.
Chocolate Raspberry: Eliminate the peppermint. Add the chocolate chunks to the Vitamix with all the other ingredients. After the pudding is spooned out, stir 1/2 cup of fresh or frozen raspberries into the pudding and continue to cool or freeze until ready to serve.
Mocha: Eliminate the peppermint. Add the chocolate chunks (or 2 T of unsweetened cocoa powder) plus 1 T of Roma or Cafix coffee-flavored grain powder to the Vitamix with all the other ingredients.
SUBSTITUTIONS
Mint: When I have fresh herbs from my garden, I eliminate the peppermint tea bags and use 1/4 c of fresh peppermint, spearmint, or chocolate mint leaves. Of course, you can substitute peppermint extract (try 1/2 t) for the dried or fresh mint leaves.
No avocados? Use 1 cup of organic firm tofu for the same creamy consistency. Use organic to insure the tofu is made from non-GMO soy.
Guar Gum:  This is a natural thickener and volume enhancer, sold as a powdery substance, made from a seed. If you don't have any, you might try using agar-agar flakes, arrowroot powder, or xanthan gum - but I haven't tested these other gelatin-like ingredients.
Chocolate: You can substitute 1/4 c of unsweetened cocoa powder for the chocolate chunks, and this can be added to the Vitamix with all the other ingredients. For a caffeine-free version, I usually use 1/4 c of unsweetened carob powder instead of the cocoa powder, so we can enjoy our pudding in the evening.
Almond Milk:  You can substitute unsweetened rice milk, coconut milk, organic soy milk, or nonfat organic cow's milk. You might even try fruit juice in place of all or some of the milk, like cherry or orange.

Other Flavors: 
Experiment with other flavorings… how about Chocolate Orange by adding orange juice in place of some of the milk, plus dried or fresh orange peel or orange extract? Or mix some chopped nuts into the chocolate variation. I plan to try the chocolate variation and adding some fresh cinnamon basil, anise hyssop, or lemon balm leaves from my garden. The possibilities are many - let me know your favorite!



6/13/13

Keep Birds From Stealing the Harvest

You can see the Flash Tape on my thornless blackberries
We love our songbirds, hummingbirds, wild turkeys, and other feathered friends - but not when they eat our berries!

This year I purchased "Bird Scare Flash Tape" when I ordered seeds from Southern Exposure. It is basically a shiny Christmas-type ribbon, 1/2" wide, red on one side, silver on the other. You twist it and wrap it around what you want to protect, and it looks like fire or sparks when the wind moves it, and scares the birds from landing there.

Last year I lost the whole crop of sour cherries from my little 5' Montmercery tree. When I saw the cherries begin to ripen a few weeks ago - and mockingbirds landing on  the branches - I ran out and wrapped the tape around it. Look at the fabulous bucket of ripe cherries I was rewarded with!

So far this tape has kept the birds from eating my blackberries also - next I'll be wrapping my blueberries, then my Concord grapes. If you are careful, you can remove it in one long piece and re-use it... I like to get my money's worth!


My friend Hal used a similar tactic to keep deer from eating his newly planted fruit trees. He bought a cheap used VCR, pulled out the dark tape, and wrapped it around the tree branches. So far, it is working to keep the deers from nibbling!
We enjoyed the cherry harvest this year, keeping the birds from eating them, as they did last year

6/12/13

My Edible Yard

My nine-month project of re-planting the sloping front of the house as an edible landscape is nearly complete - yeah! The area only spans about 65 feet x 20 feet, but I've done an enormous amount of work. Rick, with his tractor, initially broke up the hard yellow clay soil and brought in bucket-loads of fabulous soil from other parts of our property. I'd estimate that 95% of what I've planted in this new area has been transplanted from other gardens. And that was the point - to consolidate so that I don't have so much to take care of. The other 5% were new treasures, accepted from fellow gardeners or too irresistible as new purchases. I am also a strong believer in the theory that the closer to the house I plant the garden, the more likely I'll keep an eye on it and harvest its bounty. I get such pleasure walking down my steps and along the footpath, gathering flowers for an arrangement and cutting fresh herbs to go immediately into my kitchen concoctions.

Below is a list of what I've planted in the front yard. In many cases I know the variety name of specific plants, so this list makes a good personal record for me as well. I've also noted names certain plants are "also known as". These days, I label everything I plant… it's too easy to forget. And since I'm eating lots of this stuff, I want to be sure I know what I'm picking! It is a surprise to me that this list of plants is so long. It just goes to prove that you can grow a lot in a small area. Admittedly, I've planted things fairly close, but I wanted it to fill in fast since that cuts down on weeding.

This garden isn't limited to edibles; I added lots of perennial flowers and ornamental shrubs to accent, adding color and variety. I love flowers! In my list below, I have placed an asterisk (*) before anything which has edible parts. For this post, I won't go into whether the fruit, flowers, leaves, and/or roots are the edible parts. In the herb list, in particular, are many intense culinary herbs, but I've also planted quite a few medicinal herbs. You'll also notice a couple of common "vegetables" - I just popped those in since I had more than I wanted to put in the official vegetable garden! Note, my photographs are not all taken at once - perennials flower at different times, and this collage shows a variety of my favorites in the new front yard garden.

* edibles

Berries & Fruit
* Blueberries (7 shrubs: including both rabbiteye and high bush varieties)
* Blackberries - thornless Arapaho
* Red Raspberries - thornless Killarney
* Strawberries - June-bearing varieties: Tennessee Beauty and Chandler
* Pear - Keiffer
* Elderberry
* Goji Berry
* Garden Huckleberries - Chichiquelite

Herbs/Veggies/Greens
* Mint, including regular mint, chocolate mint, spearmint
* Hyssop - Anise and Lavender
* Lavender
* Lemon Balm
* Lemon Grass
* Dill
* Chamomile
* Comfrey
* Borage
* Sage
* Oregano
* Creeping Thyme
* Rosemary
* Stevia
* Perilla (Shiso)
* Garlic
* Lamb's Quarters
* Marsh Mallow
* Beets - Bull's Blood
* Bloody Dock (aka Red Sorrel)
* Tomatoes - Matt's Wild Cherry
* Fennel
* Chives
* Garlic Chives
(my basils and parsleys are in the main veggie garden)
* Grove Pepper
Stinging Nettles
Plantain
Ornamental Shrubs
* Lilacs - One old-fashioned and 2 hybrids: Tinkerbell & Dark Knight
Forsythia - Lynwood Gold
Weigela - Wine & Roses
English Laurel - Otto Luyken
* Roselle Hibiscus (for tea) - Thai Red

Flowering Perennials
Bearded Irises - 6 varieties, my favorite is yellow "Total Recall"
Flag Irises - yellow, purple, white
Wild Irises
* Wild Violets
* Pinks (aka Dianthus)
False Indigo (aka Baptisia) - yellow and blue
Yarrow - yellow
Ajuga (aka Bugleweed)
* Daylilies (4 varieties)
* Shasta Daisies
* Rudbeckia (aka Black-Eyed Susan)
Creeping Phlox - white, pinks, purples
Garden Phlox - pink
Sedum - Yellow Stonecrop
Sedum - Autumn Joy
Purple Coneflower
Showy Evening Primrose (beware - invasive!)
St. John's Wort (beware - invasive!)
Red Poppy
Wild Orange Poppy
* Chrysanthemums - many colors
* Bee Balm - lemon
Lunaria (aka Money Plant)
* Pansy - Swiss Giants
Lenten Rose (aka Hellebore)
Wild Columbine
Sage (salvia) - Hot Lips
Lily of the Valley
Lilies - deep magenta
Liatris (aka Gayfeather)
Daffodils
Crocuses

Foliage Plants
Blue Flax
Lamb's Ears
Hosta
Hens & Chicks


6/1/13

Slip Sliding Away

Note to self: start sweet potatoes on March 1st.

Sweet potatoes, a fabulous garden crop here in the Southeast, are planted as "slips", which are individual pieces of the leafy sweet potato vine, just a few inches long. These days it is possible to buy bundles of sweet potatoes, ready to plant. But old timers would keep a few potatoes from the previous year's harvest, and grow their own slips from them in early spring. The mature potato would be used to sprout these vines in early spring either by:
• planting the sweet potato in loose fertile soil (in a pot or in the ground) and watering it
OR
• submerging a portion of the sweet potato in water

Either method will stimulate the "mother" potato to sprout leafy branches, each of which grows its own root system at its base. When these short sprouts are a few inches long, they are carefully pulled off the "mother" potato to be planted in the garden or in individual pots awaiting transplanting when the weather warms.

My efforts to grow my own sweet potato slips in the last few years have been marginally successful, using the "planting-in-soil" method. So this year I switched to growing them in water, and, VOILA, I have successfully grown my own slips.

I started this project at the end of February, by buying organic sweet potatoes at the health food market. I searched the bin carefully until I found two potatoes which had some dry stringing roots already hanging off one end. By the way, there are many many varieties of sweet potatoes (different colors, different textures, different number of growing days, etc.) but the most common supermarket variety is Beauregard. One year I grew about 5 different varieties, and Beauregard was one of the top two for taste and productivity.



I saw the instructions for suspending the sweet potato so the bottom portion would be under water, with room around the potato for roots to grow easily. So I speared each one, found suitable containers, and sat them in my south-facing window where my other garden seedlings were growing. And nothing happened.

Patience is a virtue in this process (or being too busy with other stuff works too!) After what was probably a few weeks, I began to see some tiny green growth. On one of the potatoes the sprouts only formed on the very top, and that's all it has done over the last 2 months. (I recently turned it upside down and the sprouts, now submerged, are sending out roots!) On the other, the sprouts burst forth from the sides, and quickly sent white strands of roots into the water. As each sprout on this second mother potato got longer, I twisted it off at its base and transplanted it into a pot with loose soil.

Fast forward to the end of May. The first potato continued to grow little vines at the very top, none sending out roots of its own. The second potato has provided me with over a dozen slips! So I consider this experiment a success, and plan to use this method each year, perhaps starting from my own stored potato next year.

I wait until the weather is very warm before I transplant the sweet potato slips to the garden, meanwhile letting them harden off in pots I keep next to the hose so I won't forget to water them. Last year I covered my sweet potato patch with thin mesh fabric which successfully kept the grasshoppers from devouring the vines over and over (which ruined my harvest of the potatoes themselves), and also helped to restrict the spreading of the vines over a large area. If you live in the south and you haven't started sweet potato slips yourself, go buy some and get some nutritious, easy-to-grow sweet potatoes in the ground!

P.S. It has been a long time since I did any posts on this blog, and I have an excuse... all my "spare time" has been spent in the gardens. We took on two major gardening projects:
1 - making our front yard into an edible garden
2 - removing all my winter crops from the veggie garden, rotatilling it (for the first time in 3 years), enlarging it, moving it, and replanting it
3 - number 2 above also lead to the creation of a new "border" flower garden, to define the new edge of the veggie garden.

The photo on the left below is a portion of the new front yard. We moved blueberries, strawberries, red raspberries, and thornless blackberries there last fall. Since then I have also relocated many many perennial herbs and flowers. I have too many gardens all over the yard, so it's an effort to consolidate. My iris and daylily beds, along with other perennial flowers, needed dividing and thinning, so I've had no trouble filling the new space - except to find time to do it all! In the end, I think the front yard will be like an English country garden. And the re-done veggie garden, with its new bordering flower bed (shown on the right below) is finally coming along. I'll be reporting more on that in future posts. Happy gardening!


4/12/13

Create Oodles of New Plants

"Judy can make a pencil grow from a cedar branch," my friend Richard proclaimed when he gave me some cuttings from a fig tree. It took me a minute to get the meaning, but then the mental image hit me… I couldn't resist using my Photoshop experience to send this photo to Richard! (By the way, I have two fig trees growing successfully from those cuttings.)

I have lots of vegetables, herbs, and flowers which I have started from seeds, but I've also been creating new plants from "Stem Cuttings". There are several reasons to grow from cuttings:
  • low cost
  • easier for certain plants than growing from seed
  • faster way to get a larger plant than from seed
  • easy way to share your establish plants with friends
  • best method to propagate many woody plants, especially shrubs

Cuttings are made by starting with a healthy established plant. Make your cuttings on a day when you have time to get them into their new growing environment without delay. Normally the stem is cut from its newest growth (the terminal end) to a point up the stem several inches - depending on the plant. If I'm pinching back my chrysanthemums to make them grow really thick, I pinch off stems about 4"; if it's a cutting from an elderberry bush, perhaps a piece 12" will work better. I like my cut to be about 1/4" below the joint of a leaf (or leaf bud if it's in dormant season), since this is where the roots will grow from.

Some plants I've successfully started from stem cuttings include:
  • grapes (which I've read is the best method, since they don't reproduce true from seed)
  • elderberries
  • figs
  • chrysanthemums
  • tomatoes (cut in summer to start new plants for a fall season)
  • goji berries
  • stevia
I'm sure there are many other good candidates lurking in my yard!


Fruit trees are not a good choice for stem cuttings, since most often one variety is grown on the "root stock" of a second variety, and you won't get a strong new plant from a stem.

If leaves are growing on the stem, remove lower 1/3 of them, snipping them close to the main stem. A powdered rooting hormone, sold at many garden centers, can be used to help stimulate root growth. You might put some into a clean container to dip your stems in, keeping the original bottle from becoming contaminated. I'm not that fussy - I dip the stems into the rooting hormone bottle itself.

Next step is to fill a pot with good soil and water it, or set up a nursery section in your garden and plant the cuttings directly in the garden soil. Insert a stick or pencil to make a hole for the stem cutting, insert the cutting to cover the bottom 1/3, and firm the soil around the stem. You can put several stems in one pot. Keep this moist and in indirect light. Eventually, you'll see new growth, but beware… the stem can store energy and might send out new leaves before it has made strong new roots. Leave the plant alone, keeping it watered, until you see good vigorous new growth. Then transplant to a new, permanent home.

3/22/13

QUICK TIP: Identifying GMO Sugar

From: http://biggreenboulder.com/
I was reading the "Non-GMO Shopping Guide" and came across some enlightening info, new to me. If you look at the ingredients on a food you buy and it says "sugar", this can be a combination of sugar made from sugar cane plus sugar made from sugar beets. More than half of the US sugar production is from sugar beets, the rest from cane sugar. Only if the ingredients say "cane sugar" will you know that sugar beets are not used. Why is this important?

Sugar beets are one of the most common genetically modified crops in the USA (click for more info on GMO), with about 95% of the total crop being grown from GMO seeds. The sugar beet seeds which are GMO are engineered to be "Roundup Ready," meaning that Monsanto altered the genetics of normal sugar beet seeds so that the sugar beet producers can spray their crop with the Monsanto synthetic herbicide Roundup (aka glysophate) and easlily kill the weeds while the beets continue to grow.... with the blessings of the US Department of Agriculture.

Not only are GMO crops causing serious problems to our food supply and our nation's health, but there are other very serious concerns, including the increase of superweeds caused by resistance to the herbicide glysophate, and cross contamination of non-gmo crops like organic table beets or Swiss chard, often grown in the same regions as the GMO sugar beets.

I'm not encouraging you to buy and eat refined sugar, since it is also contributing to prevalent poor diets and the obesity epidemic, but I'd certainly favor it over artificial sweeteners (like Splenda). I always encourage reducing intake of any sweeteners, and, when necessary, using healthier alternative sweeteners, such as green natural stevia, local honey, vitamin B-rich molasses and sorghum, or agave. (Click the "Ingredients" tab at the page top for more info on words printed in red.)

Read and download the helpful Non-GMO shopping guide here for more excellent useful information.

2/12/13

Be Mine!

February 14th is a special day for me and my honey, since it is the day we married (way back in 1976). Here's my annual Valentine's Day recipe, in time for you to try it: Red Velvet Cake, made using beets. Don't stop reading here - it's delicious!

Beets are one of my new favorite veggies, and I had read recipes which used red beets to make Red Velvet Cake (instead of a whole bottle of toxic red food coloring). This could be the perfect opportunity to use my heart-shaped springform pan and heart-shaped serving dish! I found a red velvet cake recipe using beets online and followed the recipe the first time, except substituting GF flour. The second time I made it, I made many changes, creating my own recipe to make a more healthy end product. I also created some beet-juice tinted decorations!


Commonly, recipes for this cake use buttermilk, so I'm certain that the milk + lemon juice + yogurt + vinegar works as a substitute here, and I wouldn't eliminate them. I up'd the spices however, since I could hardly taste them in the original recipe, and added the vanilla extract… all nice complements to the mild cocoa flavor.

I also wanted to stick with a simple topping, rather than the customary cream cheese or 7-minute frostings, which are heavy on refined sugar. Whipped cream with raspberries or strawberries would be nice, but I didn't have those ingredients on hand. If it were springtime, I'd use some lovely pansies (edible and pretty) from the garden. If you baked mulitple layers, raspberry jam in between would taste heavenly! This time I tried a combination of decorations, as shown in the photo collage and described below, just to give you some ideas.


Red Velvet Cake Made with Beets
(yields one 9″ round layer)

3/4 c pureed red beets  (I roasted 2 large fresh beets wrapped in foil at 350 for 45-60 min, but next time I will try cooking in my pressure cooker; drained canned beets would probably work fine too)
1/2 c coconut oil, softened
1/4 c milk
1/4 c lemon juice
1 t plain yogurt
1/2 t balsamic vinegar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c honey
1 t vanilla extract

1 c flour (I used Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour plus 3/4 t xanthan gum)
1/2 c unsweetened cocoa powder
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/4 t ground cloves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Allow the wet ingredients to get to room temperatures. Puree the beets in a food processor, measuring out 3/4 cup to use. (I used the leftover beets in my smoothies). CAUTION: red beets will stain, so I recommend doing your mixing in stainless steel or glass bowls, avoiding plastic and rubber utensils.

Add all the other wet ingredients to the pureed beets and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk together all of the dry ingredients.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture and stir until combined. Grease a 9" cake pan and line with parchment. Dump the batter into the pan (it's slightly thick) and smooth the top with a spatula.

Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick in the center of the center comes out clean, then turn off the oven and leave it in for another 10 minutes. Cool briefly in the pan, and remove to a wire rack to cool completely before icing or decorating.

MY DECORATIONS

Rather than slather on thick sugary frosting, I opted for 3 types of decorations, and had fun with them, using some red beet juice for coloring, which I had saved from the roasting beets process:

1) MERINGUE HEARTS AND "LOVE" LETTERS
I took the idea for meringue letters and hearts from Martha Stewart Living. I had never made meringue before, and I discovered it's quite easy. I resorted to using refined white sugar (I keep some on hand just for the hummingbirds' food), which I ground fine in my coffee grinder. Next time I'll experiment using honey instead. The recipe:  whisk 2 egg whites with 1/2 c fine sugar over warm water for 2-3 minutes. My small glass mix-master bowl fit in a 3-qt saucepan nicely. Add a pinch of salt and a pinch of cream of tartar. I also added a small amount of red beet juice. Remove from the heated water and whip with an electric mixer on high until stiff peaks form and the mixture has cooled - this took only about 3 minutes for me. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag and squeeze out hearts and letters onto a parchment lined pan. As you can see, I'm lacking in piping experience, especially when compared with Martha! Bake for 1 hour at 200 degrees, then leave them in the "off" oven to cool.
2) PINK COCONUT
I whirled some unsweetened dry organic coconut in my coffee grinder to make it fine. Then I mixed in some red beet juice, enough to make a strong magenta color. Sprinkled on the cake top, it looks like colored sugar.
3) WHITE CHOCOLATE STARS
I had thought I might drizzle white chocolate along the edges of the heart-shaped cake, so I melted a couple of squares of Ghiradelli premium white chocolate baking bar in a glass cut set in a pan of hot water. Even when melted, it was still thick. I added beet juice to color it, then added a little coconut oil to soften it. Coconut oil is liquid when heated, solid when cooled. This gave the chocolate enough consistency so I could spoon it into a piping bag with a star tip and make some little frilled stars around the cake top.
Get creative and let me know how you decorate your Red Velvet Beet Cake!


Happy Valentine's Day to you and your sweetie!

2/9/13

Special Diets 101

What's vegan food? Is organic food better? Who eats gluten-free?

Colorful icons and highlighted boxes are popping up on food packages, new designations are appearing on restaurant menus, and new terms are all the rage in advertising of food items.  "Non-GMO," "gluten-free" and other tags have joined the ranks of "cholesterol-free," "nonfat," and "sugar-free." The giant food industry is quick to jump on new eating trends in order to expand their sales, and they are constantly flooding the supermarkets with new concoctions to cater to special dietary needs (not necessarily in the interest of good nutrition). Huge corporate food producers have bought up small niche companies in order to add "healthy" divisions to their offerings (General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen; Kraft owns Back to Nature; Dean owns Horizon and Silk; Kellogg owns Morningstar Farms, and the list goes on and on).

Food labels and designations can be confusing and might turn you off from a product, just because you don't understand what they mean. Do all vegetarian burgers taste like cardboard? Are gluten-free cookies as good as "the real thing?"  Of course, there is an element of trust with buying any labelled food product (is it truly organic?), which is a subject for discussion in itself. But if you are curious about these new dietary terms, here's a short guide to the most frequently used diet terms flagging foods today.

Note first that by "diet" I don't mean weight-loss diets (which I personally believe are destined to failure) or diets prescribed for specific health issues (like coronary blockages). I am an advocate of an every-day LIFESTYLE DIET. From my own research, experience, and practices, I know that I can maintain normal weight and good health through nutrition… combined with other living habits such as regular exercise, unpolluted air and water, adequate sleep, no smoking or prescription meds, limited alcohol or caffeine, and low stress. Thankfully, I don't suffer from any chronic diseases or major ailments. I'm not overweight, I have lots of energy, I rarely get sick, and my memory is pretty sharp... so I must be doing something right, huh? I believe in being responsible for my health. Years ago I observed friends who discarded a lifestyle of overeating and indulging in non-nutritious foods only after suffering a heart attack or getting cancer treatments. It just made sense to me to start following a path of prevention through eating healthy food. I've investing lots of time educating myself and continuously learning about different foods and how to prepare them, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge to help others.


My homemade gluten-free pumpkin bread, from organic butternut squash I grew
My own lifestyle diet is a combination of several of those listed below, but I'm not totally rigid. As you know from reading this blog, I like food which tastes good and doesn't make me feel like I'm missing any pleasures of eating. My diet is rich with plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs). I prefer organically produced whole foods, favor foods locally raised and produced, eat gluten-free and non-GMO, limit seafood to wild-caught options, drink green tea, use raw apple cider vinegar and honey daily, drink daily green smoothies, opt for red wine when drinking alcohol, choose free-range poultry products, look for meat and dairy items without added hormones and antibiotics, and I love very dark chocolate. I limit sweets, and use sweeteners such as stevia from my garden (fresh, dried, and in a tincture), local honey, sorghum syrup from nearby Mennonites, maple syrup from Vermont friends, and some agave and coconut palm sugar. I avoid processed foods, trans fats, and most imported foods (particularly from countries whose food production systems introduce many toxins). I mostly cook from scratch, and I don't knowingly eat foods which contain artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, nitrates, fake flavorings, artificial colorings, chemical preservatives, and other non-food ingredients. I was surprised when a friend started chuckling, overseeing me offered a handful of candy and spontaneously reacting with the reply: "No thanks, I don't eat food that color."

Manufactured foods turn me off. I recently started boycotting products from manufacturers who contributed to the campaign against GMO labeling in California, figuring they must want to include GMOs in their ingredients. When the processes of refining foods results in loss of nutrients - as when the bran and grain are removed from wheat to make white flour - manufacturers "enrich" their products by adding replacement vitamins and minerals - these don't belong on my plate. I don't eat "super-foods" to which manufacturers have added ingredients which they think are deficient in my diet, like vitamin D in orange juice. I don't eat "fake foods," like imitation crab.
Organically grown strawberries fit the "whole food" designation
Or like Cool Whip, invented as a substitute for whipped cream, and originally did not even include any dairy components. Its ingredients list frightens me, and I don't want most of these things in my body: water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, light cream, caseinate (a milk derivative), natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate and beta carotene for coloring… no thanks! I'm also fussy about the details - I love salmon and appreciate its health benefits with omega-3 fatty acids, but I refuse to buy farm-raised salmon, bred in foreign polluted waters, dosed with antibiotics to counter the poor living conditions, and fed artificial colors to give it "red" flesh for eye appeal. Also, I'm not attracted to "cheap" food (I am suspicious of it too); I am willing to pay higher prices in order to stick to my preferences, because it's worth it to me and good quality food is one of my priorities. I admit to occasional deviations from my lifestyle diet though; if a friend invites me to a dinner of homemade pasta (with wheat flour), I don't decline, and I enjoy the meal (though it might make me gassy hours later). But if I know a dessert is made with Splenda, I happily pass.


+++++++++++

The lifestyle diet list below is by no means exhaustive or definitive, but you can use it as a general guide. I am not claiming that any one of these diets is exclusively beneficial or even better than another. I don't even believe that all of these are necessarily healthy - I know vegetarians who are hooked on diet soda and sugary desserts, I've seen gluten-free crackers that are unnecessarily laden with starches and sugar, and I've met raw foodies who look like walking skeletons. There are those who choose one diet or another for reasons other than nutrition too, like vegetarians focusing on animal rights. I merely hope this article will help you understand some dietary options and allow you to make better choices about what you eat.

====

Organic foods are those grown and produced without using synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, chemical ripening, or chemical additives. They do not contain genetically modified organisms (see below), artificial food additives, and, in the case of livestock, have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Proponents cite evidence that organic food is more nutritious, safer and more healthy than conventional food. Many advocates of organic food argue that it avoids introducing known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and other toxins into the diet and also results in more flavorful food.


Organic food has become a very highly regulated industry, under regulations set by the USDA (which also allows other certifying bodies, like Oregon Tilth). Organic certification product labels indicate that government regulations and established standards are adhered to, and third-party inspectors have insured the organic procedures. To receive official organic certification and display labeling as such, producers must pay. Some small operators opt to avoid these fees even though they maintain the same organic growing and production practices; you might encounter this among vendors at farmers' markets or local farms.

====

Whole foods are those which undergo minimal or no processing and/or refining. They are offered close to how they are produced by nature. They are not genetically modified (see below), colored, made by synthetic methods, or laden with additives. They do not contain added ingredients. This is more a category of foods than a type of diet. Whole foods might be used to describe foods such as dried beans, minimally treated fruits and vegetables, wild caught seafood, spices, herbs, raw unprocessed dairy products, whole grains, nuts, seeds, free range eggs, organically raised meats. Obviously, the chain which goes by the name Whole Foods offers much more than this definition; it's a health food supermarket. Proponents believe that eating the whole foods can help prevent and heal diseases, since they offer more complex nutrient profiles and include naturally occurring substances which are often lost in processing. Whole foods are generally offered in their natural harvested state, and are also sometimes preserved with methods such as dehydration, canning, or freezing.

====

Vegetarian diets are plant-based, concentrating on vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. Vegetarians, by definition, exclude red meat, poultry, game, and seafood. One vegetarian I know says she doesn't eat anything which ever had eyes!

More specific definitions of vegetarians exist. Ovo-lacto (or Lacto-ovo) vegetarians do not eat animal flesh of any kind, but consume eggs and dairy products (cheese, yogurt, cow's milk, etc.); lacto-vegetarians nix eggs and eat dairy products; ovo-vegetarians nix dairy and eat eggs.



Vegans (I've heard it pronounced "vee-gans" or "vay-gans") restrict their food choices further than vegetarians, excluding all animal products from the diet (including food items like honey since it's produced by bees, or baked goods which use dairy milk solids, or gelatin products since gelatin comes from animal bones and other parts). Many vegans extend their animal-free choices to health and beauty aids, clothing and furnishings (no leather, sheepskin, suede, wool, furs, down), drugs, and many other non-food products, for ethical reasons.

====

A gluten-free diet avoids the protein "gluten," found in grains most commonly used to make flour, such as wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten provides the elasticity in doughs used for breads, and modern wheat varieties have been hybridized in ways which have resulted in increased gluten content. Many derivatives of these grains are also ingredients in a wide variety of processed food products, including flavorings, seasonings, condiments, and sides.

A growing number of people are eliminating glutens because they are sensitive or intolerant to ingesting glutens. Some, like me, follow a gluten-free diet for improved health, finding it brings relief from allergies, skin problems, joint pain, acid reflux, digestive problems, and other ailments. Researchers now believe that a third of us are likely gluten intolerant/sensitive. Others who must totally avoid glutens suffer from the autoimmune dysfunction called Celiac disease. These sufferers can have dangerous reactions even to minute gluten residue from cooking utensils and surfaces, like grills used to cook wheat flour pancakes and then used to fry eggs, or a rubber spatula used to mix standard cookie dough and then used to stir a rice dish. Non-gluten grains (like oats) processed in factories which process wheat might be contaminated with gluten and can cause serious problems for those most sensitive.

For this reason, food products marked "gluten-free" are supposed to contain no gluten-laden ingredients and are supposed to have been processed and prepared in environments where no gluten products have been used or handled. Alternatives to foods commonly made from wheat include non-gluten grains (oats, corn, rice, quinoa); starches (tapioca, corn, potato); nuts and seeds (sorghum, buckwheat, millet, almonds).

====



Non-GMO:  Genetically-modified organisms most commonly refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption whose genetic composition has been altered, using molecular biology techniques. Genes from one species (sometimes from plants, sometimes from animals) are inserted to different plant species, often using a virus or bacteria as a carrier. Plants have been modified in the laboratory to introduce traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or insects, or longer shelf life. Soybeans and corn are the top two most widely grown GMO crops, with cotton, rapeseed (or canola) and potatoes trailing behind.
Non-GMO eggplant growing in my garden


Proponents of GM foods hail them as the answer to feeding the exploding world population. Opponents site many problems and risks, including unintended harm to other organisms, reduced effectiveness of pesticides, cross-breeding of GMO plants into non-modified crops, sterilization of plant seeds, and other damaging effects to the environment, human health and economic concerns. There are hosts of known and unknown effects on human health from GMO food crops, and those who eat non-GMO foods aim to avoid unexpected and negative impacts on their health.

====

The Paleo Diet (also called Primal Diet or Grain-Free Diet) is onbe I've encountered while looking at gluten-free blogs, and I had no idea what it meant. It is based on the simple premise that if cavemen from the Paleolithic era (10,000 to 2.5 million years ago) didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either. Paleo advocates say we should eat the way humans ate when they were hunter/gathers. These humans predate the agricultural revolution during which grains reigned; they ate what nature offered. Followers of the Paleo diet believe our modern diet differs enormously from that of the distant past, which the human digestive system remains the same, with numerous health problems resulting. This diet eliminates refined sugar, dairy, legumes, and grains. It focuses on meat, fish, poultry, eggs, fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. Foods allowed are generally gluten-free, grain free and high in protein.

====

Raw Foods are those which have not been cooked, processed, microwaved, irradiated, genetically engineered, or exposed to pesticides or herbicides, and some advocate a diet based totally on eating raw. Foods allowed include fresh fruits, berries, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and herbs in their whole, natural state. Proponents say cooking obliterates most of the vitamins in food and nearly all of the immune-boosting plant nutrients. Dehydrated foods are allowed, but only those dried below specified temperatures.

====

Glycemic Index Diet is based upon eating from its list of “good” carbs - bran cereal and many fruits and veggies, like apples and carrots, for example - to control appetite, delay hunger, and promoting weight loss. “Bad” carbs, like white bread and instant mashed potatoes, are quickly digested and released into the bloodstream, spiking blood sugar and making you hungry sooner. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of a carb’s effect on blood sugar. Good carbs are lower on the glycemic index. They are digested slowly, so you feel fuller longer, and your blood sugar and metabolism don’t go out of whack. This way of eating is suggested for cutting risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. To eat this way, you track where different carbs fall on the 0-100 GI index. You fill up on low-GI carbs (55 and under), eat smaller amounts of medium-GI carbs (56 to 69), and limit high-GI carbs (70 and up). Lists of carbs in each category are available online.


====

Now you are armed with knowledge to design a lifestyle diet which you can follow!