Monday, January 30, 2012

Warm Lemon/Lime Gingerade


I try to make it a regular practice to blow my kids' minds.  It is a necessity in our sort of household, I think.  A household in which TV time is strictly limited, video games are even more limited, candy is rare, and high-fructose corn syrup is viewed as suspiciously as if it were poison.

Being my child cannot be easy.  Too much 'no' zaps the fun out of life, so we actively seek out the yeses.

Stove-top popcorn, hot cocoa made with real cocoa and raw sugar, spicy roasted chickpeas, crispy kale chips: these are the sorts of things that thrill both the kids and mama.  Addictive, fun snacks do not have to be either unhealthy or highly-processed.  And there is a time and place for everything, of course, with sweets free-for-alls around birthdays and holidays, and kids' movies from the library for lazy Sunday afternoons spent lounging on the couch.

It is a delicate balance.

Hence, the great fun we have when mind-blowing moments arise.  The first time the kids had kale chips?  Minds successfully blown.  The occasional batch of homemade vanilla ice cream?  Epic blowing of the mind.  A tea party with a warm, sweetened lemon-lime ginger drink that mama views as actually healthy?  Hip, hip hooray to a brand-new mind blowing.


Oh, truth be told, I wasn't even sure the kids would enjoy this concoction.  I made it for myself, as part of my usual wintertime quest for restorative foods and drinks, and I thought it would be lovely for those days around the learning table when I am feeling frustrated and chilled and out-of-sorts.  It was, of course, lovely for all those reasons.

I found the recipe at Beauty That Moves, and her description - 'please fix what ails me beverage' - was exactly the sort of turn of a phrase that calls my name.  So I quickly made a batch, knowing a friend was on her way over, and she and I could tuck into a small pot of this in no time.  It was a beautiful kind of perfect.  Barely sweet, just a wee bit tart, and slightly spicy from the fresh ginger.  It was calming and warming, clean-tasting and bright, and if it were a perfume, I would dab it behind my ears.

I made the first batch using honey, as called for in the original recipe, but when I made it again the next day, I used agave nectar, and I liked it even more.  Agave nectar is a thing of wonder, if you are not familiar with it.  Often used in place of honey, with a similar but slightly more neutral taste, agave nectar has a low glycemic index, thus having less of an effect on blood sugar than many other sweeteners.  It is also vegan and unrefined, making it a fabulous ingredient to keep on hand in a natural foods pantry.

It also helps that I do not feel terribly guilty letting my children guzzle down a drink sweetened with a just a wee bit of agave nectar.  Which is good, because once they tried this drink, they were hooked.  With vitamin C from the lemons and limes, and the anti-inflammatory effects (amongst other health benefits) of ginger, I can make this for them almost as often as they want, and we can all feel good about it.

I think natural sodas might be next on the child-mind-blowing agenda.  Stay tuned, kids.

*****

WARM LEMON-LIME GINGERADE (adapted from Beauty That Moves), serves 4

  • 4 cups water
  • 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated fine
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 to 3 Tbs agave nectar, or 1/4 cup honey, sweetened to taste
  1. Pour water into saucepan, and bring to a boil.
  2. Add grated ginger, reduce heat, and simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Turn off heat, add lemon and lime juice, and the sweetener, and cover the pan.  Let steep for 10 minutes.
  4. Strain if desired (I do not bother - we rather enjoy the tiny wisps of ginger left in the mixture).  Serve hot, warm, or cold.  It is delicious at every temperature.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

~ Yes ~


It was a trying week.  Full of the sort of days in which I question the sanity of homeschooling, when I wonder if I will ever have the time to do all of the work on my desk, and when I fear I will never have time to sit and chat with my girlfriends again.

So silly, I know.  Because of course everything in life comes in phases, and these days will change into new challenges and new hurdles, and it is all good.  Even the bad days are not really all that bad.

I gave up on the never ending list of Things That Must Be Done yesterday, and I said no to my desk and the housework, and yes to a friend.  Yes is really the only thing I ever want to say to my friends.  Yes to an afternoon watching our kids play (and fight) in the sandbox.  Yes to a batch of cookies.  Yes to a cup of tea.  Yes to time spent with one of my very favorite people.

Yes is such a lovely word.


Yes, children.  You can let your pet lizards run all over the table while I work on lesson plans for next week.  Yes, I will make you some more of that yummy warm lemon/limeade that I made yesterday.  Yes, then let's go through the woods to my sister's house and spend time with a whole lot of our family around a gorgeous bonfire.  And yes, little brother, let's play with all the settings on my camera together until we find the one that takes the best photographs of a fire at night.


(ISO 3200, in case you were wondering).


Yes, dear son who took five hours to clean his room today and who really shouldn't be kept up past his bedtime when we must get up early tomorrow, you may eat a hot dog.  And some potato chips.  And a few marshmallows.  Yes to lemonade.  And yes to hot chocolate.  Whoops.  Yes, that is my big bloodhound in your house, dear sister (sorry about that).


Yes, this is a lovely way to spend a weekend in January.  What else should we say yes to in the coming days?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Roasted Red Pepper and Cauliflower Salad


Rain has been rare around here for so long, that we do not complain when it comes.  Even when it arrives and stays for days and days, bringing with it fog and thunder (in January, no less).  Even when it then brightens up for a day or two, and begins to rain again.

We'll take it.

To be sure, rain in the winter just kind of works for me.  The trees are already bare and gray, and we are mostly inside anyway, so days of rain make me want to cozy up in my yoga pants, living on soup and hot tea and the dreary, yet ethereally beautiful, view through my windows.


Glorious, isn't it?  Misty mornings, foggy views, and the pitter-pattering sound of the rain on the tin roof. It's no wonder I'm digging the Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special cookbook right now.  Soups and salads and good, crusty bread are just perfect for warming the belly and soothing the tired mind at the end of the day.

This past weekend, after a full day of heavy rain and busy little projects around the house, I made Moosewood's Celery Roquefort Soup, and served it with a companion dish from the same cookbook, Roasted Red Pepper and Cauliflower Salad.  The pairing was sublime, marrying the rich, velvety soup with the vibrant flavors and varying textures of the salad.

And such a salad it is.  The pepper is roasted, peeled, and then sliced; and the cauliflower and potatoes are tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted just until tender.  The roasted vegetables are then spooned atop a mixture of crisp, fresh lettuces, and the whole shebang is drizzled with a homemade, just-tart-enough, vinaigrette.

I adore salads with unexpected elements, like roasted vegetables served over crisp lettuce, everything tangy with vinaigrette.  This recipe called for fennel, which wasn't suiting my mellow mood at the moment, so I made it with a mixture of rosemary, parsley, thyme, and basil, but you can do whatever you wish there - I don't think it would hurt to use a gentler hand with the herbs altogether.  There is a lot going on in this salad, with the sweet, silky roasted peppers contrasting nicely with the savory flavor of the roasted potatoes and cauliflower, and the pure flavors do not need to be smothered with a lot of extras.


So perfect.  And so easy on the eyes.  Composed salads with warm vegetables and cold greens are my idea of heavenly, you see, and even The Carnivore ate a double helping.  This sort of salad is decidedly not the sort of thing that keeps well, so plan on eating the whole thing at once.  And it does not require a soup alongside.  It would do just as well served with baked salmon, or even as a main-course lunch if topped with a crumbled feta or blue cheese, and served with a good rustic bread.

I felt a sublime sort of love for our first meal from this cookbook, and I plan to make the Creamy Onion and Fontina Soup with the Wilted Spinach and Sauteed Portobello Mushroom Salad this weekend.  I do hope it rains again.

*****

ROASTED RED PEPPER AND CAULIFLOWER SALAD, serves 4
(adapted from Moosewood Daily Specials)

  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 small head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets (about 4 cups)
  • 1 large russet potato, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 6 Tbs olive oil, divided
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tbs apple cider vinegar
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 scant tsp dried herbs (mix of rosemary, thyme, fennel, basil, and/or parsley)
  • 4 cups torn leaf lettuce - butter lettuce worked beautifully here
  1. To roast the pepper, you can place it over the flame on a gas stove, turning until it is blackened on most of it's surface.  Or, you can put in the oven, on broil, turning it every minute or so until most of it is blackened and charred.  Remove it from the heat, wrap it in a kitchen towel, and leave alone for 5 or 10 minutes.  Unwrap the pepper, peel off and discard the skin.  Cut in half and discard the seeds and membrane.  Slice lengthwise into thin strips and set aside.
  2. On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss the cauliflower florets and potato slices in 2 Tbs olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and arrange in a single layer.  Roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until tender but not falling apart, and the cauliflower is browned and getting crispy on the edges.  Give the pan a stir every 5 minutes or so during roasting.
  3. To make the dressing, whisk together the remaining 4 Tbs olive oil, lemon juice, cider vinegar, garlic cloves, herbs, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.  Set aside.
  4. Lay the greens on a large platter or in the bottom of a large, wide bowl.  Arrange the roasted cauliflower and potatoes on the greens, and top with the red pepper strips.  Drizzle with the dressing.  Serve immediately.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Looming



Do you see that ladybug on the wall in the lamplight?  We are currently enjoying our annual ladybug invasion.  They are everywhere in the house, marching across the sunny windows, holding meetings in the laundry room, congregating on the ceiling in The Boy Wonder's room, and lolling about on the houseplants.  Princess Hazelnut likes to sing songs to them.  It's ridiculous.  The sort of cuteness overload that makes your heart hurt.

I have a silly amount of recipes I have been stockpiling to share here when time allows.  Alas, there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many neurons continuing to fire properly in my (scatter)brain by the time the kids are in bed, the lights are turned off in my office, and I find my way to my favorite corner of the living room.  Or the bedroom.  God bless that warm, comfortable bed.

This weekend, I finally cooked from Moosewood Daily Special, and I think I might have fallen in love with the cookbook.  A few months ago, I ran across an entire box of incredible vegetarian cookbooks at a yard sale, and this was one of my finds from that day, but as with so many of the finer things in life, it got put on the back burner while the rest of life swirled around in its busy way.


It is a lovely cookbook, full of the soups and salads that Moosewood Restaurant would have as their popular - wait for it - daily specials.  So you turn to a page for a Creamy Onion Soup (be still my beating heart), for instance, and at the bottom of the page, it lists three or four of the salads that marry well with it.  Menu planning at its absolute best.  When I simply cannot bear to take the time to think through multiple components for a meal, I can turn here and know that all I will need to add is some fresh focaccia bread or a baguette from the bakery I am so blessed to have as a client.

Don't hate me because I have beautiful clients.  With offices in perfectly wonderful locations.  And more work than I know what to do with at the moment.


And tonight's dinner - oh my - of blue cheese ravioli made with wonton wrappers (because I barely had the time to be stuffing the wrappers much less time to make pasta dough from scratch this afternoon).  So delicious.  I really, truly should have been in my office rather than carefully sealing those ravioli, but a girl must have her priorities.

Recipes to come.  All in due time.  With pictures and descriptions and my usual absurdities.  And my newest and best-yet recipe for natural deodorant.  For now, I leave you with my new favorite album to listen to online - perfect for a rainy day indoors (I would know, we just had four days of grey skies and rain - it was a minor miracle and we loved every soggy minute of it).  If you need me, I will be in my office, madly and hilariously attempting to finish these infernal W2s and 1099s before that looming IRS deadline.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Honey Facial Wash


Honey is such a miracle product.  I love to purchase raw honey from local farmers, using it to sweeten the kids' oatmeal, to soothe sore throats and coughs, to dab on tiny boo-boos, to drizzle on homemade biscuits slathered with butter, and to make granola.  Such a simple, pure, amazing product.

Studying bees during The Boy Wonder's science lessons only added to the honey idolatry around these parts.  It's just good, good stuff.  And honeybees are perfectly amazing creatures.

Honey has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, and because local flowers are used by the honeybees, it is thought (but unproven) that the consumption of local honey can help with allergies.  The fact that it tastes like heaven doesn't hurt.

Last summer, Crunchy Betty wrote a detailed series of posts on using honey as a face wash, and I was stunned by the idea.  I had never even heard of it, and here she was suggesting that honey was good for acne, for aging skin, for dry skin or oily skin, for sensitive skin and for normal skin, and it was healing to boot, and would even help heal acne scars.

See, I have bad skin.  For many, many years I fought a losing battle with cystic acne that cost absurd amounts of money, wreaked havoc on my self-esteem, and resulted in scars over most of my face.  It has only been in the past seven years that I have found a cocktail of cleansers and creams that do not aggravate my skin, but I have long been uncomfortable with the amount of chemicals in these products.  And it has occurred to me more than once that all these drying products would possibly exacerbate the onset of wrinkles as I age.

There is no end to the injustice.

I do not care to speak about this usually, for even as the intervening years have softened the blow of that decade in which I wore heavy makeup to cover my blemishes, I get a little nervous still about the thought of changing my cleansing routine and possibly causing problems to resurface.

But this honey face wash had my interest piqued.  So I went for it.  And I haven't looked back in months now.

Using raw honey is important (Crunchy Betty explains the reasons here), and I have easy access in my area to local, raw honey, but you can find raw, truly unheated honey at most health food stores as well.  I have also used regular old store-bought honey in a pinch, and found it worked just fine.

I follow Crunchy Betty's routine almost completely.  In the mornings, when there is no makeup to be removed, I simply wet my face with warm water, rub about 1/2 tsp of honey onto my face, and then rinse off.  I follow that with a tinted moisturizer that contains sunscreen, and some loose powder, and I'm good to go.  No need for toners or acne creams or anything else.  {Well, there is usually mascara and eyeliner involved, but that has more to do with vanity than with skin, so we'll skip the boring parts about how I do my eye makeup}.

At night, to make sure I have completely removed my makeup, I again follow one of Crunchy Betty's routines: I wet my face, squeeze about 1/2 tsp of honey into my palm, and then add about 1/2 tsp of baking soda to the honey, mixing it up with my finger.  I apply the scrub to my face, and rinse with warm water.  Following that, to rebalance the pH of my skin - because the baking soda will alter the balance somewhat - I use a homemade toner comprised of 50% water and 50% apple cider vinegar.  I then apply a little bit of tea tree oil and jojoba oil to my face for moisturizing and blemish-preventing protection.


I've followed this cleansing routine for the past six months now, and I cannot help but think it's a whole lot of fabulousness.  Facial cleanser is one more item crossed off the shopping list, and yet another notch that can be added to the belt of consumer anarchy.

Gah.  That might be my worst metaphor yet.

This post was featured on Natural Mothers Network.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Homemade Almond Milk


Sometimes, when I find out how easy it is to make something that I never thought twice about purchasing at the store, I feel like a Class-A dummy for not having figured it out sooner.  Did you know all it takes to make your own almond milk is a few almonds, some water, and a wee bit of vanilla extract?

This, my friends, is another feather in the hat of consumer anarchy.

Or something like that.  My metaphors rarely make sense.

Almond milk is silly good stuff, as creamy as whole milk, but much lower in fat and calories, and loaded with a variety of vitamins and minerals.  I stopped using regular milk in my cereal a few years back, partly because I was mildly alarmed at the processing involved in creating skim milk, and also because cow's milk simply stopped tasting good to me.

For a while, I used soy milk, and then I switched to rice milk or almond milk, but I wasn't big on the over-processing or the stabilizers that were used, so I did what I generally do when presented with options I'm not crazy about:  I walked away and said "Aw, just forget it."  I say that more often than I would like.

Hence the water in my oatmeal, and the lack of granola in my diet lately.

Then I overheard someone talking about making their own almond milk.


Well, good grief.  That had not even occurred to me.  You take some almonds and soak them overnight in a bowl of water.  Then you drain the almonds, put them in a blender with water, add a little vanilla extract and some sweetener if you need it, and voila.  You have almond milk.  Thick, creamy, fresh, almond milk with the purest flavor imaginable.



Want to blow your kids' minds?  Get them to help make it.  And then serve it with their cereal instead of regular milk.  Princess Hazelnut actually cried this morning when she found out I had not soaked some almonds overnight to make more almond milk for her breakfast.

There are solids left over after making the almond milk, and I could not bear the thought of throwing them away, so I put them in a jar in the fridge for a day or so and did a little searching.  There are, as should be expected, some wacko ideas online for what to do with the leftover paste, but my favorite, by far, suggested laying the solids out on a cookie sheet and baking it for about an hour until it is dried out and it becomes - Ta Da - almond meal.


See that little jar of clumpy almond solids up there?  Yeah, that's going straight into the oven now.  I have big plans for the resulting almond meal.  Cookies, I think...

*****

ALMOND MILK (yields 3 cups)

  • 1 cup raw almonds
  • 3 cups water (in addition to the water used to soak the almonds)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, optional
  • 2 pitted dates or 2 tsp agave syrup, optional
  1. Soak the almonds in water for six hours or longer.
  2. Drain the almonds, discarding the soaking water.
  3. Place the almonds, 3 cups water, vanilla extract and dates or agave syrup (if using) in a blender and blend until almost smooth.
  4. Pour through a strainer to remove the solids (and save the solids for other uses).
  5. The almond milk will keep in the fridge for 3 or 4 days.  Shake before using.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Space Held for The Morning


I have overbooked myself again, taking on another new client slightly in advance of the end of a large project with another client, and I feel our family's pace picking back up now, just as The Carnivore has entered his busiest period in months.  The good news always seems to be that the busier we are, the more we are able to accomplish.  Tasks constrict or grow to fill the space they are given, I think, so when I attempt to cram a growing pile of clients into a day already filled with the children's learning time, pressing household duties, and a couple of personal pursuits as well, I find that efficiency can go through the roof.  In a good way.

But then again, my ability to take this all in stride might have more to do with recent enhancements to my morning routine than with any sort of brilliant insights into competency that I may have to offer.

Waking myself up, it turns out, is far preferable to that jarring feeling of being shaken awake by a child who already has a list of demands that need to be met.

I just don't work well under those circumstances.  This new habit of being the first one up (on purpose, no less) has been nearly perfect.  And I recently took away the kids' morning cartoons during the week, so the absence of advertising and bright colors and loud noises has had a positive effect on the overall tone of the morning as well.

I should have done this a year ago, but I had grown so fond of the electronic babysitter handling the first few minutes of the day that I sunk into a rut without giving it much thought.

The days are beginning to flow a little more smoothly now.  I arise at seven, and I practice yoga, get myself dressed and ready for the day, get some quiet time, and then, at eight, I wake up the kids, snuggling and playing with them for a few minutes before racing them to the breakfast table and getting some protein and fiber in them first thing - before they have a chance to let hunger affect their delicate temperaments.

I do not say that disparagingly, mind you.  When I have not eaten enough protein, I feel weak and a little bit dumb.  When I haven't consumed enough fresh fruits and vegetables, I feel sluggish.  A lack of whole-grain fiber makes me moody.  Have you ever kept a food diary and tracked the way your moods and energy levels change according to the types of food you eat?  I highly recommend it (and it beats blindly trusting the FDA or a faddish diet book for generic nutrition advice).

We listen to classical music during breakfast and lunch, and that too has been a pleasant addition to our daily rhythms.  It calms the kids when they are getting feisty; it settles mama when I start feeling edgy.  Our history lessons this year are focused on the Baroque period, so I chose Bach and Vivaldi for our composer studies, opting to fully immerse in only two composers rather than cramming in as many as we could.  Such a lovely part of our day.  Especially when we were listening to Vivaldi at dinner one night, and The Boy Wonder schooled The Carnivore and I on some facts he learned about Vivaldi in music class at his homeschool academy.

Homeschooling in our family is two parts frustrating, one part challenging, and one part rewarding.  That moment landed solidly in the rewarding column.  I need to keep a running list of those events as they happen.  They do not occur as often as I originally assumed they would, but when they do, it is pure magic.

And so the mornings are beginning to improve.  An earlier and less distracted start time allows us to move more deliberately and intentionally through breakfast and our lessons, which in turn keeps all of our moods in check so that the afternoon lies ahead of us with just a little bit more promise and a lot less frustration.

Deliberate.  Intentional.  Those are good goals for the day, I think.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When Homeschooling Is Not Lovely: Chaos and Space


Homeschooling can be such good, good stuff.  Getting to spend so much of our time together during these early years, attending classes at the nature center and the botanical gardens as a family, learning simultaneously with our children, enjoying dinner conversations about classical music and art and history.  

It is a great life.  

Except for when it's not.  

Normally, when we hit a brick wall, I know well enough to step back and take a few days off from our lesson plans, to let the learning happen organically as we set aside the worksheets and the assignments and explore other interests, seeing where they take us.  

But our Christmas break was only a few weeks ago, and I think some of our current problem may be that we are in need of more structure rather than less.  The Boy Wonder would have seen it as a reward to go in a freer direction for a few days, and that was not the sort of message I wanted to send after the whining and foot-dragging that has been going on as of late.

Now, he is a boy, of course, and a seven-year-old at that.  Being a slowpoke is in his job description, and even on the best of days, I have to say "Come ON, buddy," at least 57 times.  Eating a sandwich takes 45 minutes.  Brushing his teeth takes a minimum of 5 minutes.  Feeding the dogs can take up to an hour, allowing for time to watch a lizard, to pee off the porch steps, and to completely forget what he is doing and head to the sandbox for a while.  Luckily, he is able to focus when he is reading a book, but then the focus is so complete that he doesn't hear me calling him unless I use a megaphone.

Sometimes I understand why teachers are so quick to recommend Ritalin.  A classroom full of distractible children does seem like it could get the tiniest bit frustrating, doesn't it?

Oh, of course I am kidding.  Mostly.

I like structure, you see.  Schedules, to-do lists, and the like.  Where this gets dicey is when I don't notice that some tweaks need to happen to our routine and I just keep trying to force a square peg (The Boy Wonder) into a round hole (my schedule).  


Before we had children, structure was so much less important, but as Life with Baby began to sink in, I realized the only way anything would ever get done again was if I paid attention to the baby's internal clock and scheduled all other responsibilities around it.  It would work for short periods, and then he would shift his napping or nursing schedule, and I would put all my clients on hold for a few days until a new rhythm was established and then I would juggle the rest of our life around it and move on again.

Until a new schedule shift happened, at which time we would repeat the whole cycle.  We were living on the edge, you understand.

The real issue right now, I think, is that we have been following this current routine for so long that it didn't occur to any of us that it wasn't working any longer until, lo and behold, it very much was not working at all.

Oy.

And I'm the one who keeps espousing a desire to be more present, yes?

So embarrassing.

Small changes have been happening on their own lately, with me recognizing the need to rise before everyone else and to make time for yoga and scripture reading before I wake the rest of the household; and then to end the day with a little bit more time for reading or writing once the kids have closed their eyes and have again begun to resemble the angels they can be.

It is those 12 hours in the middle that merit adjustment, and it is there that I have aimed nearly all of my attention in order to ferret out what must change.  Heather from Beauty That Moves posted her household routine recently, and there was one thing she said that has been my overriding inspiration and comfort while I have contemplated shaking up my kids' (and my) previously set-in-stone routine.  Her daily rhythm is set out in blocks of time, which is the same sort of way my own mind works when attempting to fulfill each of my roles on a daily basis.  As she stated in her post, "Blocks of time are not meant to be filled to the very minute, rather they are space held for certain tasks or projects to be completed within."

Yes.  

[Breathe in.  Breathe out.]

It is a most lovely way to think about it.  Somehow everything seems so much more doable when I think about space being held for each of the responsibilities of our day.  I can hold space in the early morning for my quiet time.  Space will be held at 5:30 for our family dinner time.  The children's story- and bedtimes are less of a chore when I realize I have held space for that time in the late evening.  

I simply need to rearrange our time blocks right now, until we find a way to work and learn during the best times of day for those things to occur for each of us.  I must only hold the space for work, for learning time, for the children to play and run around.  Out of chaos, I will hold space.

Monday, January 16, 2012

On the Nourishing


Sometimes I can be terribly dense about recognizing ways to nourish myself.  I can occasionally dredge up moments of intelligence, at least enough to realize that in the hot, muggy days of summer, I prefer cold, sometimes astringent foods.  Marinated cucumbers, cottage cheese topped with fruit, granola stirred into yogurt, cold bean salads.  And if that is the case, the idea that cold foods are best in the summer, then the inverse must also be true at the opposite time of year, yes?

In a perfect world, I would be aware of the correlation, but the truth is, even though I do begin craving hearty soups when the weather turns colder, I seldom remember to stick with warming foods throughout the season.

Inevitably, on a chilly afternoon, I will crave a coffee treat, and so I will shoot into the kitchen to whip up a coffee milkshake, only to find myself shivering and cranky an hour later.  Or I will make a green smoothie for breakfast when it is 30 degrees outside and our hardwood floors feel like sheets of ice, and then I won't quite understand why my mood is so edgy and my stomach feels tense.

Self-awareness stumps me when I get too flighty to pay attention to my surroundings.  This past fall, when I was a bit desperate to re-balance myself, and I embarked on a seven-day cleanse, I began to read up on Ayurvedic constitutions and its corresponding nutrition information, and I finally began to put a little more thought into the types of food I was consuming at this particular time of year.

I should point out that I do not fully subscribe to Ayurveda as a way of life, but I do think a lot can be learned by studying its holistic and preventive approach to health.  If you are interested in reading just a little snippet on what it is all about, this is an easy-to-understand and very non-threatening primer on the subject.

My constitution, according to what I have read and understood thus far, is almost equally balanced between two of the types, so I find the nutritional advice a bit confusing and disjointed, but what I have gleaned is that at this time of year, when I have trouble getting warm, and focus is harder for me to come by, warm, moist foods are very important.

Knowing this, and following it relatively closely, has had an immeasurable difference in my energy levels and concentration for the past few months.  At a time of year when I am often out of sorts and prone to very mild depressive tendencies, I have found myself calmer, less prickly, and much more inclined to think creatively.

This is nothing to sneeze at, my friends.  Last winter was brutal.  And it followed a very emotionally draining fall in which we lost my beloved grandfather and came dangerously close to losing The Carnivore as well.  To have gone through such sadness and stress so quickly, immediately before the coldest months of the year, was a recipe for disaster, to be sure.  This year was almost certainly going to be a walk in the park in comparison, but I was brooking no uncertainty this time around.  Thus the focus on internal awareness, on being more present in each moment, on practicing yoga daily, and on altering my diet just enough to provide a more nourishing atmosphere.

And the difference is striking.  Dinners include more chili, lentils, casseroles, and roasted or braised vegetables.  In addition to my steel-cut oatmeal, I have experimented with other hot breakfast cereals, using barley or quinoa (as shown in the photo at top, with blueberries and bananas).  Cinnamon and ginger find their way into each of the cereals, as do cooked fruits.

It is so simple, isn't it?  Raw, cold foods in the summer.  Hot, moist, stewed foods in the winter.  Working with the weather to find a way to a proper place of nourishment.  It is simple, yes, and also so very comforting.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Chocolate Vegan Death Cake


I have lately taken to carrying my camera around in my purse again.  For too long now, I have relied on my phone as my primary camera, and the result has been that I no longer remember to take daily photographs.  Habits are important to me, little rituals to keep me focused; without them, I flounder around forgetting to do simple things like washing my hair, or going to the grocery store.

We had dinner at a friend's house last night, and I was so glad I remembered to bring my camera.  The evening was lovely, and deserved to be commemorated.  There was a scrumptious African sweet potato stew, a baby who charmed us with his gummy grin, and the only two pictures I have of myself and A.M. together were taken about 25 years apart.  Last night would have been a great time to have taken another, and to have gotten a snapshot of that glorious stew.

If only I had remembered to take my camera out of my purse.


Gah.

At least the first part of the day was preserved for posterity's sake.  After suffering through the excesses of Christmas, we have gone mostly dessert-free around here for the past few weeks, but I finally reached the end of my rope.  I needed chocolate, you see, and I had one particular recipe in mind.

My friend B.S. (you have no idea how happy I am that those are her initials) has a little bit of cake magic in her, and she has been known to show up at tough times with magical foods.  It will likely irritate her that I mention her inherent goodness in a public setting, but I don't really care.

She turned up at the hospital last year when my grandmother was having surgery, and put her hilarious pudgy baby into my anxious mother's arms.  Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a few pieces of this cake, wordlessly handing them over to me.  I nearly wept.  Not because it meant so much to me that a friend would come to the hospital with goodies (even though that was weep-worthy), but because the cake itself was so ridiculously delicious.

I mean, it is a vegan cake.  How good can it be, right?  This cake is absurd, it's so good.  So moist it is shocking that it even holds together, with a tender, chewy crumb, and a purity of flavor.  There is no butter, which is normally the overarching taste in a cake (not that there is anything wrong with that).  In this case, rather than butter, there is coffee and chocolate, melding together into a perfect simple essence.

Love songs should be written about cakes like this.  The recipe is from my favorite vegetarian restaurant The Grit, which means it already has The Boy Wonder's stamp of approval - he has, after all, eaten his way across their entire dessert case and back, at least twice.  As a matter of fact, this is probably the fourth of their cake recipes that I have now baked at home (although one or two of them had to be replicated to the best of my ability, because those recipes were not in their cookbook).

This one is in the cookbook, but because B.S. (best initials ever) serves it without the frosting, and that is therefore how I crave it now, I chose to go without the icing as well.  Also, I did not want to trouble myself with running to the store to pick up some silken tofu.

Other than that, I changed very little about the recipe.  I made it using raw sugar and homemade vanilla extract, and because I do not care for caffeinated children, I used decaf coffee in the recipe.  Decaf does not have the freshest flavor though, so if you can hide the cake from your own heathens children, I strongly recommend using full-voltage coffee.  I also added about 1/4 cup of cacao nibs to the batter, partly because I didn't have quite enough cocoa, but also because I have been trying to find a way to use these nibs.  They gave great texture to the cake, adding a bit of crunch , but the nibs are intense in flavor, and if you don't dig extremely bitter chocolate, you will not want to even consider such a thing.

Also, since it's vegan, feel free to call this cake a health food (even though it is the farthest thing from it).

*****

CHOCOLATE VEGAN DEATH CAKE, adapted from The Grit

Note: I used a 10-inch, super deep springform pan for this cake.  You can also use a Bundt pan, but do not fill more than 3/4 of the way - if there is leftover batter, just make a few cupcakes and freeze them (this cake freezes beautifully).  If making a layer cake and frosting as well, bake this in three 9-inch round cake pans.

  • 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 Tbs baking soda
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
  • 2 Tbs pure vanilla extract
  • 3 cups strong brewed coffee
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  1. Grease and flour pans (see head note), and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In the large bowl of your electric mixer, sift the dry ingredients together.
  3. Add oil and vanilla extract.
  4. On low speed, blend until fully combined.
  5. Increase speed just a little, and gradually add coffee.
  6. When mixture is smooth, reduce speed to lowest setting, and add vinegar, blending only until combined.  Do not overmix.
  7. Divide batter between pans, and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, just until a knife comes out clean when inserted into the middle.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Accidental Vegan-'Til-Six


I have long toyed with the idea of eating more vegan meals.  Not going entirely vegan, mind you.  I love cheese and eggs way too much for that sort of thing, and I do not believe in giving up anything I love unless the reason is compelling.

At a point though, It seemed to me that I was including unnecessary dairy in my meals, and so I switched out milk for soy or rice milk in my cereal a few years ago.  Then I got a little cranky about the processing involved in packaged non-dairy drinks, and in lieu of learning how to make my own almond milk, I just began to avoid cereal altogether.

Maybe a year ago, I started leaning vegan for breakfast.  Green smoothies, oatmeal, peanut butter toast, or baked apples and the like.  I started feeling more energetic in the mornings.

Not much later, due to better dinner planning, leftovers became more scarce and I had to start re-thinking lunch as well.  Without giving it much thought, I began falling back on my old staple of brown rice with beans and olive oil for lunch, or a big green salad topped with garbanzo or cannellini beans and a homemade vinaigrette.

Have you heard of Mark Bittman's habit of vegan before dinnertime?  It is what he credited for his weight loss a few years ago, along with other improvements to his health, and I thought it was a great idea when I first read it, especially for someone like me who enjoys challenging the mindless eating habits that are so easy to fall into.

But of course I forgot about it rather quickly.  Like so many other things I read.

A few days ago though, I realized I had gone the way of the part-time vegan myself.  Breakfast and lunch just happened organically {snort}, but even my snacks had gone vegan as well.  Instead of a piece of cheese or a small carton of yogurt, I found myself reaching for an apple or a handful of pumpkin seeds.

Huh.  And it's been going on for a while apparently.

Well, except for that day last week when I had an hour to kill in between appointments and I found myself both childless and flush with cash.  I snuck into a coffee shop with my computer and a wicked grin, and ordered a ginormous, completely ridiculous, overpriced and fully decadent, highly caffeinated drink.  With full-fat dairy.  And an extra shot of high fructose corn syrup.

And it was goooooooooood.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Spicy Cornbread


I used to joke that I married The Carnivore for his cornbread.  Even at the point when I took over all the cooking for our little family, cornbread was still his purview.  He claimed to not have a recipe, you see, so I couldn't take it over.  And I kind of liked it that way.

The only cornbread I recall having as a child was made from a box mix, or it had the unmistakable sweetness of sugar in it, and I just didn't care for any of that.  Then I fell in love with The Carnivore, and he began cooking for me, and he kind of blew my mind with his cornbread.  It was spicy rather than sweet, dense instead of fluffy, with a crisp crust and actual corn kernels inside.

Ridiculous yummy.

But we had two flaws in the system, the first being that The Carnivore never got home from work in time to make the cornbread when we needed it to go with lentils, or with Cuban black bean soup, or black eyed peas and collards.  The other problem, and a crucial one, was the waste factor.  We never managed to eat an entire batch in one sitting, and the leftovers didn't warm up well on the second day.

Waste makes me a little bit nuts.

Then I bought The Art of Simple Food with some birthday money a few years ago, and Alice's simple cornbread recipe started calling my name.  I knew enough of The Carnivore's tricks (add cheese, onions and jalapenos to the batter; and preheat the pan with a little bit of fat) that I thought I could adapt the recipe from the book to suit our purposes, while adding a few touches of my own.

The crowning touch was that I finally got wise enough {slaps forehead} to realize if I baked half the batch in my smaller 5-inch cast iron skillet, then I could also avoid the waste problem.  The other half of the batter could be refrigerated until the next day to go with the inevitable leftover beans.  Eureka.  Fresh cornbread two nights in a row.  No waste.


I cannot believe it took that long to figure that out.  Please, someone, anyone, act like this is the best advice you ever heard and that I am a genius for imparting my wisdom here.  Pretty please.  My ego is smarting.

I made quite a few changes to the original recipe in The Art of Simple Food - so many, in fact, that attribution is hardly necessary.  But here is the beauty of that particular cookbook, the whole thing is written so that you can take the general outline of her ideas and then run with it to make it your own.  She is lovely that way, you see, with her pure joy regarding food and the grace she allows for others to take her knowledge and change it all up a little.

I love that in a cookbook.  When I open the pages, I want to be inspired, not overwhelmed by recipes that seem to complicated for home use.  I want general advice, and cheeky little headnotes, techniques that make me excited to get into the kitchen.  This cookbook is perfect that way.  In fact, it is probably one of my handful of desert island cookbooks when it all comes down to it.

Which, by default, makes this my Desert Island Cornbread.

*****

SPICY CORNBREAD (inspired by The Art of Simple Food), makes 8 pieces

  • 1 cup cornmeal (the coarser, the better)
  • 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder (you can make your own)
  • 1 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1 to 2 hot peppers, minced (or 1 to 2 tsp crushed red pepper), optional
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup corn kernels
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 4 Tbs butter, melted (plus 1 Tbs butter for the pan)
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  
  2. For the crispiest crust, put a 9- to 10-inch cast iron skillet into the oven while it preheats, with 1 Tbs of butter in the skillet.  
  3. In a large bowl, add the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt.  Stir together.
  4. In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat, then add the onion and peppers (if using) and saute until onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes.  Let cool for a minute or two.
  5. Add the sauteed onion & pepper to the flour mixture, along with the cheese and corn kernels.  Stir together.
  6. Pour the milk into a small bowl, and whisk in the egg.
  7. Add the milk & egg to the flour mixture, and stir until well-mixed.
  8. Stir the 4 Tbs of melted butter into the batter.
  9. Take the skillet out of the oven, tilt it to distribute the melted butter, and pour in the batter.
  10. Bake for 20 minutes, until cornbread is nicely browned on top, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Ritual of Morning


There is nothing quite so peaceful as a gray early morning, cloudy and still, the air full with the promise of an impending storm.  I awoke today to the loveliest heavy cloud cover, grateful to know the darkness would keep the kids in bed even longer than usual (bless the long silent minutes before the daily bloodshed begins).

As I have for the past few weeks, I began the day with yoga, so much better for me than my former habit of waiting until mid-morning to begin my practice.  With the house completely quiet, and only a lamp on in the living room for muted light, the time is perfect.  Just me and my mat, and the beautiful women of Namaste Yoga.  And a touch of lightning this morning, which I found nearly intoxicating.

After yoga, I sip hot water with lemon, in my chair by the fireplace, where I also spend a few minutes with my Bible, which I am currently reading in chronological order for the first time.  Have you ever read the Bible this way?  Fascinating to put the spiritual realm into a more historical context.  I wish I had tried it sooner.


Then comes coffee, a phone call to my mother, a little blog reading, and then (with a bang) comes the day.  If I didn't stay up so late reading, I swear I would wake up at 5 am just to revel in that beloved early morning stillness.  Today, though, with the bedroom still so dark, the children slept in and I didn't have the heart to wake them.  Why rush the day, yes?  The homeschool lessons, the nonstop Hobbit meal schedule, the work on my desk, the endless onslaught of emails.

No need to hurry, you see.  Intentional living means enjoying this moment, this serene time before the clamoring begins.  And so I took my coffee to the porch, in the welcome sixty-something degree January temperature, and I listened to the rain and the muted sound of distant thunder, and I watched the brilliant red cardinals fluff themselves up in the bare colorless trees.  And it was perfect.

Tranquil.

Languid.

And now here it is, nearly ten o'clock at night, and I can still hear the heathens giggling in bed.  It's a fine how-do-you-do, my friends.

As God is my witness, I will never let them sleep so late again.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Thankful Game


There are days in which this little view of the outside world is where I focus my gaze in order to quiet my mind.  Days when there are just too many topics in my head vying for attention, when the world (of homeschooling these hooligans) seems too noisy for my taste, and my to-do list is filled with the monotony of the unimportant.

I have been reading snippets from Voluntary Simplicity here and there lately, and last night, having finished On Writing, but not wanting to start anything new since I had a hold to retrieve from the library, I picked it back up and started reading from where I left off a week or so ago.

Do you read two or three books at a time?  In my younger days, I would never have dreamed of doing such a thing, but these days I often find myself in the middle of a tiny stack of books.  It comes from my dependency on the library, I believe, because if a hold comes in from another library in the system, I must stop whatever else I am reading in order to return the non-renewable book in time.  I kind of like it, actually, but since I am happiest when surrounded by ample reading material, this extra little quirk won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me.

It was in last night's reading of Voluntary Simplicity that I found a succinct description of what I so often find frustrating in myself: "The crucial importance of penetrating behind our continuous stream of thought is stressed by every major consciousness tradition in the world: Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Sufi, Zen, and so on.  Western cultures, however, have fostered the understanding that a state of continual mental distraction is in the natural order of things."


In a world where we are thought to be more successful or more productive if we have fifteen balls in the air at the same time, and where advertising and popular media surround us with impossible-to-ignore loud noises and flashing lights and bright colors, there seems to be little or no reward for learning to quiet our minds and focus our thoughts to a place of singular thought, a state of perfect calm.

In living such a fast-paced lifestyle, driven by the unconscious urge to consume, acquire, and accumulate, we fail to notice our children's need for attentive conversation, our own mental and emotional need for silence and communion with God, and our physical need to breathe more slowly.


Oh, of course there is a lot to do.  There are dishes in the sink, and clothes in the dryer, lessons to plan, and piles of work on my desk.  There are educational goals to strive towards with the children, different creative endeavors that each of us want to pursue, and always, always, a to-do list to attend to.

And I have no plans to take only what I can carry and move into a hermit cabin in the woods.  I like the society I belong to.  I am grateful for modern conveniences, for smartphones, for access to newspapers and radio stations from all around the world.

But that does not mean there are not ample moments during the day to put a stop to all of the competing interests ping-ponging in our own minds, to slow down the breathing, the rushing, and the disjointed thoughts competing for a corner of our awareness.

Tonight, when The Carnivore worked way past late, and I was terribly frustrated over not being able to get quickly to my desk, and the irritation I felt towards the children for being so emotionally whacked out today was threatening to make my brain explode, I gazed out my kitchen window for a few breaths, and then I carefully, and deliberately, set the table for three.

Princess Hazelnut said the blessing, "Dear God, thank you for the food, and our friends, and our family. In Jesus name, Amen."

Then both kids asked for a little bit of the red wine vinegar that I was sprinkling over my lentils, and a lively conversation was sparked about the nutritional aspects of vinegar, and about protein and high-fructose corn syrup and pumpkin seeds and packaged cereals and how vinegar could possibly be different from wine if they both came from grapes, and suddenly the work on my desk seemed less important.

The only thing that mattered was this time spent talking about food and nutrition with my curious children.  For the first time all day, I was not in a hurry, The Boy Wonder was not on the verge of a temper tantrum, and Princess Hazelnut was not clamoring for attention.

Suddenly, the princess shouted, "Y'all!  We forgot to do our thankfuls!"  And so we went around the table, doing one of the only things we do correctly as a family, stating what we were thankful for that day.

The Boy Wonder, so innocent and still so present in each moment, said the most profound thing I had heard all day, "I am thankful for this talk we are having."

And me?  I am thankful for a son who takes such great joy in dinner conversation, and for the reminder that what I was doing right at that moment, eating dinner with my children, was the only thing that mattered right then.  Everything else could wait.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Steel Cut Oatmeal


My cookbook collection, I am finally willing to admit, is here to inspire me on techniques rather than recipes.  As much as I love flipping through the pages and admiring the pure fabulousness of the complicated recipes and the beauty of the photographs, I inevitably find that I take one tiny idea from each book and use it to tweak my own recipes.

It was not always this way.  Six or seven years ago, when I was beginning to grasp the awesomeness of creating meals at home (meals that went beyond the ubiquitous black bean and brown rice burrito), I would follow recipes to the letter, schlepping myself to multiple stores in order to source every last ingredient, and then measuring carefully to ensure that I stayed within the lines.

But that gets a bit monotonous after a bit, wouldn't you say?  And expensive.  Too often, I would find myself purchasing herbs or spices that would lose their potency long before I ever used more than a teaspoon-full (Chinese Five Spice Powder, anyone?). It's just silly really.  But the more I cooked, the more I learned to substitute and to re-interpret, to trust my own instincts for tweaking recipes to suit our family's tastes.

There are some general Beam Family rules of thumb that I have learned to keep in the forefront at all times: add an extra 1/4 tsp of salt to almost everything, use dark chocolate anytime the recipe calls for milk chocolate, add a few shakes of Crushed Red Pepper to any recipe with 'spicy' in the title.  Most recipes involving flour (with the exception of cakes) can be altered to use 1/2 all purpose flour and 1/2 whole wheat pastry flour.  Brown rice will win out over white rice every time (as long as you allow for the extra cooking time).  If the recipe looks like it uses too much sugar, it probably does.  Reduce it by 1/4 (unless it's a cake).  One clove of garlic is never enough.

But I will never have enough technique in my arsenal, and I'm always a little bit shocked by the magnitude of difference the tiniest adaptation to execution can make in the finished dish.  Sometimes, the difference cannot even be tasted - it may simply be a matter of time savings or even a reminder to freeze the leftover portion of an ingredient in which only a tiny portion is used.

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn.  I hope to never stop learning, actually.  Isn't that at the point in which you die, after all?  Learn, woman, learn.


In the winter, namely December and January, or at least until fresh cranberries stop showing up at the stores, I eat oatmeal for breakfast.  Oatmeal with walnuts, cranberries, and cinnamon, to be precise.  It's almost a knee-jerk response to the change in the weather.  Without even noticing, I will cease using steamed or baked apples in my oatmeal, and switch to cranberries until that season ends, then I (again without thinking about it much) will begin buying frozen pomegranate seeds until, all of a sudden, the weather warms up, and I start making granola again instead of oatmeal.

Most of the time, it doesn't even bother me that I'm such a creature of habit about breakfast.  Whole wheat pancakes with blueberries & pecans on Saturdays, fried egg sandwiches when I feel like I'm running low on protein (and when I have local eggs in my fridge), oatmeal in the fall and winter, homemade granola in the spring and summer.

Recently though, I picked up some steel-cut oats instead of my usual rolled oats, and I wasn't totally thrilled when I followed the recipe on the box.  The flavor seemed too one-note, it needed a little salt, a small kick of flavor.  I tried adding a little salt on my own (I added way too much) and then I used the tiniest amount of vanilla extract (also not right).  Honey made it too sweet.  Even with the cranberries and walnuts, it seemed like gruel.  Did it need a small amount of fat?  A more elaborate array of spices?

My cookbook collection is relatively diverse, and I can often figure out rather quickly which book(s) to reach for when I need help.  When the CSA gave me too much kale, I went to Moosewood and Mollie Katzen.  When I needed a red velvet cake recipe for Princess Hazelnut's birthday, I had no doubt Southern Living would treat us right.  And when someone gifted me a beautiful bag of rye flour, and when I ran into difficulty with a box of steel-cut oats, I went straight to Good to the Grain, a veritable treasure trove of whole-grain perfection.

And I wasn't disappointed.  The index took me to a recipe for Steel-Cut Oatmeal, and right there, in the head notes at the top of the page was the instruction to toast the oats before cooking them.  Well, of course {slaps forehead}.  As Kim Boyce, the goddess of all things whole grain, states in the recipe, "...these oats are much more flavorful if you give them a quick toast in the pan before longer cooking.  This brings out their natural sweet nuttiness and gives bite to the oats."

Good grief.  What a revelation.  The difference was profound, and now I'm hooked on steel-cut oats.  The texture is so much more interesting than that of rolled oats, and the flavor is richer, nuttier, rounder.

I would be lost as a goose without these cookbooks.



*****

STEEL-CUT OATMEAL (serves 5)

In my house, I'm the only one who eats oatmeal.  I make the full recipe on Monday morning each week, and refrigerate the leftovers, warming up a small bowl full each morning in the microwave (adding a little bit of water to keep it the right consistency), and then topping with the nuts.  This would be terrific to make on the weekend so that you can warm it up in a hurry on rushed weekday mornings.

  • 1 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 cup steel-cut oats
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup whole, fresh cranberries
  • chopped walnuts
  • honey, to taste
  1. In a 2 quart pot, melt the butter over medium heat.  
  2. Add the oats, the cinnamon and the salt, and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring very often.
  3. Add the water and the cranberries, and adjust the heat to low.  Simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Top with chopped walnuts, and a drizzle of honey.  Serve hot.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract


Random Acts of Consumer Anarchy continue to occur around here, and they show no signs of abating (there are still so many more things I want to learn how to make myself - castile soap, I'm looking at you).  In light of recent events though, maybe I should call this The Occupy Your Shopping List Project.  The point is, after all, to whittle down the shopping list, to participate just a little less in the consumerist machine, to spend less money; to consume less, and to create more.  

To date, the items we have removed from our shopping list include shampoo, baking powder, dishwasher detergent, laundry detergent, facial cleanser, body lotion, hot pepper sauce (recipe one and recipe two), play dough, glass cleaner, and now vanilla extract.

The vanilla extract is a biggie.  Have you looked carefully at the cost of a good-quality organic pure vanilla extract?  Pricey, I say.  The less expensive brands of vanilla extract, even the ones that claim to be pure vanilla extract, often contain dubious ingredients, and even then, the cost per ounce is relatively high.

And I use A LOT of vanilla extract.  Those tiny little bottles never lasted long around here, so I started looking into ordering an 8-oz bottle online.  {Enter sticker shock}.  Then I looked into making my own, and, well, eureka.

Making your own vanilla extract is really quite simple - just a matter of stuffing some split vanilla beans into a bottle of vodka and then letting it steep for two months.  So, sure, the first batch takes a wee bit of patience, but you can make giant containers worth at a time, or you can make smaller batches, and always keep another batch going in a dark cupboard.

The price savings are intense, and the quality is excellent.  So far, I have used vodka for my extract, since that was what I saw recommended most often in the recipe sites that I consulted for my initial batch, but I am curious about the difference when using bourbon.  Next time, for sure...

*****

HOMEMADE VANILLA EXTRACT

When purchased in bulk, you can find organic vanilla beans for around $1/each right now.  A year ago, when I made my first batch, I found organic vanilla beans in bulk for about half that price.  My first batch came in at about $0.50/ounce, and my most recent batch was more expensive, at about $1.00/ounce (still a bargain compared to $2.00/ounce for the commercial organic vanilla extract).

  • 750 ml bottle of vodka
  • 12 vanilla beans
  1. Remove about 1/2 cup of vodka from the bottle.  What you do with it is totally up to you.  I don't want to know.  Unless you make a vodka sauce for pasta, and then I want your recipe.  
  2. Using a sharp knife, split the beans lengthwise along one entire side of the bean (this is to expose the pulp inside).
  3. Stuff the vanilla beans into the bottle of vodka.  Close tightly and shake.
  4. Store the bottle in a dark pantry or cupboard for two months, shaking it weekly.  
  5. After two months, when the liquor has been fully infused, pour some of the extract into a smaller bottle (for ease of use), and stuff one or two of the beans into the smaller bottle as well.  Use as you would commercial extract.  
*****
This post was also featured on Frugally Sustainable and Natural Mothers Network.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Abhyanga and the Normal Girl


In September, everything got a little unbalanced around here.  We had just returned to our homeschooling lessons after a solid two months off for summer break, and at the same time, I picked up two big new clients.  We went from the hot, slow-moving days of summer into the busiest time for our household in years.

I was off-kilter, which quite frankly, meant all of us ended up off-balance.  Dinners became rushed affairs, the most oft-heard phrase from my lips became "Mama needs to work now, sweetheart," my yoga practice fell by the wayside, and I began to feel uncomfortable in my own skin.  I woke up tired every morning, my muscles felt tense and rigid, and meals left me bloated.

It was ridiculous.  I know better than to let stress get such a leg up on me.  And the pressure of my workload, while not quite avoidable, was something that I knew would pass.  The extra work would smooth out once I became accustomed to each of the new clients, and the learning curve wouldn't last forever.  There was, to be sure, no need to panic.

But panic, I did, at least at first.  Too much had been added to the schedule at once, and I wasn't slowing down enough to see that I needed to pull back at least a little bit in order to practice some much-needed self-care.

Self-care is such a loaded term, isn't it?  The modern lifestyle just isn't conducive to taking the time out of our busy schedules in order to tend to our own needs, and so many women feel guilty about even thinking of putting their personal needs on the list of Things That Are Important.  It seems self-indulgent, self-centered.

To that, I say Hogwash.  It is none of those things.  You know how being kind to someone with whom you have a testy relationship ends up improving the situation?  And you find that extending a little grace to a difficult person results in you liking them more?

Try extending a little of that same grace to yourself.  Show yourself a little kindness.  It just might improve that antagonistic relationship you have with your own body, your skin, your hair, your emotions, your health.

Late in September, just as I was on the verge of contacting a naturopath for help with the insomnia and the bloating and the general feeling of discomfort in my body, I happened upon an article in Yoga Journal about their 7-day Fall Detox, and, after breathing a sigh of relief, I decided to postpone my impending breakdown and see if participating in the cleanse would help.

Oh, my stars, how it did help.  It was a gentle detox, nothing dangerous or even all that difficult.  I ate kitchari at every meal, drank spiced teas, followed the prescribed yoga practices, eschewed caffeine and sugar, and got just a little bit more sleep than I had been getting.  Very little else changed.  My schedule, with it's homeschooling and work commitments, was not altered.  But I felt better almost immediately.  The bloating I had been experiencing after meals disappeared, as did three pounds of apparently unnecessary weight.  The quality of my sleep improved.  I remembered to breathe deeply.

Part of the benefit of the detox was simply the end-product of having paid more careful attention to myself for seven days, because while I still needed to cook other meals for the rest of my family, there was a ritualistic quality in eating the kitchari for 21 straight meals, in simmering the spiced teas, in reading the daily email that came during the detox, in consciously paying attention to my cravings and what I was putting into my body.

Interestingly though, the most long-lasting impact of the detox was that I learned about the benefits of abhyanga, the practice of massaging the entire body with warmed oil before bathing.  For quite some time now, I have used jojoba oil to massage my face and scalp, but adding the ritual of whole-body self-massage with warm sesame oil was a revelation indeed.  The Banyan Botanicals website has a much more comprehensive article about the practice, some of which may seem like so much hooey to you skeptical types, but it would be hard to deny that taking five minutes out of one's day to rub warm oil into our tired muscles and dry skin before bathing is going to be in our best interests.  Even if it doesn't actually turn us into Wonder Woman.

The idea is relatively simple.  You take organic sesame oil, and warm it up (in the microwave, in a pan on the stove, immersed in a sinkful of hot water, however you like).  Then you pour a little bit into your hands, and you massage it into your skin, using circular strokes on the joints, and firm, long strokes on your limbs.  Rub your ears, your scalp, your temples, your jaw.  Press a little more deeply in the areas you carry tension, the back of your neck, the tops of your shoulders, the top of your spine, the backs of your calves.

You will not need to wash the oil off of your skin with soap in the shower.  The water will take away the greasiness, and sesame oil has cleansing properties on it's own.  It would be a shame to wash off the lovely moisturizing qualities of the oil with soap, wouldn't it?  And I have found that by gently patting myself dry after the shower, enough of the oil remains that I no longer need to use commercial body lotions to lock in the moisture.  This small gesture of kindness to myself has become as integral to my physical well-being as my yoga practice and the attention I pay to my meals.

It only takes a few minutes, but that precious tiny amount of time spent paying attention to yourself and how you feel will stay with you all through whatever the day may bring.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Such a Full Week


Many years ago, I lived on the street parallel to this one.  I have walked every inch of it, many times over, always marveling at the way the trees seem to meet each other overhead. Even in the winter, when there is only the architectural element of the bare branches, it is still beautiful to me.  But, oh, you should see it in the summertime when the world is so green.  The temperature is always five degrees cooler in the shade of those lovely trees.

When I am in town, you can bet I have arranged my route so that I still get to meander down the boulevard, driving just a little bit slower so that I can smile at the houses I still have a crush on.  I drove down it yesterday.  And back up it again today.

This week was a challenging one.  There were moments when I remembered to stay myself, to focus for as long as I could on the feelings of now, to just breathe.  But I also knew that there was a door closing with one of my beloved clients, and the uncertainty kept making me want to rush ahead, to get more quickly to the end of the week when there would be more answers, a little more clarity on the situation as it progressed.


I am not terribly good at staying in the moment when parts of my work are consuming my thoughts.  But I am getting better.  It is easier to be present when my tiny ballerina is clad in her pink leotard, when I am on a date with my little boy, when I am slowly coasting down my favorite street.

It is perfectly sensible to me to have a road for a touchstone.  There is a window in my kitchen that plays the same role.  When I happen to glance out, and my eye lights upon that one tree that is a little left of center, my breathing slows down, and I stand and just look for a moment.

A quiet weekend at home is just what the doctor ordered, I believe.  For where one door has closed, two more are already beginning to open, and I have faith that things are going in just the direction they are meant to.