Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's been a very long break from food blogging.  I found after my friend Mike died that I lost motivation.  But here I am, and it's the start of a new year, the days are getting longer, the light is returning.

We are having friends for dinner tomorrow night, so I thought I would do some menu planning.  We have quite a lot of leftover leg of lamb, so I am leaning towards a lamb pilaf.  Sari and Rowan will need something vegetarian, so falafel from scratch.  Then we can make some skordalia, hummus  and the like for starters, a nice big salad, and some lamb kofta because we do have a whole lamb down in the freezer to work our way through.  Perhaps I can convince Sari to make pita and a batch of puff pastry, and we can make sweet pastries for dessert, lemon and cheese, honey and walnut, and chocolate. 

Groceries from long ago.  Here's to a fresh start.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Seasonal produce at last!

Since I started blogging I have been grocery shopping by starting in the meat department and seeing what looked good/affordable.  But there is finally enough local produce that I will be switching to starting in the produce section.  Which got me to thinking about meat and dairy and their availability locally.

I was a vegetarian for years, and one of the main reasons was I thought it would be much better for the environment.  There is no question to me that factory farmed meat is very very destructive for the earth. I am increasingly certain that pastured meat is actually much better for the planet than annual row crops.  Pasture encourages diversity, perennials have the deep nourishing root systems that hold water in the soil and prevent erosion, etc.  In the winter, given the choice between local humanely processed and pastured meat and dairy or row crops shipped in from who knows where, I have been focusing on meat.

But now it's summer, real glorious summer, and I can focus on produce.

I will put a new shopping list in the side bar later today, I am heading to the store now.  But here is my plan:  Start in produce and select a weeks worth of local produce.  (Well, this week I am only shopping for a few days, we are heading to a convention for 5 days.)  I will try for a variety of colors.  My emphasis will be on greens and aromatics, but if there is anything starchy or any local fruit I will buy those too.  From now till the fall I am going to attempt to only buy local produce.  This will naturally limit or change what I can cook, and determine the shape of my other grocery choices.

Because the cows are out on quickly growing summer pasture I am going to also emphasize local grass fed dairy options.

I will end at the meat counter and select whatever looks good for grilling or other quick energy conserving and heat minimizing cooking methods.  Though, the crock pot doesn't heat up the kitchen too bad and you could always stick it in the entry or a bed room or something.

A few center of the store staples like tea and coffee, beans for the vegetarians, and some dark chocolate and I should be set.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Patio planters

I love planting patio pots with a mixture of annuals, and several people have asked me lately how I decide what to put in them.  So I thought I would write out my tips, though none of them are earth shattering or new.

The advantage of patio pots is I can change them every year.  So much of my yard is perennials, and I actually like making new gardens better than I like gardening, so mixed pots give me that creative outlet.

The first thing to consider is form, I generally plant one tall thing, one or two draping things, and then the rest to fill in.

I think texture, scale, and shape are important, so I try to have some different kinds of foliage texture and shape, like long blade like leaves from spike or an ornamental grass, bigger leaves such as sweet potato vine, and some finer textures like asparagus fern.

Next I consider color, and I focus on foliage more than flowers.  Your options are pretty much dark green, chartreuse, silver, variegated, and purple.  And of course coleus, which I always use, because it's as good as a flower.  Variety is good, but chaos is bad.  Unity is good, but too much and it's boring.  And in addition to each pot having a good composition, I like all the pots to go together, but be different.  I don't cram every foliage color in each pot, too chaotic, every pot will end up with normal green, so I pick one or two other foliage colors for each pot. This year all of my pots have some chartreuse, and some dark red and chartreuse coleus to create unity.  Then some have variegated foliage as well, and some have purple as well.  I skipped anything silver this year.

Flowers are actually the last thing I think of.  I created unity among my pots by using dark red and purple snap dragons in all of the pots.  Each pot has one different kind of dark red or purple flower that's a focal point, and several of the pots have peach colored petunias as filler.  I didn't really pick the flower color scheme this year because I got a purple, scarlet, and peach mixed pot as a gift, so I just made the rest go with that.  But I use purple and peach a lot, so it's no hardship.  The flowers match the foliage and coleus too.

I have two lovely cobalt blue planters and would love several more in different sizes and shapes, but until I can afford that I make due with a few big terra cotta pots too.  I just can't afford to go too crazy with the pots, but whimsical interesting containers are half of the fun.  Fine Gardening magazine has lot's of fun ideas in this regard.

Finally, this year most of my pots have different scented geraniums, don't forget scent and feel too.  I often will put Rosemary as the vertical element, mint, fuzzy plants, etc.  The planters are in high traffic areas and are easy to touch and smell.  Herbs do great in mixed pots.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


I added a page in the side bar, it links to my google spread sheet of camping packing lists.  I have a list for backpacking, canoe camping, and car camping.  To an extent they are geared to my family of 5, but one could easily adjust as needed.  Items in parenthases are for cooler seasons or are otherwise optional.  I will put up a page of camping daily menus and shopping lists too soon.

I live and camp in Minnesota, while it is cold up north, and cold in fall, winter, and spring, it is fairly warm in summer.  I used all of the cool weather items when I was in Scotland, as well as a cooler rated sleeping bag.  In July I can get away with much less here.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Weekly Menu 6/16/2012

I went shopping on Thursday, just to mess everything up for myself.  My son was having a sleep over and wanted all manner of specific things, and we had no food in the house, so we just did it.

Thursday: hamburgers, baked sweet potato fries, yogurt and granola parfait.  I also made a chinese style hot and sour pork ball and noodle soup for the gluten free set, and saved some for lunches through the crazy busy weekend.

Friday: dinner out before my son's concert.

Saturday: green pork tacos, cheese quesadillas.  Today is crazy with performances, a memorial, and much running around, so I am going to put the pork in the crock pot, and whenever we need food we can pull out some pork and throw together quesadillas for the kids.  Everyone is getting a bag of plums, string cheese, yogurt, and a bag of homemade granola to bring with them today.

Sunday: Possibly also crazy busy, barbecued beef in the crock pot, mashed sweet potatoes, sautéed kale, fried tofu for the vegetarians, or potentially veggie burgers, whichever they prefer.  Edit: we were barely home and all subsisted on bars all day on Saturday, so we are having the pork and quesadillas tonight and will move the whole menu back a day instead.

Monday: Roast whole chicken, tomato and rosemary stewed white bean ragout, sautéed red chard.

Tuesday: Mini meat loaf with the rest of the pork and the other pound of hamburger.  Tomato salad, quinoa pilaf.

Wednesday: The kids and I may take off for a camping trip somewhere in here, but one way or the other there will be grilled brat worst. Devilled eggs for the vegetarians, and whatever vegetables and carbohydrates I can scrounge up, we have plenty of cheese and some gluten free noodles, maybe mac and cheese?  Edited to add: I forgot the kohlrabi!  We will have creamed kohlrabi with our brat worst.  I think of creamed kohlrabi as a German thing, because I had it fairly often in Germany, but it may very well be one of those Finnish things I picked up from my host-mother.  

The smoked trout will show up in lunches or breakfasts.  Or possibly some composed salads.  I made homemade strawberry and coconut granola in vast amounts on Thursday, so that will be a feature of breakfasts, along with the bacon and breakfast sausages.  I am also baking bars and brownies to share with people after the memorial.  Edit: I shamelessly bought mixes.  I am sure the perfect gluten free brownie is homemade, but really, the mixes are so good.  I also made a double batch of the Joy of Cooking lemon curd bars, but with Bob's Red Mill shortbread mix for the crust, and GF flour in the lemon custard layer.  In my 12 x 18 jelly roll pan they turned out perfect.  And I made a double batch of Betty Crocker cook book Toffee Nut Bars, which are my family's favorite.  

Weekly Shopping

Several people have asked if I am going to change my shopping list to reflect the change of seasons, but sadly here in Minnesota there is virtually nothing local to buy yet.  What there is I have added though, and it's remarkable how it shapes my shopping to go to the produce department and search out the local food and emphasize it.  We didn't sign up for a CSA this summer, we seem to use an every 3 year schedule of CSA buying, it's hard to get motivated to use a CSA when the co-op is at the end of your block.

I haven't posted in a while, and truly haven't shopped normally in a while because one of my closest childhood friends has been very ill and died last week.  I spent a fair amount of time cooking, cleaning, and gardening for him, in an attempt to help.  But more than lost time, I spent a lot of time grieving and sad.  I am sure I will write more about it later.  The intensity of my own recent grief, losing my friend, the end of the school year, and the hectic pace of life in general would have been a great time to just plug in menus and shopping lists from the past.  Instead we ate from day to day, David did most of the cooking.  And we got a lot of takeout.  True Thai has a gluten free menu now!  Himilaya continues to be the best local Napli food, and I have become obsessed with Brasa.  Did you know everything at Brasa is gluten free except for the bread and corn bread?  Nothing they deep fry has gluten.  None of their sauces have gluten.  And it's really easy to order low-carb.  The place is dietary nirvana for me.

In fact, how weird would it be to go get some pulled beef and fried yucca for breakfast?

But I did go shopping this week, so down to business:

We started in the meat department, my vegetarian daughter is right, I do place meat at the center of my meal ideas these days.  We got two pounds of ground beef, some fresh brat worst, a package of bacon, a half pound of breakfast sausage, a pound of ground pork, a chuck roast, a whole chicken, a package of smoked trout, and a boston butt roast.  Now that I type it there is a lot of pork there.  Generally I try to emphasize fish and ruminant meat.

We walked back towards produce by way of the dairy department.  We bought whole milk, cream, whole milk cottage cheese, sour cream, 2 things of butter, whole milk plain yogurt, 5 small yogurts, and 3 dozen jumbo eggs.  All of our dairy was organic, and all but the small yogurts and cottage cheese was local.

In the produce department we searched for local produce, and then looked for seasonal produce, and then broke down and added the out of season shipped from who knows where staples.  We got: local lettuce, local tomatoes (hoop house?) local asparagus, local kale, local red chard, local scallions, local kohlrabi, local bok choi, local bell peppers, local button mushrooms, shitake mushrooms, onions, jalapeños, avocados, celery, a musk melon, plums, limes, sweet potatoes, ginger, and bananas.  There are great looking local strawberries, but we don't need them because we are getting a big bowl of strawberries a day from our garden.

Bulk we got: rolled oats, walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds.

Cheese department: cheddar, co-jack, goat cheese, bulk string cheese, and swiss cheese, all local.

Prepared food: two cans of raspberry green tea, my son was having a friend over and this was as close to soda as we would let him get, cheese puffs, pickles, chocolate whey protein powder, dehydrated coconut, freeze dried strawberries, gluten free sugar cookie mix, gluten free brownie mix, corn tortillas, and whole wheat hamburger buns.

Our P6 total was %56.  If you took out my son's junk food it would have been closer to %65.

We went over our budget by exactly the cost of the chocolate whey protein powder.  For some reason my son NEEDED to have several odd things for his sleepover, including whey powder. The kicker?  They didn't even have any of the whey during the sleepover.  They did make dinner though, hamburgers, baked sweet potato fries, and yogurt granola parfaits.  My son and his friend are entering a healthy school lunch contest, and they are convinced that Michelle Obama is going to come have lunch with them next school year as their prize.  For a vegetarian my son had very strong opinions about how to make the burgers, but everyone said they were super good.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mushroom wild rice soup

My absolute low points as a cook have been the disastrous beer cheese soup (which was fine, it just turns out my husband loathes beer cheese soup,) and the mushroom wild rice soup I made for our writers group.  I was pregnant with my daughter at the time, and my husband and I were both working for mortgage companies, he for Norwest, me for Prudential.  Our writers group was meeting at our apartment fairly soon after work and I thought I could make up a nice vegetarian cream of wild rice and mushroom soup recipe in the crock pot.  I did all the things I do to make good soup, sautéed an onion, added diced carrot and celery, sautéed the mushrooms, and added wild rice and water.  I planned to add cream when we got home.  I scooped it all into the crock pot and left for work.

Turns out wild rice will expand infinately and assume a very mushy and horrible texture if left in the crock pot for an entire day.  If you want soup and not porridge you only need about half a cup of wild rice, not a whole bag.  Also, pregnant ladies are sensitive to strong tastes and odd textures and may not be able to eat either mushrooms or wild rice for years if they have one bad experience.  Don't make cream of mushroom and wild rice soup in the crockpot if you value your tummy and wish to impress your guests.

Cream of Wild Rice Chicken Soup

However, I redeemed myself yesterday by making what my husband claims is the best soup I have ever made.  Dave roasted chicken on Monday night, and it was great.  My husband just rubbed it with butter, salted and peppered and sprinkled rosemary, thyme, and poultry mix on it, and rubbed garlic butter under the skin.  He roasted it at 450 for about an hour in a small gratin dish.  It was truly a great roast bird.  I ran off to my book club while he pulled the remaining meat off the bird, and made a stock with the carcass and pan juices and a bit of water, but nothing else.  There was maybe a cup and a half of mostly pan juices when I got home, plus some chicken meat in the fridge.  (He also served reheated leftover pureed sweet potato and cut up fresh vegetables and some melon.)

Tuesday I got home from work and sautéed a big onion in some butter.  I added diced carrots and celery.  I split the aromatics into two pots, and added sliced button mushrooms to one.  I added peeled and diced broccoli stems to the other.  They both got 1/2 - 3/4 cup of wild rice, salt, pepper, and some fresh herbs including thyme, savory, sage, parsley, and chives.  The mushroomy soup also got the chicken broth.  I added water to cover and cooked them both till the wild rice was done. I needed to go run an errand, so when the rice was cooked I added cold whole milk to both to stop the cooking, turned off the heat and went on my errand.  When I got back I added a lot of broccoli to the vegetarian soup, and a little broccoli and the chicken meat to the chicken soup.  Once the broccoli was cooked and the soup was simmering I added cream to both, and cheese to the vegetable soup, adding the cheese off the heat.  I threw in another handful of herbs and that was it.

Fundamentally it was the same soup as 20 years ago, though the awesome chicken and broth made it much much better, not to mention my new found love of cream.  But the funny thing is, I wouldn't have been able to make this soup without experiencing the disaster of the other soup.  I wouldn't have known to cool the soup down so I could run my errand without having made the horrible porridge.  Which I guess just goes to show that you should forgive your cooking failures as long as you learn from them.  And also, just because you failed at something once doesn't mean you will fail again.

Also, it turns out no amount of cheese or broccoli, which my children all love, will make up for the presence of wild rice in soup for my youngest son.  Sadly I even intended to make their soup with jasmine rice, but my daughter convinced me to use the wild rice.  I guess you can't win them all.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Healthy Blood Sugar

Bacon covered meatloaf, fat and protein to get through the day
All of my life if I missed a meal, or it was 7:00 and I hadn't had dinner yet I would pretty much lose my mind.  My poor husband has spent many an evening driving around looking for a restaurant that had a table for us while I got increasingly confused and hysterical.  These episodes always end in tears.  Most of my time as a teacher I have eaten breakfast, a snack around 10:00, lunch, and another snack around 2:00, and possibly 4:00, before going home to make dinner.  On nights when I have to stay at work until a performance I regularly would bring a giant bag of food just to get through my day.

An interesting thing has happened since I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes and started controlling my blood sugar with diet, I can go hours without food.  I no longer get frantic, hysterical, or teary if I miss a meal.  Simply keeping my blood sugar under 140 at all times, in addition to bringing my HBA1c down to 5.1 (my goal is 4.8,) has smoothed out my hunger.  I only snack for entertainment purposes now, not because I will lose my mind if I don't eat this second.

You have probably read the saying "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a peasant, and dinner like a pauper."  I have found something like that works for me.  I eat big, hearty breakfasts full of fat, protein, and vegetables, with a bit of fresh fruit.  Lunches are salads, stir-fries, or soup, with some protein and nuts or cheese.  Well, okay, all of my meals are actually about the same, high quality protein, healthy fats, lots of vegetables, a bit of fruit.  I get almost no carbs at breakfast, half a grapefruit or a few slices of pear maybe.  Any carbs in the morning really impact my blood sugar.  For lunch I can have a bit more carbohydrate, and for dinner I can tolerate up to 30 grams, a bit of sweet potato, some wild rice, a little milk.

I have been thinking of this lately because I have been crazy crazy busy.  So busy I have been missing meals left and right.  Several days this week I haven't gotten home till 3 or 4, but since I planned on getting home at 1:00 I didn't bring a lunch with me.  And I have been fine.  A bit hungry maybe, but mostly just busy.  On Tuesday I missed lunch, made dinner at 4:30, and then went to my class till 10:00.  I had a little bed time snack when I got home, but I was fine with basically two meals.

Doctors hate the term hypoglycemia, it's a short step away folk superstition for them, and indeed, when I feel frantic with hunger my blood sugar is always a bit high, at least 120.  My personal theory is that my body is pretty good at predicting my meal time, and releases about as much insulin as it thinks I will need at the appropriate time.  When I don't then eat, I release stress hormones, then glycogen from my liver, and eventually end up with high blood sugar.  It's probably the stress hormones that make me feel so rotten.

If my body doesn't expect much carbohydrate, it won't release as much insulin for the next meal, and the crash if it comes, is smaller.  Also, I was probably pretty protein deficient all those years as a vegetarian.  I think of protein as slow-carbs, available to be turned into glycogen whenever my body needs it via gluco-neo-genesis.  And getting enough fat to slow digestion evens things out a lot too.

I am pretty thankful I don't have to go through the crashes anymore.  And I am pretty happy I can make it through a day without planning so many snacks.  And I am really happy I ate a good breakfast this morning, because lunch was 4 hours late, yet again.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Fancy Restaurant Diet

For several years I have been toying with writing a diet book.  I have the best plan: the fancy restaurant diet.  Seriously, the best and often most nutritious meals I make myself are like what I eat at my favorite restaurants.  An appetizer from Cafe Maude: Greens sauteed in butter, piled in a shallow soup plate and topped with a perfectly poached egg, a few crumbles of sheep milk feta, a sprinkle of pepitas, and shreds of crispy bacon, probably half a slice of bacon worth.  Any lunch at the Birchwood.  My favorite dinner from the Craftsman: a microgreen salad very lightly dressed with olive oil and wine vinegar, a 6 ounce hanger steak, and a few ounces of cheese with a half an apple very thinly sliced and a few walnuts for dessert.  I always get one perfect glass of red wine with the meal and a pot of tea with the cheese course.  The Bento boxes from Midori's Floating World are like a tutorial in complex and balanced elements, each jewel like and lovely.  Any meal at Restaurant Alma.

Fine food should be flavorful and delight your memories, your sight, and your emotions.  All of my favorite restaurants source local and organic whenever possible.  They use good fats, butter, olive oil, nut oils, and they aren't afraid of fat.  The serving sizes are small, but they feed the senses and satisfy because they are complex and visually delightful.  Consideration is given to variety, seasonality, and the progression from one course to another.  Protein is the focus, with lively and interesting vegetables on the side.  If you skip the bread basket, though one or two slices of fabulous fresh warm bread are almost certainly fine for you if you don't have Celiac, and if you don't drink too much wine, there is no reason you couldn't happily lose weight eating like this.  And lately all my favorite restaurants are increasing their use of local food by pickling foods to save for later seasons, and lacto-fremented vegetables are really healthful for you.

A condensed version of my fancy restaurant diet:

  • Focus each plate around a small serving of the best protein you can afford.
  • Grass fed meats, wild game, wild caught sustainable fish, duck eggs, homemade tofu and hand crafted tempeh, artisan cheeses, fresh seasonal beans like fava beans, and shellfish are the best proteins.
  • Select foods that are local, organic, and seasonal.
  • You should be able to list the farmers that produced your food, the names of their farms should be poetic.  
  • Authentic ethnic foods are always better for you.
  • Use great fats: homemade butter made from grass-fed milk, really good flavorful olive oil, delicate fresh nut oils, coconut oil for high heat and for richness in your curries and asian inspired foods.  Make your own ghee.  Many things taste better with a drizzle of white truffle oil.
  • Fat is filling and carries flavor, don't fear it.
  • Make sure that there is a balance of flavors and colors on each plate, make the plate vibrant with vegetables, fruits, and herbs.  Try to add smokey, toasty, or earthy flavors.
  • Include sour flavors from citrus, fruit reductions, fine vinegars.
  • Include crunchy textures from finely diced raw vegetables, lightly toasted nuts, small amounts of bacon.
  • Mushrooms, especially wild-crafted ones, are awesome.
  • Sauces should be a delicate complement to the authentic flavors of the food, use a light hand and don't overwhelm the food.
  • How your meal looks is almost as important as how it tastes.
  • A small serving of naturally fermented foods adds an intense burst of flavor, capers, diced pickle, a few delicate shreds of pickled beets, umeboshi, any kind of Japanese pickle.
  • The best snacks are like the amuse at a restaurant, a shot-glass of super rich soup, a morsel of cheese with some nuts and a tiny serving of fruit, a bit of fancy preserved meat with some raw vegetables. Pate with crispy crackers.
  • Dessert is important and it should be exquisite.  The very best dark chocolate with a perfect cup of espresso and a few walnuts, fresh berries with a dollop of whipped cream, a lovely cheese drizzled with local honey, rose-water and cardamom panna cotta.
  • Eat in courses when you can, each a delicate morsel.  Focus your full attention on each.
  • Breakfast should be hearty and special, lunch should be salad and soup, or salad with protein, dinner portions should be small and complex.
  • One great glass of wine, ample ice water, and a warm drink with dessert.
  • Make every meal a special occasion with family or friends.  When you eat alone light a candle, and read great poetry, or listen to soothing music.
  • Take your time and make sure to have lively and interesting conversations.
The best part of my diet plan is even if you don't lose weight your food will be much more enjoyable so you won't care.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

While I was away

I didn't blog so much, but I did take a few photos of things I ate and drank.  There were some lovely cocktails one warm night.

The one on the left is a cherry gin and tonic, the one on the right is an apricot and tequila cocktail with considerable lime and lemon juice.

The light comes in the window over our kitchen sink in a lovely way, washing lettuce is much more fun in lovely light.

My husband fried a steak, then threw some onions and tomatoes in the hot pan, steamed broccoli, and made rice in the rice cooker.  Not so fancy, but simple and tasty.  Any meal cooked by someone else tastes ever so much better I think

My favorite breakfast ever, sauteed greens and mushrooms, poached eggs, crispy bacon.  I had a half an avocado on the side, and a few wedges of orange.

My son's S'more pie.  No idea how it tasted as it is chock full of gluten, and I wasn't there when they ate and photographed it, but conceptually it seemed good, graham cracker crust, melted chocolate bars and marshmallows under chocolate cream pie filling, meringue topping.  The four of them ate it in one sitting.  Must have been good, right?