Cooking Uncategorized

Our Favorite Enchiladas

August 13, 2016

Oh man, guys. This is one of our favorite meals ever. We make them at home, and order them out at Mexican restaurants.  Any excuse to eat enchiladas and we are all over it. Make these enchiladas for someone, and you’ll have a new best friend instantly. They are that good! I first made these for my husband’s 24th birthday the first year we were married. I was still learning to cook and I was shocked that I successfully completed a seemingly complicated recipe.  I used the Pioneer Woman’s Recipe from her first cookbook as a guideline, but over the years, we’ve changed things up a bit- and you can too! I’ve made these with meat, vegetarian, and dairy free with vegan cheese. Once you get the general idea- its so easy to customize your filling. It’s all good! Even though making enchiladas is quite the process, it really is not difficult once you establish a system. There are a lot of steps- but they are all easy!  Bonus points if you have a buddy help you because you can create an assembly line- but you can do this alone.

 

You’ll Need:

1 Rotisserie chicken, completely shredded  (or you could use black beans or lentils)

1 small can of green chiles

Half of a pepper, diced

half of a small onion, diced

1 small bunch of cilantro, minced

Penzey’s Taco Seasoning

1 package corn tortillas

1 large can and 1 small can of red enchilada sauce

shredded mexican blend of cheese (or vegan cheese for the lactose intolerant among us- or just skip the cheese)

Vegetable oil (for frying)

Start by sautéing the diced pepper and onion.

Once they are soft, add them to a big bowl. Mix in the chicken, can of chiles, and a half cup of the cheese. Add a tablespoon of the minced cilantro and a tablespoon of taco seasoning.

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Next, heat vegetable oil on your stove top and bring it to about medium heat. You can always adjust the temperature if things are cooking too quickly.

While the oil is heating, pour some enchilada sauce into a shallow bowl. Add some of the sauce to the bottom of a casserole dish. Take the tortillas out and set them on top of the bag. Put your bowl of enchilada filling on the counter next to that. Now it’s time to grab some tongs and start frying!

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Fry both sides of a corn tortilla. I usually wait until one side puffs up, flip it, and fry the other for about 30 seconds. I would like to add that I always end up breaking one of my first tortillas. If this happens to you, don’t be sad. Just go easier with those tongs! Next, use the tongs to transfer the tortilla to the bowl of sauce and dunk it in.

I always end up burning my fingers a little because I grab the tortilla out of the sauce with my hands, because the tongs always rip them at this point. Do this at your own risk! Place the enchilada in the casserole dish, add some filling, and then roll the tortilla over so that it is pinned closed by its own weight. Then you get back in there, and do it again until you run out of filling or tortillas or both!

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Once your casserole dishes are full and your fingerprints are sufficiently burned off, douse your enchiladas in a generous amount of enchilada sauce and an unholy amount of cheese.

The next step is to bake them at 350 until everything is melted, and maybe a hint browned on top- about 15 minutes. Add some fresh minced cilantro to the top and serve! If you are making these ahead, you can stick the casserole dish in the fridge and just bake them a little before you intend to serve them.

These go great with a shredded lettuce salad, a side of refried beans, and maybe some spanish rice! They  are also great on their own. Or with a Margherita (if you do this- only a little sour mix guys- mostly tequila and lime juice, and just have one because we are responsible adults.) At the very least serve them with some chips, salsa, and guacamole.

Enjoy!

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Health & Home

Supplementing for optimal health

August 10, 2016

I’m a little bit of a weirdo in that I like doing research. Like, I get kind of excited at the thought of helping someone with a research paper. Is that odd?

Anyway, I recently signed on with Market America as an Independent Distributor and Unfranchised Business Owner. One of the facets of Market America is some exclusive products which are all high quality and natural, including cosmetics, skin care, household cleaners and vitamin supplements.

At my very first official presentation I learned a lot of interesting things about vitamins, both the Market America Isotonix brand, and conventional vitamin tablets. I’m not one to just accept things I’m told, so I’ve been doing a little bit of internet research to corroborate what I’ve learned. Can I share some of it with you?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to let you know right now that as as Independent Distributor, I can sell these supplements and the other Market America exclusive products. If you’re interested, visit isotonix.com/ilanaleah to learn more about individual supplements. The point of this post isn’t a sales pitch – research dork here is going to share what she found interesting, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Are you ready for this? Food isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. If you’re eating all organic, you’re probably doing okay, but for most of us, even “eating healthy” doesn’t cut it. 100 years ago, wheat had a pretty high percentage of protein, which balanced out everything else that makes for it’s carby goodness. Today, due to modern farming and production methods, it’s down to about 9% protein.

Fresh veggies from the supermarket, similarly, contain a small percentage of the vitamins and minerals they’re known for as compared to what they used to contain. An article from Scientific American talks about soil depletion; genetically modified high yield crops are being produced at record rates and the soil they are growing in is being completely depleted of nutrients, leading to large crops of less nutrient dense products.

I do believe very strongly that the basis for good health is healthy eating. Sadly, if you compare the amount of calories we should be consuming daily with the amount of nutrients that are in our “good foods”, we’d be consuming well over our daily allotment of calories to gain the full recommended daily amounts. Put briefly, on the modern American diet with the foods available, we’d all have significant weight problems if we ate enough to get all our vitamins and nutrients each day.

So what can you do? The easy answer is taking vitamin supplements in addition to eating a diet consisting mostly of healthy, nutrient dense foods.

Some vitamins, like vitamin C, are fairly simple to get enough of. While citrus fruits are the most famous carriers of vitamin C, other fruits like raspberries, strawberries and melons, and vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli and even onions are good sources as well.

“But I feel fine!”

Do you? Do you really? I’m pretty healthy, yet I tend to run a touch anemic, I’m always tired and a handful of other minor issues that most of us take for granted. I’ve started taking a daily supplement blend that includes a multivitamin, calcium and vitamin D, activated B complex and antioxidants, and I feel SO much better. I’m sleeping better, which alone would be enough to sell me.

According to a 2009 study, nearly 75% of American teenagers and adults are vitamin D deficient. The “sunshine vitamin” is produced by the human body with exposure to the sun, however we spend less and less time outside, and we wear sunscreen when we are outside which limits absorption. Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more. Vitamin D supports strong bones, regulates the immune system and has been shown to help manage the symptoms of patients diagnosed with Irritable Bowel System and other digestive disorders. But buyer beware, not all vitamins are equal! Many vitamin supplements utilize vitamin D2, which is an inexpensive alternative to D3 – it makes for cheaper vitamins but is not absorbed by the body!

You read that right, and that applies to many vitamin supplements. They are created and marketed as great inexpensive vitamin supplements, but the nutrients they contain are not actually bio-available, and are not absorbed by the body.

Speaking of not being absorbed, the majority of vitamin tablets contain yucky fillers and additives, and aren’t even reliably absorbed by your body. Vitamin tablets rely of the enzymes and acids in your body which may not be strong enough to break them down sufficiently; many vitamins pass through the body whole and you don’t even realize it!

The question of absorption is a big way that Market America’s exclusive line of Isotonix vitamins differ from many other vitamin supplements. They come powdered and are mixed with a specific amount of water to create an isotonic solution that you drink. The resulting liquids taste quite decent and best of all, the vitamins and nutrients are absorbed by your body within 10-15 minutes because they are already broken down into an easy to absorb and process form. Personally, I very much appreciate being able to drink my vitamins and not need to swallow pills. I hate swallowing pills, and hate even more getting nauseous because of a bunch of pills sitting in my stomach.

isotonix supplementsThe blend I mentioned before that I am taking is the Isotonix Daily Essentials. It’s a convenient little packet containing a multivitamin, OPC-3 (a powerful anti-oxidant), actived  vitamin B complex and calcium with vitamin D, all formulated to work together. Mix with 8oz of water to make a fruity drink and take it first thing in the morning, then carry on with your day. Many people can feel an immediate difference in energy level and overall well being when they begin taking these vitamins.

I’m also a fan of the Digestive Enzyme with Probiotics packets which are taken after eating your heaviest meal of the day and help support good digestion and  a healthy gut.

All the details, ingredient lists, frequently asked questions and scientific resources are available at isotonix.com/ilanaleah. Be sure to visit www.SHOP.com/ilanaleah before you order and create your free account to take advantage of cash back rewards on your purchase!

If you’re interested in learning more about the supplements, feel free to check out the links above, or send me a message! I find all of this “food science” fascinating and would love to hear about your own experiences with nutritional supplementation.

Interested in some samples? Send me a message! Thank you for reading and learning with me!

Uncategorized

Sleepy and Thankful

August 5, 2016

Hello friends! It has been quite awhile since I’ve posted. That’s because I have been busy taking care of a tiny newborn who has grown into a chunky, happy two month old! I can hardly believe it’s been two months since my week overdue baby boy arrived on a Friday night. My husband and I could hardly believe it when the doctor put a squirming grunting, 7 lb, 3 oz baby boy on my chest. I immediately took in his dark hair and eyes, and the tiny little birthmarks on his eyes that the doctor called angel kisses. The night we became parents changed everything- but in the most wonderful way.

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I’m feeling very thankful lately.

Thankful for a healthy, handsome baby boy, whom my dad nicknamed Indy (as in Indiana Jones).I think that’s what I’ll call him on this blog.

I am thankful for family who helped us out before and after Indy’s birth, and everyone who sent well wishes and gifts. I am thankful for friends who brought us meals for two weeks so that my husband and I could lay around with our baby and binge watch shows together, and just stare at our tiny boy. We’ll remember those first few weeks forever. I know that people call a “Baby-moon” a vacation you take before baby’s arrival, but we truly feel that we had one the week after our son was born.

I’m thankful for first smiles and bright eyes, and fur babies who have been nothing but sweet and gentle toward the new tiny human in our home.

I’m thankful whenever I see my husband cuddling our son and for all of the feedings and diaper changes he does.

I’m thankful that Indy now usually wakes up only once a night and for the cold brew coffee (more on that soon) that gets me through sleepy afternoons.

I am thankful for at home date nights with a glass of wine, and our tiny boy nestled in his bassinet nearby.

I’ll try to get better at this blogging thing. I’m thankful to Indy’s wonderful Aunt Ilana for holding down the fort and writing so many awesome posts! I’m hoping to share more as I begin to discover the new normal for my life now that I am a mom. I’ve slowly begun cooking more, and Indy finally fits into his cloth diapers- so that has been an interesting transition!

Thanks for reading. I’ll leave you with a photo of this caprese salad that we enjoyed last night. We just substituted peaches for tomatoes, and kept everything else the same. So, so good.

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Talk to you soon:)

 

Gardening Health

Planting potatoes

July 25, 2016
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When most people plan their backyard gardens, I don’t think that potatoes tend to make the list. My own experience with growing potatoes was very limited until this year; I remember when I was still elementary school age, watching my grandfather dig up an area of his garden to reveal a whole mess of potatoes under the dirt.

I know now that it’s fairly simple to grow a decent crop of potatoes. And if they’re stored in a cool, dry, dark area, they will last several months if you don’t get to use them all right away.

What do you do with all those potatoes? To quote a certain hobbit, “boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew!” Or dice them and throw them in a soup, slice them thin and fry them, bake them, mash them and top a shepherd’s pie…I think you catch my drift, there are plenty of ways to use your crop of potatoes.

This potato is done with being above ground.

This potato is done with being above ground.

This spring I came across some potatoes in Home Depot’s planting section and I decided to give it a try. Why would I be impressed with a little plastic baggie of non-GMO organic potatoes? Conventional potato farming involves a lot of pesticides, including known carcinogens, hormone disruptors, neurotoxins and reproductive/developmental toxins. Those happy little potatoes nestled under the dirt absorb all the herbicides and fungicides that are sprayed above the ground and are then further treated to prevent sprouting once they are harvested. I’ve read articles where potato farmers discuss the hazmat suits they were when spraying their fields, and how they won’t feed their own families the potatoes they grow.

If you can’t plant them, try to find them organic. If you want to plant them, even a sprouted treated conventionally grown potato will produce a crop of much less toxic potatoes, as they are not being exposed to all this in growing this time around. You may have complications, but what did it cost you? A few minutes to plant and some potatoes that would have otherwise gone in the garbage.

So, back to planting them yourselves. Look for organic potatoes in the garden section, or just plant your sprouted potatoes! All organic seed potatoes are ideal, but sprouted potatoes work too. When your potatoes start to sprout and get soft, don’t throw them out, plant them!

Sprouting sweet potatoes - purple sprouts!

Sprouting sweet potatoes – purple sprouts!

You can easily do some internet research on how to plant your potatoes for the best results, but this post is going to be quick as dirty, as my posts tend to be.

Since my initial batch of organic, from the store little white potatoes I have planted some supermarket potatoes that sprouted and they are growing away. Find yourself a planter or barrel with holes in the bottom for good draining and plant your sprouted potatoes reasonably deep (this can be done right in the ground too, it’s just easier to dig them up in a container). You don’t want to plant too close to the surface of the dirt because the new potatoes grow along the stalk, under the surface of the dirt.

Within a few weeks you’ll start seeing a thick, dark green stalk and leaves emerge from the dirt (mine have come up in just a few days). Water regularly and let them grow. After a few months you’ll notice the stalk start to fail – to turn yellow or start to fall over. That’s your signal that you can dig them up. If your stalks get tall enough, you’ll see pretty white to purple flowers blooming on them.

When you’re ready, dig up the dirt in the container or area in the ground, and give it a good sift. If you had a nice long period of growth you’ll have good size potatoes, or you may find a nice amount of “baby potatoes” only a couple of inches across.

Sprouted from supermarket potatoesI’ve had good luck so far, with my first batch of cute little white potatoes and nice growth on my sprouted supermarket potatoes so far. Potatoes are fond of cooler temperatures, so you can actually do a few batches each year right into the fall, as long as the plants are well established before the first frost. Also, rotate where you plant them or replace the dirt in your planter, as depleted soil will not grow as well.

That’s really it! So next time you notice your potatoes are starting to sprout, try tossing them in some dirt instead of the garbage and see how it goes.

Fun fact: onions make potatoes sprout faster, so don’t store the two together unless that’s the desired outcome!

Have you planted potatoes? How did you do?

Life Shopping

I love online shopping

July 19, 2016

I have something to confess. I love online shopping.

I love it more than I love in person shopping. No lines, no parking lots to deal with, no worrying about how my toddler will handle the shopping trip. It’s easy and I can find nearly anything. I love buying handmade items on various online marketplaces, and I admit, I sometimes treat myself to silly little items from a certain auction site.

There are some things, like fancy clothes or shoes that need to be bought (or at least tried on) in a store, but for many basics, I prefer buying online.

Here’s another confession, which most people can probably relate to: I like saving money. I’m totally that person comparison shopping and searching the internet for coupon codes. A deal is a deal, you know what I mean?

My credit card offers cash back, 1% on most purchases with 5% in certain categories; it’s not huge money, but it adds up and every few months I cash that in and get some extra money back in my account. So now I’m going to say something…double cash back.

I’m going to stop for a second. What am I talking about here? I have recently become a Shopping Consultant with SHOP.com/Independent Distributor with Market America. Let me tell you a little bit about SHOP.com.

SHOP.com is owned by Market America, and it is a powerful shopping engine and shopping portal. There are three main ways to utilize this – and if you decide to follow along, be sure to start at SHOP.com/ilanaleah so I’ll be your Shopping Consultant!

  1. Shop: That’s right, just shop. Visit the shopping portal at SHOP.com/ilanaleah and search for your favorite online retailers. Your purchase is completed through the retailer’s secure site, and by visiting via the shopping portal, you get cash back from the retailer. Think of it as a referral bonus! Cash back can range from 1-50%, with 2-10% being the most common. For added savings, download ShopBuddy from your homepage (here’s a 1 minute video explaining how it works) and it will alert you when cash back is available, and automatically compile all the active coupon codes and deals available on participating sites.
  2. Compare: SHOP.com has a compare feature where you can search an item right from your homepage and it will show you where the item is available, the price, and if cash back is available from that retailer all on one screen. No more hopping from site to site to compare prices, you can easily see different options for purchasing a specific item all in one place.
  3. Buy exclusive items: Market America offers a selection of exclusive items that can be purchased on SHOP.com or from specific websites. These include high quality, natural cosmetics, skin care products, baby products, home cleaning products and isotonic vitamins.

Is there any risk or obligation?

No! Signing up for a SHOP.com account is completely free and there are no minimums to meet or requirements to fulfill. You sign up, you shop, you get cash. The only caveat is that you cannot cash out less than $10 at a time. Essentially, you earn free money for buying items you were buying already anyway. Plus, have a friend sign up using your referral link, or putting your email address as their reference and you get .5% cash back on his or her purchases, indefinitely!

What stores can I get cash back from?

The amounts and offers may change, but there are thousands of retailers to choose from. Just a handful are Macys, Aeropostale, American Apparel, Target, Sketchers, Ashley Furniture, Babies R Us, Barneys New York, Beauty.com, Drugstore.com, Boxed.com, Jet.com, Ancestry.com, Kohls, Kmart, Groupon and many, many more. Some stores offer cash back on online orders with in-store pick up, including Barnes and Noble, Ace Hardware and Apple, just to name a few.

How do I maximize this?

shopHow do you get the most cash back? How do you make this make you a little extra cash, and your life a little easier?

First off, pay with a credit card that rewards you so you get double cash back. Second, use the comparison tool and compare prices and cash back to find the best deals. Also, leverage your time by shopping online; there are things you always buy, that you know you’re going to buy, that you can order and have delivered.

I order diapers for Little Miss online. I go to Diapers.com from my portal (2% cash back right now) and order the diapers, wipes and diaper genie refills. They have good prices and they often have useful coupons, plus free 1-2 day shipping. I order, I get credit towards cash back, and in a day or two a big box with everything I need arrives at the door.

I’ve started ordering paper goods and pantry staples from Jet.com rather than trekking up to BJs. I start at my shopping portal and search Jet.com (also 2% cash back right now) then I order my garbage bags, paper plates, etc. The site has good prices and offers discounts if you forgo the right to free returns (lets face it, I’m going to use those paper plates even if I don’t like the design) plus coupons and low flat rate or free, quick shipping. No parking lots, no carts, no travel time. A box arrives and I have my products.

On some purchases, the cash back I earn is only a few cents, but it adds up. By the end of the year I’ll have a tidy little bonus I can cash out and put towards holiday shopping.

Also important, the SHOP.com customer support is very responsive, and I am available to answer questions about signing up, how the website works, and exclusive products.

Want to learn more about some of those exclusives? I’ll share more in the future, but for now feel free to visit two of my favorites:

Thanks for reading! I’ll be sharing more about these products periodically, but only periodically! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. There are business opportunities available as well, but I’ll only discuss those if you ask.

Baking

Go bake wild

July 15, 2016

What’s the one most common piece of wisdom you’ve heard about baking?

For me, it’s been “baking is a science”. It’s about chemistry, ratios, exact measurements. In other words, follow your recipes.

So I always did. Sometimes I’d get a little bit daring and do a minor substitution. But then I got a little more daring. With close family members being gluten free and dairy free, it got so that I had to start experimenting. These days, you can find recipes for nearly anything on the internet but even so, I might make a gluten free recipe non dairy as well, or try to make a regular recipe gluten free…or lower the sugar, change the spices, etc.

Even following recipes, I’ve had some busts. I’ve had cookies made with coconut oil melt into puddles and pour off the sides of the tray. Just yesterday I followed a recipe for a gluten free apple cinnamon pull apart bread and it was an inch from a disaster. The fluffy dough was more like pancake batter, and after enough doctoring to make it workable, the result was a tasty, but dry and dense loaf. Luckily for me, Little Miss was not upset with her somewhat lackluster birthday cake!

I’ve recently made an interesting discovery. You don’t need a recipe. We’ve always been told to stick to our recipes, but that’s just big baked goods trying to keep us down.

I’m joking about that last comment. Mostly.

If you have enough experience baking that you have a decent understanding of the ingredients and what they do, you can make up recipes and will likely have at least moderate success. They won’t always be an out of the ballpark hit, and at worst you may wind up wasting some ingredients.

Do you have the guts to go bake wild?

I’ve got two stories to share, and both include my “throw sh!t in a bowl” method of baking. Neither of these experiments was gluten free, but they are non dairy.

No-recipe bread

I’ve made a decent number of loaves of bread in my day. I have three favorite recipes that I rotate between, all of which are low to no knead, and only require a few hours to rise because I am impatient, and unlikely to realize a day in advance that I’d like to make bread.

So one day I decided to do an experiment. I poured a cup of warm water into the bowl of my KitchenAid, then added a tablespoon of yeast – why a tablespoon? Because it’s a generous amount without being too much. Some recipes call for a sprinkle of sugar for the yeast to “eat”, but it’s not necessary. Once that had a few minutes to mingle, I added a little pink sea salt, 3 cups of unbleached flour (one at a time) and a little drizzle of olive oil and let it mix for several minutes with the dough hook. I got lucky, the dough looked like bread dough; if it didn’t, I could doctor it with more water or more flour to get the texture right. Then I covered it and let it sit for a few hours and woohoo, it rose! I greased my loaf pan generously and dumped the dough in, then let it rise another hour or so and baked it at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 40 minutes, keeping an eye on it to see how the color looked. When the crust had some color and the internal temperature was 190 degrees, I took it out.

And I had bread. With no recipe. It was a little bit dense and chewy, but that’s fine by me. I don’t tend to make fancy breads, I tend to make simple, hearty peasant breads. A few days later I repeated the process with a touch more olive oil, and dried garlic and rosemary stirred in.

I made bread. With no recipe. All because I knew the basics.

No-recipe cookies

Have you heard of “kitchen sink” cookies? That’s when cookies contain “everything in the kitchen except the sink”, and that’s my style. I feel like cookies are a little more complex than bread because there are more ingredients. Again, if you have experience baking, you can likely figure out something halfway decent.

A few weeks ago we were expecting company and I decided to make cookies. Rebel that I am, I decided to again forgo a recipe. I started with 2 cups of unbleached flour and sprinkled in a pinch of salt, then added a tablespoon of baking powder (why a tablespoon? Because that’s what I decided). I added sugar, only about half a cup. Then a generous shake of cinnamon went in, a sprinkle of ground flax and hemp seeds and a handful of chia seeds. Next up I stirred in an egg and a few tablespoons of coconut oil, a nice drizzle of maple syrup and a tablespoon of vanilla extract and enough water that it began to resemble a cookie dough. When the texture looked right, I tossed in some mini chocolate chips and chopped dried cranberries. Then I spooned them onto some silpat and baking sheets and baked them at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes, keeping an eye on their color.

A selection of pantry supplies.

A selection of pantry supplies.

Why was I able to do this? Again, the basics. I have a general idea of the amount of flour to use for a normal batch, and I know what cookie dough should look like. Baking powder is for leavening, so I made sure to include some. Coconut oil is a great substitute for butter, but it turns to liquid at about 70 degrees, so I used just enough to add a little fat content but not enough to liquify and make the cookies turn to mush. A little almond or cashew milk would have worked as well as water, but I wanted to avoid the nuts; the water makes them a little fluffier with a bread-y texture.

I also could have used brown sugar or more white sugar, but I know that maple syrup digests differently and affects blood sugar less than white sugar.  Similarly, the flax, hemp and chia seeds have health benefits and add a tough of protein to balance out the carbs and sugars. The next time I made no-recipe cookies, I mashed a very ripe banana and mixed it in so I could use even a little less sugar. Did you know that bananas are considered one of the sweetest fruits out there? Just eating one, I wouldn’t have guessed it, but hey, whatever.

Are these healthy cookies? Not really, I mean, they’re still cookies. But they’re healthier than a lot of alternatives.

So. Do you have what it takes to go bake wild? To break out of the constraints of printed recipes? To make those baked goods your own?!

Start slow. Adjust sugar content. Try coconut oil and cashew milk instead of butter and dairy milk. Sprinkle a little cinnamon into your chocolate chip cookies. See what’s in your pantry and leverage your knowledge.

If you’re happy baking with recipes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you want to experiment, despite what I was always told, it is possible!

Cooking

Let’s get cooking

July 1, 2016

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that cooking is pretty important to me. I think I like cooking more than I like eating, which is kind of weird. So when an adult tells me they don’t know how to cook, I get all twisted up. What do you mean you don’t know how to cook?

I’ve had this conversation twice recently, and read a conversation on Facebook about it the other day. It seems like a lot of people either never had the time or interest to learn to cook, or didn’t have a home cook to learn from and are too intimidated to try. So I’m going to share a little secret, for at least the latter (and the former, if the interest is there) – COOKING ISN’T HARD.

That’s it. Cooking isn’t hard. And you don’t even need to follow recipes. I’m not talking about producing gourmet food here, I’m talking about the basics of being able to prepare a simple, healthy meal.

  • If you can boil water, you can cook.
  • If you can put something in a pot and stir it, you can cook.
  • If you have the ability to pay attention, you can cook.
  • If you can make a cake from a box, you can cook.
  • If you can read basic instructions, you can cook.

Trust me here. You can do this.

If you’re going to say, “but I burn everything I cook”, my answer to you is, so stir more, and walk away less. You can do this.

More or less, here’s my list of reasons you need to know how to cook:

  • Money – it’s cheaper to cook than to order takeout. Some prepared foods may be cheaper…I don’t really consider frozen dinners food, so I’ll digress here.
  • Health – you control what goes into your food. Organic versus non organic, amount of salt, sugar, chemicals, preservatives, etc.
  • Allergens – again, you control what goes into your food.
  • Skill – the ability to feed ourselves should not become a lost art. We need food to live; we should be able to prepare the food we need to live.

If you can get a feel for the different ways to cook, you can cook almost anything. It just takes some getting used to. I have categories, and how I tend to cook them (there are other ways, these are just my standards).

Two notes: First, this isn’t fine cooking here, this is a quick and dirty primer. Second, I learned to cook from my Italian mother, get ready for some olive oil.

Get yourself a the basics, a decent sized pot, a frying pan, a baking pan, a spatula, pair of tongs and a good spoon (I swear by a flat wooden spoon). If you’re cooking meat or fish, a meat thermometer is the easiest way to tell when they’re done. Ready?

For vegetables:

Bake, steam, saute, grill, boil

basic cooking old fashioned modern living

Some of the infamous giant zucchini

Let’s talk zucchini. Zucchini was one of my grandfather’s favorite things to plant, and he let them get big, so we could easy use one giant zucchini for 2-3 meals. How do I cook a zucchini? First I rinse it and cut it in the appropriate shape. Then I cook it.

  1. Bake: cut zucchini into cubes, chop onion into similar size pieces. Toss with olive oil to lightly coat, then place in oven safe pan (I like my Pyrex casserole). Sprinkle with salt, pepper and dried herbs/spices. Place in preheated oven. Check periodically; when zucchini looks a little clear, stab with fork to see if it’s tender enough to eat. Done.
  2. Steam: cut zucchini into half moons, then place in a pot with about 1/2 inch of water. Place lid on, turn heat on. Check in a few minutes, then a few minutes more if needed. Again, when the flesh of the zucchini is more clear than white, stab it with a fork to see if it’s tender. Drain off excess water, drizzle with a little olive oil and seasonings and give it a stir. Done.
  3. Saute: cut zucchini into slices/half moons. Slice some onion. In a decent size pot, add a little olive oil (don’t coat the whole bottom, but drizzle some in). Let it heat up for a minute over medium heat, then toss in the onions and give it a stir. Mix periodically for just a minute or two to give the onion a chance to mellow a little. Add in the zucchini and stir. Then stir again, and again. Not constantly, but every 30-60 seconds. Remember your heat isn’t too high; you want the veggies to get the heat without burning. Just keep it moving. Sprinkle in your salt, pepper, italian herbs, garlic powder, etc. Eyeball it, then do the fork test.
  4. Grill: Remove top and bottom ends of zucchini, then slice lengthwise, thin but not too thin (1/4″ or so). If you have access to a mandolin, use it CAREFULLY; it will give you beautifully consistent slices. Toss with a little olive oil and seasoned salt, then throw it on a hot grill. This may be the toughest, because of flare ups and potential for burning your fine little slices.
  5. Boil: Okay, forget zucchini. Don’t boil your zucchini unless you’re making minestrone soup. The only veggie (okay, tuber) I really boil are potatoes; boiling leeches a lot of the nutrients out of the food and into the water, which gets thrown away. It’s great for soup, but not great otherwise. So let’s talk potatoes. Wash and cut into edible chunks. Place in pot with water completely covering the potatoes. Turn on heat and boil until a fork goes easily into a chunk. Drain and dress with olive oil and spices, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, mash them with a little butter and spices, or quickly fry them to give them a crust.

For fish:

Bake, poach, saute

The seafoods I make most often are salmon and shrimp. So I’m going to go into some of my favorite ways to handle them.

  1. Bake: Take a pan with sides, throw some parchment down on it. Preheat your oven to 400F. Rinse your salmon and place it skin side down on the parchment paper. Then on that nice, fishy top part, drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle some herbs. Then bake it for maybe 10 minutes and check it. The fish should look more solid, less translucent. I love my meat thermometer here, so I don’t need to flake away any fish to see the inside. Put it in the thickest part, and if it’s the right temperature, it’s done. If not, check again in 5 minutes. So on and so forth.
  2. Poach: This is sort of like steaming, but fish. Prepare your fish as above (oil isn’t necessary here), but instead put it in a shallow pot on the stovetop with a little water or wine. Cover and let simmer at medium heat until the fish starts to look cooked. Check with the thermometer. See the similarities?
  3. Saute: I will sometimes just cook shrimp stovetop with veggies to throw over pasta or rice. If you cut it up, it’ll cook faster. So let’s say I’ve sauteed some onions, spinach and peas…then they’re nearly cooked, I throw in my cut up shrimp and continue mixing for maybe a minute or two until the pieces are pink all the way around rather than raw grey. That’s it.

For meats:

Bake, fry, braise, grill

  1. Bake: Meatballs are REALLY easy. I made chicken meatballs the other night – a pack of ground chicken, 1 egg, a handful of breadcrumbs, finely diced onion, chopped fresh parsley, salt, pepper, garlic powder. Mix. Preheat oven to 400F. Line baking pan with parchment paper. Use those hands and shape your meat mixture into uniform size balls and plop them on the pan. Place in oven. Ground meats cook pretty quick, so check after 10 or 15 minutes, and you’ll notice the meat it darker and doesn’t look raw anymore. You’ll need to stab one and check for clear juices, or use a meat thermometer to make sure the center is cooked. If not, leave it a little longer. Once they’re ready, serve or toss them with tomato sauce. Do the same with ground beef, and substitute raw rolled oats for breadcrumbs if you’re gluten free. Some people fry their meatballs, I like to bake them.
  2. Fry: Chicken cutlets? Mix a container of scrambled up raw egg, then grab a plate with breadcrumbs. Dip your cutlets in the breadcrumbs, then the egg wash, then the bread crumbs, and pile them up on a plate. In a a frying pan or cast iron skillet, heat about 1/2″ oil (olive oil isn’t best here, go for a vegetable, canola, etc) until sizzling hot. Carefully place in your cutlets using a pair of tongs, not crowding them (watch out, the oil may spatter!) Once you start seeing the edges brown, flip them and let cook for about the same amount of time. You’ll watch them nice and brown on both sides, and since they’re thin, they cook quickly. Remove with the tongs and place on a plate with paper towels to rest and drain off excess oil. Next batch goes in.
  3. Braise: I don’t do a real braise (though I’m planning to try), I do a quickie braise. Let’s say some country style spare ribs. Heavy walled cast iron skillet goes on medium heat with a little olive oil until it’s nice and hot (any pot with a cover will work really, just make sure it has a good seal). Use tongs to sear your meat (plop it down in the pan until the outside is cooked, flip it over and try to get all sides – this seals in juices). Take the meat out for a moment, and add onions, then some veggies (sometimes carrots and celery, sometimes I add potatoes or others too). Keep it moving until the veggies have a little color – season as you go. Add the meat back onto your lovely bed of veggies, then add a little water, maybe an inch; you don’t want to submerge the meat. Wine, water, broth, etc – or a combination. Put the lid on and let it simmer (not boil, just simmer, keep that heat low) for an hour and a half up to 3 hours. Check periodically, because if the liquid all evaporates, the bottom will burn (this is why a good fitting lid is important). Add more liquid if needed. Use a meat thermometer if you’re not sure your meat is cooked. This method should turn out a soft, tender meat and nice stew-y veggies. I do beef, pork and chicken this way, including a super simple chicken and dumplings.
  4. Grill: I only learned how to barbecue about a month and a half ago! I’m still not a pro, but I can do it. Take your steak, chicken thighs, pork, etc. and marinate or dry rub as you wish. Turn on the barbecue (there should be instructions on it) and let the grill heat up – do whatever you do to clean it too. Use BBQ tongs to place the meat, flipping it periodically until it’s cooked. Move it or turn down the heat if you’re getting flare ups.

What else?

Rice is easy! White rice cooks in 10 minutes, brown rice is more like 45 – there are instructions right on the package. Add seasonings, or open a can of beans, rinse the goop off them and stir them in, or toss with sauteed veggies. Pasta? Boil water with a bit of salt. At a boil, add pasta and set timer to time specified on the box. Then drain it out and throw your sauce on.

I know I make this sound easy. Forgive me for sounding flippant, I can be casual because I am so sure that anyone can manage this! And the beautiful thing is that once you get used to cooking, you don’t need recipes. You buy broccoli and you think, “hmm, I’ll steam that then dress it with olive oil, salt, pepper and dried shallots.” You learn go-to methods, and then you apply them to different foods within that category.

You’re not going to become a celebrity chef overnight. You may mess up, over or under cook something or burn it just a little. That’s not a big deal.

Like I said earlier, if you can do other basic activities, you can cook! If you still don’t think so (and you’re local), come over so I can prove that you can cook.

Baking Cooking

4 ways to use fresh strawberries

June 24, 2016
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When I was a kid, June was an exciting month because it signaled the end of school and the start of summer. These days, no longer attending or working in a school, June is just June. With the exception of one sweet, red little thing. Or in this case, more than one…more like 14 pounds.

lil-strawberryNow the thing I look forward to in June is strawberry picking, even more so now that Little Miss can come with us and experience it too (spoiler: she wasn’t all that impressed). My mom’s birthday falls smack in the middle of June and so her birthday and strawberry picking have become somewhat synonymous. We used to pick upstate when we could, but when I was in college my mother and I began driving out east on Long Island to pick strawberries. Wherever they’re from, fresh strawberries are pretty awesome. The backs of our legs may ache a little bit the day after picking from all that bending and crouching, but ripe red berries straight from the plant, warm from the sun are so worth it.

To make a long story short, we’ve already gone strawberry picking twice. I brought home probably about 7 pounds each time; that’s a lot of strawberries. And don’t think they’ll last because they’re fresh picked, they need to stay in the refrigerator and even so, when it gets close to the week mark you’ll start noticing some funk going on.

So pick away! But the initial rush, where you pick and buy all these berries and think you’re going to use them all might sour a little when you realize you actually need to USE them. In this house, as much as we love fruit, two adults and one toddler just aren’t going to get through 14 pounds of strawberries in 2 weeks.

So, what’s a berry picker to do? Here’s how I managed to use all the berries we picked, losing only a handful to over ripeness.

1. Gift them

I like picking strawberries a whole lot, but that doesn’t mean everyone does. Some people don’t have the time in their schedule, or the patience for the drive, or just would rather relax on their free time. That’s all good! Very good, because when you realize how inundated with berries are, you can sweetly hand off sandwich bags of these rosy beauties into plenty of grateful hands. Many of my friends received quart size bags of berries these past few weeks.

2. Bake with them

strawberry-cupStrawberry shortcake anyone? Whether you want the ease of a cake mix or you’d rather go a more controlled route and bake from scratch, go for it! A quick Google search will turn up plenty of recipes for white cake, shortcake, angel food cake, all of which will be delightful with cut fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

We had to do dairy free and gluten free, so I made a vegan gluten free white cake which we topped with berries and coconut whipped cream and it was lovely. The cake wasn’t as fluffy as I’d have liked, but it came together nicely nonetheless. There are so many recipes available, you’re sure to find something that suits your mood and needs.

3. Freeze them

Do you like smoothies? Of course you do, who doesn’t? Wash your berries, remove the hulls, slice them in half and throw them into a freezer bag to keep them for smoothie making. In a decent blender, you just toss your frozen fruit and some liquid in and you can easily make a smoothie (or go light on the liquid for a fresh, healthy sorbet). Yeah, you could buy frozen fruit in the store, but if you have your berries anyway, why not?

4. Can them

I made strawberry jam by myself for the first time yesterday. I chose a low sugar recipe that I found through – you guessed it – a Google search, and loosely followed it. I’m not going to lie, I made “jammysauce”. It spreads nicely on toast, but is not as thick as a true jam. But it is soooooo yummy. I even canned it properly, using my big canning kettle and sealing with boiling water. It’s not nearly as intimidating as it looks.

canningI worried about burning myself to death with that huge canning kettle, but I was careful and used the canning tongs and I was just fine. It looks like this insane process at first, but then you get it and suddenly you get it. And then after the jars come out of the water, you get the deep satisfaction of hearing each lid pop as they seal. If you’ve ever canned, you know the sound. Admit it, it’s super satisfying.

Try to make a jam or purposely go thin and make a delicious sauce to go on cakes, pancakes, ice cream, waffles and anything else you can think of! Many recipes are very very heavy on the sugar, so feel free to go light when you begin – you can always taste your mixture and add more as it cooks.

That’s more or less how I used up 14 pounds of strawberries in 14 days. I’m looking forward to blueberry picking next, and seeing what I can do with them!

Crafting Decor Tutorial

DIY Decor: Easy Wood Plaques

June 15, 2016

Every now and then I just decide I need something. Last time it was a dream catcher for each bedroom; this time it’s a little wooden plaque to hang in my daughter’s room. Here’s the thing, I’m big on precision and I don’t like my handwriting! I can easily whip something up on my computer, but once I print it, how do I get it onto the wood? Want to know?

This simple transfer method can be used on any soft wood (pretty much any craft wood you can buy in a craft or hobby shop). You don’t need any real art skills per se, but it will be helpful for you to have a relatively steady hand.

diy decor old fashioned modern livingLet’s go back to the beginning. I love wood slices, and I’ve been seeing them again and again in Joann Fabric and wondering what I can do with them. I finally bought one, just a little ornament size, about 3″ in either direction, with a hole drilled so it can hang. After a few weeks, it struck me – I could use it to make an ornament for Little Miss’ bedroom!

I’ve always had a fondness for the line from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “and though she be but little, she is fierce.” In the play, it’s a warning…one character tells another that the third will not hurt her, to which she responds, basically, she’s tough when she’s angry, and don’t underestimate her due to her size.

Being rather short of stature myself, I’ve always liked this quote. Being underestimated for your size is no fun. Plus, one of my favorite fiction series (The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, FYI) utilizes the quote in regard to a particularly tough female character. Now enter Little Miss – nearly two, a little big for her age but still quite small in the scheme of things, and sweet and smart and tough! Yes, she’s little, but she’s fierce!

So now, I have a wood slice and I have a quote. But as I mentioned, if I just freehand this, I’m 150% guaranteed to hate it. I don’t feel like doing a messy and labor intensive gel medium transfer…I just need to get what I print out of my computer onto the wood. Ready to see how I did it?

You’ll need:

  • A sharp pointed ballpoint pen (I’m a big fan of the Pentel RSVP fine point pen)
  • A fine point marker that will not bleed (I’ll argue that a Micron size 01 is best all day, every day)
  • Your wood slice
  • A ruler
  • Computer/printer/printer paper
  • Scotch tape

Get started!

  1. Measure the usable area on your wood slice, meaning account for edges, dark areas around the outside and any drilled holes. If there’s a string, remove it so it sits flat.
  2. Design your own, or print out an image you want to use in the appropriate size. I realize this is easy for me since I’m a graphic artist, but even MS Paint has text and re-sizing capabilities. You can also use a picture from a magazine, or simply draw your image on another sheet of practice paper and then transfer. Trim down your image to the right size and tape it where you want it.
  3. Take your fine point ballpoint pen and carefully trace your text or image, putting a little more pressure than usual. If your letters are thin, just do it once, however if there are thicker parts, like in my script words, outline the thick areas.
  4. Remove the tape and paper, and you should be able to see a fine inprint in the wood. Take your fine point marker and carefully trace, coloring in any thicker areas you want solid.
  5. Decorate in any way you wish, add color with colored pencils or fine point markers (test markers on the back to make sure they don’t bleed!) or leave it as is, then replace the string.

This same trick can be used on any size, from little ornaments like this to larger wall plaque size wood slices which you add a hanger to once you’re done. You can also buy craft wood shapes loose, or packs of thin rectangles to make into signs or other decor.

I think mine came pretty decent, with the exception of the s in “is” getting a little wonky, but I’ll just need to ignore that. It’s not super easy to write carefully with a toddler trying to climb on you. I haven’t decided yet if I want to draw some sort of decorative border or just leave it plain.

There are so many possibilities here! Think about the gifts you can make – imagine a set of wood coasters (sealed with a top coat, of course) with a cute hand drawn motif or a customized decorative plaque. I’m thinking there may be more of these around here in the future.

Health & Home

A more natural approach to nail polish

June 7, 2016
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Nail polish is an everyday item for us women, isn’t it? So much so that it almost becomes a hole in our vision. It’s the cosmetic “set it and forget it” – we apply it (or have it done for us at a salon), and then we leave it there for a few days, a week, maybe two weeks, until it’s time to take it off or do it again.

Personally, I rarely do my finger nails because it just doesn’t last. In high school, I took guitar lessons and kept my nails very short and every since, a nail anywhere past the end of my fingernail makes me crazy and needs to be cut. There’s very little point to polishing these little nubs, and anyway, between cleaning, washing dishes, gardening and crafting, my polish will get demolished. But my toe nails, that’s another story. In the summertime when it’s all sandals and flip flops, I love painting my toe nails fun colors.

I’ve been aware of the ingredients in nail polish for a long time, thanks to a childhood neighbor with an allergy to one. As an adult, I’ve slowly began moving from drugstore nail polish to “big 3 free” nail polish. Why?

Read this article for the most in-depth explanation I can offer. A snippet for you: “Researchers recently tested for signs of chemical toxins in 24 women participating in their study. They found evidence of toxins in the bodies of every single woman. What was the source of these chemicals? Nail polish. The results showed that 100% of the participants showed signs of triphenyl phosphate only 10 hours after applying nail polish. This type of conclusive result is remarkable, and it’s also alarming.”

The big 3 ingredients include formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate, with “big 4” and “big 5” including other compounds and versions of the same. These products are known carcinogens and neurotoxins. Put simply, nail polish stinks like chemicals because it is all chemicals.

The article referenced above goes on to discuss triphenyl phosphate, a strong hormone disruptor that was found present in many popular brands but was not disclosed in the ingredient lists. This compound can affect hormone production, reproduction and metabolism.

This isn’t something you lock away under the sink and only use when you have to. This is that fun, colorful stuff we paint onto our selves and our children, then leave on for days or weeks so it has plenty of time to absorb.

So how do you avoid it? Luckily, people have started taking note and more and more “big 3 free”, “big 4-5 free” and even water based nail polishes have become available.

Among well known brands, American Apparel, Essie, Estee Lauder, Lancome, Nicole, OPI and Wet n Wild are big 3 free. Looking at a list of big 5 free, I’ll admit the only one I see readily is L’Oreal (though names likes Chanel and Dior appear; Zoya is a great big 5 free brand).

Water based polishes are a different story. The big 3 and big 5 polishes are still based the same as traditional nail polish, so they don’t smell as bad, but they still have an odor and they act largely like traditional nail polish. I’ve found water based polishes to be virtually odorless, and they don’t act quite the same as others. The biggest difference I’ve found is that acetone nail polish remover doesn’t work well to remove, you need a non-acetone remover. I’ve heard that they crack and peel on finger nails without a top coat, but for toe nails they’re perfect. I’ve had a single coat last beautifully for over a week.

Part of my Sprout non toxic collection.

Part of my Sprout non toxic collection.

I recently discovered Sprout, which is discontinuing it’s line so that the owners can focus on their other small business ventures (sad for us, hopefully great for them!) Remaining stock is on sale, and it’s really good stuff. Some other water based brands include Suncoat, Aquarella, and Piggy Paint, the latter which is supposedly great for even little kids because it’s easy to remove. Speaking of kids, water based polishes are totally non toxic and all ingredients are inert, so even if a toddler decides to chew on fingers with polish, it’s harmless.

Doubling back, I’m not one to be convinced by a single study or article, and I’m sure you aren’t either. I can hear it now, the derisive snorts and comments like, “well, everything gives you cancer these days” that my earlier comments may have elicited. And that may be true. No matter how careful we are, we are not in control. Accidents can happen. Illnesses can develop, seemingly out of nowhere! It’s probably true that the presence of electronics everywhere and the chemicals we put on our skin and the pesticides on the foods we eat are all affecting our bodies in real ways we may not even understand.

It’s all risk management. We take the risks we’re comfortable with, and avoid or minimize the ones we’re not comfortable with. So maybe standard nail polishes are leeching neurotoxins into our bodies every minute. Maybe they’re not.

Personally, I’m comfortable with owning this little nugget of knowledge and moving away from using standard nail polishes. It may only be a drop in the ocean when it comes to the risks we take in everyday life, but I’ll take it. If the replacement products I’ve found were severely lacking, this might be a hard choice. But when safer alternatives exist with minimal difference in performance, I’ll take it, hands down.