Odds and Ends: Hello Summer! edition

Yeah, I know summer doesn’t actually start until next month, but this coming weekend is the long Memorial Day weekend, and that’s the unofficial start to summer. This weekend is also BottleRock weekend here in Napa, and I’m very happy that a) unlike last year, I have no urgent work projects that prevent me from fully¬†using the weekend pass I bought several months ago, and; b) my health has recovered enough that I can enjoy wine or beer and should be able to find something to eat there (as long as it isn’t too spicy and it’s very high fiber). ūüôā

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Speaking of health, I have an appointment with a surgeon on June 1 to talk about surgery to address my recurrent bouts of diverticulitis. I met with a new primary care doctor last week and he seconded the doc that diagnosed this most recent occurrence by saying¬†surgery is something I should seriously consider. I’m not excited about another abdominal surgery this year, but I want my life back. I want to be able to travel for work or pleasure. I want to be able to develop a consistent diet instead of vacillating back and forth between high fiber and low fiber. I want to not have to deal with pain and “bathroom issues” several times a year. I want to not be put on heavy, nasty antibiotics several times a year, too. If I need to have another surgery to have a better than average chance of avoiding all these issues, then I’m game to try.

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Dad asked me for my email address a few weeks ago when I was in Chicagoland and had breakfast with him and stepmother. Somehow he had lost it. Now I regularly get spammed by my dad with stupid chain emails. I never open them, as I can tell just from the subject lines that I don’t want to read them. :-/

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I had an eye exam a few weeks ago and got new frames and¬†a new prescription. Things are still not very clear in my right eye when I’m reading, but¬†it’s OK. I’m sticking with reading ebooks over paper books since I can adjust the type as needed.

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My dog is now 13 years old¬†and it’s upsetting to me that she is starting to¬†show her age in some ways. Last fall she started occasionally vomiting and having diarrhea for seemingly no reason. She woke me up one morning when I heard her vomiting on the bathroom tile floor, and I was scared when I saw there was blood in it. No one seems to know exactly why she has these problems pop up here and there, but¬†I’ve been taking her back and forth to the vet regularly to get her ALT levels measured. This is a blood test they use to measure liver health (not function, per se, but as a marker for potential disease or damage to the liver). Since the values have been abnormal for months she had an ultrasound of her liver yesterday. She has some nodules, but the vet said not to get too worried about it right now. We’ll do another ultrasound in 6 weeks. She also got a bladder infection last fall that took a couple months (and two antibiotics, one very costly) to shake.

She’s on a bunch of supplements now: Vitamin E, fish oil, Cosequin for joint health, probiotics, and a cranberry supplement to ward off another bladder infection. Needless to say, my budget for pet care over the past year has been seriously out of whack. I’m not complaining about being able to afford good care for my dog (I can), just that it’s difficult to budget accurately how much her care is going to cost since there are all these tests and vet visits. I love her fiercely, so I’m not going to scrimp on her care.

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My food budget continues to be a challenge for me. It doesn’t help that I have to restock my pantry with each new bout of diverticulitis. When I’m in the midst of an “attack” I have to be on liquids only for a day or two. While I usually keep broth on hand, I don’t consume fruit juice or gelatin on a regular basis, so I have to buy that. Then I have to buy and consume regular (as opposed to whole grain) pasta and noodles, white rice, white bread, white crackers, canned vegetables and fruit, and ground meat for a few weeks. When I’m able to eat normally again, I go back to eating whole grain products, beans, spices, and crunchy/high fiber veggies like broccoli and cauliflower.

Truthfully, even without the pantry challenges the biggest bite into my food budget is dining out. When I’m well, I eat out at least twice a week and my preferred vendors aren’t cheap, fast food. That means each week I’m spending at least $30 – $40 on dining out. I’m just going to have to bow to reality and adjust my budget to account for this since I’m not willing to give it up right now. I’m not broke or skating close to the edge every month, so there’s no reason to deprive myself. I merely want to get a handle on what my “average” expenses are and make a budget that reflects it.

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April and May were very good money months for me. First of all, April was one of those months where I got three paychecks. Since I’m paid every two weeks, there are always two months out of the year where I get three paychecks: one of these “bonus months” always happens¬†in the spring, and the other in the fall.¬†My monthly budget accounts for only two paychecks per month, so the extra paycheck is always a nice bonus that gets tucked into savings.

I also had a big federal tax refund this year. I know it’s best to engineer your withholding so this doesn’t happen, but this was truly out of my hands.¬†My employer has¬†set up several “legal entities” for risk mitigation purposes, and due to some changes in my team structure that took month 6 months to work out, I was sequentially employed by three different legal entities last year. Each one started my withholding for social security from scratch (as they were legally obligated to do) so I had way too much withheld in this area last year. Between that and an investment loss, I raked in a refund that was greater than the ones I routinely got as a homeowner with a mortgage and business expenses related to my room rentals. Again, this refund was deposited immediately in my savings account.

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Despite having a healthy amount of money to use as a house down payment, I’m still priced out of¬†affording a little house in my preferred neighborhood here in wine country. I’d have to put down much more than 20% to get a monthly payment I could afford without introducing making big changes to my¬†budget (such as cuts to pet care and dining out, for starters). I still keep looking at properties as they pop up, though, so I can remain educated about the market. If I really, really needed to buy something, I could do so in a non-preferred neighborhood or town, but I have no deep need to do so at this time. I’m getting better at cultivating patience in this area. And I’m working on ways to increase my monthly income. But that’s something I should write up in another post.

How are you doing these days?

 

Recipe: Salmon cakes

Revanche at A Gai Shan Life recently asked for recipe ideas, and this is one of my favorites. I know I’ve shared this recipe with a close friend, but I couldn’t find a copy of it in my email or when I searched my blog. So I’m remedying that situation since I’d like to keep a copy of it anyway, just in case I lose the book in which I found it.

I didn’t originally¬†find¬†this recipe in¬†a cookbook or on a website, but in a book about perimenopause, of all places. The recipe produces a single loaf or the mix can be baked in a standard muffin/cupcake tin and produces 12 “hockey puck” sized salmon cakes. I like to freeze them so I can pull two or three at a time out of the freezer and defrost as needed to make a single serving. These work equally well for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and are easy to make ahead.

Canned fish can be a really good source of protein that doesn’t cost much. I love to eat fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna fresh, but it’s often cheaper and easier to buy it it in a can. Even wild-caught fish is usually affordable when it’s been canned. It’s also very shelf-stable. (Now I’m thinking I need to put a can or two of sardines in my earthquake kit!) My edits to the recipes and comments are added in brackets.

Salmon cakes

Serves 4

1 1/2 cups canned salmon [I use one large can of wild-caught salmon]
1 cup steel-cut oats [I use Trader Joe’s Quick Cook Steel-cut Oats]
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 cup liquid from salmon plus water
2 eggs
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup green bell pepper, diced [of course you can use a yellow or red pepper, too]
1/2 cup onion, diced

Preheat oven to 350¬ļ F. Drain salmon and save liquid. Remove large bones. [I usually don’t find large bones, but if I do I’ll just crush them up. They are usually quite soft and just add more calcium.] Slightly beat eggs in a medium bowl and add salmon, oats, salt, pepper, and salmon liquid plus water. Mix well and let stand while saut√©ing vegetables. [I usually cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge overnight or for several hours at this point so the oats can get soft. Letting it sit for at least an hour helps, especially if standard steel-cut oats are used. Without the longer resting time¬†I’ve found the cakes to be too crunchy.]

Dice pepper and onions. Saut√© in butter until tender. Stir vegetables into salmon mixture. Spoon into an oil-sprayed 12 serving muffin tin and bake 10 minutes until golden brown. [I’ve usually had to cook these for closer to 20 or 30 minutes to get them golden brown.]

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You can have some fun jazzing these up by adding different herbs and seasonings — dill would be an obvious choice, or maybe even grated lemon peel — and veggies, such as chopped mushrooms, chopped celery, shredded carrot (?), or olives. Just make sure any crispy veggies have been sauteed first to soften them up. Enjoy!

 

Eating my way through Scotland

What better day to talk about food than the day after a huge feast? (I hope all my American readers enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving!) eemusings commented on a previous post that she wanted to hear more about the food I ate in Scotland. So it’s time to dish up the details. *hee, hee, hee*

I had one big constraint on my diet: I had to avoid cow milk, cream, and cheese. Way back in my late twenties I had realized that cow milk and cream caused problems for me, but a little lactose replacement usually helped. Unfortunately, earlier this year I found out I have diverticulitis. In the months since that diagnosis, I’ve discovered¬†that eating lots of cow dairy causes enough irritation in my gut that it flares up. So it was important that I avoid cow dairy as much as possible on the trip. (I wasn’t the only person who had dietary constraints on the trip. My roommate and friend A was avoiding most high cholesterol foods like red meat and butter, as well as sugar. And there was a woman in our group that was so deathly allergic to gluten, beef, and eggs that she carried an Epipen.)

Before heading over to Scotland, I read up a bit about what types of foods I may encounter and developed a short “wish list” of things I wanted to try. Unfortunately, my cow dairy issue made it impossible for me to try cullen skink, which was a very popular (and delicious sounding) soup frequently on the starter menu. However, kippers and haggis were at the top of the list. I love oily fish like sardines, mackerel, and even anchovies. I’ve eaten canned kippered herring here, but it was nothing like the ¬†kippers I enjoyed at breakfast many mornings. They were smoky, crispy, salty, and absolutely delicious!

Kipper

One of our tour guides suggested that those of us who liked kippers should also try Arbroath smokies, but the few times I saw them on a menu they had been cooked in milk. ūüė¶

I tried haggis on my first night in Scotland and found it very good, too. Apparently the spices and seasonings used in haggis can vary quite a bit from place to place, and the restaurant where I first tried it used lots of warm spices. The richness of the organ meats and texture of the oats still came through and made it a truly memorable dish. On Isle of Skye I had vegetarian haggis with my breakfast. While still very tasty, the lack of organ meats made the texture and mouthfeel quite different.

I expected the food to cost more than it does here in the States and budgeted accordingly. Also, this was a luxury tour and the hotels where we stayed and dined reflected that. Eating dinner at the same hotel where we were staying was usually the most convenient option because we were in country lodgings and not cities or large towns with lots of restaurants in walking distance. There were a few times that I ventured out via cab to other villages or into town to dine, but often I just ate at the hotel with the group or with A, who usually just wanted to be “in for the night” after a day of activities.

Full breakfast was always included with our lodgings and it was possible to really fill oneself up, too. Typically there would be cold breakfast items on a buffet table available for self-service: pastries, cereal, yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, and fresh or stewed dried fruit. Cooked breakfast items on the menu always included oatmeal porridge, as well as egg dishes such as eggs Benedict (usually with smoked salmon instead of ham/bacon), scrambled eggs, or “full Scottish breakfast.” The latter usually included fried eggs, sausage, bacon, grilled tomato, and black pudding (blood sausage).

As much as I really need protein at breakfast to keep me going, that was way too much heavy meat for me so I never ordered the “traditional” full Scottish breakfast. Bacon in the UK was very different than the bacon in the US. It was much more like ham or the true Canadian bacon I used to get in Toronto.

I usually ordered eggs at breakfast, and my lack of critical questioning of the preparation method led to problems only a few days into the trip. I’ve been making scrambled eggs at home without milk for so long that I forgot that it’s usually standard practice to add it. At the Lake of Menteith Hotel I had been eating scrambled eggs with smoked salmon every morning for breakfast, and I had also knowingly cheated on my no dairy rule one night by eating sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

(But oh my goodness, the gloriousness that is sticky toffee pudding made me want to cheat again and again! The tour organizer also became a big fan of sticky toffee pudding, despite being a self-confessed chocoholic. Although she had traveled to the UK several times, she had never tried this dessert. I was pleased to convert her and vicariously enjoy it through her.)

By the time we arrived at our hotel near Inverness (the famous Culloden House just outside the city), I had realized the error of my ways and knew I had to increase my dietary vigilance. I went to bed that night with a hot water bottle (such a quaint feature to find in our room!) clutched to my aching gut, and a firm resolve to both not let any cow dairy slip past my lips and increase my intake of high fiber foods. Obviously, the apples I had brought with me and was consuming every day were not enough. Luckily, I discovered how delicious stewed dried fruit can be the very next morning at breakfast.

I’m not sure if the challenges I was having finding greens and vegetables (prepared without cream) was due to the posh menus at the places we were staying or if this was typical of the Scottish diet in general. On the one hand, I admired the fact that the restaurant menus reflected the season, with lots of root vegetables accompanying the mains. On the other hand, I desperately missed greens and salads. I had expected to find kale, at least. Indeed, I did see kale growing quite thickly in fields in the southern parts of Scotland, yet when I was talking to one of the friendly Scots later in the trip about those fields she said they turned the sheep into them during the winter.

Besides growing lots of kale for animal fodder, the southern areas in Scotland also cultivated a lot of fruit, especially berries. We noticed hoop houses filled with dwarf fruit trees and bramble fruits, and our bus driver told us that strawberries and raspberries were heavily cultivated in the area. Once we entered the highlands we saw mostly animals (sheep and cattle) grazing instead of cultivated fields.

But back to the meals!

Breakfasts were not only ample, one could really feast during lunches and dinners, too. I noticed that many restaurants offered two to three course fixed price meals for lunch and early dinner, just like in Spain. I took advantage of one such special at a restaurant in Inverness. The concept behind The Joy of Taste¬†— a restaurant operating by principles sounding very much like a co-op — intrigued me, so I took a cab from Culloden House into Inverness to enjoy a delicious dinner by myself. My starter featured seared calf liver served over a bed of delicious salad greens (yay!) and my main course was duck served with lots of broccoli, courgette, and saffron potatoes. Dessert was a polenta cake made with honey and bramble berries. That was one of my more memorable meals in Scotland, although the relatively low cost was offset by the price of the taxis I had to take to and from Culloden House. (I stretched out my enjoyment of Inverness that evening by walking along the River Ness for a bit before returning to the hotel.)

That wasn’t the first time I had duck while in Scotland. It seemed to be the more popular form of poultry in the country. The menus frequently featured beef, lamb, pork, and fish, but rarely offered chicken. Considering how ubiquitous and popular chicken is in the US, I found this rather remarkable. Another difference between US and Scotland was in the cuts of pork. The most common cut of pork I saw on menus was not chops, but fresh pork belly. (Although¬†I did enjoy a starter of some braised pig cheeks at¬†Cross Keys pub in Kippen).

Scotland is a land with an extensive coastline and many, many fresh water lakes and streams. (I was constantly amazed at the number of gushing springs and waterfalls I saw from the window of the bus as we drove through the Highlands. There was water everywhere.) Fish and seafood of all kinds were plentiful on menus. I dined on fish and chips twice during my trip, but tried to keep my consumption of fried fish minimal. Salmon — both fresh and hot or cold smoked — were also featured quite a bit. I suspect most of it was from the fish farms we frequently saw along the sea lochs and coastline and not wild caught, unfortunately.

As we arrived on the west coast, we found that the local specialty was langoustines, which were tasty little crustaceans, although they took a bit of work to eat.

Langoustines!

Oh, and as for beverages, I enjoyed both ales and wine with dinner, but of course enjoyed the whisky the most. ūüôā

Evening libation

In recovery mode

Two weeks ago I had a super intensive work week filled with meetings and important in-person discussions with my boss (which is unusual since our homes are two time zones away from each other). During my frantic week, I provided support via text messages to B while his father’s health faded.

One week ago we were at the funeral of B’s father. I only flinched during the first round fired by the military honor guard at the grave site, and was surprised that the shells were collected and presented along with the flag to B’s mother. (B’s father was a WWII Navy veteran who had served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

Because I needed to be back in the office last Tuesday, B and I traveled separately to and from his hometown, which is about 125 miles away. Between my trip back and forth for the funeral and another long driving errand last weekend, I put 500 miles on the Prius in three days. I’m not used to doing that much driving, and it was surprisingly tiring.

No wonder I have been getting into bed as early as 8:30 some nights over the past three weeks.

Last Thursday was my final work day of 2012, but my “home work” list of what I’d like to accomplish during this break is pretty long.

  • Complete a knitting project that has been taking me way to much time to finish.
  • Put up a batch of fig compote. ¬†
  • Paint the upstairs hallway.
  • Organize the basement, which is still filled with stacks of boxes from when B moved in over a year ago.
  • Organize and clean my “office” which is basically just a junk room.
  • Complete my charitable contributions for 2012.
  • De-clutter the dining room table.
  • Finish organizing the bedroom closet.
  • Document, pack up, and drop off a load of stuff to contribute to charity before the close of 2012.
  • Read up on home charcuterie.

About that last one: I bought a very small pig from a farmer I’m acquainted with through the Chicago chicken group. My long drive the Saturday before the funeral was taken to pick up the butchered pig from the meat locker. The round trip drive was 219 miles, but my freezer is now filled with 75 pounds of pastured pork that promises to be delicious.

I got every bit of the that pig: the fat, the organs (heart, liver, tongue), and the head. One of my friends who has processed a pig at home lent me an enormous stack of books about charcuterie and whole animal cooking, as well as her supply of pink salt for making ham and bacon. I’ll process the head into head cheese, and I’ll likely have to borrow the neighbor’s Weber to hot smoke the bacon if I can’t find clear directions online on how to do with my propane grill. There’s no rush to do any of the processing since the pig parts are hard frozen. I’m sure it’s not ideal to do charcuterie with previously frozen meat, but I don’t think it’s possible to get meat any other way from the meat locker facilities.

So far I’ve accomplished one task on that list: putting up the fig compote. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen yesterday making preserves and creating a brine for the turkey I’m roasting tomorrow morning and taking to my mother’s house for Christmas dinner. (I get to transport a whole roasted turkey 55 miles one way. What fun!)

I’m making some progress on the knitting project, but it is a slog. Ugh.

The chances I’ll get through more than two other things on that list are pretty slim, but I’ll make an effort. I’m also hoping that I don’t come down with the ugly stomach bug that kept B down for nearly 48 hours. I frequently sprayed down the bathroom he was using with Lysol (including spraying the light switch, soap dispenser, faucets, and doorknob) and I exclusively used the upstairs bathroom throughout the entire day and night. Fingers crossed…

Making hard cooked eggs

This is the time of year when the chickens start producing fewer eggs due to the shrinking daylight hours and their annual molt. In spring and summer I usually get a minimum of three eggs a day from my five hens. Now there are days I only get one or even no eggs at all. But my hens are healthy and from good winter laying breeds, so I don’t expect to run out of eggs completely.

That means that in this household, egg dishes are on the menu pretty regularly. One of my favorite ways to enjoy the egg bounty is as hard-cooked eggs. They’re so portable and are great for breakfast, lunch, or as a snack.

There’s a saying that’s often used to demonstrate someone’s rookie cooking skills: “X doesn’t even know how to boil an egg.” It’s actually pretty difficult to make good hard-cooked (also called hard-boiled) eggs from backyard chicken eggs. Fresh eggs have very little air space between the white and the shell. While it is possible to hard cook them, it is impossible to peel them neatly. The few times I’ve tried hard cooking eggs that were less than 10 days old resulted in a disappointing mess with large chunks of white coming off with the shell. (I’m sure my chickens appreciated all that extra protein, though, since I always feed their egg shells back to them.)

So the first lesson of making good hard-cooked eggs is to use eggs that are about 10 days old. Eggs from the grocery store are usually at least a week old already, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to make those into hard-cooked eggs. If you have your own chickens or are buying eggs from a local farmer you have to plan in advance.

Some people are very picky about hard-cooked eggs that have a green ring around the yolk. The standard explanation for why this happens is that the egg has been overcooked. Sometimes I’m lucky and can avoid getting that ring, but since I want my hard-cooked eggs to be quite firm I find that I often get it when I’m making eggs this way. What I’m more concerned about is making sure the eggs aren’t rubbery. The few times I’ve purchased hard-cooked eggs at carry out restaurants they have universally been waaayyy overcooked and rubbery. (I’ve usually only done this because of travel or very poor meal planning on my part, so I try very hard not to do the latter and just make different choices when I’m traveling.)

A critical element to avoid over-cooking hard-cooked eggs is to only use eggs that are similar in size. Again, those purchasing eggs from a grocery store don’t usually have to worry about this since eggs are sorted for size/weight as they are packaged. Folks with their own flock and those purchasing eggs from farmers directly will usually wind up with an assortment of sizes, though.

OK, so now we have some eggs that are properly aged and of similar size. Now we just boil them, right? Well, no. First I pierce each egg with a floral pin at the round end where the air space is located. This is going to help me peal that egg much easier when it is done cooking. Next, I add cool water to just cover the eggs in the cooking pan and set it over the heat. I bring the pan just to a boil, then I put the lid on and turn off the heat.

How long one needs to let the eggs sit in the hot water until they are fully cooked depends on the size of the eggs, and this is why it is easy to over cook them and get the green ring. Some instructions say to let them sit for a minimum of 12 minutes, and even as long as 18 minutes for jumbo eggs; others say to let them sit for seven minutes. In my experience, 12 minutes would be way too long for any size egg and would the result would be guaranteed rubbery and unappealing. When I’m cooking some of the very large eggs my New Hampshire Red hens are producing, I usually let them sit for about nine minutes. When I’ve only let them sit for seven minutes the result was something between a soft-cooked and a hard-cooked egg; the whites weren’t entirely firm and the yolk was only about 95% done. If I wanted to try avoiding the dreaded green ring at all costs I would probably let them sit for only eight minutes, but I’m willing to risk it to ensure that my eggs will be firmly set. But if I was cooking a batch of the smaller eggs produced by my Speckled Sussex hens, then that seven minute time would work out just fine.

The final step is super important: once the time for sitting in hot water is reached, plunge the eggs into an ice water bath. Get the bowl of (mostly) ice and water ready while the eggs are “steeping” in the hot water. I use a slotted spoon to shift each egg from the pot of hot water to the ice bath, then I let them sit for another 10 minutes to be sure they are completely set and cooled. Then they go into the refrigerator with their shells still on until ready for consumption.

Because I’ve pierced the airspace of each egg with the floral pin, I find that there is a bit of water that dribbles out when I peal the egg, but I’m OK with that. When I haven’t pierced the eggs before cooking, they just don’t peel as neatly even if I follow all the other “best practices” for hard cooking eggs.

Recently I decided to try baking my eggs in the shell to see if this technique would produce better hard-cooked eggs. It didn’t. After peeling, the egg white was scorched in the area that had been in contact with the pan, and I found it easier to over cook the eggs this way, too. So I’m going to continue making my hard-cooked eggs the tried and true way: age, sort, steep, and chill. Yum!

Cue the blender

Since Monday I’ve been consuming most of my meals in the form of pure√©d soups and blended smoothies. This isn’t part of some larger weight loss plan, but because Monday the bottom braces were put on my teeth. As if I needed yet another quirk around food, I now have to deal with the fact that chewing has been (at a minimum) uncomfortable, and at the beginning of the week it was downright painful.

When I decided to bow to the repeated recommendations of the dentist and get orthodontia to unkink my teeth, I didn’t really understand what I was getting into. I knew there would be a not inconsiderable cost and that I would have to give up some foods that I love (such as whole almonds) for a while, but I didn’t really understand what orthodontia was going to really be like.

Despite the crowding of my teeth, I’ve been really blessed when it comes to oral health. I’m in my mid-forties and I have no fillings in my teeth. When I had my baby teeth, I know that I had a cavity or two which were drilled and filled (without any Novocaine, either, since my mother was concerned it would harm me…or so she says…it could have been to keep the cost down, too), but once the adult teeth came in they were solid and healthy and have served me well. What this means is that I’ve never had to deal with any dental pain that I can recall, so having painful teeth is very new to me. I did have a few periodontal procedures last year, but gum tissue heals pretty quickly if you’re healthy, and the pain doesn’t last very long.

The sturdiness and robust health of my teeth is also one of the reasons why I consented to orthodontia. I want these teeth to last me until the very end, and it is very hard to properly clean my teeth in the areas of my mouth with the most crowding. My top braces were put on in March and the orthodontist estimates that my treatment will take 18 months total. The top teeth seem to be moving pretty quickly, so I’m hopeful that I may be out of these things sooner than that.

I don’t recall my teeth hurting quite this much when the top braces were put on, but I did try to prepare for the procedure. A few weeks ago we had a stretch of two or three days where the temperature dropped to pleasant levels, so I fit in some cooking. I made a roasted cauliflower soup and a butternut squash soup, portioned them out, and froze them. (Both were pure√©d with a stick blender that was given to me by my stepmother. I love that thing!)

These soups were so easy to make, that a formal recipe isn’t really required, but I approached them the way I usually do when making something new: I looked at recipes on various web sites, and then made it up as I went along.

Butternut squash soup: Peel and cube a medium butternut squash. Chop a medium onion and a clove or two of garlic. Saut√© the onion and garlic in about a tablespoon of oil (olive oil or some other vegetable oil) until soft. Add the cubed squash, then add broth or water to cover. I used some homemade mystery broth from freezer and a bit of water. (I need to be better at labeling stuff I add to the freezer; it was likely some sort of poultry broth.) Bring to a boil, then simmer until the squash is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, then blend with a stick blender or a standard blender. (If using a blender be careful! Don’t overload it and follow manufacturer directions for blending hot foods!) Thin the soup with more broth or water if desired. Done!

Roasted cauliflower soup: Clean and separate a medium to large head of cauliflower into florets. Roughly cube/chop the stem. (You don’t want to use any of the green bits, but do use the stem. It’s all going to be blended together and will taste just fine.) Toss the cauliflower bits and a clove or two of garlic with some olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet. Slip into an oven that has been pre-heated to about 400F. Roast until soft and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and place in a deep pot with broth or water to cover. Bring to a boil, then turn to a simmer until the cauliflower is soft. Add salt and pepper to taste. I recommend using white pepper if you have it, since it adds the right touch of mellow and spice. Blend with a stick blender or a standard blender. (If using a blender be careful! Don’t overload it and follow manufacturer directions for blending hot foods!) Done!

Both of these soups benefit from a bit adding a piece of parmigiano reggiano rind with the stock to simmer for a while. Remove it before blending. The cheese rind adds a nice richness.

Since today was another reasonably cool day, I also cooked up another soup to provide a bit more variation to my meals. For this (non-dairy) cream of broccoli soup I basically followed the recipe exactly and the results are delicious.

But first thing in the morning and during the hot days, soup is not something I really want. So I’ve also been experimenting with smoothies. I’m not a fan of really sweet things, plus I also need a way to get enough veggies into my diet so I’ve taken the leap into green smoothies. You can find all sorts of “recipes” for green smoothies online, but I use them only as suggestions, just like I do with everything else I cook. I’ve been cooking and combining flavors for so long now, and know my preferences and tastes, so I think I’ve come up with some real winners here.

Chocolate peanut butter smoothie: Place in a blender approximately one cup of unsweetened almond milk. Add one frozen, ripe banana, peeled and cut in chunks. Add a generous handful of baby beet greens, or a mixture of baby beet greens and purslane.* Blend until smooth, then stop the blender. Now add a heaping soup spoon of quality, unsweetened cocoa powder. Add about two heaping soup spoons of unsweetened peanut butter. Blend until smooth, pour in a glass and drink slowly.

Mixed fruit smoothie: Place in a blender approximately one cup of chilled water. Add one frozen, ripe banana, peeled and cut in chunks. Add a couple of ribs of celery. Blend until smooth, then stop the blender. Add approximately two cups of any fresh or frozen fruit you have on hand. This morning I combined a small orange (peeled and chunked), and a handful of small plums (seeded). At this point I also added a heaping soup spoon of some nutritional boost I had on hand, but that isn’t required.¬†Blend until smooth, pour in a glass and drink slowly.

Salty lassi smoothie: Place in a blender approximately one cup of chilled water. Add one small cucumber, cut in chunks. Add a small bundle of purslane. Blend until smooth, then stop the blender. Add salt to taste (one-half to one teaspoon is about right), freshly ground pepper, and a stem of mint. Add a few heaping soup spoons of plain yogurt (full fat or low fat is better than no fat yogurt) and a small, green chili if you like a bit of spice. Add about one teaspoon of toasted cumin seeds. Blend until smooth, pour in a glass and drink slowly.

All of these drinks really stayed with me for a good three to four hours. I found this surprising, but then again they were full of fiber, after all. I also was concerned that my standard blender would have problems making these smoothies, and was glad this wasn’t the case. I’ve been thinking about ordering a Vitamix at times (the reconditioned ones seem to be a better price), but I’m not ready to jump yet.

Even though chewing isn’t quite as painful as it was earlier this week, I’m going to keep making smoothies and use them as a meal replacement a few times a week, at least. While my supply of baby beet greens may be pretty much exhausted, I still have plenty of kale, cucumbers, and herbs growing in the garden.

*Purslane pops up all over my garden in the summer. It is considered a weed by most people, but is a highly nutritious, edible plant. I’ve tried adding it to salads, and don’t much care for it prepared that way. In a smoothie, though, it’s basically just a filler and I find it works out well. If you’re lucky enough to have this “weed” in your yard, give it a try. Add it to soup or a smoothie, or chop it up and add it to a salad.

A first-world problem

I’ve been eating turkey casserole for days. Dinner? Turkey casserole. Lunch? Turkey casserole. Breakfast? Yes, I really did eat some turkey casserole for breakfast one day! (What can I say; the cold cereal just didn’t keep me full for the morning.)

I made the casserole with (some of) the meat I pulled off a turkey carcass I was turning into broth. Last Thursday was an unseasonably cold day (I think we reached a high of 50‚ĄČ), so I decided to do some cooking that would heat the house up. Making broth with the turkey carcass I stashed in the freezer after last Thanksgiving seemed just the thing to do.

This huge carcass was actually quite meaty, so after simmering it for a couple of hours I pulled it out of the water, let it cool a bit, and then pulled off over six cups of meat. Half of it went into the turkey casserole that has been sustaining me for the past several days; the other half is still in the fridge waiting to be made into…well…I don’t know what, except it needs to be something that is not turkey casserole. Having so much food for myself is nothing to complain about, though. It is, as one of my friends says, “a first-world problem.”

Just last week I had a group of friends over and we were discussing all of the issues around eating meat. I have a few friends who are vegetarian or vegan and so when I have friends over I always serve mainly vegetarian fare. There are many reasons people reduce or eliminate eating meat, but they usually boil down to the following: health, concerns about the environment, concerns about the animals, or some combination of these.

I think humans are omnivores and so we should be able to eat meat. However, the way most farm animals are raised in this country is terrible and that needs to change. Chickens who live their entire (short) lives indoors in crowded, dusty and dirty conditions; cattle who spend the last weeks of their lives standing knee-deep in filth and forced to eat grain that makes them ill; pigs who are abused and confined to crates that allow them to feed their young, yet render them incapable of movement. (If you can watch more than 20 seconds of that video you made it farther than me; I was crying as soon as the first scene came into focus.)

Actually, my concerns around the food we eat in the United States is more complicated than just around how we treat farm animals. Think about the misery that is forced on people who work in fields, too: pesticide poisoning, low wages, and poor living conditions. The food system in this country is completely messed up. (And one of the things that really torques my mind is that I am an unwitting participant in it no matter what since my tax dollars subsidize this unholy mess of a food system.)

While I love to grow vegetables, berries, and keep egg-laying hens in my yard, I can’t supply all of my own food. Nor should I. As one of my friends who is much more advanced in this area than me has pointed out more than once, we should be supporting those in the food system who are trying to change things for the better. The farmers who are raising animals humanely (fresh air and sunshine should be a given since they cost nothing, right?) and growing crops in a way that doesn’t harm those who work in the fields or poison the environment. We should also support the chefs and restaurants who source food from these farmers and turn it into something delicious and sustaining. (I swear the bacon at Big Jones is the best I have ever eaten in the 45 years I have been alive and I will enjoy every morsel of it when I brunch there.)

So I’ve joined the ranks of those who eat meat only occasionally. I’ll eat it when I can be sure that it comes from good farmers and ranchers, and when I can afford to buy it. I buy and eat only wild caught fish and/or fish that is on the Seafood Watch recommended list. Otherwise I will take a pass. (The fact that I truly love veggies and beans probably helps a lot, too.)

The turkey I’ve been eating the past few days was purchased through my friend that arranged for a delivery directly from a farmer she knows who raises the birds outside on pasture, living like a turkey should live: in the fresh air and sun, picking at bugs and green stuff. And not one bit of this turkey is going to waste, either. (Food waste in this country is another shameful aspect of a food system gone out of control.)

Eight of us enjoyed the turkey at Thanksgiving, and the leftover carved meat was eaten by my sister, niece, and nephew. The carcass has supplied me with a pot of broth, several cups of loose meat, and another few cups of gristle, skin, and other bits that are being slowly doled out to the dog to supplement her kibble. I could probably compost the bones, but even though I haven’t seen a rat in my city neighborhood in several years, I’m cautious with what I put in my compost bins. (Although others do successfully compost animal products. Bravo to them!)

I know these food issues are truly a first-world concern, as my friend says. In many other countries I’d be happy to eat whatever bits of animal I could get. But in those same places, it’s very likely that the food animals are so few and precious that they are treated with respect. And my conscience won’t let me continue to participate in something I find so abhorrent anymore.

Continuing a theme

Last week I noted how my sister and I have varying values and habits when it comes to groceries. The next day I went off and did my grocery shopping. I decided to record it because I thought it may be interesting to visit the topic of grocery shopping since everyone needs to do it. So here’s what $63 worth of groceries looks like after a visit to the most rocking, awesome, ethnic-oriented market in my area.

Groceries

The grocery haul from Fresh Farms

None of these items are organic, and it’s obvious from the stack of items at the back right that there were some non-essentials purchased, too. If we ignore the extra baked goods purchased, the total bill drops to $50. (The Medjool dates were at least on special; I have no excuses for the cookies and the baklava.) It was my craving for sweet fruit that brought us into the store anyway.

Lately I’ve been craving tropical fruit badly. I tried to console myself with some bananas, oranges and (unripe) mango at from Whole Foods, but that’s not what I really wanted. Fresh Farms is the one store where I know I can get my beloved apple bananas. (See those little bananas on the left? Those are apple bananas and they were not yet ripe enough to eat in that photo. Don’t be fooled by those “baby bananas” you may see in the grocery store. They are not the same! Only little bananas with the label “apple bananas” are the real thing. Let them get really ripe and then indulge. Ahhh!) I also had this intense craving for papaya and knew that I could find it there.

As much as I love this store I avoid it on the weekends because it is packed with people. The first time we visited was on a Saturday after lunch. Wow. I’ll be sure to never do that again. As an example of how crazy full of people it was that day, when I realized I needed to go back through the produce section to pick up something I had forgotten, I found it nearly impossible to do so. There were so many people and carts in the aisles that even when I ditched my cart I found it extremely difficult to move against the crush.

What makes Fresh Farms so awesome is that it is like a mosaic of all the various ethnic groups who call Chicago home. I know that if I need an ingredient for a Filipino/Korean/Polish/Croatian/Persian/Indian/Mexican/etc. dish I can find it here. They even sell Spotted Dick in a can. All this bounty does make for a very crowded store, though, so last Sunday when I turned to Bob and said “I want to go to the crazy store,” he was quite surprised, but he knew what I meant.

While the papaya is all gone by now, I’m still working my way through the rest of the fruit. The kiwi, mango, and apple bananas had to get a bit more ripe but they’re mostly ready now. The haul in the photo is more than the two of us can eat in a single week anyway.

I roasted the chicken that night and we had two meals from it last week (one with a serving of roasted broccoli on the side), plus extra bits that were frozen as a great addition to some fried rice, and a carcass that will make some tasty stock. One of the three lamb shoulder chops was put in the freezer and the other two were broiled for another dinner, served with some Indian-spiced, saut√©ed okra on the side. One of the zucchini went into a frittata (along with some leftover mushrooms, onion, and linguine), and one of the red peppers was cut up and taken to work as a snack. I intend to make the cabbage into a small batch of sauerkraut some time this week (or I may just¬†saut√© it fresh), and use the scallions and yellow pepper in that batch of fried rice that I’ll likely cook for dinner tonight. (Note to self: take the chicken meat out of the freezer.)

I’ll still need to stop at a grocery store today to pick up coffee and a few other odds and ends, but I’m well set for at least a few more meals with the bits I haven’t used from this haul and things I have in the freezer (such as some fish and half of a Lesna or Forest Sausage from the Polish deli). Two things I have in abundance here at home: chard from the low tunnel, and eggs from the hens. But that last item merits its own post.

What are you cooking up this week? How does your grocery bill compare?

In a pickle

More writing about food today. Yes, I am a one trick pony these days! Plus I had to finally write about all the fun I’ve been having learning about lacto-fermentation, brining, and pickling.

Pickles are yummy, and many kinds of vegetables can be pickled so there are infinite variations one can make. Brining and lacto-fermentation are also great ways to preserve foods and even enhance their effect on your health. Even the mainstream media and advertising is touting probiotics. But you don’t need to buy your probiotics from a multi-national company. You can get the benefits of lacto-fermentation from foods other than yogurt, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and lacto-fermented cucumber pickles.

I’m a huge fan of pickled foods and one of the things I love about shopping in the international markets is that I can get fresh pickles for my munching, not mass-produced shelf stable ones. But why not go one step further and make my own? Since I had a huge crop of volunteer dill in my garden this year, I decided to give it a try.

I remember my grandmother’s garden was also full of dill and that she made pickles. While I can’t pinpoint my exact age at the time (five years old? six years old?), one of my vivid memories of grandma’s house was the big crock of pickles sitting in her utility room years. We weren’t allowed to mess with the pickles and had to maneuver around them as we walked from the kitchen into the back yard.

For my own foray into pickled cucumbers I had to first get some equipment: a pickling crock. It’s not required that the crock be ceramic, although it’s certainly preferred, and a good fermentation/pickling crock can cost a lot. While I would love to use a vintage crock for my pickling, I just don’t have one on hand (I wish I knew what happened to grandma’s crock). So I started by searching the thrift stores for something suitable to use as a pickling crock. Ceramic crocks are something to be cautious about; some of the crocks that can be found in thrift stores may not actually be food safe, and the same is true of many plastic containers (such as buckets), too.

At my second thrift store stop I lucked out and picked up a set of two Tupperware-brand containers that looked very much like crocks. One of them was missing a lid, but a sealing lid isn’t necessary for pickling. (And if you ever are lucky enough to find decent Tupperware at a yard sale or thrift store, remember that the Tupperware lifetime warranty will allow you to order replacement lids if they are missing or damaged; you just have to pay a small shipping fee. Woot!) So for a whopping $1.80 I brought my pickling crocks home and ran them through the dishwasher to get them squeaky clean.

My favorite international market was running a special on pickling cucumbers, too. While I would love to pickle cukes from my own garden, the plants weren’t yet producing, and at 49¬Ę a pound I thought it would not be a great disaster if my pickles didn’t turn out and I ended up dumping them in the compost. I found a great blog with recipes and information on lacto-fermenting cucumbers, followed the advice, and voil√°: pickles.

Lacto-fermented pickles

Lacto-fermented pickles

In this bright blue three-gallon container, I have four pounds of pickling cucumbers, a few heads of dill, a handful of dried hot peppers, about four cloves of garlic, and some leaves from a sour cherry tree. This latter ingredient may seem odd, but it was recommended that some grape leaves be added to keep the pickles from getting soft. With further research on the awesome Wild Fermentation site I found that cherry tree leaves could serve the same purpose, and I had easy access to leaves on my next-door neighbor’s tree.

The brine is basically just pickling salt, water, and a bit of white vinegar. I put a small plate on top of the pickles and force them to stay submerged with a weight, which consists of a bag full of brine. (Just in case the bag leaks, this ensures the brine doesn’t become watered down.) The pickles are supposed to sit for four weeks before they’re ready to eat, and it’s only been two so far. I am quite impatient to give these pickles a try, but I’m holding back!

To satisfy my immediate desires for pickled foods I’ve been consuming kimchi purchased from the market. I actually would like to try my hand at making my own kimchi and sauerkraut*, but for now I want to wait and see how my pickled cukes turn out before attempting anything else.

Pickled cucumbers are what most Americans think of when we refer to pickles, but there are many other types of pickled foods. How about pickled beets? One of my favorite ways to eat beets is pickled, and when I bought some golden beets at the farmers market the other day I decided to make them into refrigerator pickles. I consulted a few recipes and then realized that I could easily make up my own variation, so I did and placed the single jar in the fridge to sit for a few days.

My friend Adrienne stopped by on Saturday on a spur of the moment visit, and she made up some delicious salads for our lunch using the refrigerator pickled beets, walnuts, and some chevr√©. We finished up the entire jar, but I wasn’t worried; I had more beets on hand that were ready to be transformed.

Golden beets pickled in the refrigerator

Golden beets pickled in the refrigerator

I neglected to weigh the beets before pickling, but I here’s how I prepared them.

Ingredients list:
Fresh beets
White vinegar
Sugar
Water
Whole cloves
Whole cinnamon sticks
Sliced onion (optional)
Whole allspice berries (optional)
The original recipe I followed did not call for allspice or onion, but they sounded like good options to me so I added them.
Directions:
  • If using red beets, be sure to wear rubber gloves as you handle them to prevent staining your hands.
  • Twist off the beet greens and scrub the beets well.
  • Cook the beets until they are the consistency you prefer. (I don’t like mine really soft, but you may). Use whichever cooking method best meets your needs. Beets can be roasted in a hot oven, cooked in water on a stovetop or microwaved in some water in a covered container. (Since it is hot and I’m trying to keep the kitchen fairly cool I cooked the beets in a covered glass casserole in the microwave with about an inch of water.)
  • While the beets are cooking, prepare your pickling liquid. Combine equal amounts of water and white vinegar in a small saucepan. Add sugar to taste. Add cinnamon sticks, cloves, and allspice and bring to a boil. (The original recipe called for an equal amount of sugar, vinegar, and water. I reduced the amount of sugar since I love vinegar and beets are usually pretty sweet anyway. The original recipe called for a 16-oz can of beets with 1/2 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup water, and 1/2 cup sugar, plus 2 cloves and a cinnamon stick. My proportions for two large bunches of beets with onion were 1 cup water, 1 cup vinegar, 2/3 cup sugar, three cinnamon sticks, 8 cloves, and 8 allspice berries.)
  • Cool the cooked beets in a cold water bath so they can be handled more easily.
  • Slip or peel the beet skins off (using gloves!), trim the ends, and thinly slice the beets.
  • Using clean, non-reactive containers such as a glass jars or a large plastic container, alternate layers of sliced onion (if using) and sliced beet, leaving about an inch of room at the top for the pickling liquid.
  • Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables. Push the vegetables under the liquid if necessary; they should be covered by the liquid.¬†Make sure¬†the cloves and cinnamon sticks are included as they will continue to add flavor. (For my most recent batch, I had to use two large glass jars, and I still had a few beet slices and onion slices left out. I’ll add them in a few days when I take some beets out to eat.)
  • Cover/cap the containers and add them to the refrigerator. Wait at least 24 hours before sampling. The pickles should be good in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.

It took me less than an hour to whip up those two large jars of pickled beets, and I’m hoping they’ll last me about two weeks. We’ll see.

How do you feel about pickled foods? Do you like them or hate them? Have you ever tried to make brined, pickled, or lacto-fermented foods?

*Note: if you love sauerkraut but don’t like the um…distress…it can cause your gut, then try rinsing it well before you reheat it. Such a simple step, but one I only recently learned makes a huge difference!

Eat your (wild) greens!

I’m definitely in a cooking/food phase right now. Since I’m trying very, very hard to not eat any grains, I’m consuming lots of veggies these days. Besides the veggies I buy at market, I’m also eating greens from my yard. But not the typical greens that people grow like kale and lettuce. I’m harvesting weeds.

“Weed” is actually a relative term. Hard core organic gardeners will tell you that a weed is simply a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. Even grass can be considered a weed if it invades your flower beds. Many of the plants that are typically considered weeds are edible, and an adventurous person can make some decent meals with these plants that are free for the taking.

Dandelion greens from Next Barn Over Farm

Dandelion greens from Next Barn Over Farm

Dandelion greens

Most people have heard that dandelion greens are edible, but have you tried them? They are rather bitter, but can be made more mild by blanching. Saute in olive oil with garlic, a few anchovy fillets, and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Toss with pasta for a filling meal, or enjoy them without the pasta as a side dish.

I haven’t actually eaten the dandelion greens from my yard yet, but I’m working up to that. I typically get a deep craving for bitter greens in the spring but not so much at this time of year.

Lambs quarters

Mature lambs quarters veggiegardeningtips.com

Mature lambs quarters veggiegardeningtips.com

In the U.S. this is a little known edible plant. Just last weekend, though, I was watching Rick Bayless’ Mexico — One Plate at a Time and in one segment he was raving about a quesadilla he was eating in Mexico City that was filled with saut√©ed lambs quarters. Lambs quarters is supposed to taste like spinach. I haven’t tried it yet, as I’m not fortunate enough to have any growing in my yard. I saw some today while I was out walking the dog, but I didn’t want to pick a plant growing in a stranger’s yard without knowing whether they use pesticides.

Purslane

Common purslane from Wikipedia

Common purslane from Wikipedia

I’ve tasted purslane several times over the years and have never found it very compelling. Recently I decided to give it another try since I have a lot popping up in my yard and the nutritional profile is so compelling. I searched for recipes and found surprisingly few, although one web page raved about how fabulous purslane pairs with cucumbers. So, I made a cucumber salad dressed with homemade vinaigrette and added purslane leaves from plants pulled out of my garden beds. The salad tasted…OK. I can’t say the purslane added anything flavor-wise, but I ate all of the salad over the course of a couple of meals with some cold roasted chicken. I think I may try adding it to scrambled eggs for breakfast one day.

Wood sorrel

I only learned about this plant within the last month, but it is my favorite backyard “weed.” During the annual volunteer day at my work, I spent several enjoyable hours at City Farm. While I was weeding a herb bed, the program manager pointed out this plant to me and requested that I not pull it. I asked him what it was; I had seen it in my own garden and always pulled and composted it. He told me the name and noted that the area restaurants paid quite a bit for this little plant. He had me try a few leaves and I was hooked. The taste is tangy and I find it a delicious addition to green salad.

Here’s a link to a fancy-looking salad recipe that features wood sorrel. I just bought some organic apricots at the farmers market yesterday, so maybe I’ll give this a try. Ever since I’ve learned how yummy wood sorrel is, I’ve been careful to leave it in place when I’m weeding my garden, just as I learned at City Farm.

Have you tried any edible weeds yourself? Would you be likely to give any of these plants a go?

A few final notes:

  • Be safe and don’t pick weeds from areas you think may be contaminated with toxins or pesticides. I feel safe eating the plants I’ve noted because they come from my own yard.
  • Spend a bit of time looking at photos of an unfamiliar plant from various angles and across the course of its growing cycle so you can be confident that the plant you’re picking is what you think it is. Better yet, carry a field guide or check the plant against those same sources after you bring it home if you have any doubts.
  • My chickens would go crazy for all of these greens. If you have a pet rabbit, guinea pig, or bird, perhaps they’d like these as a low-cost treat, too.