Something exciting happened today. Those of you with dehydrators at home will be thoroughly unimpressed, but for those of us without (and I'll admit I'm now tempted to buy one, but I am in clearing-out mode, damnit, and already have far too many kitchen contraptions), this is pretty rad.
I made fruit leather. Myself. And so can you. All you need is fruit, and an oven. And if you're kitchen contraption-equipped, a handheld immersion blender makes for a nice accessory to this project.
Here's what you do:
1. Pick your fruit. As in literally, or as in choose and purchase some. Texas happens to offer precious little in the pick-your-own department; we go hog-wild when we travel Northeast or Northwest in the summer months, picking buckets of blueberries, strawberries and blackberries and then eating ourselves sick because we can't possibly bring them home. But right now, for about five minutes, it's strawberry season here in Tejas. We plan to go picking this coming Saturday, but in the meantime I bought five pints of beautiful, organic, fresh-picked berries at the farmer's market this past weekend. Why so many? Because we eat a lot of berries around here. And I had big, fancy plans for this batch.
2. Chop your berries (two pints is a good starting point, but you could certainly work with more) into small pieces and place in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently until your mixture's simmering and looking a bit soupy. Stir here and there for another five to ten minutes, pressing occasionally on the berries with a slotted spoon (or any spoon) to help release the juices. You want these to simmer gently but not to burn, so use your best judgment and turn the heat down if necessary. This step made my kitchen smell exactly the way I remember my childhood home smelling when my mom made strawberry jam. Divine.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool for a little while. Pre-heat your oven to 175 degrees Fehrenheit, and line a rimmed baking pan with parchment paper. (I keep it real and non-toxic with this stuff
4. If you have a handheld immersion blender, go ahead and immersion-blend your berry mixture so it's nice and smooth. If you don't have an immersion blender, mash your mixture with whatever you can -- a food mill, a small seive, or a potato-masher, fork, or whatever.
5. Pour your berry mixture onto the parchment paper and spread it out so it's uniformly about 1/4 inch thick. If you've filled the parchment and have some mixture left over in the pan, save it in the fridge and make a second batch when the first batch is done. Or line another baking sheet and have at it right away.
6. Put your pan into the oven and let it do its thing. Briefly opening the oven now and then will actually help keep the temperature where you'll want it -- mimicking a real dehydrator -- but I honestly didn't check mine very often at all. You'll want to check on yours after three hours at first. Poke it with a finger. If your finger breaks the thin film that's formed on the fruit leather's surface, and it's still gooey in there, keep it going in the oven for a while longer. Ovens vary, so it could be five or six hours before your leather isn't gooey inside anymore. Just make sure it doesn't burn.
7. When it's finished dehydrating and has the appearance and texture of, well, fruit leather, remove your pan from the oven. After allowing the leather to cool, cut it into strips with kitchen scissors (parchment still on), roll them up (parchment side out) and secure them with twine, rubber bands, scotch tape -- anything you have handy. The leather will keep in an airtight container for a good month, but I guarantee it won't be around that long. Kaspar, as you can see, loved this naturally-sweet, nutritious snack; had I allowed it, he'd have devoured the entire batch this very afternoon. Between the two of us, it'll be gone by tomorrow. (If Aaron wants to try some, he'd better get in there, and fast.)
And that's it. Bam! Fruit leather. Cheaper than the store-bought stuff, for sure, especially if you pick your own buckets full of berries at a local farm. I'm going to try making different flavors now that we've made a successful batch. Mango, maybe? Let me know what fruits you try!
We don't eat much processed or pre-packaged food around here, save -- until recently -- for those genius little organic pureed fruit and veg pouches that can be purchased at pretty much any grocery store nationwide. In fact, every time Kaspar and I go to the grocery store -- until recently, that is -- we make a deal that he keeps his cool while I shop, and, as a reward, he receives a "fruit squeezie" once we hit the baby stuff aisle. I like that these pouches pack a little nutritional punch (fruits, veg and chia seeds? Cool!), so my kid sucks down a dose of nutrients while under the impression he's receiving a treat. I also like that I can easily throw a pouch (or five) into my purse for days out on the town, or even for more far-flung weekend travel
. I like that the packages are BPA-free. But I don't like how much they cost, given how little food is actually in them, and I don't like throwing all those packages (by the handful, once emptied -- post-outing -- from my purse) in the trash. As much as we've relied upon 'fruit squeezies' for bribes and mobile snacking, I've also felt that they're economically and environmentally, well, wasteful. And while I get that convenience sometimes leads to compromise, these downsides have kept me from loving the 'squeezies' as much as Kaspar does -- until now.
Enter: the Little Green Pouch
, a fillable, pourable, re-usable, freezable, dishwasher-safe, BPA-free, totally awesome make-your-own 'fruit squeezie' solution to our family's little wastefulness problem! This pouch has a leak-proof zipper-type opening at the top into which I can pour all manner of fruit/veg/chia seed creations, and a little capped spout -- just like the throwaway pouches -- through which Kaspar can enjoy his nourishing, now-affordable treats. I've been filling these pouches with fresh, homemade juices
, as well as kefir smoothies, and even (lightly cooked, then pureed and cooled) fruit and veg combos like the one pictured below -- that's an apple, spinach and blueberry "squeezie" in the making. The photo at top is Kaspar downing it whilst in the midst of a full-on sinus infection last week... There's no way I'd get a pan-full of spinach anything
into sick Kaspar without cloaking it in treat-dom, but he ingested this mix happily, thanks to the pouch, and, needless to say, benefited immensely from the anti-oxident boost.
I have three or four prepared pouches in the fridge at all times, ready to grab and go, and I keep one in the freezer for longer days. As for weekend or week-long travel, we'll probably still rely upon the store-bought stuff when we run out of homemade, but not wasting packaging and cash when we're kicking around home, and Austin, means I don't mind forking it over (and throwing stuff out) quite so much when convenience really does call our names.
Wanna get in on the 'fruit squeezie' fun? Little Green Pouch has generously offered to gift a four-pack of pouches to a lucky Alt-Mama giveaway winner! It could be you! Leave a comment below and tell me what your favorite juice or smoothie ingredients are. Don't forget to include your email in the required field so I can reach you if you win. (I will never give, sell or lend your email address to anyone.) I'll select -- and announce -- a random winner next Wednesday, January 9. Have fun, and good luck!
We got a huge bag of locally grown citrus with our CSA
loot last week. Good timing, too, as we've been fending off coughs and colds all fall, and can all use a super-dose of vitamin C. Our family's been eating grapefruit on the daily ever since, but we decided the best fate for our oranges was to be turned into some good old fashioned O to the J.
Any food that promises to prepare itself to perfection when left alone for the day -- or, even better, overnight -- is a sure winner in my book. Yogurt was my first foray into this realm of (seemingly) magical cooking, and my slow-cooker's gotten lots of use ever since, rockin' not only raw milk yogurt
for the little dude, but also many a vegan
dinner for our family this fall, and thus allowing me a clean kitchen and plenty of fully-focused kiddo time in the evenings before dinner. I do love to cook, but -- like work, marriage stuff and everything else in my life -- having a kiddo in the mix has inspired some creativity and shifting around, if not in terms of priorities than certainly in terms of timing. Night hours are often best for working, date "nights" are sometimes most doable at midday, and cooking dinner -- thanks to my slow cooker and this book
-- is sometimes most viable (and enjoyable) first thing in the morning. Aaron takes Kaspar off to school, and I pull up Pandora (Cat Power station) on the iPod and get to making a happy, meditative mess in the kitchen
. By 10 a.m., dinner's doing its thing, the mess is cleaned up, and I'm punching in at the office
Besides the timing tricks slow cooking allows, I'm fascinated with foods that co-create themselves by way of natural processes (yogurt's one of them, since its cultured); they have a certain allure and mystery. I've made simple pickles in the past, and plan to experiment further with fermented foods (kombucha and sauerkraut, here I come) in the near future. And for some time now -- despite various failed attempts -- I've also been determined to turn out a good loaf of yeasted bread.
I've wanted to make a 100% whole wheat bread, but my loaves always ended up with the consistency of dense bricks, and tasting of cardboard. Aaron -- a seasoned bread-baker himself, although he hasn't made any in a while -- suggested I start with a simple white bread recipe, which would be more forgiving, and then take my new skills up a notch by introducing heartier grains. Too stubborn to compromise, I did study up on the subject a bit, by way of The Tassajara Bread Book
and The Complete Tassajara Cookbook
, by the now-famous zen chef Edward Espe Brown. (I also recommend this documentary
about Brown. Good stuff.) I realized that my past attempts have failed because I used water that was too warm, and thus killed the yeast at step one. I also used recipes that called partially for white flour, but used whole wheat instead; these recipes weren't designed to make a good loaf of 100% whole wheat.
Brown's basic bread-baking tips corrected my too-warm water mistake -- easy enough to fix going forward -- and his (very basic and easy) recipe for Overnight Whole Wheat Bread -- made of just whole wheat flour, yeast and water -- promised a semi-sourdough taste without the trouble of a sourdough starter. And its title offered the instant appeal of bread-making while we slept.
As it turned out, although there is an overnight component to this bread's creation, a substantial part of my Sunday was also spent attending to its subsequent steps. Like most yeasted breads, the hands-on time wasn't all that intense, but I had to be around for several rises and to put the bread in -- and take it out (ahhhh) -- of the oven. This might have been tricky on a week day, since I'm in and out of the house, but it was fine for a Sunday. We were kind of just kicking around anyway, relaxing after the eventful week before (my birthday was last Monday -- woot! -- and Thanksgiving of course quickly followed), and it was nice to attend to bread baking at the same lazy pace, and likewise to do our down-time thing against an olfactory backdrop of hot bread in the oven. (That Kaspar couldn't eat the results, due to his wheat and gluten allergies, was not really a big deal. I do plan to bake some bread with the same flour blend I use for his chocolate chip cookies
, though, now that I'm getting the hang of this thing.) As for the actual results, the bread was substantial without being brick-like in the least, and it tasted amazing. Mission accomplished!
Before going out for my birthday dinner (Aaron wined and dined me while K stayed home with a sitter)
I used substantially more flour than Brown's recipe called for, since my dough was super sticky. I've modified the proportions below to reflect this, but when you do this at home, add about a half a cup of flour at a time as you're kneading, and stop adding the flour when your dough forms a smooth and pliable ball, instead of caking itself in sticky globs onto your hands and work surface.
Here's what you'll need:
1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
3 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups warm water (just barely above body temperature will be perfect)
1/2 cup warm water (again, just barely warm to the touch)
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
2 teaspoons salt
5-ish cups whole wheat flour
What you'll do:
Evening: Dissolve the yeast in the water, and stir together (in a large bowl) with the flour, about 100 times. Cover with a clean, dry dish towel and set it aside until morning.
1. Dissolve the yeast in the water, and add -- with the salt and additional flour, beginning with 2 1/2 cups and slowly adding more as you go -- to your mixture from the night before.
2. Turn out onto a floured work surface, and knead your dough, adding more flour as necessary so it isn't sticking to everything (see note above).
3. Knead your dough about 300 times (no need to count). Place the kneaded ball into an oiled bowl, and let rise for 3 to 4 hours.
4. Shape dough into 2 loaves, and place them either in oiled loaf pans, or on an oiled baking sheet. Brush the tops of the loaves with water, and let rise for another hour.
5. About 15 minutes before baking (so 45 minutes after step 4), preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
6. Brush the tops of the loaves with water again -- I actually used a bit of coconut oil, and next time may add some garlic and herbs to olive oil and use that -- and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until the loaves are browned on bottom and top. (I went for the full hour, and they were perfect.)
7. Remove from oven, slice, top with coconut butter (current addiction), and enjoy!
Image credit: Kevin Sherry
As I’ve written before, I don’t have a problem with meat-eating in principle. (Animal suffering, however, is another story.) Kaspar, for his part, wouldn’t be half the healthy kiddo he is today were it not for his happy-meat
habit. But I noticed, a couple of months ago, that our family was eating a lot
of meat. Like, more dinners than not featured animals (or their eggs), front and center, and Aaron and I -- or maybe it was just me, but I’m the primary cook around these parts, so my vote counts for more -- weren’t feeling the meat consumption at quite the level we were living it.
It wasn’t that we were eating meat in lieu of fruits and vegetables; our family eats (and drink
s) lots of produce on the daily. And it wasn’t that we were getting fat or anything like that – Aaron and I are both naturally slender people who probably couldn't get fat if we tried. It wasn’t even that I think eating meat is unhealthy; Aaron and I both qualify, in Ayurvedic terms anyway, as people who can eat some meat here and there (though Ayruveda doesn’t recommend really regular meat-eating for any constitution), and Traditional Chinese Medicine similarly recommends small amounts of meat in one's diet, for keeping the blood balanced and strong. I’m not sure what it was, actually, that caused me to initially re-adjust our meat habits, but whatever it was, it led to my arriving home from a library trip one day with a bag full of vegan cookbooks slung over my shoulder.
Aaron laughed semi-uproariously when he saw this; I was a strict, bumper-sticker-sportin’ vegan in high school and college. Although Aaron hadn’t met me yet, he knows this about me because I sometimes refer back to that time with a touch of self-directed snark and condescension in my tone. “I know so much more about nutrition and food politics now. Eating meat is not the problem. And soy is not the solution.” But I’ve also spoken fondly of those early forays into conscious food choices; I learned to cook when I was a vegan. I became attuned to what food feels like in my body. And I developed an appetite for food as a source of health, happiness, world peace and prosperity. Nothing less.
I still think it can get us there. And I still believe in my somewhat-later discovery of the local food movement – encompassing meat and produce alike –as paving (or, you know, tilling or some such) the way. (That organic ground beef you bought that was shipped in from the former-rainforest in Uruguay? Not so much.) But I also know now that our oceans are over-fished, our planet is getting warmer way too quickly
and the resources that are fundamental to human survival -- like fresh water -- are in short supply. These problems are all interrelated, too; beef production, for example, plays a major role in methane and nitrous oxide emissions
planet-wide, and climate change – which is very real – is definitely worsened by this kind of pollution. Climate change, in turn, affects crop and cattle production; the local Texas cattle industry suffered pretty seriously as a result of last summer’s draught, and it hasn't rained down here, this summer, in well over a month. I'm really, actually troubled by, and worried about, this global warming thing, and feeling like there's nothing I can do about it puts me in an immobilized, inner panic. I certainly can't single-handedly stop the planet-destruction bus, but I can choose, three times a day, to do something
about its momentum. So although my son must, for now, eat meat almost daily – and I will continue to source his meat from Earth and animal-friendly local purveyors – I’ve felt a recent desire to reduce our family’s collective footprint on the food front. How to go about doing so was not a mystery to me. It takes a lot more grain (or grass or whatever) to feed a cow than it does to feed a person. And two out of the three people in this family really don’t need to eat the cow to stay alive.
Also, cows are cute. There, I said it.
Click "Read More" below to read the rest of the post!
Remember how, despite my thumb of doom, I decided to take some baby steps toward gardening
this year? Well, I'm proud to report that baby steps have
been taken! And while I'd love to report that the results look something like this
, I'm going to opt for honesty instead, show you where things really stand, and sharing one or two takeaways that will ideally lead us right into next year's hearty harvest.
First of all, I held off on actually planting anything for quite some time; on the one hand, I thought our compost would turn into magnificent, fertile soil and, when it did, that this would be my cue it was planting time. On the other hand, I'm very busy and have a tendency to start projects without finishing them (one of this blog's purposes, and one it accomplishes well, is to motivate me to finish the projects I start... Because finishing things, of course, is highly satisfying). It became pretty clear, however, that compost takes some time to break down, and -- meanwhile -- Texas heats up more quickly than most of America's other states, so, sometime back in May, I realized real gardeners had already been at it for several months (a few friends were already picking veggies), and I couldn't keep putting it off. I needed to get on with gardening, if I planned to plant things at all.
I'd been planning, of course -- albeit vaguely -- to plant things for some time, and had primed Kaspar for the shared endeavor; we'd been reading books about gardens
, and talking extensively about where food comes from. In fact, I found a children's gardening book for myself
, as well, which broke the process down nicely and made it more approachable than books for adults on the subject seemed to; soil temperatures and crop cycles remain a bit out of reach for me at present. We spent our Mother's Day at the local organic gardening store, and while I was almost talked in to creating a square foot in-ground garden, while there, Aaron reminded me that I'm a novice with a lot of my plate already, and encouraged me to stick with my vague container-gardening plan. I was advised, by a staffer, on some easy-to-grow beginner veggie options, purchased a few packets of seeds and some soil, and set about planting -- with Kaspar's assistance -- shortly thereafter
. Then, we waited.
Seeing sprouts emerge was quite exciting. Although I had high hopes -- and showed off our pots of dirt to friends when they dropped by for lunch, or whatever -- I, deep down, half expected nothing to happen. I watered the dirt diligently, and Kaspar sang songs to the pots, and we waited some more; then, lo and behold, little sprouts pushed through the soil in one pot after the next. Some of our seeds had clearly moved, with their waterings, from where I'd dropped them into the soil -- rather than appearing in neat little rows, they came up in clusters -- and not all of those I'd planted turned into little plants, but we did see green things, and that was super cool. I was fairly certain, at that point, that we were off and running, and would be picking our mini-cukes and pickling peppers by now.
So are we picking and pickling? Well, no. Worst news first: the spinach plants died as the little sprouts they sprouted as (they grew most sparsely out of all of the plants in our small collection in the first place. I have no idea what I did wrong). All four cucumber seeds turned into little plants, which I pruned down to one, as instructed. That plant is still alive, and it's even flowered a bit, but it seems... stunted; it's remained the same size for weeks on end. If it has created any cucumbers, they're too small to be perceived by the naked eye. Same story for the pepper plant, as per the photo at top. It's alive, but doesn't seem to want to grow taller. I'm not sure what the deal is. But I do have one hunch. Read on.
See these Butterfly Zinnias, at left and right? Yeah, I know, they don't look like Zinnias (where are the flowers?), but they are. Anyway, on the left here, you can see the Zinnias in a pot. And on the right? That's one Zinnia seed-turned-plant that I stuck, on a whim and on the same day I planted the others, into the soil abutting our back-stoop steps. I haven't 'cared' for it at all since, and it's grown eight inches tall, head and shoulders above its potted siblings. Its leaves are broad and thick. I bet it'll even make a flower. (Eventually.)
... Which got me thinking (here comes the hunch) that maybe an in-ground garden is
the way to go. Maybe these plants need root-space to roam in, underground, and perhaps they'll grow taller with it. Next year, our compost will be ready for action, and I plan to make an actual in-ground garden, perhaps several square-feet large, to sow some seeds in. This has definitely not been a failed experiment, but I've learned (or have a hunch) that when it comes to growing stuff, one should ideally let the earth do her thing in the way she knows best. (Although I'm also very intrigued by innovative, resource-efficient ideas like this one
This season certainly ain't over. Who knows? I might report back, come October, that we're picking hoards of produce from our pots. I'll certainly keep caring for the plants, and watching what happens. Kaspar enjoys taking care of our garden, too -- gardening really is an awesome activity for kids of every size -- and he hasn't expressed any disappointment around my big sell ("Let's grow vegetables!") not panning out. Maybe he's too busy being impressed with his my-size tree, which is growing along merrily in the middle of our lawn.
I didn't plant that. It was a gift from his grandmother.
Do any of you expert gardeners have another hunch about why my plants are alive, but not really growing? Am I on the right track? And for those of you who were hoping to see bushels of beautiful, home-grown organic goods, I'll refer you out to this super-gardener mama
and this one
. (Our family, luckily, will continue to get our goods in our weekly CSA box
until I get the hang of this home-grown thing).
Update! (The very next day...)
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<----- (Check it). Our little potted Zinnias have produced a flower! We've named it "Patience, Grasshopper."
Watching Thomas, after playing outdoors. (Why NOT be naked?)
We received a bag of green, unripened tomatoes in our CSA box
this week (our membership
truly is the gift that keeps on giving), and I knew immediately that I’d soon expand my Southern cooking repertoire to include the famed classic, Fried Green Tomatoes. I thumbed through a few cookbooks and dove in this morning -- mixing, dredging and cookin’ up a sizzling batch. They were... awesome (Kaspar can't eat them yet, though, so... shhh). Served alongside eggs -- also from our CSA -- and sprouted corn tortillas, the fried tomatoes were the meal’s indisputable front-runner. Surprisingly sweet and tender, with a light, crisped coating, they disappeared almost as quickly as I'd made them.
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I can’t wait to show off my new signature breakfast showstopper for guests from farther North. Not to mention work these little wonders into other meals; they’ll be right at home on a bed of greens, complemented by crumbled goat cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette. I have no doubt I’ll be eating them solo all summer, too, as a satisfying snack. I’m in love – love, I tell you – with fried green tomatoes, every which way.
Wanna know what love tastes like? Have at it. Recipe follows.
Click "Read More" below for the recipe.
(a) Herbal (rooibos) tea with full-fat, raw local milk; (b) Sliced fresh berries; (c) Homemade paneer (made from said local milk); (d) Gorilla Munch
. (Note that corn cereal is not the healthiest thing Kaspar could be eating, but he's pretty into it, so... a part of this complete breakfast it is).
Slinky, crayons and paper= incidentals.
What's on your breakfast table?