December 30, 2011

New Years Resolutions

Historically, I haven't really done the whole New Years Resolution thing.  My habit, instead, is to take some time praying about the year ahead and ask God to give me a verse or a word to focus on.  Often, I end up with a goal or a theme as well.

But I did make a few practical New Years Resolutions last year; I was reminded of them when I read a recent blog entry of my cousin's in which she reviewed what she'd learned in the last year and listed resolutions for the new year.  I thought it was a great idea, so today I'll share my New Years Resolutions, Verse and Goal for 2012.


1.  Learn to make more homemade household cleaners, body care items and herbal remedies.

I am becoming increasingly aware of how many weird chemicals we allow into our bodies just because some company somewhere made a product and marketed it in such a way that it became a part of mainstream American life without the general public questioning whether it truly was beneficial or necessary or whether it might be harmful.  It seems to me that the more heavily a product is marketed, the more scrutiny the product deserves.  This is certainly true in the grocery store.  Think breakfast cereals, soda pop, margarine.  Lately I'm specifically questioning cleaning products and body care products.  Actually, I've been using vinegar, baking soda and bleach for most of my housecleaning for a while, but I still have toilet bowl cleaner, a couple of all-pupose cleaners, window cleaner and Tile & Shower cleaner and Drano cluttering my cleaning supplies shelf.  Do I really need all of those or are there more natural, more frugal alternatives available?  There are all sorts of recipes online for household cleaners.  This year I want to try some. 

And what about body care items?  I had never really thought about this until I started reading about fluoride.  A lot of the same groups that are passionate about raw milk are anti-fluoride.  I'm not familiar enough with the research yet to have an informed opinion about it, but after years of brushing twice a day, flossing religiously, rinsing with fluoride daily, and still having cavities annually, I've switched to brushing my teeth with a paste of coconut oil and baking soda and  rinsing with a Xylitol rinse. There are all sorts of recipes online for things like toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, conditioning rinse and facial treatments.  This year I'll try some.

Herbal remedies are perhaps the thing I most want to research in the coming year.  I absolutely hate giving my generally-healthy-kid-who-has-allergies multiple medications.  I worry about the side effects of taking so many medications together and the long-term health effects of relying on medications.  During her most recent bout with an infection, we were administering seven different inhaled and oral medications daily, plus one topical steroid for eczema.  Each of one them (except for all the useless over-the-counter cough medicines we tried) served a purpose.  I am not against taking a medication when it is necessary, but if a frugal mixture of raw honey and onion is as effective as an over-the-counter cough medicine, I rather trust the one with the familiar ingredients.  And I'd rather build up my children's immune systems with healthful foods, than trust Big Pharma to undo damage that our culture finds "normal."  (End of rant.)

2.  Set aside adequate time for hygiene with my daughters.

Life gets so busy.  And so often I find myself rushing the girls through bath time to get bed time.  Both my kids are anti-hair-combing.  I understand; with wavy hair, I just finger comb my hair.  But kids' hair gets so tangled, that it requires more attention.  Often, I am too busy to care, or I assume that my husband will do it, and it doesn't happen.  I find myself sending my girls to the bathroom to brush their teeth while I go in the opposite direction to get a drink of water or get Grace's medicine for her.  It would be better to intentionally budget sufficient time for a bath, a hair-combing and for applying lotion a homemade lotion bar to my eczema-prone-kid's skin.  It would be better to follow them in to the bathroom to supervise their tooth brushing and to teach them how to floss.  I must remember that these simple tasks aren't automatic, they are basic life skills that must be taught and practiced.  And, if I can get myself out of the nightly-rush mentality, we might find some quality-time in these moments.


Psalm 139:23-24: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting."

No elaborating here. I just know I am supposed to meditate on it, and I believe that by the end of the year it will have some special significance for me.


Raise Kids who Enjoy Life

This has been a goal of mine since last spring, but I think it's worthwhile enough that I don't need to replace it with a new one just to mark the passing of time.

The first six or seven years of our marriage were so caught up in surviving financially that I think I lost sight of having fun.  In fact, I don't remember "fun" ever really being a priority to me in the past.  I have the type of personality that is more interested in "doing the right thing," "completing the task," and "figuring out the budget."  But in the early part of 2011, I realized that I needed to learn how to relax, to figure out how I have fun, and to intentionally enjoy life so that I can allow my children to relax, to have fun, and to enjoy life.  No huge lifestyle changes, just simple things like not rushing through the details, appreciating simple pleasures and budgeting the time necessary to do fun things.

What about you?  What are your Resolutions or Goals for the New Year?  

What do you do to enjoy life?

December 28, 2011

Bacon-Cashew Caramel Corn

I feel like I should apologize for yet another post that has nothing to do with the Chico farmers market or local food, but I won't, because this caramel corn is freaking delicious.  When you try it, I'm sure you'll be glad I included it here.


For Christmas gifts this year we gave edible gifts: homemade marshmallows and hot cocoa syrup, delicious homemade caramels (flavored with local mandarin peel instead of vanilla bean, or with whiskey), little honey bears and mint-chocolate covered almonds from Borden-Huitt Ranch and homemade caramel corn.  Hopefully everyone liked what they received.  Truly, I enjoyed each treat very much.

A month or so ago a friend posted on Facebook that he'd made Bacon Caramel Corn.  That little tidbit stuck in the back of my mind, and when I needed one more treat for our treat bags, I decided that it must be Bacon Caramel Corn.  I looked online and there were quite a few recipes.  I had decided to use one from Epicurious, one that called for oolong tea to flavor the caramel, but then I realized that the recipe didn't call for butter, and, I don't know about you, but I think caramel corn should have butter in it.  I mean, c'mon, what's popcorn without butter?

So I asked my friend if he had any tips.  He said that he used Paula Dean's regular Caramel Corn recipe, altering it by popping the popcorn in bacon fat, and tossing cooked bacon pieces in with the caramel and popcorn.  I have never been a Paula Dean fan, but he said that it "turned out pretty awesome," and he's one of those people who I trust about culinary issues, so I had to try it.

Yep, it was pretty awesome.  Even without the salty smokiness of the bacon and unique almost-soft nuttiness of the cashews, Paula Dean's standard caramel corn recipe would be wonderful: perfectly buttery, with the caramel integrated into the popcorn enough that you shouldn't get any break-your-teeth-hard gobs of caramel.  Not only that, but it's easy to make.  Unlike the caramel corn recipe I've used in the past, this one does not require a candy thermometer.  You just boil together the sugar, corn syrup and butter, then pour it over the popped popcorn, stirring it to coat everything.  Then you cook it in a low oven for an hour, stirring every fifteen minutes to get that fairly even coat of caramel.  I also appreciate that this makes a huge batch.  It makes all the dirty pots and pans worth it.  Eight quarts of popcorn will fill a lot of treat bags, or make quite a few party guests very happy.  And if you have leftovers, it keeps for at least a week in an airtight container.  (If you include the bacon, some recipes recommend keeping it refrigerated for food safety reasons, but at least as many people insist that it should be fine kept in a cool place.) 

Bacon-Cashew Caramel Corn
adapted from Paula Dean's Grandma Paul's Caramel Corn Recipe with help from Craig Truesdell

1 lb sliced bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces
1 3/4 cups popcorn kernels, enough to yield 8 quarts popped corn
2 cups raw cashews
1 cup butter
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup light corn syrup (light in color, not light as in sweetened with artificial sweetener)
1 teaspoon baking soda

Prepare bacon:  In large frying pan over medium heat, cook bacon pieces, stirring occasionally until most pieces are just getting crisp.  Set bacon aside.  Reserve bacon fat. 

Prepare popcorn:  Pour about 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat into a large pot that has a lid.  Turn the heat under the pot to medium-high, put three popcorn kernels in the fat.  Put the lid on and wait until you hear the popcorn popping.  When the three kernels pop, pour in almost one cup of popcorn (or as much as will comfortably pop in your pot).  Replace lid.  Shake pan while the popcorn pops to avoid burnt popcorn and allow steam to escape.  Remove pot from heat as soon as popping slows.  Pour popcorn into a large mixing bowl.  Repeat with more bacon fat and the remaining popcorn.

Measure eight quarts (24 cups) of popped corn into your largest mixing bowl (or directly into your roasting pan, or use two large mixing bowls if necessary), being careful to remove any unpopped kernels.  Add bacon pieces and cashews. Preheat oven to 200ยบ.

Prepare caramel: In medium saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, salt and corn syrup over medium heat.  Boil for five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and use a heat-proof spatula to thoroughly stir in baking soda.  Carefully pour caramel over popcorn mixture and stir well to coat.  Transfer caramel corn to a large roasting pan and bake uncovered for one hour, stirring with a spatula every 15 minutes.  Spread on wax paper and allow to cool completely before packaging.

Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place up to one week.

12/30/2011 Update:  I said in this post that I thought Paula Dean's original Caramel Corn recipe (linked above) would be wonderful, so I thought I'd better try it.  It is wonderful.  Crispy, sweet, just a little sticky.  Vaguely reminiscent of Corn Pops cereal.  The addition of nuts, with their protein and fat, makes it less of a total-sugar-overload, and the bacon really does add a special smokiness to the flavor.  I say, if you're not a vegetarian, the bacon is worth the extra 20 minutes and the pan it takes to fry it.

December 27, 2011

Simple Broccoli Casserole

I used to love homemade mac-n-cheese, but my family prefers the stuff in the blue box, and I have this embarrassing habit of--after eating no less than two helpings at dinner--eating more mac-n-cheese out of the serving spoon while I'm supposed to be washing dishes.  Like multiple serving-spoonfuls.  Creamy, cheesy, carbohydrate-laden with a nice golden crust; it's just one of those foods that I can't stop eating once I start.  This winter, I haven't made homemade mac-n-cheese at all, and I don't miss it, because what I make instead is this Simple Broccoli Casserole.  Think mac-n-cheese, but with broccoli instead of the macaroni.

It's different enough from mac-n-cheese that my kids don't recognize it as similar.  No, "Aw, Mom, why didn't you just make the boxed kind?!"

It's not a carb-overload.  I find that I can stop eating before my third helping.  And, it's a vegetable.  I know I sure haven't eaten my fair share of vegetables with all these Christmas treats in the house.

Simple Broccoli Casserole

Cut about 2 pounds of broccoli into bite size pieces.  If you include the stalk, which I do, be sure to cut off the tough outer layer.  Cook broccoli according to your preferred method.  (I steam it in a small covered dutch oven with about 1/2 cup of water and a big sprinkle of salt for about six minutes.)  Drain thoroughly.

While broccoli cooks, make a cheese sauce:  Melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Whisk in 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour.  Let brown a minute, then whisk in 2 cups milk, a pinch of salt, about 5 grinds of pepper and a garlic clove, peeled and halved. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sauce bubbles.  Boil and stir one minute.  Remove from heat.  Stir in approximately 2 cups (8 oz) shredded sharp cheddar cheese.  Stir to melt cheese.

Arrange broccoli in a 1 1/2 qt casserole dish or a 8" square pan.  Pour cheese sauce evenly over broccoli.  Bake at 400 until bubbly and golden brown toward the edges, about 20 minutes.  Let rest 15 minutes before serving.

The longer you let this rest, the more it will set.  I generally serve it after about 15 minutes and it's still a bit soupy.  Serve it with toasted buttered bread to sop up the sauce, and a sliced orange to round out the meal.

December 22, 2011

A Handful of Follow Up Items

 Market News:

Remember the Saturday Chico Farmers Market is open on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve this year.  Go support your local farmers!


Thoughts about Christmas

I didn't go to the farmers market last weekend.  Usually we go through a dozen eggs in a week, but last Saturday morning there were still eight eggs in the carton.  There was still a head of napa cabbage, half a head of green cabbage, a bunch of carrots and a large head of broccoli in my fridge's crisper, so, as my husband and kids left town for two days, I decided not to go to the market.  Instead I stayed home and de-cluttered.  Boy, was the house overdo!  I spent all weekend decluttering, with a couple breaks to make candy for Christmas gifts, watch "Psych" on Netflix (while wrapping candies, of course) and to eat a burrito from a taco truck.  It was pretty great.

Oh, and I went with my mother and grandfather to Bidwell Pres for church on Sunday.  I grew up going to that church.  As a kid I loved playing hide-and-seek with my friends in all the Sunday School classrooms.  As I got older, my theology got a little more 'charismatic' and 'evangelical' and I tired of the 'traditional' style of worship.  Throughout our marriage my husband and I have attended multiple non-denominational churches, and we've been fairly content at each one of them, but, my goodness! I was humbled and unimaginably refreshed by singing Christmas carols at church Sunday.  I can't help buy consider why:  1) Has the theology or worship style of the church changed?  2) Has my theology or preferred worship style changed?  3) Does it feel 'normal' and 'right' to me simply because it is what I grew up with? 

And why don't non-denominational churches sing Christmas carols during Advent?  A lot of churches seem to mix modern worship songs with a couple of Christmas carols.  I like modern worship songs, but I would so much prefer to sing Christmas carols exclusively during Advent, and not just the first verse either.  But I digress...

I think all three answers are correct (but feel free to chime in if you have an opinion on that)... The next logical question is, "Am I raising my kid in an (home or church) environment that I want her to think is 'normal' and 'right?'

My favorite parts of Christmas are the Christmas carols that celebrate the birth of Christ and the smell of pine.  Let me re-phrase that: they are the two elements of Christmas that I miss most when Christmas gets busy with picking out perfect gifts on a budget, preparing gifts, working 40 hours a week when it seems like at least half of my Facebook friends are on vacation, watching Santa Claus movies, and carving out time for big holiday meals with family.  It's not that I don't like the other elements.  I just really want time to ponder the lyrics to 'O Holy Night,' and to sing with my kids (at least the first three verses of) 'Away in a Manager.'


 Some Cool Photos of the Market in November

Anyhow, I skipped the farmers market last week.  The farmers market is such a part of who I am that I kind of need that experience every week.  Thinking about the market this week, I googled "Chico Farmers Market" and discovered a really cool blog post by a blogger from Oregon who visited the market in November.  There are a lot of good photos in the post and it's just nice to see someone celebrate the wonderful variety we have at the Chico Farmers Market.  So, if all the hustle and bustle of the holidays have kept you away from the market, check out her post and get your fix.  I'm already looking forward to what I plan to buy this weekend:  some local honey, because we're almost out; some cabbage or kale to put into a post-Christmas soup, some carrots, celery (if I can find some), and a big bag of mandarins to keep the kids happy.


The Organic Pastures Milk Recall

Organic Pastures was out of business for a month due to the recent raw milk recall, but government inspectors did not find any indication that the E. coli outbreak which sickened five children was a result of drinking raw milk.  Raw milk enthusiasts certainly are not surprised. 


Homemade Ice Cream Notes - a new page on the blog

I recently consolidated my homemade ice cream experimentation on one page.  I've really enjoyed finding new homemade ice cream flavors that my family likes, but I don't want to muddy up a blog that is supposed to be all about celebrating farmers market produce with recipes containing store-bought peppermint cookies and root beer extract.  You can find my most recent ice cream adventures, as well as links to recipes posted previously, here.


Re: Edible Gifts

I've gotten a lot of feedback on my recent "10 Tips for Edible Gifts" post.  Most of it goes something like this, "Oh no, just before I read this I delivered six plastic-wrapped paper plates full of homemade cookies to all my co-workers!"

I feel like I should clarify.

When I wrote that post, I wasn't just ripping on former co-workers, some of my tips are from personal experience.  I am not a crafty person and I am not the kind of person who just loves to give gifts, so I hope you don't think I went crazy-Martha-Stewart on you. 

1.) I had a bad experience with a plate of Christmas cookies as a child, so my opinions about Christmas cookies may not reflect other people's opinions about Christmas cookies.  I don't actually remember the experience.  I've blocked it out.  But I think I was about ten years old and the cookies were brought to us by the kid who lived just north of us.  I can only assume that he and his mother had wrapped peppermint cookies with non-peppermint cookies, because, to this day, that is my biggest food-related pet peeve.

2.)  Fancy packaging is more important in situations where you need to make a good impression (ie: a gift to a client or a brand-new sister-in-law) and less important in situations where you're close to recipient or when you've experienced some type of medical hardship.  My grandmother, who is nearly 90 years old, is giving most people on her Christmas list this year homemade Chex Mix.  From experience, I can tell you that she's packaged it in plastic bags, the ones marked "bread bags" with the twist ties.  She figured out years ago that they were the perfect size and shape to funnel in Chex Mix using a piece of waxed paper.  And she's way too frugal to ever buy a ziplock bag.  She'll pass out bags of Chex Mix without any adornment and all her grandchildren (and some friends at her retirement community) will munch on it happily in the days to come.  We know her and we've come to except that holiday Chex Mix.


Merry Christmas, all!  

I hope that coming week is filled with whatever it is that you like most about Christmas.

December 14, 2011

10 Tips for Edible Gifts

A rant inspired by too many stale baked goods next to the office water cooler

With most of us on stricter budgets than we may have been in years past, and considering our society's increased awareness of how our choices affect the environment, edible gifts are a good thing... as long as you follow some basic guidelines.

1.  Package all edible gifts attractively.  Appearance is everything.  I understand that taste is super-duper important, too, but what I am trying to say is that presenting a gift nicely makes it more appetizing, and therefore, better appreciated.  Avoid ziplock bags, saran wrap and paper plates.  For candies, use treat bags with sparkly ribbon.  Top gifts-in-a-jar with a circle of fabric, secured with some festive elastic cord.  Be sure to attach a big shiny bow or a fun curl of ribbon to a gift basket or gift bag.  The ubiquitous plate-of-Christmas-cookies can certainly be enhanced by some creative packaging: a nice cookie tin or (for crisp, flat cookies) a clear plastic sleeve (with some pretty ribbon) so that the cookies are packaged as a stack.

2.  Choose upscale or homemade over grocery store varieties.  If you can't afford See's, please don't give a  Wittman's Sampler.  It just looks sad sitting there unopened next to the See's Candy that someone else gave.  If you don't have the time or skill to whip up some homemade caramels or truffles, Trader Joe's has some gift-able candies and cookies in decent packaging.  Oh, and just to be clear, a loaf of nut bread from the discount grocer is not a gift; it's a heart attack in wasteful plastic clamshell packaging. 
$- Trader Joe's Mini Candy Cane Cookies  $$- See's Candy

3.  The closer it gets to Christmas, the more something with a shelf-life will be appreciated.  Sure, the first tin of cookies or tray of candies makes us all feel merry and bright, but we all have our limits.  The closer it is to Christmas, the more likely it is that the gift recipient (and their family or office-mates) are already getting burned out on festive sweets.  Not only that, but if your scheduled delivery is postponed, your recipient isn't stuck with something stale.
$- jam or jelly, pickles or salsa
$$- vacuum-packed coffee
$$$- A nice bottle of the recipient's favorite liquor

4.  Choose something savory.  Again, this time of year people are getting tired of sweets, so choose something savory.  Caveat:  Teachers probably get more chintzy edible gifts than people in other occupations.  Your child's teacher does not want another Dollar Store Christmas mug filled with Hershey's Kisses.  Go savory, go with something with a shelf-life, or forget the edible gifts altogether and go with a gift card. 
$- Spiced nuts
$$-Salami & Cheese

5.  With homemade gifts, include clear instructions for their use and storage.  Hot cocoa mix is an appropriate cuddle-up-in-the-wintertime gift for a lot of people, as long as they know that it's hot cocoa mix and how to use it.  Include nicely printed instructions: "Mix 2 tablespoons Hot Cocoa Mix with 6 ounces hot milk.  Snuggle up and enjoy."  Likewise, that ubiquitous tin of cookies might be appreciated a bit more with a tag that read, "These cookies are freshly baked.  Enjoy immediately or store in an airtight container in the freezer up to one month."   Certainly, if something requires refrigeration, make that very clear.

6.  Give a themed food basket.   Even practical items tucked into a bed of raffia in an attractive basket can make a beautiful and thoughtful gift.  If you match your theme to the recipient, it may end up being their favorite gift of the year.
$- homemade canned pasta sauce with a pound of gourmet pasta
$$- A bag of sushi rice, a package of nori, a jar of pickled ginger, wasabi and a couple of sushi rolling mats
$$$- One of my favorite gifts one year was a collection of foods produced in Butte County.  It included a jar of honey, a bottle of wine, a couple bags of flavored almonds, some specialty olive oil, a package of rice cakes and some citrus fruit.

7.  Be aware of food allergies and preferences.  If you give peanut brittle to someone who doesn't like nuts, it won't be appreciated.  If you give something that contains peanuts or peanut oil to someone who is allergic to peanuts the outcome could be far worse.  Likewise, a gluten-free family won't be able to enjoy anything made with wheat or oats.  It's not a great idea to give sweets to a perpetual dieter, salty foods to someone who has heart disease or taffy to someone known to break their teeth.  And certainly, do not give alcohol to anyone unless you have confirmed that they drink alcohol.  In the event that you're giving a gift to people you don't know well, kindly make sure that the ingredients, especially any possible allergens (nuts, dairy, wheat, eggs, shellfish) are clearly and neatly marked.

8.  Budget appropriately.  Edible gifts can certainly be an economical choice, but be sure to budget for the item itself (or the ingredients and time to make a homemade gift), and attractive packaging including a nice tag for labeling. Maybe you saved a lot of money by making homemade honey wine for your friends this year.  Well, here's the thing: most of your friends think the concept of something fermenting in your closet for six months is a little weird, but we might to be willing to try it, if it's packaged in a decorative bottle (widely available online) rather than a re-purposed soda bottle.

9.  Maintain a clean kitchen.  And the appearance of one.  Make sure that your counters and utensils are clean.  Don't make edible gifts while you are sick .  Don't put your child in the position of delivering an edible gift while he/she is sick.  Also, if it is apparent that your cat sat on that plate of appetizers you were planning to bring to a holiday party, just don't bring it.  Your hostess would much rather be greeted with a big hug and a hearty "Merry Christmas."

10:  Make a double batch... or a quadruple batch.  You must taste whatever you make for quality control reasons.  And if it's as delicious as it looks, your housemates will want to sample it too.  Of course, it never hurts to have a few extra items available for last minute gifts, and if you end up not giving them away, it certainly won't go to waste, will it?

December 12, 2011

Raw Milk: 3 Weeks In

 The ninth post in our series about my family's choice to drink raw milk.


Today marks the beginning of our fourth week as raw milk drinkers.  Loyal readers know that I had a great deal of anticipation about how drinking raw milk might affect our diet and lifestyle.  So, three weeks in, what are our thoughts?

Jason loves it.  He has always enjoyed drinking milk, but he is a very picky eater, hating all things gamey, so my first concern about the raw milk was the flavor.  When we tasted it at our friend's house, he said that it tasted like milk and he liked it.  As the whole "raw milk issue" has come up in conversations with friends, he is more passionate about its quality than I am.  He likes it a lot.

Grace likes it, though she hasn't expressed that there's a difference in the flavor or creaminess of it versus conventional milk.  She's had a terrible cough for most of the last month, but I am still holding on to hope that over time the raw milk might do something to improve her allergies and asthma.

Abby is at that two-year-old-stage when the food she gobbles up today she rejects tomorrow.  We had never given her very much conventional milk, but we've been giving her about a cup of raw milk per day and she usually drinks it.

I'm not a milk drinker, but I've been making decaf flavored cafe au laits most mornings.  The milk isn't technically "raw" after it's heated past a certain temperature, but, anyhow, I like them.

I've also been using the raw milk in making ice cream, though I still use conventional or organic cream in the same recipes.  Since a pint of cream costs $10, $12 is about how much it would cost to make a quart of ice cream.  At this point, I just can't justify spending $12 to make a quart of ice cream.

I tried to make raw milk yogurt once.  The recipe warned that it ends up being more of a drinkable yogurt than a thick yogurt, and it certainly was.  After the overnight culturing it looked the same as it had at the beginning of the culturing except that some of the cream had globbed to the side of the jar.  So as not to waste it, I used it as the liquid in a couple of bread recipes.  In case you are wondering, it did not seem to impart any specific flavor.  With this week's milk, I think I'll try making yogurt using my old recipe.  It won't  be raw, but it may be better for you than the store-bought stuff, and since our milk consumption is up to 2.5 gallons a week, it's a good way to use up that extra half gallon. 

Which reminds me, we had started with 2 gallons per week, but the second week we determined that we were consuming more milk than we did when we had the grocery store milk.  Two gallons was not enough and we needed a third.

Three gallons a week cost $104 per month, which is roughly 18% of our monthly food budget.  We've certainly felt a pinch in the budget, but I wonder if part of the pinch might be 1) the anticipation of the pinch or 2) holiday cooking.  I'll revist the finances of this raw milk adventure in a few months.

For most of this month, I've felt guilty that my husband and daughter were consuming this supposed super-food on super-sugary breakfast cereal.  I mean, shouldn't part of the lifestyle change be replacing worthless carbs and refined sugars with more nutrient-dense, "real" foods?  I an ideal world, yes.  But I am a busy working mom with three family members who all have a deeply ingrained sense of what tastes good, and I need to remind myself that gradual change is better than no change.  I'd love to phase out refined carbohydrates, and to shift to locally grown meats and poultry, but that would require more money and a new set of cooking skills.  For now I'll just appreciate that the ham I bought last night at Trader Joe's* is "uncured" (none of those evil nitrates) and that it is delicious on a buttered piece of (store-bought) ciabatta.


*For a while I had been buying most of our meats at Chico Meat Locker.  The meats themselves might not be local, but at least my food dollars were going to a local business.  Well, the same organizations that tout the virtues of raw milk rail hard against MSG.  Unfortunately, I see MSG (monosodium glutamate) on most of the ingredient labels at the Meat Locker, so this month I bought "uncured" ham, "organic" chicken thighs and "All Natural No MSG" chicken sausages at Trader Joes.  (Yep, those words are in quotation marks because I believe they are nutritional claims that should be researched, not blindly believed.)

December 1, 2011

Some Fun Foodie Gift Ideas

Is it just me or is a paper plate of assorted cookies from a neighbor kind of revolting?  Sorry, but I don't know you well enough to trust your cooking and, c'mon, you put these peppermint cookies in the cellophane along with everything else, so now everything--the gingerbread boys, the chocolate chip cookies and the peanut butter blobs--all taste vaguely of peppermint. Plus, it looks like your kid dropped the plate on the ground during delivery.

Okay, so that little incident was years ago, but I would assume most of us have received questionable Christmas cookies from a well-meaning neighbor, student or co-worker at some point.  Therefore, I steer away from giving cookies at Christmas.  So much of a homemade treat is in the presentation.  Fun snack mix or candied nuts in a pretty cellophane bag with a nice bow or a jar of jam with a nice fabric top. Neatly printed assembly instructions tied onto a Mason Jar of soup mix.  Or a fun gift basket including any of the above.

Gifts that Celebrate Local Foods:

Holiday Pretzel & Nut Mix - originally from David Lebovitz - a slightly spicy, crunchy snack mix, a nice departure from the typical Christmas cookie overload.  Use local almonds and pecans.  Add pistachios or cashews for some textural contrast.

In the past I've given peach chutney, apricot jam and plum preserves, but I didn't end up doing any canning this summer.  Now that the weather is cooler, standing over a boiling water bath canner doesn't sound so miserable.  There are plenty of apples available to make apple butters and things.  Valencia oranges and mandarins are also available in early December, if you want to make marmalade.

Apple Marmalade -  from the National Center for Home Food Preservation - There aren't too many added flavors here, so be sure to choose a variety of apple whose flavor you enjoy.  Pink Ladies, Black Arkansas, Twig and Galas seem to have more complexity than Golden Delicious or Red Delicious or Rome.

Other Sweet Stuff:

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix - Last year we gave this one from Annie's Eats with some homemade biscotti.  This year we're giving a Hot Cocoa Syrup (based on the Chocolate-Orange Syrup) with  homemade marshmallows.  I used Alton Brown's recipe, but subbed peppermint extract for the vanilla and added cocoa powder to the dusting mixture. 

Assorted Truffles: Annie's Eats has a number of truffle recipes.  Last year we tried the Pumpkin Spice Truffles and the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles from her blog. Both were well-received, but my favorite truffles were the easiest of all to make:  Peppermint Oreo Truffles.  Just Peppermint Oreos, cream cheese and chocolate.  Total junk food, I know, but tasty!  (Just always be sure to package minty treats separate from non-minty treats).

Caramels:  Again, Annie's Eats is a great resource for gift-able treats.  I've used this recipe for caramels again and again.  This year I also made Salted Whiskey Caramels.  Yum!

Gifts from the Farmer's Market 

I think it's funny when people send those expensive-looking boxed fruit sets, but I like eating fruit, so I don't argue.  Does that mean it would be okay to stick a bow on an 8 lb bag of Noble Apple Orchard's apples and call it a Christmas gift?  Or a bag of mandarins?  Why not?

But of course there are also curds from Two English Ladies, candied or raw almonds and different varieties of honey, dried fruits, pomegranate syrups and marinades, pistachio pestos, olive oil and breads from multiple vendors including Miller's Bake House,Tin Roof Bakery and Borden-Huitt Ranch.  Of course, the Saturday farmers market has a good selection of non-edible gifts as well: handmade soaps, lavender products, candles, aroma-therapy stuff, even handmade chess boards.  Someone--someone craftier than me--could certainly create a beautiful gift basket with some of those things, some raffia and a pretty bow.

What are some of your favorite homemade or local food gifts?

Chocolate-Orange Syrup (Mocha Valencia)

Did you ever have a Starbucks' Mocha Valencia?

I know that in my last post I said that I am not a fan of Starbucks, but that doesn't mean that I haven't spent my fair share of time in Starbucks.  I think it's been a least fifteen years since I saw the Mocha Valencia on their menu (but a quick Google search finds that the Valencia syrup was officially discontinued in 2006).  The only time I ever remember ordering one was in the downtown Chico Starbucks shortly after it opened.  A Mocha Valencia was a mocha with orange syrup added.  I liked the combination, but frankly Java Joe's (later purchased by Cal Java) made a better version.  And the barista at Java Joe's was way cuter than the baristas at Starbucks.  Boy, did I spend a lot of time at Java Joe's "doing homework" when I was in high school.

I was reminded of those delicious orange mochas this weekend when Abby and Grace were frantically peeling mandarins in the kitchen.  Those 10-pound mesh bags of mandarins started appearing in the market a couple weeks ago, and we brought home our first bag Saturday.  They are a little sour for my taste, but I think those girls ate half the bag over the weekend.  One thing I really enjoy about eating locally is how much we genuinely appreciate the first taste of the season of everything.  The first nectarine in the summer, the first cabbage or cauliflower in the fall, the first strawberry in the spring.  The smell of those mandarins was so fresh and crisp and almost Christmas-y, I decided I needed to celebrate them.

Inspired by the citrus aroma and the gingerbread latte syrup I've been making lately, I snagged a couple mandarin peels before they went into the compost, and, using a small knife (I'd use my paring knife if I could find it) I cut off some of the orange rind.  One could also use a citrus zester for this, but I used a knife.  I added the pieces of orange rind to a simple syrup simmering on the stove.  Then I stirred in some cocoa powder, strained out the peels, and viola, I had chocolate orange syrup for a Mocha Valencia.

About 2 ounces of chocolate-orange syrup plus 2 shots of espresso (or 6 ounces strong brewed coffee) and 6 ounces of frothy steamed whole milk equal one creamy, delicious Mocha Valencia.

Chocolate-Orange Syrup
Makes about 16 fluid ounces, enough for approximately 8 mochas or hot chocolates depending on how sweet you like it. 

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
Rind (orange part only) from 4-5 mandarins or 2 larger oranges
1/4 cup natural and dutch-process cocoa powder blend -I use Saco's Premium cocoa powder, which is available in most grocery stores.  If you prefer a different brand, feel free to use it.

In a small saucepan combine water, sugar, orange rind and cocoa.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and let simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Strain out orange rind and transfer to a bottle or jar. Store in the refrigerator.

David Lebovitz brings up some great points in this post entitled, "Why I Don't Hate Starbucks."  Definitely worth the five minutes it takes to read it.