November 15, 2013

How to Roast a Winter Squash

How to Roast a Winter Squash

Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds.  Place cut side down in the baking dish with 1/4" of water. Roast in a 400 degree F oven for one hour. Give or take 15 minutes and 50 degrees.  Turn squash over to reveal soft flesh. Season with a little butter, salt and pepper. 

Why roast a Winter Squash

Looking for a way to cut carbs or calories? Looking for ways to eat more veggies or utilize more local produce? Replace pasta, mashed potatoes, tortillas or other starchy sides with squash. Serve food inside a half of a squash. Let the squash soak up the sauce instead of using bread. Bonus: on chilly winter evenings, serving food inside a freshly baked squash half keeps the food warmer longer. 

Common types of winter squash include butternut, acorn and spaghetti squash. 

Don't knock it 'til you try it:
Serve seasoned taco meat in a roasted spaghetti squash half. Top with shredded lettuce, cheese and salsa. 

February 14, 2013

Blood Orange Marmalade

We're at the height of citrus season here in Upstate California.  I'm loving the oranges.  Our family goes through ten pounds in a week easily.  We're also loving blood oranges.  On the outside they look quite like a naval orange, maybe a rosier tone to their skin, but on the inside they are red-purple (watch out for staining) and their flavor, while definitely citrusy, has a very "berry" element to it.  Such a prize in the middle of winter!  To me a blood orange isn't a substitute for a naval orange, it's a whole different fruit.  With our first taste of this years' crop of blood oranges a few weeks ago I was so taken aback by the berry-ness of their flavor, I immediately wanted to preserve it.  

I've been trying to take it easy in the kitchen lately, because this pregnancy is reminding me to rest, so I wanted a marmalade with an easy method.  No de-seeding, no separating the peel from the pith and then segmenting or supreming the fruit.  (Who are these bloggers who have time to peel and section multiple pounds of citrus...and then tie up the seeds in a piece of cheese cloth "for added bitterness"?)

Also, I wasn't looking for a classicly bitter marmalade; I wanted a fruit spread that captured the flavor of a blood orange.  I wasn't looking for slices of orange peel, but a smoother texture, something to make the kids stop complaining that we ran out of strawberry jam months ago.  So I took the basic ingredients from one recipe and I adapted it to use a method briefly mentioned on the blog, Hitchhiking to Heaven (a blog totally devoted to jams, jellies and preserves). That lady knows her preserves. In this post she mentions--and pictures--a Rio Star Grapefruit Jam.  She refers to it as a jam because the whole fruit is pureed in a food processor and cooked more quickly than a classic marmalade.  Whatever the terminology, I'm glad I used her method.  A 90-minute simmer for the whole fruit, a quick whirl in the food processor, then a fairly brief simmer with sugar to make a tangy-sweet marmalade/jam was a fun Sunday afternoon project.

I think about this jam when I go to bed at night... On a piece of sourdough Sunflower-Sesame toast from Hearth & Stone Bakery with butter.  I think about it when I wake up in the morning.  And then I go make a slice and cup of tea and I start my day.

Blood Orange Marmalade
Adapted from Spectacularly Delicious with inspiration from Hitchhiking to Heaven
Makes approximately 8 half pints.

2 pounds blood oranges
2 lemons (I subbed another blood orange for one of the lemons)
8 cups sugar

Thoroughly clean blood oranges and lemons by scrubbing with a vegetable brush under running water.  Remove any stems.  Place whole fruits in large saucepan and add water to cover.  Bring to a simmer and let simmer with pot partially covered until fruit is tender and can be easily pierced with a knife (about 90 minutes).  This requires almost no attention while simmering, a perfect time to make tortillas with the kids or do whatever other household chores keep you busy on a Sunday afternoon.

When fruit is tender, remove to a plate to cool a bit.  The original recipe calls for saving the water that the fruit cooked in, but I only saved about a cup.  I wasn't really interested in the extra bitterness that the liquid was supposed to provide and I certainly wasn't interested in the extra boiling time that all that liquid would add to the final cooking stage, so I deviated from the recipe.  Cut the fruit in half and removed the seeds from the lemons (there weren't any visible seeds in the blood oranges).  Working in two batches, put the halved fruit in a food processor and pulse 5-10 times until it is a small mince, not completely uniform. Return the puree to the pot (with the reserved 1 cup of liquid), add the sugar and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally at the beginning, more constantly toward the end to prevent scorching, until the mixture thickens, about 20-30 minutes.  You're aiming for a temperature of 222F on a candy thermometer, but mine was sufficiently thick before it reached that temperature.

Transfer marmalade to hot sterilized half-pint jars.  Leave 1/2" headspace.  Process is boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove to a towel covered counter and let sit 24 hours.  Check seals, label and store up to one year. 

February 8, 2013

Favorite Homemade Snacks

Here's a list of things I've made recently that I'm not going to blog about because few, if any, of the ingredients were sourced from the farmers market, but they deserve your attention (especially if you're a mom who avoids packaged foods and you're looking for lunch box ideas).

And if you fit into that category and you don't already follow Alana Chernilla's blog Eating From the Ground Up, may I highly recommend it?  She has a book out titled "The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making."  (Click here to use the Look Inside feature on Amazon, but if you want to buy it, go support an independent bookseller.)  It is #1 on my list of Books I Want to Read, But Can't Find At the Library.  In the meantime, every recipe I've tried from her blog (or from other internet sources with her name on them) has been undoubtedly worth the effort.  The recipes are simple and adaptable using easily sourced, mainly whole-food ingredients.  Her writing style is welcoming.  Her blog serves as a gracious reminder to me to not be overly frustrated by chaos in the kitchen and to remember what a blessing it is to spend time in the kitchen with my daughters.

Car Snack 2-  This takes about five minutes of actual work and 25 minutes of baking time.  And you end up with 12-16  honey granola bars (I subbed honey for the Lyle's Golden Syrup), heavy on the oats, kinda crisp, with just a little chew.  Perfect for a kid's or adult's lunch box.  (A good starter granola bar for a person who thinks they don't like nuts.) 

Car Snack 3-  This one takes a little longer to prepare because there are more ingredients: lots of nuts and seeds, but again after a half hour in the oven you're left with two dozen granola bars, which store nicely in the freezer.  These are vaguely reminiscent of a storebought Chewy granola bar, but a little bigger and heartier, less sweet.  These are a lunchbox favorite of my 8-year old, who says she doesn't like nuts.  Hmm, I guess the almond butter absorbs into the other stuff enough that it doesn't count, and well, I don't know what she thought that shredded coconut and those pumpkin seeds (which I used in place of sliced almonds) were.  Maybe it's the presence of just enough chocolate to steal the show?

Homemade Instant Oatmeal- Not a kid's lunch box item, but it's an easy breakfast for the kids and something I can take to work and make at the office.)  I haven't been an instant oatmeal eater for years, but there are certain flavors that my husband and older daughter liked when we were buying packaged cereals.  Oatmeal (the Old-Fashioned kind) is an easy enough thing to whip up in the mornings.  Grace is certainly capable of making it herself in the microwave (1 cup of water + 1/2 cup oats in a Pyrex measuring cup microwaved for 3:30).  But lately I've grown skeptical about the safety of heating food in microwaves, so I tried this.  I never imagined what an instant hit it would be our household! All four of us have been enjoying it for breakfast.  And the real beauty of it is that the toppings are already in it, so making a bowl of oatmeal only requires boiling water on the stove (and an optional splash of milk).  No kids juggling glass jars of brown sugar (and parents wondering exactly how many 'scoops' of sugar were put into a bowl of oatmeal).  No spilling cinnamon on the counter.  No arguing about an appropriate amount of raisins... or the color of the raisins.  No complainants that we're out of one of the necessary add-ins.

We tried this on a whim a month ago, and since then I've needed to make a double batch each week to keep us stocked up.  As is customary with Alana's recipes, this one is very versatile.  The ingredients are old-fashioned rolled oats, brown sugar (I've been using half Rapadura, because I like that it is less refined, and half organic sugar), cinnamon, salt and dried fruit.

The oats are spread on a baking sheet and toasted for 20 minutes in the oven.  If you're into soaking your grains, you can certainly do that, just plan for a longer toasting time (usually about 40 minutes, with a couple break-up-the-clumps-breaks in the middle).  Then four cups of the oats are pulsed in the food processor with the sugar, cinnamon and salt, and lastly the remaining two cups of oats and the dried fruit are stirred in.  (Raisins and blueberries can be left whole or chopped briefly in the food processor.  The easiest way I've found to cut larger dried fruit is with kitchen shears.  I tried the food processor, but large pieces seem to get stuck on the blades.  I add about 1 cup of dried fruit to a 6-cup batch of oatmeal.)  We keep our instant oatmeal in a glass canister or half-gallon mason jar with a half-cup scoop left in the jar for easy measuring.  One batch yields 12-14 servings of oatmeal.

To make a serving simply pour almost 1 cup boiling water over 1/2 cup instant oatmeal in a bowl.  Cover with a plate to keep the heat in and let it hydrate for 5 minutes.  After the five minutes is up, remove the plate, add milk if desired (if I'm at the office I add a tablespoon coconut oil and some broken crispy walnuts for a healthful fat and protein boost), stir and serve.  (You could certainly add finely chopped nuts or toasted coconut to the instant oatmeal with the fruit if you think you'll go through it quickly, but I don't because I'm the only one in my family who wants nuts in my oatmeal.)

Even without the milk (or coconut oil), this oatmeal is creamy and satisfying because of the ground oats.  The proportions of salt and sweet seem just right to me, but you could certainly add a bit more or less to your taste. With the walnuts and coconut oil it feels less like carb-heavy to me personally, but the lack of fat and protein in the original version don't seem to bother anyone else in my house.

So far the flavors I've made (using dried fruit from Trader Joes or S&S) are
  • Apple-Cinnamon-Raisin
  • Apricot
  • Blueberry (we haven't come to a consensus on whether or not cinnamon should be included in this flavor)
  • Banana (no cinnamon) 
  • Our favorite, Mango (sub 1/2 tablespoon ground cardamom for the tablespoon of cinnamon).
Chocolate Buckwheat Cake  A lunchbox, whether kid or adult, needs a treat, right?  This grain-free chocolate cake is similar to a mousse-like brownie.  (It would actually be the perfect Valentines Day dessert with just a little coffee ice cream or whipped cream and a little garnish!)  A small wedge of it in my lunch keeps me from hitting the candy jar or vending machine.  And while it's texture is a bit decadent, my kids love it too.  Everybody's nutritional philosophy is different, so this may or may not fit your criteria, but one of our goals right now is less sugar. I think a tablespoon of sugar (and I use Rapadura in this recipe because of it's nutrient content) or less per wedge seems reasonable for a treat.  And none of the other ingredients are things that I find offensive:  chocolate, farm fresh eggs, pastured or organic butter, almond flour, buckwheat flour and yogurt.  No refined carbs, limited refined sweeteners, with a dose of protein and healthy (animal) fats.

For sources please see the links.

Success with crackers can be a little difficult.  First you need a good recipe.  Can I interject here: I'm constantly amazed at how many cracker recipes (particularly those on "Real Food" blogs, those of the "Nourishing Traditions" variety featuring soaked, sprouted or soured whole grains, raw dairy and that type of thing) are decidedly disappointing.  Why do I get my hopes up when a recipe is touted as tasting "just like Goldfish crackers but better," when every one of the recipes I've tried for "real food" cheddar crackers tastes more like cooked Play Dough than a childhood snack favorite?  Which brings up a good point:  Without the additives, artificial flavors, dough enhancers and sugars included in commercially produced crackers, homemade versions are going to taste different, so an adjustment in expectations might be necessary.

With a good recipe, there's still room for error.  A cracker baker must take care to roll the dough as thinly as possible.  Some recipes want you to roll the dough 1/8" thick and some say thinner.  When it doubt, I recommend thinner.  And finally, a cracker baker must watch carefully during baking to avoid burning.  Oven times vary and dough thickness varies, so you can't just set the timer and walk away.  In fact, it is highly likely that the crackers toward the outside of the pan will be crisped and marked by golden brown perfection--and will need to be removed from the oven--at least a couple minutes before the crackers toward the center of the pan are done.

So why make your own crackers?  Because in the long run they aren't that difficult.  It's just that the technique takes practice and presence of mind.  And when you find a recipe you like, you will most certainly get a better-quality product than you would find in a grocery store and for less money. 

"Wheat Thins" - I appreciate that this recipe includes the step of soaking the dough overnight.  (I like to emphasize sourdough breads and soaked grain products in our eating, and cut down on non-sour, -soaked versions.)  I also appreciate that the claim, "These taste exactly the same as a store-bought Wheat Thin!" is incredibly close to accurate.  I can't discern the individual flavors of paprika and vanilla in the finished product, but, along with the small amount of sugar in recipe, they give these crackers that characteristic taste.

Wheat Thins + sliced cheddar cheese + carrots sticks and a piece of fruit  = a satisfying lunch.

Cornmeal, Parmesan & Poppy Seed Crackers - Vanessa Barrington's DIY Delicious is another book with the stock-your-pantry-with-homemade-foods theme.  It's one of the five cookbooks I use most frequently. I've mentioned it before on the blog.  What drew me to these crackers is that they use poppy seeds.  I have homegrown poppy seeds!  How cool is that?! They have a good crunch from the cornmeal and seeds and good flavor from the parmesan.  They are unique enough to stand on their own, but of course I like them topped with cheese.  I appreciate the technique that Barrington provides for making the seeds and salt stick to the top:  roll the dough out, sprinkle with poppy seeds and salt and roll once more to embed the toppings.

Saltines - Whole-grain homemade crackers are a hard sell to my husband, so sometimes I make these.  The trouble though is that I eat faster than he does and it certainly is hard not eat a whole batch.  I happened to have some homemade butter on hand the last time I made these.  Saltines + homemade butter!  It was one of those why-have-I-ever-cooked-anything-else?-These-are-so-good! moments.

January 11, 2013

Carrot Sticks

One of my biggest goals as a mom is to teach my kids to prepare healthful foods and to make good choices in what they eat.  I love to cook with them.  Well, in theory, I love to cook with them, but sometimes is frustrating.  We make cookies together and they take so many tastes that I'm afraid half the creamed ingredients will be gone before we mix in the dry ingredients.  I shouldn't worry though, because if Abby's measuring the flour, a good portion of it will land outside of the mixer bowl and probably correct the ratio of wet-to-dry ingredients.  And then there's the chaos of arguing over who gets to measure what, who gets to lick the bowl, and the sudden disappearance when it's time to clean up (or the tsunami of Abby demanding to wash every dish she can find.)  Sure, sometimes I'm in the Mom-zone and I can embrace the chaos, but sometimes it's just chaos.

I got pregnant at the beginning of the school year, so I do less cooking during the week and Grace is expected to pack her own lunch.  This is difficult.  Our selection of packable lunch items is constantly small, considering we don't eat much packaged food and our budget is tight.  She always gets a piece of fruit and a vegetable, maybe a cookie, but that "main dish" is sometimes elusive (Hard boiled egg?  Yogurt with fruit? A ham sandwich?)  I can understand how it would be stressful for a kid.

This morning Grace and I made carrot sticks together.  I washed and peeled the carrots and sliced them in half, then she sliced them into sticks and divided them into two bags, one for her, one for me.  I didn't realize what a precious moment it was until I got to work and started snacking on my carrot sticks.  Super sweet carrots from the farmers market, crisp and cool, are almost as good as candy.  And the thought that we shared 5 minutes of quality time together this morning preparing a healthful snack--that is pretty sweet too.

January 9, 2013

Going Crunchy: Facial Scrub

Facial/Body Scrub

The facial scrub I've made uses the same basic "recipe" as the Invigorating Rosemary-Mint Foot Scrub, but I use granulated sugar in place of the Epson salt, because the scrubbing particles are smaller and less abrasive.  I infuse the oil with something that smells good or I add a few drops of essential oil.  Orange peel-infused olive oil with a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract added at the end of the infusion time is one of my favorites.  The recipe makes two four ounce jars.  I use the scrub as a facial cleanser or body scrub.  In the winter we don't need to use soap daily, and doing so can cause skin to dry out, so lately I skip the soap on all but a few body parts and just moisturize with a scrub.  Its scent is always uplifting, it helps me wake up in the mornings and my skin is left moisturized, which is especially important in the winter.

The kids like these scrubs too, they like to identify the scents, and they don't seem to miss chasing a bar of soap around the bathtub.

1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup oil (coconut, sweet almond and olive are my favorites)
Herbs to infuse the oil or essential oils to add a nice scent
Optional: 1 tablespoon sea salt, baking soda, bentonite clay or epsom salt, or a teaspoon liquid castile soap

January 2, 2013

Going Crunchy: Handmade Hard Lotion Bars

The third post in the series Going Crunchy.

Hard Lotion Bars

There are super-moisturizing bars of hard "lotion" that you rub between your hands to apply.  I think they need a sexier name, because they are at least a little bit amazing.  They are said to be effective against eczema and they seem to be effective for my dry hands.  I'm impressed enough with them that I've made multiple batches to give away to ladies I know who could use some hand-pampering and the moms of kids with eczema. 

There are recipes posted online for these bars in multiple places, but the basic formula is this: one part moisturizing oil such as coconut oil or almond oil, one part shea butter or cocoa butter and one part beeswax.  Simply melt the oil/butter/wax together over low heat in a saucepan, then pour into molds (soap molds or a simple muffin tin).  They harden in less than an hour, at which point I wrap them in parchment for storage or gift-giving.  Using three ounces by weight of each oil/butter/wax yields 4 or 5 half-inch thick two-and-a-half-inch discs (using a standard muffin tin as a mold).  I infuse* my oil with calendula and chamomile because they are said to be soothing and healing to dry skin.

Grace has been using one of these bars nightly on her hands for a week.  The evening before she started using it, her hands were suddenly so red and dry that even applying coconut oil (my go-to moisturizer) to her hands made her cry in pain.  Her hands seem less itchy since she's started using the bar.  Last night when she came into my room after bedtime to say that her legs were itchy, I told her to get her bar, keep it by her bed and rub it on any body part that she was tempted to scratch.  I'm interested to see whether her winter itching and eczema are relieved with daily use.

I don't have eczema, but I've struggled with finding a suitable hand moisturizer for winter.  Most commercially manufactured lotions contain ingredients that contribute to dry skin (alcohol, water,etc), not to mention ingredients of questionable sources.  I've used some "creams" and "butters" before that were more effective, but as I've run out, I haven't replaced them, because I want to get away from their sometimes synthetic ingredients and sometimes harsh scents.  I use coconut oil as a moisturizer frequently, but I've found hemp oil to be more effective on my hands in the winter.  Hemp oil is a hassle, though, because it should be stored in the fridge, and both oils absorb so quickly that they don't leave my hands feeling soft.  I like these hard lotion bars because the shea or cocoa butter and the coconut oil moisturize while the beeswax creates a protective barrier against the winter cold, so my hands feel softer and moisturized longer, at least until I wash my hands again.

And do you know what cocoa butter smells like? Chocolate!  I find it to be a very pleasing smell, not overpowering at all, just pleasant, maybe even luxurious.  And of course, beeswax smells faintly of honey, so that's a nice smell as well.  Shea butter's scent is a little nuttier/earthier than cocoa butter.  If I used all shea butter/no cocoa butter, I think I would want to infuse the oil with something with a pleasing smell or add a drop or two of an essential oil, but when using all or part cocoa butter for the butter part, additional scents are unnecessary.  (Using half shea butter and half cocoa butter, which I've done with later batches) makes me less tempted to want to eat the bar.)

As well as a hand moisturizer, I find this bar to be a perfect lip balm.

I've also been using this bar as a "belly butter" for my itchy, pregnant tummy.  It's more effective than an oil alone, but I want something that spreads a little more easily.  During my last pregnancy Burt's Bees Mama Bee Belly Butter was easily the one product I couldn't live without. It was amazing for my itchy tummy.  I think I could make something similar by increasing the ratio of shea/cocoa butter to beeswax in this lotion bar recipe, maybe subbing jojoba oil in place of half of the coconut oil, and storing the product in a shallow jar.  I'll let you know if I try it.

UPDATE:  I made a belly butter.  I've been extremely itchy in the last week, but I've found that if I use coconut oil in the shower or bath (or a moisturizing scrub) on my whole body and then follow with a generous amount of belly butter on my tummy, hips and upper legs (all those parts where the pregnancy stretches the skin), I am not so itchy that I can't sleep. Woohoo!  I didn't really measure well when I was making the belly butter, and the vent fell out of the hood over the stove as I was finishing it, but here's what I remember:

I infused a few ounces of coconut oil and sweet almond oil with calendula and chamomile overnight. After straining out the herbs, I combined the oil in a small saucepan with about two tablespoons of melted beeswax, about an ounce of shea butter and about two ounces of cocoa butter (I would have used more of both butters, but it's time to restock.  I added a couple drops of sweet orange essential oil to give it a fun scent (yum, chocolate-orange), and poured it into a shallow 8 ounce mason jar.  It's very solid, so I have to scrape it out with the back of my fingernail.  It spreads easily (much more easily than a lotion bar).  It moisturizes and creates a protective barrier.  I apply it twice a day.


*To infuse the oil with herbs:  Turn oven to lowest setting.  (If using coconut oil, melt it in a small saucepan over low heat.)  Add one tablespoon each calendula flowers and chamomile.  Place lid on saucepan.  Turn off oven.  Place saucepan in oven and let steep at least four hours or overnight.  (If using coconut oil, the oil may harden, simply warm it on the stove over low heat.)  Strain out the dried herbs and return the infused oil to the saucepan to continue with the lotion bar recipe.


I purchase my coconut oil online from Nutiva.  I purchased my beeswax in a block from Borden-Huitt Ranch at the Chico Farmers Market.  (They are the ones who sell the flavored almonds and candles.)  Cocoa butter, shea butter and herbs are available at Chico Natural Foods and S&S Produce and online.