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English: A photograph of Froot Loops breakfast...

Don’t say no.  Say HELL NO!

True confessions time:  Three boxes of ready-to-eat cereal sit in my pantry.  I have a box of Wheaties and Rice Krispies that I use for cookies and rice krispie treats, plus a box of fruity-o’s cereal bought on impulse for Little Bird at Trader Joe’s (and which she has hardly touched).

In general, though, I boycott processed grains and sugar in boxes.  The cereal industry pisses me off.

Did you know that cereals advertised to children contain 56% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium compared with adult-targeted cereals?  This is the opposite of great, Tony.

Children see more ads on TV for ready-to-eat cereals than any other category of packaged food or beverage.  What’s worse, the cereal companies advertise their least-healthiest cereals the most!

In 2011, 6- to 11-year-olds saw more than 700 TV ads for cereals on average (1.9 ads per day).  Preschoolers (2-5 years) saw 595 ads (1.6 per day).

You can read more about this at www.cerealfacts.org.

It’s ironic.  What started out as part of the health and vegetarianism movement in the late 1800’s has turned into an industry that targets the most vulnerable population – children – by pushing sugar crack through “fun” characters like Tony the Tiger, Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula, and so on.

I’m going to go out on a limb here:  in my opinion, this behavior is heinous and just plain evil.

Okay.  Now I shall step off my soapbox, and offer a positive alternative.  Here is a recipe for breakfast cereal that is easy-to-make, deliciously crunchy, just-sweet-enough, and even – gasp! – moderately healthy:

Almond Maple Granola

Ingredients:

3 cups rolled oats

1 cup chopped almonds

1/4 cup wheat germ

1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (optional for coconut haters)

1/3 cup sunflower seeds

6 tablespoons pure maple syrup

6 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons warm water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup raisins or other dried fruit of your choice

Directions:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.  Lightly grease a cookie sheet with sides (or use a Silpat, as I do).

In a large bowl, toss together the oats, almonds, wheat germ, coconut, and sunflower seeds.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, brown sugar, oil, water and salt.  Pour the liquid over the oat and nut mixture, and stir until evenly coated.  Spread out on the prepared cookie sheet.

Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until evenly toasted.  Mix in raisins.  Cool and store in an airtight container at room temperature.

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Even before we moved to the Santa Cruz area — epicenter of the local food and do-it-yourself movements — I started to experiment with making stuff from scratch that I was used to buying at the store.  I enjoyed the notion that, instead of paying a mega-corporation to make a particular foodstuff for me,  I could make it at home — and it would be tastier, more nutritious, cost less, and use less plastic to package.

It’s my small way of sticking it to The Man (said with a sneer and single-finger salute, well out of sight of Little Bird).

Granted, I am a stay-at-home mom, so I have a little more time to futz around in the kitchen than moms and dads who also work outside the home.  But yogurt is one those things that, if you have a smidgeon of energy left in the evening, it’s easy to put together.  All it takes is milk, some yogurt from the store to act as a starter, and some dry milk powder.  In terms of equipment, you need a pot, a food thermometer, and a heating pad.

Dry milk, starter yogurt from the store, and milk is all you need for homemade yogurt.

For God’s sake, don’t go out and buy a yogurt machine!  A waste of money and cabinet space.

I found my yogurt recipe and method in The Complete Tightwad Gazette, a compilation of a newsletter published from 1990 to 1996 by Amy Dacyczyn.   It’s the Bible for scrooges and tightwads, a 950-or-so page tome filled with tons of tips on ultra-frugal living.  I honestly use it more for inspiration than actual ideas, but I do regularly turn to page 751, where you can find her thoroughly-researched method for making homemade yogurt.  It is so reliable that I have never found the need to look elsewhere.

Here it is:

Homemade Yogurt

  • Put two tablespoons of “starter” — plain store-bought yogurt with the words “live cultures” on the label — in a small bowl and let it warm up to room temperature.  If you do this around dinner-time, it should be ready to go by the time the kiddos are in bed.

This is my starter. I used two frozen cubes of Trader Joe’s organic yogurt, and let them defrost and come to room temperature.

  • When the starter has come to room temperature, put a quart of milk in a large saucepan.  Whisk in 1/2 cup of dry milk powder.  Heat the milk to 180 degrees.  (Note:  this is not the time to multi-task!  In a flash, the milk will boil over and make a huge mess on your stove.)

You can kinda sorta see that this milk has reached 180 degrees on the thermometer.

  • Turn off the heat and let the milk cool to 115 degrees.  Whisk in about 1/2 cup of the warm milk to the starter.  Add the starter-and-milk mixture back to the saucepan of milk and whisk well.
  • You can then pour this either into a large bowl (cover with plastic wrap) or a quart jar (screw on the lid).  Place the bowl or jar on a heating pad set on “low,” cover with a towel, and cover all that with a large soup pot.  Incubate for eight hours.

My pre-yogurt is ready to sit on a heating pad all night.

And here it is, covered with a towel and then a canning pot.

That’s it!  If you get this going at night before you go to bed, you can wake up in the morning to fresh yogurt.  Pretty awesome.

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I love writing about food. Everything in my life should be appended by a footnote reading, “oh, and by the way, here is a recipe.” What can I say? I find it energizing, in a restful kind of way.  Or maybe vice versa.

This might account for the . . . shall I say, bipolar attitude of this blog. Half the time I write about spirituality, self-care, parenting — deep stuff. The other half is recipes. Not as deep, but twice as delicious.

Currently, I am drawn to the topic of making kitchen staples from scratch.  Since our move to the Santa Cruz area — capitol of DIY everything and the local, organic, sustainable food culture — I have gotten more serious about making food from scratch that I used to buy at the grocery store.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but mainly it’s because it is fun.  I enjoy the cheap thrill I get when I make something awesome that I used to pay a mega-corporation to make for me.

So get ready for a series of “DIY kitchen staples” blog posts. I’m talking stuff like homemade soup stock, yogurt, bread, peanut butter, and granola.  Easy, delicious, and cheap.

Homemade chicken stock is very forgiving of mistakes.  If you don’t have one or another of the following ingredients, it’s no big deal.  It will still taste better than anything you buy at the store.  Here’s how I do it:

  • Whenever I buy chicken for dinner, such as a rotisserie chicken, I save the bones in the freezer.  When I have a few carcasses, I throw them in a big stock pot.  (It really does help here to have a stock pot. However, if you don’t have one, you can make a smaller amount of stock using just one chicken carcass and fewer vegetables.)
  • Gather together the following:
    • 2-3 cloves garlic
    • 1-2 onions
    • 2 carrots
    • 2 stalks celery
    • 1 green bell pepper
    • some fresh herbs:  parsley, thyme and sage are all wonderful.  Rosemary might be a bit strong unless the soup you are going to make from the stock has rosemary as a component.
    • A few bay leaves, either fresh or dried.
    • My “secret ingredient” is about 8-10 whole cloves.  They add a wonderful spicy something to the whole mix.

My chicken bones, vegetables and spices all ready to go.

If you don’t have one or another of these ingredients, don’t sweat it.   Look carefully and you’ll see in the picture above that there are no garlic cloves.  I forgot them!  A cardinal sin, I know, but the stock that resulted is delicious nonetheless.

  • Peel the onions and carrots, seed the pepper, and chop everything into big chunks. You can peel the garlic cloves and throw them in whole.

  • Put everything in the stock pot and fill it with water so that most everything is covered. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so it comes to a gentle simmer. Let it simmer for anywhere from one to three hours.

    Here it all is in the pot.

  • Put a strainer inside a big bowl and empty the stock into the strainer. After the stock has drained, throw away the chicken and veggies. Refrigerate the stock overnight, then in the morning, skim off the fat that has risen to the top.

    After spending a night in the fridge, all the fat rises to the top and you can skim it off, leaving you with a rich and flavorful fat-free broth.

  • That’s it — your chicken stock is now ready to go. You can use it in a soup such as my Pumpkin-Lentil soup, or you can freeze it. Then, on some cold winter day, you’ll pull it out and make a soup that warms the cockles of your family’s heart.

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I’m feeling low on inspiration.  I’ve spent this week seeing real estate agents, drawing up “punch lists” (gah!) for crap that must be done to our condo to make it appealing to buyers, trying to trim down our belongings, take care of Little Bird, cook, clean, do laundry, and all the other things that make up everyday life.

Real estate agents, you say?  Yes, change is in the wind.  After 21 years of living in Southern California, I am moving with My Guy and Little Bird back to Northern California, where I grew up.   We are moving for family reasons, for work reasons, and for quality of life reasons.  L.A. feels too crowded, too noisy, and too polluted for us now.

Instead of a small condo less than a mile away from a major freeway, we are looking for a bit of land where we can grow vegetables, raise chickens and a goat or two, and have some fresh air.  I would also like a donkey, if it’s not too much to ask.  They’re just so cute, with their big ears.  I will name it Delmer.

Donkey

Image via Wikipedia

Anyways, life feels a bit crazy and out-of-control right now.  Therefore, it must be time to bake muffins.  Muffin-baking for me is a meditative endeavor with a big payoff.  You whisk a little of this, a little of that, mix it all together into cute little cups, and blammo!  You have a delicious, hot-from-the-oven carb blast to coax those little endorphins out of their hiding places.

These muffins feature an exotic ingredient called mesquite flour, which has a slightly smoky, slightly sweet and nutty flavor.  I first learned about mesquite flour in David Lebovitz‘s beautiful blog, Living the Sweet Life in Paris.  When I read his post about Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies, I became obsessed with finding mesquite flour — not an easy task.

I finally found some at Casa de Fruta, of all places, which is an overgrown fruit stand near Hollister, on the Pacheco Pass between the I-5 and the I-101.  It’s as corny a place as you will ever find; if Huell Howser hasn’t been there already, it’s only a matter of time.  After a long driving stint on the I-5 Central Valley wasteland, Little Bird enjoys the Casa de Choo-Choo and Casa de Carousel, while I make a beeline for the Casa de Restrooms and Casa de Coffee.

Casa de Fruta

Image by ldandersen via Flickr

But I digress.  After giving three whoops of joy that I had finally found the great white caribou called Mesquite Flour, I made the cookies.  The flour gave them such an odd, interesting flavor that I wasn’t sure whether I liked them or not.  So I ate one.  Then another.  Then another.  After eating about 5 giant cookies, I concluded that they were pretty darn good.

To bring this rambling post to a close, I had some extra zucchini and some leftover mesquite flour, so I decided to slightly alter my recipe for zucchini muffins.  They turned out well, if I do say so myself.  Like the cookies, I had to eat a few just to be certain I liked them.  Yup, I did.

If you don’t want to bother getting mesquite flour (and it is pricey), just substitute regular white or whole wheat pastry flour, and they will still be delicious.  And as always, remember the cardinal rule of muffin-baking:  Do Not Overmix!

Zucchini Mesquite Chocolate Chunk Muffins

1 cup white flour

3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour (if you don’t have any, just sub in white flour)

1/4 cup mesquite flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1 egg, beaten

1 cup milk

1/2 cup vegetable oil or melted butter

1 cup grated, unpeeled zucchini

3/4 cup chopped walnuts (if you want to go the extra mile, toast the walnuts for more flavor)

3/4 cup chocolate chunks

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Sift or stir the dry ingredients together in large bowl.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the egg, milk and oil, and stir gently into the dry ingredients.  It is very important not to overmix, or the muffins will be tough.  I usually mix until there’s just a bit of the dry ingredients showing, then I fold in the zucchini, walnuts, and chocolate chunks.

Prepare a 12-cup muffin tin either with muffin liners or with baking spray.  Fill the cups 2/3 of the way full.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a toothpick in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Cram your mouth full and sigh with happiness.

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It’s still warm in Southern California during these first days of October, but signs of autumn are here.  Winter squash has started to show up at the local farmers’ market.  Halloween candy is in the stores, and the local pumpkin patch is setting up for business.  It’s time to pull out my soup pot and make pumpkin-lentil soup.

To me, soup is soul food, the steamy essence of comfort and reassurance.  The act of eating soup connects me to the story of the human family, for soup is as old as cooking.  According to Raey Tannahill in Food in History, Iron and Bronze Age humans regularly ate soup, as did the Romans and Greeks. Witness the following quote from the play The Frogs by the satirist Aristophanes (Perseus-Tufts website translation):

Dionysus: . . . “did you ever feel a sudden urge for soup?”

Heracles: “Soup? Ten thousand times so far.”

My sentiments exactly.

Soup also connects me to my individual story.  When I was growing up, my mother served pumpkin-lentil soup every week at her restaurant, The Orange Horse Gift Shop and Tearoom.  The Orange Horse was practically my second home; I worked every job at some point, from dishwasher to waitress to cook to baker.   This soup not only connects me to my own history, but also to my mother and her love of cooking.

Pumpkin-lentil soup was the very first meal I made for my then-boyfriend, now-husband.  I needed something bomb-proof, because I really liked him and I was nervous.  As I recall, it went over pretty well — well enough, anyways, not to scotch the deal.

In any case, I’ve made this soup many times over the years, and now I pass it on to you.  Enjoy!  It’s a ridiculously simple and humble soup, yet somehow, much more than the sum of its parts.

Pumpkin-Lentil Soup

1/4 cup butter (it seems like a lot, but it’s worth it)

1-2 onions, diced

1/2 cup lentils

5 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 1/2 cups pumpkin (canned is fine)

1/4 tsp. dried marjoram

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. salt

dash Tobasco sauce

1-2 cups half-and-half (optional)

toasted almonds and sour cream for garnish

Instructions

Melt butter in a large soup pot or kettle.  Add onions and saute until lightly brown.  Stir in lentils and chicken stock.  Add pumpkin.  Crush herbs and add to soup along with black pepper, salt and Tobasco.  Simmer until lentils are cooked through, about 20 minutes.

At this point, the soup can be cooled and refrigerated overnight.  At serving time, puree with handheld immersion blender.  Heat to simmering and either serve as is, or add half-and-half to make a creamy soup.  Adjust seasonings to taste.  Top with almonds and/or a dollop of sour cream.

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