Thursday, June 30, 2011

The NIBBLE Project

I have a problem.

It started at the office about 5 years ago.  A well-meaning co-worker brought in a bag of Hershey Kisses.  They found out I liked Hershey Kisses very much.  They brought in more, I ate more - dozens each day.  And the cycle began.

My addiction to chocolate in the office has become so bad that I start craving it the moment I sit down at my desk.  The candy supplier has changed, and the stash has evolved into milk chocolate M&M's, but the point is the same.

How can I [attempt to] write this blog about eating natural and healthy foods when I can't even follow my own rules?  My meals are pretty healthy and have lots of fresh, whole ingredients, but stressful time or boredom at the office is filled with artificially colored candies.  

That is why I'm beginning The NIBBLE Project.

N - Nothing
I - In my
B - Belly
B - Besides
L - Legitimate
E - Eats

I will do my best to break this habit and eat only what I bring in my lunchbox, or if I must have something, to make sure I recognize all of the ingredients in that item.  NIBBLE starts today.  I'll post periodic updates about how I've done and how much I miss my colorful little treats.

Goodbye, "Yellow 5"!

M&M's Ingredients:
Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Skim Milk, Milkfat, Lactose, Soy Lecithin, Salt, Artificial Flavors) Sugar, Cornstarch, Less than 1% Corn Syrup, Dextrin, Coloring (includes Blue 1 Lake, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow 5 Lake, Blue 2)Gum Acacia.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

3 Things You Should Be Making

Dan and I have been making more and more things ourselves.  Frozen yogurt, freshly chopped salad, bean dip, veggie burgers, smoothies, beer, and the list goes on.  I believe that we spend less money when you consider the quality of what we are making, not to mention that it's fun and rewarding!  Making things from scratch can take a little longer and might require some special equipment, but in the long run it definitely pays off.  Check out these suggestions for some easy do-it-yourself ideas.

Morning Cuppa Joe
Rather than going to Starbucks for a sugary pick-me-up, make it fresh and stay in your pajamas!  One of Dan's favorite coffees is a fair-trade Ethiopian blend that we pick up at the local David's Natural Market.  Trader Joe's has several good varieties as well.  Before work, he heats up water and grinds an appropriate amount of beans - the single biggest difference in coffee flavor is how recently the beans were ground; he uses his french press to make about 32oz of coffee.  Throw it in a quality thermos and it can be enjoyed throughout the day.

As a quick cost comparison, the fair-trade beans cost about $15 for a bag that lasts between 2-3 weeks including the workday 32oz and 16oz each weekend morning.  Purchasing that same amount of coffee from Starbucks rings in at over $40!  Especially when you consider the reduced amount of waste from always having a reusable mug, brewing at home is a great deal.

Nut Butters
I don't do this yet myself, but from what I understand it is super easy to make peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, and so on in your own kitchen.  You need a food processor and some nuts.  I am holding out for this one and a bit more counter space.  Throw in the nuts and let them go until they turn into a paste.

It is a lot easier to find truly natural nut butters these days with only the nuts as ingredients and maybe a dash of salt, but I have to believe that making them fresh would taste that much better.

Composting is one of the best things you can do; your household will produce less garbage and all the plants in your garden will thank you.  Not to mention it's fun to see your food scraps and yard waste turn into something that's actually useful.

We started a compost pile back in March with this really basic bin.  We decided to make a lid for it and line the inside with chicken wire in case we didn't get the ratio of brown-to-green material right and attracted unwanted creatures.  You need to have mostly "brown" material which is mainly yard waste and can be in the form of leaves, grass trimmings, plants that get pulled up, etc, or you can use newspaper if you don't have those other things.  A smaller portion of your compost should be made up of "green" material which includes things like vegetable scraps, banana peels, coffee grounds, or egg shells (no meat).   Dump all of that into your composter, give it a stir occassionally, and wait.  When it's done right, your compost pile will be warm and full of worms but it won't be smelly or attract pesky flies or rodents.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Peachy Plate: Smoothies!

One of my favorite things to make in the summer is a fresh fruit smoothie.  They taste so much better than whatever you might buy at Starbucks or [insert your nearest smoothie chain], they are healthier, and they are a great way to use local fresh fruit!

Strawberry season has more or less come to an end for us so I've moved on to peaches.  Today's smoothie was a peach and mango creation.  The trick is to put in mostly fresh fruit, a little bit of frozen fruit, and some liquid (I use soy milk or almond milk - whichever is handy).  I think yogurt would work in place of a milk, but make sure it is a limited ingredient yogurt.  It shouldn't have more than milk and cultures in it.

Mango-Peach Smoothie
(Note: I never measure smoothie ingredients, so these are purely estimates).

2 ripe peaches, peeled and pitted
1/2 ripe mago
5 or 6 pieces frozen mango chunks
1/2 c soy milk

The pre-blended fruit and the finished product in a reusable to-go cup!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Improvised Plate: Quinoa Salad

Ah, Summer.  It's too hot to turn on the oven and life is too busy to spend that much time making food anyway.  Here's a recipe for one of our simple go-to's when the weather gets hot!

Quinoa Salad
- 1 cup Quinoa, cooked, any color.  Trader Joe's only has white quinoa of late (they used to have red also), and recently we found some black quinoa at Roots market in Clarksville.
- 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 can corn (or cooked corn on the cob if you have that kind of time), drained and rinsed
- Whatever veggies you like.  We use/have used the following: red onion, green onion, garlic, cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, avocado, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, pea shoots/broccoli sprouts/bean sprouts.
- A handful of fresh cilantro

Quinoa Salad Dressing
- 3-4 limes
- 1 Tbsp ground cumin
- honey, agave, or other sweetener of choice (nothing fake, please) to taste

Cook the quinoa just like you would rice - 2 parts water to 1 part quinoa.  Recently I made a double-batch of this stuff with 1 cup white and 1 cup black quinoa.  It will probably take 15-20 minutes to cook, so keep an eye on it and chop up your veggies.

The "dressing" here is the best part.  Squeeze your limes, use a juicer, or go with the Oprah method.  I'm a little embarrassed to say we use Oprah's way (about 1:30 in the video) since we do not have a juicer.  Be ready with a glass of water because the outside of a lime does NOT taste good!

Mix the lime juice with ground cumin and honey and continue adding honey until it's a little tangy but not too sweet.

When your quinoa is done, put all the veggies, corns, bean, and quinoa (it's okay if it is still hot) in a big bowl, dump the lime juice mixture over it and mix it all together as best you can.  Chop the fresh cilantro for garnish.

Here's part of our double-batch from the other day.  My favorite thing about this recipe is that you can improvise.  Use the veggies you have on hand, or whatever your local farmer's market is selling that day, and it will taste good.  If you love tomatoes as much as I do, throw in some extra (I do this in every recipe I've ever made).  If the crunch of a bell pepper gets you going - put them in!  Hate onions?  They're not necessary.  So enjoy this easy summer salad as a side dish or main course with your favorite flavors.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Traveling Plate: Morrison, CO

We traveled to Morrison, CO (just outside of Denver) this weekend to see Ray Lamontagne perform at Red Rocks.  This was my first time seeing a concert at this natural ampitheater and it was as amazing as I had expected (although a bit chillier!).

Colorado "Get's It"
Denver is actually where Dan and I came up with the idea for A Peaceful Plate blog last September.  We were laying in a park there, talking about how great the city is.  They have a bicycle-sharing program called Bcycle which is something like ZipCar but for bikes.  There are miles of paved trails for jogging, cycling, or rollerblading.  The local culture is very active - and it shows!  It seemed like everyone we saw was fit and healthy, which made it a pretty fun place to be and made me want to write about healthy food and exercise in my own life.

When we arrived this time, we stopped for lunch at Crepes 'n' Crepes, a small restaurant we found on our previous trip.  I had a salad with their house mustard vinaigrette and a wild mushroom crepe.  Not to harp on the salad dressing thing, but I had hoped for a dressing like this simple Jamie Oliver creation that goes with his green chopped salad.  It's basically 3-to-1 EVOO and red wine vinegar with a little dijon mustard.  What I got was more like a small bowl of honey mustard dipping sauce.

Overall though, the meal was good - the salad had lots of freshly chopped veggies and non-iceberg lettuce; the buckwheat crepe was oozing with mushroomy deliciousness.

Everyone Gets Healthy
It seems like the dialog about what is and isn't healthy is growing.  On the plane, I got into a conversation with the woman next to me about maltodextrin and why do they have to put that on the peanuts anyway?  At Crepes 'n' Crepes, I asked the waitress whether she recommended the regular or buckwheat crepe and she let me know the buckwheat one had no corn syrup in it.  At Red Rocks we saw two stands advertising local food (Locally Twisted Pretzel, anyone?) and overheard at least one conversation about always eating locally sourced meat.

What About GMOs?
As we were waiting for some rain to move on and do a bit of pre-concert hiking around Red Rocks, I happened to pick up a book in the gift shop talking about the hazards associated with all of the genetically modified foods we as a society are eating.  It dove into the evils of the company Monsanto, a subject I am a little familiar with from the movie Food, Inc.  I didn't have enough time to read much of it, but I plan to do a lot more research and post about it in the future!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Froyo At Home

A couple of weeks ago, Dan and I spent a lovely afternoon around town and stopped for a bite of frozen yogurt at the closest place to us - a chain called Tutti Frutti.  My favorite is the Original Tart flavor either plain or with a few chocolate chips sprinkled on top.  Most of their other flavors are too sweet for my liking.  As we sat outside enjoying our cold treats, I wondered whether we could make frozen yogurt ourselves at home.

Thanks to Google and smartphones, we quickly learned all we needed was an ice cream maker and some simple ingredients (strained yogurt, sugar).  We raced around the corner to Target and chose the cheapest ice cream maker they had on the shelf - about $30.  On my next trip to Trader Joe's, I bought the biggest container of Greek yogurt I could find and we were set!

Basically put in as much yogurt as you want to eat and sugar to taste - the recipe we found called for 2/3 of a cup or sugar which seemed like too much so we used about 1/4 cup.  We've experimented with adding vanilla beans, agave nectar instead of sugar, and using 2% Greek, full fat Greek, and something called European yogurt.  The European yogurt had a certain tartness to it that we both really liked and the others were very creamy but missing some of the zip we were used to from commercial froyo.  The agave nectar sweetener is not something I would recommend as it made the yogurt fairly runny.  Adding vanilla beans gave the yogurt disappointingly little vanilla taste.  I have some ideas on how to get the flavor we are looking for and will update when we figure it out!

It was tough to track down, but I also managed to find the ingredients Tutti Frutti uses.  Nothing is on their website but the ingredients for Original Tart only are on their Facebook page - I imagine the other flavors have a lot more additives.  It's so disappointing to taste something yummy and then find out it is made from a powder!

"Pure Crystaline Fructose, Dextrose, Maltodextrin, Non-Fat Milk, Yogurt Powder, Micro-encapsulated Probiotic (Lactobacillus Sporogenes)"

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Wonderful World of Barley

Dan enjoys homebrewing when he can find a few free hours, and recently read about creative ways to use the mashed grains.  In the past, he had either filled up our kitchen trash can with them (sometimes not all the way cooled - hot trash does NOT smell good) or dumped them into my raised bed garden and our compost bin.  Side note: my grandmother used to dump her coffee grounds straight into her flower bed and always had the most beautiful plants!

So what did we decide to make?  Dog cookies!  It is getting easier to find quality dog treats in chain pet food stores, but I still like knowing exactly what went into these.  Considering the grains would have gone into the trash otherwise, it is certainly cost-effective.  Dan simply mixed together 6 cups grains, 6 cups flour, some peanut butter, a banana, an egg, and a lot of love.  The mixture has to be flattened onto one or two cookie sheets, pre-scored into squares or whatever shape your dog likes (the photo in the magazine indicated they used squirrel cookie cutters which I thought was hilarious), and then baked until they dry out.  Our 8 month old cute-but-very-bad rescue puppy is absolutely wild about them!

A word of caution: hops are poisonous to dogs, so make sure your grains have not come into contact with any.

Another word of caution.  You bake the treats in two stages.  Once at a high-ish temperature for an hour to get the mixture to solidify, then you re-score the cookies and put them back in the oven on a very low temperature for another 5-10 hours until they are crunchy.  Dan mis-read the last part of the instructions and thought they went back in for 5-10 minutes, so ours are a bit softer than they should be.  How dry and crunchy they get directly correlates to how quickly they will mold, so if you can store them safely I think the cooking time can be adjusted.

UPDATE:  Ours molded after about 5 days.  :-(

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Great Salad Dressing Debacle

My first experience traveling abroad was in July of 2009.  I went with a small group tour to Italy (with Gap Adventures - HIGHLY recommend them).  In Europe, it is much less common to find foods that are highly processed or contain artificial ingredients.  There are daily markets swarming with local people buying their fruits and vegetables.  Fresh bread is plentiful.  Meals are enjoyed outdoors, slowly, with good company and a glass of wine.  It was in a small town called Lucca that I was properly introduced to the tangy wonder that is balsamic vinegar.  Our group poured balsamic over our salads and we dipped our bread in it mixed with a little extra virgin olive oil. To this day that is the only thing I will put on my salads.

A couple of days ago I made the unfortunate mistake of forgetting my oil and vinegar mixture at home and was facing a dry salad for lunch at work.  Spying a bottle of Botlhouse Farms Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing in the communal fridge, I thought I would give it a shot.  A quick glance at the label showed a short list of ingredients so I poured it on.  Terrible mistake!  A flat, watery taste greeted my mouth with the first bite.  A more thorough look at the list of ingredients showed the number one item in this bottle was apple juice.  Are you kidding me, Bolthouse Farms?  If we as a society didn't use a salad as an excuse to pig out on fried meat, sodas, and fat-laden snacks, then salad dressing companies wouldn't take liberties like using APPLE JUICE as the NUMBER ONE ingredient in BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE to reduce fat.  

This, of course, led me on a tirade about how the entire salad dressing industry is a sham.  We don't need processed, bottled dressings full of artificial colors and unrecognizable ingredients.  Next time you eat a salad, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over it, pour on the balsamic, and let me know what you think.