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Ice, Ice Baby: Making the Most of Your Ice Cube Tray

Frozen lemon juice

Frozen soy milk

It’s not just for ice anymore. The simple ice cube tray offers a brilliant way to preserve fresh ingredients for later use. If you’re like me and cooking for just two (three when the Kiddo is here), using up fresh ingredients before they spoil can be a challenge. I try to plan my meals so that they share common ingredients, which helps. But I’m quickly learning the ice cube tray can be a great “fresh saver.”

Here are a few examples:

  • Lemons or limes on sale? Buy a bag, juice ’em, and freeze the juice in your trays. Once frozen, dump them in a freezer bag, label them (frozen lime and lemon juice look a lot alike!), and you’ll have perfectly portioned “real” juice on hand when you need it for a recipe, instead of having to use those little lime/lemon-shaped squeeze bottles with all the extra preservatives.
  • Preserve extra fresh herbs or garlic by chopping and mixing with a bit of garlic oil, then freeze in your trays.
  • Frozen cubes of soy/almond milk or Greek yogurt are great for adding to smoothies if you like them icey, but don’t want to water them down with extra ice.

  • Freeze leftover coffee to add to iced coffee–again, it will keep your iced coffee from getting watered down when the ice melts.

There have to a thousand other creative ways to use your ice cube trays for more than just ice. What goes in your trays besides water?

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Friday Favorites: Journey to Real Food

eating real food

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

eating real food

When you start really trying to ditch processed foods, you start having to think a lot more about everything you put in your body. As I’ve evaluated what we’re eating now and what we need to cut out, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about food in general–where our food comes from and what it means to eat “real” food.

I find myself looking at “food” items in the grocery store and thinking about what they really “are.” Because food, essentially, as it works according to the food chain we all learned back in fourth grade science, should be something that was once living. So, I stand in line at the grocery store checkout and I look at the candy bar rack and wonder, what was once living in a pack of Mentos? Looking at the ingredients list, the only “once living” items on the list are sugar and coconut oil. That’s not enough to count as “food” for me any more. It’s shocking to me now how totally oblivious I have been to the fact that much of what I put in my body isn’t really food.

Or wasn’t food. That’s all changing now. It’s a learning process, and it definitely takes planning to make this transition happen, simply because “real” food is not as readily available as the pretend kind. Fortunately, I’ve quickly learned that the “real food” movement (sad that there has to be a movement in support of “real” food, right? Shouldn’t that be a given?) is growing quickly, and there are lots of online resources out there to help navigate the waters of eating naturally in a too-processed, too-busy world.

One of my favorite new websites is 100DaysofRealFood. What I like most about it is that the tips/recipes/ingredients are very realistic and doable for the average person or family. I live in a small town–there’s no Whole Foods right around the corner, so exotic, hard-to-find ingredients aren’t helpful for me. And I work full-time, so I need recipes that are realistic to be able to come home after work and cook. This site offers a workable approach to real food.

At this point, I’m not completely cutting out refined sugar and flour, but I am trying to significantly reduce the amount we eat. The Natural Sweet Recipes blog caters to my inner sweet tooth with recipes that are free of refined sugar. Be aware, though, many of the recipes do have some of those hard-to-find ingredients I referred to earlier.

Since we are cutting back on white flour, we’re experimenting with some new whole grains. Quinoa has been a hit in our house, particularly in these quinoa pancakes from Martha Stewart, which are deliciously hearty, but at the same time have a wonderful light, airy texture (tip–soy milk works fine in these, and whether you use dairy milk or a substitute, you’ll probably need to add a little more than what the recipes calls for). The Whole Grains Council offers lots of resources for learning to cook with whole grains, from recipes to this A-to-Z guide to understand the many different types of whole grains, including those funny-sounding ingredients in recipes that you don’t recognize (think amaranth). The Kitchn online magazine also has great resources to help you enjoy whole grains.

Where are you on the processed food/real food spectrum? Are you trying to swing over to the real foods side? What challenges do you face in eating “real” foods? What are your favorite natural food resources?

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Balance!!! Where’s my $^@*% balance?!?1?

Yep, there are definitely some weeds growing in the zen garden. Which is why I’ve been negligent about posting. Here’s the quick synopsis:

  • I’ve been working slowly to eliminate as many highly-processed foods from our diet as possible (ya know, balancing the desire not to have chemicals I can’t pronounce going through my digestive system with the fact that I live in a small town with no Whole Foods and the fact that the Kiddo is a bit of a picky eater with an affection for boxed macaroni and cheese). That whole effort got fast-forwarded pretty quickly, though, when the Guy finally went to see a headache specialist for his migraines, and was ordered on a diet that restricts pretty much all processed foods. So, we’ve been adjusting, so to speak.
  • While I’d love for this blog to be my full-time job, it’s not. I have an actual, real, 40-hour-a-week (or more) job to pay the bills. And, for family reasons, the Guy and I are looking to move about two hours from our current home, so I’m job hunting. Which is like a full-time job in and of itself. A really depressing full-time job, in this economy. And I actually had an interview a couple weeks ago. An all-freakin’-day-long interview, which took lots of prep. And got me exactly zero job offers (woo-hoo for the internal candidate who did get it–please insert sarcasm).
  • A few days after my interview, the Guy, Kiddo and I took off for a week-long vacation to visit family. And we all know vacations are anything but restful. So we got back five days ago and I just now have the energy to do anything productive. Ok, not true–I did quite a bit of job hunting the past two days, after learning I didn’t get the other job.

Oh, and mixed in to all of that were several other chaotic incidents that I won’t bore you with by sharing the details. Ok, so I’m a little grumpy. I’m a little off my zen. And I’m a very slack blogger. But I’m getting back to the center. I promise. I went running this morning for the first time in months, and it felt great. I am pledging to go at least two more times this week. And, I promise, I will be posting again. Because I have lots of stuff I want to share! Believe it or not, I even have several draft of posts that are half or nearly complete that I just need to wrap up and hit the magical “publish” button, and then, sha-zam! New post!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a quick recipe I whipped up for a Fourth of July potluck while we were on vacay. It was a spur of the moment thing, so I didn’t think to take photos, but here you go. This makes for a great dessert, and it’s low in fat and sugar.

Star-Spangled Fruit Tart
(makes 2)

  • 2 graham cracker pie crusts (here’s a recipe if you’d like to make your own)
  • 2 cups fat-free Greek yogurt
  • 8 oz. fat-free cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2-3 ripe bananas, sliced
  • 1 cup strawberries, cut into small pieces, or 1 cup red raspberries
  • 1 cup blueberries

Blend yogurt, cream cheese, honey, lemon juice and vanilla in a medium mixing bowl. Arrange banana slices in a single layer along bottom of pie crust. Pour half of yogurt/cream cheese mixture into each crust. Use a spatula to smooth out the yogurt mixture. Arrange blueberries and strawberries or red raspberries in single layer on top of yogurt mixture. If you want to get extra fancy/patriotic, lay out blueberries in the shape of a star and fill in the remaining space with strawberries.

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Hidden Veggie Tacos

Hidden vegetable tacos

Now that we’ve covered how to make your own taco seasoning (better tasting, cheaper and with fewer chemicals than those little store bought packets), I’ve got a veggified recipe that will make taco nights a little healthier for you and any kiddos. My Kiddo is not a big veggie fan, and while sometimes you just have to do the the “finish your green beans” bit, I know it’s hard to eat something you really don’t like. So, I try to work extra “concealed” vegetables in where I can.

The secret to making this recipe work for picky eaters is to make sure you dice your veggies very finely. After you sautee them until they’re soft, the textures and flavors blend so well with the meat and spices that my Kiddo didn’t notice the difference. The lentils add a nice bit of fiber, but their small size and subtle taste also help them blend in. And they’re a lot faster to cook than larger beans. They don’t require pre-soaking and they’re tender after simmering for about 30 minutes.

The other nice benefit to all these hidden veggies is that they bulk up the recipe and help stretch the ground meat (and your family budget). This recipe makes a lot, because I like to go to the work of cutting up all my veggies once and then have a bunch of taco meat to freeze and save for later. Feel free to scale it down if you would like.

Hidden vegetable tacos

Hidden Veggie Tacos

  • 3 pounds lean ground beef or turkey
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1 bell pepper, seeded and finely diced (use your favorite color–I think the yellow or orange ones work well for “hiding” veggies because of their more mild flavor)
  • 3 large carrots, shredded
  • 1 cup cooked lentils
  • 4 tablespoons homemade taco seasoning

In a small amount of olive oil, sautee onion, pepper and carrots in a Dutch oven over low heat until soft. (Side note–you might notice that I used large frying pan, not a Dutch oven, in my photos. That’s because when I made this particular batch I wasn’t smart enough to think about exactly how much food I was cooking. Unless you scale down the recipe, you’ll find it easier to not accidentally toss meat and vegetables to and fro across the stove if you use a Dutch oven).  Add ground meat and brown. If needed, drain excess fat (if you’re using very lean meat, you may not need to do this). Stir in lentils. Add one cup water and taco seasoning, then simmer for five minutes. Serve with your favorite soft or crunchy tortillas and taco toppings.

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Make Your Own: Taco Seasoning

Make your own taco seasoning

Make your own taco seasoning

This “make your own” is so easy and so much better and cheaper than the store bought version, I can’t believe that I never tried it before–especially after I turned a packet of taco seasoning over to read the ingredient list and saw how many unfamiliar chemicals were in there.

Taco Seasoning Mix

  • 4 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground red cayenne pepper

Combine all spices in an airtight plastic storage container (if you have an empty used spice bottle, that would work great). Seal your container and shake until everything is well-blended.

Add one to two tablespoons of seasoning blend, depending on your taste preference, to one pound of cooked ground beef and 1/2 cup water and simmer until thickened. This mix makes up to 10 pounds of taco meat, and you can easily scale the recipe up or down, depending on how frequently you make tacos. This makes a fairly mild seasoning mix, so if you like some extra kick, turn the dial up a bit on the cayenne pepper.