Banana Pumpkin Bread

My husband and I have a bit of an ongoing battle wherein he buys fruit that he doesn’t eat so it spoils, with the result that I find myself frequently objecting to his buying fruit — which of course seems a bit odd for someone interested in real food, right?

On the “good news” front, I am making some headway with the idea of focusing on buying fruit that’s in season (ideally in season here in Utah, not somewhere halfway around the world!) although since that pretty much limits fruit to the few summer months, I’m not likely to ever win that one completely. But we keep trying.

BananaBreadIn the meantime, the battle rages on which resulted today in my baking banana bread with the three bananas he bought about a week ago (longer than that?) which were still sitting, untouched, on the kitchen counter getting blacker and blacker.

So I looked up recipes for banana bread and found this one at so ended up using it as a starting point. Usually I read (sometimes obsessively, I’ll admit) the reviews — although I think even my obsessiveness wouldn’t get through all 8,202 of them — but somehow this time I just saw the high number of good reviews and decided to jump on into it without actually reading any.

Which is why I made banana-pumpkin bread, not “Banana Banana Bread” as the original recipe was titled. Had I read the reviews, I would have realized that our measly three over-ripe bananas wouldn’t produce anywhere near the 2-1/3 cups of mashed banana that the recipe called for. (Obviously the size of your bananas will factor in, but most people — since I did read a bunch of reviews after the fact — reported using anywhere from 5 to 8 bananas!)

Homemade pumpkin puree

Homemade pumpkin puree

So I ended up using a cup of my homemade pumpkin puree to make up the difference which worked out fine. And I didn’t have brown sugar (nor would I be likely to since what little sugar I buy is usually raw and/or organic) but I know that “brown sugar” is usually really just white sugar with molasses added, I just added a smidge of molasses to my organic cane sugar.

BananaBreadIngredientsAnd vanilla seemed to be notably missing from the recipe, so I added about a half-capful of that, along with several drops of orange essential oil and a sprinkling of ground allspice and nutmeg. Then, after I realized that part of the sweetness would be coming from the super-sweet, over-ripe bananas, my pumpkin substitution might cause it not to be sweet-tasting enough, so in the end I drizzled a little more molasses into the batter. (It probably was no more than a tablespoon, if that much, but the end result tastes great, so it must have been just about right.)

And for my last recipe alteration, I couldn’t for the life of me find my regular loaf pan, but luckily had recently bought some mini-pans (intending, in fact, to make pumpkin bread) so I used four of those. That, in turn, meant guessing about the timing, but my 45 minute “guess” seemed to work out.

So — what was my final “recipe”?

Preheat oven to 350°

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl: 2 cups flour (I used white whole wheat), 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt (I used our own Utah “RealSalt”).

Cream 1/2 cup butter (softened would have worked better, I’m sure, but mine was straight out of the fridge so I used my stand mixer to beat it into submission, literally) with 3/4 cup sugar and a drizzle of molasses. Since I added another good drizzle at the end, I’d say maybe up to 2 tablespoons total.

Our Amish rolled butter, cut into slices.Great tasting butter, but not ideal for measuring!

Our Amish rolled butter, cut into slices.Great tasting butter, but not ideal for measuring!

(I should also note that we use Amish rolled butter, which comes in 2-pound hand-shaped logs which we then hack up into rough slices to put in our butter bowl as needed. So measuring butter for a recipe is a very loosey-goosey affair.  I took one of the slices we make and sort-of lightly squished it into a half-cup measure and it looked somewhat like it would have filled that, so that’s what I used. The point being that the precise measurement doesn’t seem to be all that critical, within probably a tablespoon or so. So, for instance, if you had almost a whole stick of butter on hand, that would probably work just fine.)

Add 1/2 capful vanilla (mine is a big bottle from Costco, so it’s got a fairly big cap — maybe I used 1/2 teaspoon, although I can hardly see you going wrong with up to a teaspoonful), 3 drops orange essential oil (totally optional, but definitely adds a nice flavor), 2 eggs, and a sprinkle each of ground nutmeg and ground allspice.  Reading the reviews (afterwards!) I see that lots of folks use up to 1 teaspoon of spices like those, or cinnamon, and I would think ginger would be great, so all things to try in the future!

Mix in a total of 2-1/3 cup mashed fruit — I used 3 bananas which made about 1-1/3 cup, so made up the remaining 1 cup with pumpkin puree.

Take the creamed butter/sugar/fruit out of the stand mixer (if you used one) and mix in the dry ingredients by hand, adding about 1/4 at a time and stirring gently, just until moistened.

Pour into one standard 9 x 5 loaf pan (lightly greased) or 4 mini-pans. Put directly onto oven rack (middle to upper 2/3 of oven) and bake approximately 45 minutes for minis and 60 to 70 minutes for the larger pan. Test with toothpick to see that it comes out clean. Or, do what I did and go ahead and dump one of the loaves out immediately (a definite advantage of making the mini-loaves!) and cut it in half to be sure it’s done to your liking. Mine looked quite moist, but fully cooked so I decided to stick with the 45 minutes.

Of course, now that you’ve already cut into it rather than waiting for it to cool, it’s pretty much required that you cut yourself a slice (or three, but who’s counting), slather it with butter, and eat it hot. (Another plus for the minis — three slices feels indulgent but is actually not all that much food, so not too much guilt attached!)

I’m still working on my husband about buying fruit that goes to waste, but at least I’ve got the over-ripe banana scene covered!



Posted in Fresh from your kitchen, Make it yourself, Recipes | 2 Comments

What the heck is white whole wheat?

Doesn’t that sound like a contradiction in terms? The first few times I saw “white whole wheat” on a label, I assumed it was one of those “tricky” marketing gimmicks and ignored it, or more accurately spurned it.

WholeWhiteWheatBut wheat has been interesting to me over the years as I’ve explored a wide range of options from baking with normal old white all-purpose flour, using whole wheat extensively, going gluten-free (no wheat at all), and pondering the options of ancient grains such as Einkorn…I decided one day to satisfy my curiosity and actually find out what “white whole wheat” was.

Well, lo and behold, white wheat is merely another type of wheat, different from the red wheat most commonly grown in the U.S. It has no major genes for bran color — as the Whole Grains Council says, you might think of it as albino wheat. Yes, it’s hybridized (as is virtually all wheat, except for the ancient Einkorn) but it’s not GMO (or genetically modified.) It’s actually the most common variety of wheat in some other countries (Australia, notably) but has traditionally been only a tiny portion of the amount of wheat grown in the U.S. This has begun to change.

White Whole Wheat KingArthurIronically, the change initially came to help boost sagging wheat exports, but has had the side benefit of bringing whole wheat flour made from white wheat to the grocery store shelves.  Locally I’ve bought Wheat Montana brand (pictured above) which appeals to me as being from a family farm, not all that far from here (in the great scheme of things) but I’ve also noticed that the legendary (ha! no pun intended) King Arthur Flour offers an organic white whole wheat, too, which I’ll probably try at some point.

WholeWhiteWheat2And why would you want white wheat, you ask? Well, at the moment I’m not getting into the argument about whether you want wheat at all — that’s a discussion for another time, another blog post — but if you do eat “regular” modern wheat, many people find that white wheat offers a lighter color and milder flavor, but with the health benefits of consuming the whole grain rather than a highly refined white flour. Some bakers claim in reviews for various whole white wheat flours that it bakes up with a slightly less dense texture than traditional whole [red] wheat, making tastier baked goods.

So, for now it’s what’s in my flour bin. And I’ve liked using it so far, so I’ll report further as I try other things with it.


Posted in Fresh from your kitchen | 1 Comment

One-Day Sale on Tons of Paleo Books

Ironically, we don’t actually eat “paleo” in that we haven’t sworn off grains or dairy, as most eating paleo/primal do. (And, yes, there are “differences” between the two labels, but that’s a discussion for another time. For the moment I’m going to somewhat lump them together because I think this will apply to folks interested in either, plus all those who aren’t necessarily ready to take the plunge but would like to learn more!)

But, that said, I do find that after all that I’ve read in the past years, it’s hard (for me) to ignore the basic concepts of paleo eating which would be to eat as our ancestors did.  The subtleties and potential arguments come in from whether one means our ancestors, as in…maybe our great grandparents? or our ancestors, as in the cavemen that preceded us a very long time ago.

My first approach to almost anything I might be interested in, of course, is to read a book. And aren’t libraries great for that! But I also really love to own books, and today Amazon is having some amazing sales on Kindle versions of an entire host of books on Paleo eating.  While several of them boast many gorgeous photos, which makes the hard copy a desirable option, it’s just hard to beat the prices — many are 99¢ and the most expensive (due to large file size) are still only $2.99.

A few that I’ve just bought and am looking forward to reading are…

Cover_AncestralTableOne of the first on my list is The Ancestral Table, Traditional Recipes for a Paleo Lifestyle, by Russ Crandall. I’ve followed his blog for a while and although I’d love to own a hard-copy of this for the photos, I’ll happily take a dollar-ninety-nine version for now!

COVER_PrimalBlueprintAnother is The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram your genes for effortless weight loss, vibrant health and boundless energy (Primal Blueprint Series) by Mark Sisson.

You can click on either of those book covers and go right to the Amazon page for the book, or you can do what I did when I first heard about this a few days ago and go to Buck Books where all the Paleo Books on sale today are featured. I also signed up for their mailing list to get notices of other books in the future that Amazon is featuring, usually for just 99¢. (You don’t have to sign up to see all the Paleo specials…that link takes you right to the page showing them all.)

This particular sale ends at midnight tonight, so if you want to take advantage of the sale prices, act fast!

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The Tomato Report – One Week Later

So, have you ever wondered about what happened after someone reported that they’d brought in all their green tomatoes? Did they really ripen or did the blogger simply neglect to report that they all rotted, or that they all stayed green until Christmas, when they were finally thrown out, still unripe?

One week ago, when first picked

One week ago, when first picked

A week ago, as you may recall from my post here, a freeze was predicted so I pulled my remaining three tomato plants and harvested what I could. (Some had so successfully hidden from view they were already over-ripe and others just too immature to have any expectation they could ripen successfully.) When sorted by ripeness, I had one flat of comparatively ripe tomatoes and two full flats of completely un-ripe fruit.


Same tomatoes, one week after picking

Here’s how things look, one week later. One full flat of red ripe tomatoes, one half flat of ripe Lemon Boys (remembering that I used all of last week’s ripe Lemon Boys in a sauce, after taking the picture), about half the Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes have ripened, and one full flat still of completely un-ripe fruit. Time for more tomato sauce!

Lemon Boy mixture is in the CrockPot as we speak, and I realized that last week’s sauce really should have cooked down a bit more, so I’ll add that back in about halfway through and let it finish. Then I’ll whirl it around a bit with the immersion blender and freeze jars of it.

Of course, we’re also eating lots of tomatoes!  ;-)   And while it will seem perhaps sacrilegious, having grown up in the deep South, I’ve never actually eaten fried green tomatoes, so seems like maybe the time has come to remedy that.  Anyone have a good recipe?


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Where it began

Yesterday I talked a bit more about what real food is and what it means to us. And the post seemed to have gotten long enough that I decided enough was enough for one day. But as a result I left out some really important information, so today is a new day and here’s a new post to correct that lapse!

DefenseOfFoodIf you have any interest at all in real food (and let’s just leap to the conclusion that you do since you’re reading this!) and you have somehow NOT read both Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and Nina Planck’s Real Food: What to Eat and Why, then might I heartily encourage you to read them. Both.

Our son was the one who initially turned me on to Michael Pollan (years enough ago that he wasn’t quite the “household name” that he’s practically become!) with the suggestion first of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Interestingly, I felt like I got enough of the gist of Omnivore’s Dilemma from the reviews, so I didn’t actually read it. But I was definitely drawn to In Defense of Food and have now read it several times, as I have with Nina Planck’s book.

RealFoodCoverIn fact, if I had to choose I would almost choose Nina’s book, if only for the more “personal story” she tells, but that’s just me. I really do encourage reading them both! Each of them gives some great insight into how it is that we’ve come to be so disconnected from “what to eat” and how some of the great food lies came to be taken as gospel. (You know, things like how high cholesterol is the cause of heart disease and that saturated fat is bad for you and margarine is good for you and other similar lunacies that we’ve all been told are true!)

In the years since each of those books was published (both in 2008), interest has exploded (in part, I’m sure, thanks to those books!) and there are now innumerable blogs and websites dedicated to this same idea. One, Lisa Leake’s 100DaysOfRealFood was, in fact, specifically inspired by Pollan’s book. She’s gone to have boatloads of readers and has a new best-selling cookbook out that will continue to inspire others. I haven’t gotten it yet — it’s on my Christmas list! — but with over 400 reviews, nearly 90% of which give 5 stars, it seems like a winner.

100DaysCoverThe simple point being, a blog like this (or Lisa’s or others) is a great way to follow along as real people share their lives, working to make their diet mostly (if not completely) about real food, but the factual background found in Real Food and In Defense of Food is still the best starting point!

Disclaimer: Book links above are affiliate links at Amazon. If you click through those links and then buy, I receive a small commission. It costs you nothing extra and helps support this blog. Thanks! But I think you should read them regardless of whether you buy through my affiliate link!!


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What is real food?

I talk a bit about my view on real food in my opening post earlier this year and it’s admittedly a term that doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. And I think that’s just fine — this is not an area of scientific precision we’re talking about, this is real life!

real food - Fresh baked bread

Fresh baked bread

As I’d mentioned in that earlier post, much of my cooking in earlier days relied a lot of packaged and “processed” food. Not “junk food” in the usual sense of the word — we ate well-rounded meals, generally fixed by me in my kitchen — but making lots of use of packaged “convenience” items like seasoned rice or pasta mixes, corn muffin mix or bisquik, bottled or packaged marinades and sauces, frozen vegetables with sauces right in the packages, store-made items like quiches or pot pies, things like that.

Even with that, I’d say we tried to stay “conscious” of the current thinking on health and healthy eating. But one of the challenges there, of course, is that the thinking in those realms keeps changing!!

PlayDough Breakfast—about as "real" as a lot of the food we used to eat!

PlayDoh Breakfast—about as “real” as a lot of the food we used to eat!

We went through a “milk is bad for you” phase and my husband used soy milk (sweetened, of course) on his breakfast cereal. We knew enough to stay away from the worst and most obvious offenders on those breakfast cereals, opting for “healthier” choices. We ate egg substitutes that touted they were made from real eggs. We used “olive oil margarine” and corn or canola oil since those was supposed to be healthier and tried “low fat” options of many foods. We used turkey bacon and veggie burgers, all in the name of better health.

Now, by what we feel that we currently know, virtually all of those foods would not fit into our real food approach and most we actively believe are bad for our health.

Raw milk and local pastured eggs

Raw milk and local pastured eggs

We now drink raw milk when we can get it (which luckily we can in Utah, just not as nearby as I’d like) and organic whole milk at the very least otherwise. We mostly stay away from breakfast cereals (although I haven’t yet broken my husband of this habit completely and plan to experiment eventually with some homemade, whole grain options) and eat a lot more eggs — ideally locally raised, pastured eggs. We’ve gone back to real butter, search out grass fed beef, and use organic options as much as possible.

I received our local supermarket weekly sale flyer in the mail today and looked through it as I usually do.  It struck me, as it has before, how thoroughly our diets have changed — although on the surface I’d say the change is only minimally visible — since there is almost nothing in the entire flyer that we buy. They did have organic salad mix on a good sale so I’m sure I’ll buy some of that to use with our homegrown tomatoes and organic kale which isn’t always even available, so I might grab a bunch or two of that for dinner one night.

But almost everything else in that flyer is highly processed, sold in a bottle, can, box, or frozen package, generally filled with additives and ingredients we try to avoid, most have sugars added (including foods you would never think of adding sugar too if you were making them at home) and preservatives, and almost all taken so far away from a homemade version of the same item that it would hardly be recognizable if you were to simply read the ingredients without already knowing what it was.

All that said, though, we do still live in the real world, carrying on a real life, and we are nowhere near fanatics. We actually occasionally eat at McDonald’s (gasp!) or other fast food and just like I described yesterday with my spinach ravioli dinner, I refuse to feel like I’ve failed in any way when food I’ve bought has one minor ingredient that’s only “questionably bad” anyway. And although we generally avoid sugar, we don’t eschew it completely. We eat a small dessert a few times a month and we do hand out candy on Halloween — and eat the leftovers ourselves, yes, another gasp!

foodInterestingly, those “real world” aspects will cause some folks to criticize and condemn our efforts. We should do so much more, according to some. And, in truth, I find that I am continually working to “do more” — working to eat more “in season” and “local.” We’re actually trying to grow more of our own food.  And I keep learning and expanding my knowledge. You’ll read more about some of those efforts in coming posts.

food2What all this brings me back to is “what is real food?” I have no expectation that you’ll necessarily take my own definition to heart, and I know that as we explore together we may each find that our definition evolves and changes. But, basically, I’m inclined to stick with the ideal of traditional foods, minimally processed, with a focus on items that a reasonably skilled cook could produce in their own reasonably well outfitted kitchen (not to say that you have to necessarily make everything yourself, just that it theoretically could have been homemade!), and that these foods make up a growing majority over time of your diet. And when other “less real” foods sneak in, you let it be what it is, don’t fixate or obsess, and move on to the next meal with the hope that it balances out.

That’s real food (to my view!) and that’s real life.

Posted in Make it yourself, Meats and eggs, Raw dairy, Real Food Basics | 2 Comments

It doesn’t have to be complicated

I had something else planned for dinner tonight. Or no, more accurately, I didn’t really have anything planned for dinner tonight, although I knew I had plenty of  good real food in the house and was sure I’d figure something out.

Ravioli2But then we had stopped in at Costco for a couple of things and I found myself nabbing a package of organic spinach and cheese ravioli with the sudden conviction that that was what we should have for dinner.  And you know what? I feel perfectly fine about that choice. It might not pass someone’s criteria if they were fanatic and going for 100% perfection in completely un-processed food, but since I’m still a big fan of how the real food needs to fit into real life, I was good.

Ravioli1So, let’s look closer at what we ended up with for dinner. (Remember you can always click on the photos to see a larger view!) At first the ingredient list looks dauntingly long. But then you actually read the full list and you realize that most of the length is due to the inclusion of several different cheeses (each of which requires their own list of ingredients), a bechemel sauce (more ingredients), and pasta (also with several ingredients). The simple fact is that if you made this dish at home — something well within many people’s kitchen skill level — you’d have all those ingredients, too.

About the only item that was really not something you’d likely have in your kitchen — or, more to the point in the determination many folks use of “could a reasonable home cook have made this themselves” — was the xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is actually made of reasonably “natural” ingredients but is clearly “processed” in a procedure that you’d be exceedingly unlikely to ever manage at home. So for a true purist, that alone might knock this out of the running.

Whew, good thing I’m not a true purist! I was incredibly “all right” with the inclusion of a pinch of xanthan gum in the bechemel. (You can see where it falls in the list of ingredients and if you know how to make a bechemel —or white—sauce yourself, you can readily see it’s not a major ingredient!) I’m much more concerned with — that is, pleased with! — the organic eggs, milk, spinach, wheat, and so on that this ravioli is made with.

So, what did I actually fix for dinner? I cooked the ravioli for the necessary few minutes in a large skillet of boiling water (I like to use a skillet for these so they can sit pretty much on their own and not be all piled together in a saucepan or pot) then scooped each one out individually and laid them out on a plate (again, so they didn’t stick together).

SauceIngredientsAfter pouring the cooking water out of the skillet, in went some organic chicken broth (from the store; your homemade broth or stock would be even better but store-bought is what I had) to reduce a bit, a couple of good-sized blops of my fresh tomato sauce from the slow-cooker extravaganza the other day, then about three ounces of goat cheese, and a spoonful of pesto for seasoning.

The cheese melted and I had an easy tasty creamy slightly tomato-y sauce into which I reintroduced each ravioli. Turned each one over a time or two to coat in sauce and, voila, our main dish. In the few minutes that it took for the ravioli to cook, I had grabbed the box of organic mixed greens from the fridge and put a little pile of each plate. Then a little sliced onion (from a local farm), a sliced mushroom, and one of my garden ripe tomatoes cut up on top. A dollop of ranch dressing from a local company and there was our side.

Plenty “real-food” enough for me, delish, totally easy, and surprisingly inexpensive.  The ravioli double-package was $11.39, we used a bit less than $2′s worth for the two of us and a bit less than $1′s worth of the goat cheese ($6.69 for 21 ounces, we used 3 ounces). Less than a dollar in salad greens, and another dollar all told in salad dressing, chicken broth, onion and such, so just over a couple of bucks per person for the entire dinner. Faster and vastly cheaper than take-out, easy enough so that the entire meal took me around 10 minutes in the kitchen, and food I felt good about serving and eating.

Real food really doesn’t have to be complicated!

Posted in Cost of living, Eating out, Fresh from your kitchen, Make it yourself, Recipes | 1 Comment

An explosion of tomatoes

So far, my success at tomato gardening has run the full gamut from near total failure last year to an almost burdensome success this year, each time with just a few plants.

3 lonely tomatoes

Last year’s total harvest

Last fall my tomato babies seemed to grow and thrive, produced abundant flowers, but never any tomatoes. I pulled the barren plants out of the ground just before the first freeze, only to discover that there actually were four lonely little green tomatoes.  I let my harvest sit out on the kitchen counter and they did eventually ripen. We celebrated those little tomatoes by giving them center stage on a couple of salads and that was that, end of tomato season 2013.

So I had modest expectations for this year’s crop, but I was determined to give it another go.  Our friends, Chris and Louise, had found a nursery they really liked and called one spring day to say they were buying gorgeous big bedding plants for $2 each, did I want some. I asked for four and left them to pick some interesting-looking options. I ended up with a Lemon Boy, a Pineapple [tomato], Sweet 100, and Black Krim. Then a neighbor of theirs gifted them with a couple of mystery plants and they passed one on to me.

The Pineapple Tomato will definitely find a place in the garden next year, but I think I’m going to abandon trying to grow tomatoes in pots — it’s just too hard to keep them moist enough in our summer heat.  The few fruits we had were beautiful and very tasty, but very small — about the size of a ping-pong ball  — even though I read that it should normally produce unusually large tomatoes, so I think it was my failure as a container gardener. We’ll see what happens next year.

The Black Krim was initially a success, also producing a healthy plant and pretty, very flavorful tomatoes. But one day it simply died. Dried up completely (notwithstanding being watered along with the rest of them) and that was that.

A tangle of tomato plants

A tangle of tomato plants

But the remaining three grew into a spectacular tangle of tomatoes, creating the very definite goal for next year to figure out a better way of staking them than the standard cheapie metal tomato cages which were only marginally better than useless. And now as we approached our first forecasted freeze and possible snow (neither of which seems like it’s going to come to pass after all) I pulled everything out yesterday, harvesting three full flats of tomatoes from just the two plants, and a bunch of both ripe and green cherry tomatoes.

Lots o' tomatoes

Lots o’ tomatoes

At that I didn’t even bother with probably nearly as many tomatoes as I actually harvested — those that just seemed too small and hard to expect that they’d turn into anything tasty — and, conversely, I discovered many that had already over-ripened and those I just left on the ground to self-compost over the winter. (Part of the problem of the insufficiently staked-up plants was how easily the ripe tomatoes could hide underneath the dense crush of foliage.  I hated that I missed out on some of the largest and prettiest fruits!)


Ready for the oven

Ready for the oven

While the main task now is simply waiting for the green fruit to ripen, there were still enough ready-to-use that this weekend’s focus (aside from the first batch of pumpkin yesterday) is tomatoes. First I sliced an entire tray of the Sweet 100s and let them slow roast in a low oven (250°) for several hours. (Just drizzle a little olive oil on them, sprinkle lightly with good quality salt, and prepare yourself for total deliciousness.) Part of them went into our dinner and part are still in the fridge for future use.

Into the slow-cooker, becoming tomato sauce

Into the slow-cooker, becoming tomato sauce

Intriguing yellow sauce with all Lemon Boy tomatoes

Intriguing yellow sauce with all Lemon Boy tomatoes

Next I quartered a lot of the larger riper tomatoes, along with a few cloves of garlic and a couple of onions, and threw all that into the slow-cooker.  Six or seven hours later I had a cooked-down mess that just needed a quick attack with the immersion blender to be rich, flavorful tomato sauce. We just put the whole container in the fridge last night, so today I’ll portion it out into canning jars and freeze a few and keep one or two in the fridge for use in the next week. It did occur to me this morning that I had missed out on the opportunity to make a completely yellow sauce, so I’ve got another batch in the slow-cooker now that’s all Lemon Boys. We’ll see.

I did a lot of research (thank you, internet) on ripening green tomatoes and the consensus seems to be just basically leave ‘em be.  There’s all sorts of exotic suggestions ranging from wrapping each individual tomato in newspaper to pulling the entire plant with fruit still attached and hanging it upside down in the garage and one of my favorite bloggers takes a bit of a middle road by putting them in paper bags and I’ve never found Kevin’s advice to be anything other than great. But that’s even too much work for me, partly because they go into an “out of sight, out of mind” status which almost guarantees I’ll forget them and lose them all. So I’m just sticking with the most basic approach and will report back later with results. I have high expectations!

One surprising thing I learned in my research was that — contrary to my experience growing up with the kitchen window-sill always full of tomatoes — tomatoes don’t really want to be left in the sun to ripen. It’s said to toughen their skins, go figure. And, not surprisingly, the temperature will have the expected effect on how quickly they ripen (cooler = slower) so you can “manage” your ripening crop at least a bit by where you store them.

Wherever you put them, just don’t forget to check them every few days and pull out ripe ones, keeping a sharp eye out as well for any that show signs of decay.  And I figure, even if you lose a few of them, you still ended up with a boat-load more tomatoes than if you’d simply tossed ‘me all into the green bin (or the compost pile) from the beginning, right?

Posted in Fresh from your kitchen, Make it yourself, Real Food Basics, Recipes | 4 Comments

Pumpkins, Pumpkins, Everywhere

Forget Jack-o-lanterns. I’m not a huge fan of carving pumpkins — my mind always fills uncomfortably with visions of slicing myself open rather than the pumpkin — although it should be noted that daughter Jen and her hubby Larry are pumpkin carvers extraordinaire! They produce amazing creations although I have heard rumors that sometimes power tools are involved.

Pile o pumpkins

A few pumpkins ready and waiting

But for me, it’s not the pumpkins for sale leading up to Halloween (for anywhere from about $2 to $5 or more) that interest me. It’s the pumpkins for sale the day AFTER Halloween when you can often find them for a penny apiece. Or even free, as was the case yesterday when the reality of being stuck with tons of pumpkins hit one local food purveyor and they put out the word that they were free for the taking.

And what do I do with these bargain pumpkins? Simple. Roast ‘em up in the oven for the best (and cheapest) pumpkin puree. You know, rather than the stuff you buy in the cans at the supermarket.

Now, you will often read that only the small “pie” pumpkins or “sugar” pumpkins should be cooked up for cooking and I won’t dispute that they are, perhaps, more flavorful with better texture. But, frankly, all I’ve ever cooked are the regular old pumpkins sold for decoration and they turn out just fine!

That said, I’ve read that you shouldn’t actually cook your actual Jack-o-lantern for consumption (which is, perhaps, redundant since why else would you be cooking it?) since once it was carved, the flesh has now been exposed to pathogens, bugs, possibly mold, and just generally icky stuff.  So it’s fine to use the Jack-o-lantern type of pumpkin, just don’t use your actual Jack-o-lantern, okay?


Ready for roasting

You’ll find lots of instructions around the internet for cooking pumpkin, but all too many of them have neglected to eliminate the slicing-yourself-open factor by having you cut the raw pumpkin up. No, no, no. There is no need at all for this! Trust me on this one.

Simply jab a nice sharp knife into the pumpkin a few times to create some places for steam to escape, put the whole dang thing into a big old pan, and stick it in the oven. (If you click on the “Ready for roasting” picture to see it full size, you can see the incisions I’ve made for the steam.)

Roasting pumpkin and tomatoes

That’s a full oven!

If you’re only doing the pumpkin, the best temp seems to be around 350° for one to two hours (depending on how big your pumpkin is). But, it’s a very forgiving “recipe” so if you’re using your oven for something else at the same time — like here today when I’m also slow roasting a pan of cherry tomatoes at 250° — it should work fine. Just adjust your timing accordingly.

What you’re looking for is a nice soft pumpkin, so when it seems like it could be done, stick your nice sharp knife into it again and see what happens. If there’s very little resistance to a few pokes with your knife, you’re done. Still feeling a bit firm, just slide it back into the oven for a while.

SteamingPumpkinWedgeWhen your pumpkin feels sufficiently pliant, just let it cool on the counter for a bit, then use a sharp chef’s knife and cut that big ol’ baby into wedges.  (Careful with your first cut to see if there’s still very much steam.) When it’s cool enough to handle, just scrape the seeds out with a big spoon (a MUCH easier process now that it’s all cooked) and throw the seeds and stringy stuff away.  If you’re feeling very ambitious, you can separate the seeds from the stringy stuff and dry and roast the seeds for a snack! My ambition seems to consistently fall a bit short at this juncture, so I just toss it (or compost it). The soft, cooked flesh should scoop away from the outer shell easily. If it doesn’t seem smooth enough, you can process batches of it in your blender.

Package into containers of your choice — zip-top bags, canning jars, plastic food storage tubs — and put some in the fridge for use within the next week and freeze the rest.  We give our dogs pumpkin mixed with their kibble each night for dinner, so we’ll go through a tub or two of it in pretty short order.  And what a good excuse to make pumpkin bread!

Have you cooked your pumpkins and what’s your favorite pumpkin recipe?

Posted in Fresh from your kitchen, Make it yourself, Real Food Basics | 4 Comments

Homemade Laundry Detergent

Along with my growing interest in real food came a growing awareness of the scary stuff that most of us use to clean our homes, wash our clothes, and wipe down our kitchen counters with.  A simple first step that many turn to is buying “natural” products, and there actually are quite a number of cleaning products declaring themselves thusly.

River that bordered our property in Costa Rica

River that bordered our property in Costa Rica

I don’t inherently have a problem with them, other than the fact that most are beastly expensive and like a lot of things, the “natural” label doesn’t necessarily mean a lot. When we lived in Costa Rica we would go through phases of feeling that it was worth the price, no matter what else we might have to sacrifice, to buy the less harmful laundry detergents since our washer (as nearly all do there) just drained right out onto the ground, which meant a fairly short downhill trek to the river.

On our occasional journeys to the wonderful (but oh-so-pricey) store, AutoMercado, (home of almost any imported product you could be lusting after), we would buy one of the “eco-friendly” brands of detergent but, aside from the price, discovered a problem when all of our clothes started changing colors. Not just becoming dingy, as you might think was possible, but actually changed—the dark blue stripes in one of my husbands polo shirts became a sort-of taupe-ish brown, for instance. Odd.

Anyway, price continues to steer me away from most of the commercial alternative detergents, so like everyone else does when they have a question, I set out to see what Mr. Google could tell me. I found several recipes for liquid detergent, but most seemed incredibly fussy in their preparation (lots of heating ingredients, stirring, mixing, remixing, cooling and doing certain things at certain points in the process) and I’m just not-so-good with fussy preparation.

Then I stumbled across some instructions for a powdered homemade laundry detergent at Michael Nolan’s  My Earth Garden website and knew I’d found what I needed. I’ve since run into these same basic instructions elsewhere and I must say that I have no idea at all who actually “invented” this method, but I will say it’s easy, cheap, effective, and we haven’t bought laundry detergent now for a long time.

Enough preamble?  Let’s go.  The first “warning” is simply that both Michael’s instructions and my own experiences are using a high-powered blender like a Vita-Mix (what he uses) or a BlendTec (what I use).  I know they work, but even so they can sound like they’re struggling if you put too much in them, so I don’t know if it would work in a “regular” blender.  If you want to try (which, of course, you do at your own risk, but you knew that, right?) I would recommend doing it in smaller batches, which I’ve started doing anyway with my BlendTec just because it seems easier.

homemade laundry detergent

Soon this will be powdered laundry soap

Other than the blender, there’s three simple ingredients:

  • Borax (like 20 Mule Team)
  • Washing soda (Arm & Hammer makes some, NOT the same as baking soda)
  • Bar soap (More on that below, but I’ve found simple Ivory works well)

For each “batch” you’ll use 2 cups EACH of the borax and the washing soda to one bar of soap. (And, yes, I realize that a bar of soap doesn’t have any universal “size” so just use common sense and go for a “normal” sized bar. That alone should tell you that this recipe is pretty forgiving.)

AvilaSecond warning: You’ll often see these instructions using Fels Naptha soap and that’s actually what I used first.  It works well and certainly cleans clothes. (That is its primary mission in life, after all, as a laundry pre-wash stain remover.) But in a possibly completely coincidental experience, some while after we started using this version of our homemade laundry detergent, our precious little granddaughter started having a not-terrible but somewhat persistent irritation on her sweet face, on her cheeks.

It took a long while to make any connection, but those same sweet little cheeks would lie nestled against me—sometimes for a half-hour or more at a time—while I rocked her to sleep several times a week at nap-time or spent a few hours at a time on her pillowcase. Hmmm… might the Fels Naptha be irritating her skin?

Simple Ivory soap works great

Simple Ivory soap works great

We’ll never know, but I can’t help but observe that the persistent irritation vanished as mysteriously as it had begun after we switched over to using Ivory as the bar soap in our laundry detergent.  If you have particularly dirty clothes and no small children (or others with sensitive skin) in your family, you could certainly try this same thing with the Fels Naptha. We’re happy to just stick with our Ivory, although one could likely take it even a step further down the “homemade” and natural path if you used homemade soap.  That’s definitely an alternative that folks report online works fine, too.

One of the few good uses for a microwave oven

One of the few good uses for a microwave oven

This used to be a bar of Ivory soap!

This used to be a bar of Ivory soap!

The borax and washing soda are both already powdered, so the primary “task” for this is to turn the bar soap into a powder as well.  You can grate it, or use your vegetable peeler to peel off thin strips, or do this crazy-fun trick and nuke it.  Yes, put that bar of soap on a plate and pop it into your microwave for about 90 seconds. (Just run it for another 30 seconds or minute if it doesn’t all puff up.)

This is, by the way, a great activity to do with kids! I will say that occasionally it doesn’t puff that big, or once in a while a portion—like one corner of the bar—will stubbornly resist puffing at all.  No worries, it’s certainly not a necessary part of the process. It’s just an easy way to reduce the soap to a powder since this “puffed up” stuff will grind very easily in the blender.

Measuring ingredients into the blender

Measuring ingredients into the blender

All blended together

All blended together

I’ve tried different things over the past year and discovered that even with a super-powered blender, it’s so much easier to just do a smaller bit at a time. So my suggestion is dump 1 cup of the borax, 1 cup of the washing soda, and approximately 1/2 (no need to fuss about precision) of your grated or puffed up soap into your blender.  Whirl it about on high speed for 30 seconds to a minute, just until it all seems to be a fine powder.  Dump that out into your container, and repeat with the rest of the ingredients. If you’re working with a less powerful blender, I’d even do it in quarters using 1/2 cup of each of the powders and 1/4 of your soap at a time.

Should you use up your bar soap before you’ve mixed it with the full 2 cups of powdered borax and washing soda, just dump whatever is left into your container and then mix it all together.

We’ve come to enjoy the simple unscented version, but should you like—you can sprinkle a few drops of whatever essential oil you’d like into the mix as you’re blending it.  Some obvious choices would be anything in the citrus family (lemon, orange, grapefruit, etc.) for a fresh touch or almost anything else that suits you.

Ready to use

Ready to use

You need a container to store your detergent in, obviously, and we cleverly just keep re-using the last box of powdered detergent that we had on hand. It’s not too big, but big enough to hold a double-batch of detergent if I feel especially inspired, but clearly anything will do.

You only need 2 tablespoons of this detergent for each wash load and I’m told it works fine in HE washers, although our washer is ancient so I have no direct experience with that.

Happy laundry day!

P.S. I’ve seen folks comment that 2 tablespoons doesn’t seem like very much, but when you think about how you can wash your whole body with a quick swipe of bar soap on a washcloth, then even the teaspoon or so that’s in the two tablespoons of total mixture is actually a lot of pure soap.  All I can say is it works fine.  :-)



Posted in Babies and children, Cost of living, Household, Make it yourself | 2 Comments