Next Week

Next week will probably be one of the busiest times of the year.  With two kiddos born the week of Thanksgiving there’s a lot to celebrate!  We’ll celebrate Gwen’s fifth birthday, Josiah’s third birthday two days later, Thanksgiving after that, and then have a family birthday party for the kiddos on the weekend. 

Thanksgiving will be at my parents’ house but the gals in my family will contribute. I’ll be making Anise Honey Wreath Loaves from the Williams-Sonoma Thanksgiving Entertaining cookbook, roasted root veggies from The Eat-Clean Diet for Family and Kids, and a version of this pumpkin pie:

Ginger-Pumpkin Meringue Pie – credit bhg.com

Every year I think of combining birthdays with the holiday, but if I do that other people may not be able to come since they’ll be with their own families.  As it is, they’ll share a birthday for a while.  Hey, as a twin I grew up sharing a birthday and I loved it! 

People keep asking me if I have special birthday plans, and aside from cake, ice cream and some gifts, I’m going really low-key this year.  I almost feel guilty because of it – I’m not buying matchy character cups, plates and napkins; I’m not going overboard with decorations; I’m not setting up an elaborate dessert table that seems to be all the rage. 

Last year we had a really fun train-themed party, but it all came together because we found my grandfather’s old train set while going through his things and we had just visited the Essex Steam Train over the summer and Phil made some wooden train station signs and I really wanted to make a train cake like my mother made when we were little.

We want the kids to have a special day with family but we also want to keep it simple.  I have so many cute party ideas stored away – just take a gander at my Pinterest boards! – but I’m only going with a few this year.  Here’s some of the inspiration I’m feeding from:

ruffled streamers – credit: danamadeit.com

2 cupcakes for a mini cake – credit: lefrufrublog.blogspot.com

pom pom cake banner – credit: etsy.com

mason jar candy decoration – credit: jacolynmurphy.blogspot.com

birthday wreath – credit: thesimplylivingblog.blogspot.com

Triple Lemon Blueberry Layer Cake – credit: sweetapolita.com

Homemade Martinelli’s – credit: onegoodthingbyjillee.com

I plan on making a lemon-raspberry version of the above cake, have a couple kinds of ice cream and some various snacks (chips, hummus, fresh fruit, etc.).  We have out-of-town family coming as well, so I’m trying to figure out how much to make!   

Josiah’s birthday gift is all wrapped, the Melissa & Doug Low Loader that I got last year and put away.  He actually found it a few months back and started unwrapping it – he’s such trouble – but I’m sure he’s forgotten about it by now.  Since it was already out of its packaging I wrapped each of the elements separately.

I still need to finish Gwen’s gift. I’ve sewed up most of the “mattresses” but haven’t done all twelve – arrrgh!  I made a little pea from wool roving and asked Phil to make a little wooden ladder so the princess can climb into her bed.  I’m so excited!  I hope she likes it. 

She’s so easy to buy for, it’s been hard to decide what to give her now and what to save for later.  We’re fond of Veggie Tales and I found a bargain copy of “Sweetpea Beauty“, which we checked out of the library at one point and really enjoyed (guess I’ll have to save “Tangled” for another time).  I also found a whole slew of books at a secondhand store over the Summer – a whole set of brand new Angelina Ballerina books, a favorite character of hers.  I gave her Angelina’s Halloween on Halloween morning along with her butterfly wings, plan to give her Angelina’s Christmas on Christmas and am saving Angelina’s Baby Sister for when the little one arrives in February – when to give her the rest??  I also found A Birthday for Frances – she was always a favorite of mine and Gwen has become fond of her as well. 

Looking forward to next week, not only the family celebrations and giving thanks for all of our blessings, but having my twin brother and sister-in-law stay with us.  I’ve been cleaning most of the morning and am worn out!  I’m feeling huuuuge at just over six month’s pregnant and am not quite sure how I’m going to last the winter.  

Wish me luck! 

Blissful Bites Cookbook Review (and a giveaway!)

***Giveaway Closed – Congratulations Theresa!***

When I made my Peanut Butter Bliss Pudding I had no idea it would turn into a book review!  I jumped at the chance to review my own copy of Blissful Bites: Vegan Meals That Nourish Mind, Body, and Planet and was even more thrilled when I learned that one of you – yes, YOU! – will get a chance to receive a copy of your own. 

Christy Morgan, vegan chef and author of Blissful Bites, is on a “mission to help others make the connection between the mind, body and spirit, so they may live authentic, healthy, happy lives free of physical pain and mental suffering.”  She is on a roll with Blissful Bites, her first cookbook, as well as her blog The Blissful Chef

One of the things that grabs my attention about a cookbook before even delving into the recipes is the pictures.  Mm, mouthwatering pictures!  Not every recipe features a photo, but there’s a yummy, full color photo at least every other page, scattered throughout the book like a little trail of [vegan, whole grain] breadcrumbs, leading you to the end.

The cookbook is broken down into food categories (such as breakfast & brunch, appetizers & soups, salads & dressings, vegetable sides, whole grains, etc.) and within these categories are seasonal recipes, which make it easy to pick the freshest ingredients.  There’s a nifty little menu in front of each recipe section that lays it all out for you.  I love that it’s color-coded for easy identification – green for “spring,” blue for “winter,” you get the idea. 

What’s nice about this cookbook is that it’s super-informative about making healthier choices and encourages you to start leaning towards a more plant-based lifestyle without being judgemental.  I am not a vegetarian, but I do like to try meat-free, dairy-free and even gluten-free recipes from time to time.  Whether you like to experiment or have specific dietary needs, there are special identifying icons for some of the recipes – raw, gluten-free, soy-free, low or no oil, or taking less than 45 minutes to prepare.  It really removes all the guesswork!

After devouring the pudding, I was excited to try some more of the recipes and started making a list of my favorites.  I wanted to make them as authentic as possible, using the ingredients called for, but I will admit this wasn’t the easiest to do.  Unless you specifically shop at an organic or specialty food store (or already have these items in your pantry) you may not be able to find the exact ingredients – things like vanilla flavoring, grain-sweetened chocolate chips, coconut  palm sugar, nutritional yeast, miso, kelp noodles, dulse flakes, kombu and the other sea vegatables, none of which are at my grocery store.  Luckily, if you’re willing to make a special trip or do a bit of online shopping they are obtainable.  Also, many of them can be easily substituted; it’s hard for me to stick to a recipe anyway!

The Strawberry Shortcake Smoothie was one of the first on my list.  When I buy strawberries on sale I freeze half of them for smoothies during the warmer months and we had extra on hand since we went strawberry-picking at a local farm recently.  This was a really easy recipe and easily-tweaked by adding different fruits or types of milk. 

I’m in love with the sauce from the Penne with Creamy Red Pepper Sauce!  The kids and I often have pasta in the evenings, so I thought this would be a good choice.  I didn’t have quite enough red pepper, but it was still full of flavor and I went back for seconds.  Later it occurred to me that it would make an excellent dip for chips, crackers and veggies, which of course I put to the test.  I don’t usually buy tofu since I’m worried about its effects as a staple in one’s diet but I could definitely swing this once a week.  

Cooking is not something I like to do in the Summer.  Friday night is our homemade-pizza-and-a-movie night but there’s no way I’m cranking that oven to 450 degrees!  We usually opt for salads and sandwiches, so I was curious to try the Un-Tuna Salad.  We love cooking with beans – quesadillas, enchiladas, falafel, black bean burgers, hummus, you name it – so the idea of a sandwich filler with chick peas sounded like a yummy idea.  It’s basically a tuna or chicken salad with chick peas instead of the meat.  I used dried beans, which take longer to prepare, but the results were sooooo good!  This will definitely be a staple in our diet; I’m anxious to try adding curry powder for extra pizzaz. 

  

Dessert… my favorite!  I decided to make the Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Cookies with a few tweaks.  I don’t buy egg replacer, so I opted for the flaxseed substitute instead.  That, combined with the fact that I blended my own brown rice and almond flours, may have contributed to the fact that the batter was really runny.  I made one cookie sheet’s worth then added some white whole wheat flour to thicken it up.  Those came out better and they were all soft and had great flavor – not surprising considering the coconot oil, maple syrup and peanut butter.  Care to make a batch for yourself?  Knock yourself out…

Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Cookies
Ingredients
1/4c vegan margarine or coconut oil, melted
1/2c maple syrup
1/3c unsweetened applesauce
1t Ener-G egg replacer, whisked with 1T water
1t vanilla flavoring
1/2c peanut butter
3/4c almond flour
3/4c brown rice flour
1t baking powder
1t baking soda
2t flax meal
1/4t sea salt
1t arrowroot
1/2c vegan grain-sweetened chocolate chips (optional)

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.  In medium mixing bowl, beat margarine (or coconut oil), maple syrup, and applesauce until smooth and creamy.  Add the rest of the wet ingredients and mix well.  In separate bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder and soda, flax, salt, and arrowroot.  Mix wet into dry ingredients until well combined.  Fold in the chocolate chips and stir well.

Drop spoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheet.  Using wet fingertips or the bottom of a glass, press down each cookie evenly (continue to dip fingers or glass in water to prevent sticking).  The cookies will not spread much, so you can put them close together on the cookie sheet.  Take a fork and press lightly on the top in two directions, to create a grid on top of the cookie.  Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.  Remove from oven and cool cookies on a wire rack.

So, who’s ready to win a copy of Blissful Bites?  There are a number of ways to enter (leave a separate comment for each, being sure to include your name and e-mail address):
1.  Share the love and tell someone about the giveaway (twitter, facebook, e-mail, etc.) then leave me a link to that share.
2.  Check out The Blissful Chef and tell me what recipe you’d love to try.
3.  Tell me what healthy eating means to you. 
*Giveaway is open for 30 days and is open to U.S. residents only.  

As for me, I can’t wait to experiment with the recipes and include more plant-based meals into our everyday life.

Muffin Tin Meals & More

I love using the kiddos’ divided plates for mealtimes, making sure I find something to fill each spot.  Whenever I leave one “blank,” Gwen has to point out that it’s empty.  Sorry, some days I’m more creative than others! 

I got this nifty idea from Counting Coconuts to make muffin tin meals.  It’s amazing how the kids get excited when you mix things up a bit, do things somewhat differently.  They were excited with the presentation, and had fun eating from each compartment.

Next week we start preschool (!!!), and since we begin with the story of creation, I think it would be a neat idea to have a creation-themed lunch using the tins.  All the ideas I got from googling call for sugary treats (like Oreo cookies for separating the light from the dark), so I’m trying to come up with a healthy version.  The goldfish crackers will most likely pop up again in that meal!

I’m a little nervous assuming the role as “teacher” for Gwen; I know it’s something I do all the time anyway, but setting aside specific time for “school” puts me in a bit of a spotlight.  This is what I see happening:

“So… this is the letter ‘A’… which is for apple… moving on!”

I’m afraid all this planning will be for naught, and I’ll have wasted my time on busy nothings.  But if nothing else, we’ll have a bit of fun along the way…

A peek inside the creation-themed sensory bin I’ve put together:

What’s inside:
Day 1: white rice for light/day & black beans for dark/night    
Day 2: blue tissue paper & cotton balls for the sky
Day 3: brown cup & earth ball for land/earth; blue streamers for water; Easter grass, Lego trees, foam fruit and flowers stickers, flower pin & a plastic flowers for trees & flowers.
Day 4: medium yellow pom-pom for sun, marble for moon, small yellow sparkly pom-poms for stars.
Day 5: plastic fish toys, fish puppet & wooden birds for fish & birds.
Day 6: plastic animals & two toy people for animals & man.
Day 7: dollhouse bed for day of rest.
*I also added some small shiny star stickers to find, a plastic star tray/scoop,  and letter magnets to spell out “creation.”

Gwen has been getting excited about starting school with Mommy, and though I’ve gotten quite a few resources already, I thought it would be a neat idea to get her a special school gift – like a backpack (she could take her school stuff when we run errands or go camping), a pencil case, whatever.  I love turning an event into a special occasion!  Nothing has really caught my eye, though… except for a brand new copy of Angelina Ballerina that I nabbed for sixty-nine cents at a thrift store!  She’s a favorite character and I’ve had that book on Gwen’s wish list for a while.  AND Angelina begins with the letter “A,” so it all goes together quite nicely.

Since we have a limited book collection at home, I’ve been requesting all sorts of library books for our first week on the letter A, the number zero, and the four seasons.  Gosh, I’m starting to sound like Sesame Street.  Here are a few of the titles that will be in our book basket.  W ish me luck! 

The Garden Experiment

In the past Phil and I have done a tiny garden, tomatoes in a pot, container herbs… but this year is the Garden Experiment.  We decided to build three raised beds with a variety of vegetables (mostly from seed) and see how they fare. 

 
 

The kids quickly decided this was their new playground/sandbox.  What fun it was trying to keep ‘em out once we actually planted seeds.  Especially Josiah, whose main goal in life is to get as dirty as possible. 

 

Phil rigged some metal fencing as climbing posts for the eventual squash plants – but the kiddos saw its true potential.  They love tunnels.  A good ol’ cushion and blanket tunnel will keep them happily occupied while I do the laundry.  Or the dishes. 

Now I don’t have much of a green thumb, so just getting green shoots to come out of the ground is sweet victory to me. 

Sweet Victory…

 

Early on we enjoyed spinach and lettuce greens, and a couple weeks ago I was thrilled to notice some peas ready for the pickin’.  I hadn’t noticed them because they blend right into the greenery or hide behind the leaves.   

 
 

We enjoyed them straight from the vine, and I’m afraid the plant has since been picked clean. We love fresh peas!  I excitedly started checking the other plants, and found a whole slew of baby veggies which are getting bigger and bigger each day.  Just like the kiddos! *sniff sniff*  Many of the veggies have beautiful flowers that bloom before the veggies grow, and I love the little curly vines that – which just a little coaxing – hang onto the trellis for support. 

 
 
 

I’ve been very anxious at the state of my rainbow carrots, but every time I take a peek underneath the soil they’re still so tiny, despite a plethora of carrot greens growing above-ground.  We finally decided to thin them out yesterday so they would have more room to grow.  Some of them are so small, they can’t even be considered baby carrots.  I call them fetal carrots.  So sad, I hope they survive.  We did find one good-sized, beautiful red carrot.  It was delicious, but I was disappointed that the inside is orange like a traditional carrot.

 

In addition to the greens and peas, we’ve also picked some beans, potatoes, and onions.  It feels so good to be grow food from seed, take care of it, and enjoy its bounty.  Talk about health food!  I try to imagine what it was like when living off the land was the norm for people. 

So far, the verdict is that we need more garden space, so we’ll probably add three to four more raised beds next year.  This is a learning process for me, from deciding what, when, and how to plant, to taking care of the plants and deciding how to harvest them (pick from the bottom, top, pinch off the top before it flowers?).  In the beginning I was picking the spinach and lettuce while still small, but decided to leave them alone for a while and see if they thrived.  Now, the spinach is tall but I’m not sure how much more I’ll get from it and the lettuce is in abundance, but the bigger it gets the more bitter it tastes.  I need to find a happy medium!

I’m excited see what ripens next.  Besides adding fresh produce to our meals, I hope to try some new recipes for canning and freezing.  Put ‘em Up!, a canning and preserving book I got from the library, has some excellent ideas that I hope to try – including rhubarb pickles, of all things.  I’ll probably end up making salsa, ketchup, and sauce with the tomatoes, and pickles from the cukes.  And I’m dying to try zucchini relish, but need to get the recipe from a friend.  Do you have any favorite canning/preserving recipes?  Do share.  

While I was in the yard yesterday, I happened upon this butterfly enjoying the flower gardens.

Put Down That Chocolate Milk

A few weeks ago I read an article about the proposed ban of flavored milks in public school systems, opting instead for healthier white milk.  At the time I thought how ironic it was, considering that neither option is really “healthy.” 

Everyone has her own opinion on the matter, of course, and recently I came across an article entitled “Why Banning Foods in Schools Sends Kids the Wrong Message.” Aside from being a mom, the author is a registered dietitian, interesting to note while reading her remarks as well as her response to comments. 

Since reading more about food choices these days, becoming informed on the food products available in our grocery stores, I have been appalled at some of these so-called “foods” that are played off as having any semblance of nutritional value.  Just like any other Big Business, the USDA’s nutritional guidelines are skewed by those that give the most financial contributions to their cause.  I give them props for adding such a large portion of produce to the proverbial plate, and suggesting a reduction in sodium and “sugary drinks,” but they still recommend products that contain unhealthy ingredients. 

It scares me, seeing how much the government has injected itself into our every-day lives, trying to control how we raise our children, drive our cars, and even having a say in the food we eat.  While I’m against government control, don’t think they should have a say in what we choose to eat or drink, I find it interesting that they would suggest a ban on sugary drinks in schools or implementing a beverage tax, rather than informing people of the true nature of much of the packaged foods they throw at us in order to make a profit.

I actually haven’t followed up with the flavored milk proposal, although I believe the proposed beverage tax was defeated.  Do you think it’s a good idea for the government to make these decisions for us in the interest of public health?  Gets me thinking about my kiddos’ vaccination schedule (arrrgh)… but that’s for another time.

Homemade Yogurt

I never really liked plain yogurt, opting instead for yummy store-bought varieties like black cherry, strawberry banana, coffee, caramel, key lime pie, anything that sounded yummy and un-yogurty.  When I  had Gwendolyn, I knew I wanted to make homemade baby food, and got excited when I discovered you can actually make your own yogurt

Of course there are many resources out there on the world wide web, but the few recipes I  bookmarked mentioned sterilizing your equipment, heating the milk to a certain temperature (making sure it doesn’t burn in the process), cooling it to a certain temperature, adding your starter, and then maintaining a specific temperature in order to incubate the active cultures.  Needless to say, I wasn’t too thrilled with all these steps – but decided to undergo them nonetheless.  Having to babysit the yogurt and add more hot water so it maintained the optimum temperature was my undoing, and I finally decided to purchase a yogurt maker.

Following the steps that came with the yogurt maker was a no-brainer, and the little glass jars provided the perfect portions, especially for feeding the little ones.  I still bought my own flavored yogurt. 

When making some healthy changes last year, I decided to eliminate milk and milk products from my family’s diet (except for cheese, of course, which is its own essential food group).  Each step along the way has been a learning process, and when I learned about the benefits of cultured dairy products – specifically from reading Nourishing Traditions –  I slowly started adding some of these items back in.  We still don’t drink plain milk or use it in recipes, opting instead of almond or coconut milk, but I buy whole milk for making yogurt (and buttermilk!). 

Rachel over at Clean. recently posted a recipe for homemade yogurt, and I implemented her suggestion for using a small amount of starter (either from a store-bought carton or some left over from a previous batch) for the best results.  I always added a carton of yogurt, and was pleasantly surprised when the smaller amount yielded a better yogurt.

As much as I enjoy the ease of making yogurt in my yogurt maker, I’m limited by the amount I get – especially since one of the glass containers broke and I haven’t bought any replacements.  Now that both the kiddos and I often have yogurt for breakfast, use it in smoothies and baked goods, I go through yogurt much more quickly these days.  I was really excited when I came across another recipe for yogurt, and in discussing the directions with the author and some of her readers, learned that maintaining a temperature isn’t key to keeping the cultures alive.  I was all set to get out my canning jars and try a batch, when someone mentioned that her favorite way of making yogurt was in her crock pot.  Yogurt in a crock pot?  I have a crock pot!       

I already had a half gallon of milk and some yogurt in the fridge to use for a starter, so I decided to whip up my first batch of crock pot yogurt.  I was a bit nervous because I started it earlier in the day, which meant it sat on the counter for half a day and overnight… but in the morning when I removed the towel wrapped around the crock pot, opened the lid and peeked inside… it was filled with yogurt! 

I filled a couple containers, and strained the remainder to ake Greek yogurt/cream cheese.  

When you strain yogurt, the liquid that comes out is called whey.  I’ve used it in pancakes and baked goods for part of the liquid, for soaking beans and grains, but I’ve learned there are lots of different uses for this precious liquid which is packed with vitamins and minerals.  I would love to try making Ricotta cheese.   Don’t throw it out!  Just the other day I used some of it in the cooking water for pasta and again for cooking rice.       

Our favorite way of eating yogurt for breakfast is topped with frozen blueberries, ground flaxseed, walnuts, and honey.  And let’s not forget smoothies!  This morning, Gwendolyn comes out of her room and says, “My tummy’s sick because it’s hungry.  I want blueberries in my smoothie and blueberry pancakes and blueberries in yogurt.”  I reply, “So you want blueberries?”

I’ve got another batch of crock pot yogurt brewing right now.

Seriously Good Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

A while back I got a big ol’ box of Quaker Oats at BJ’s.  The box empties quickly since we often have oatmeal for breakfast (topped with blueberries and honey), and I grind the oats into oat flour and use it in cooking and baking.  Crushing the box for the recycle bin, I noticed a recipe on the flap for Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies.  I tore it off, planning to play around with the ingredients.  I had a really ripe banana that I figured would make a nice addition. 

Sometimes when I make healthier versions of treats they end up tasting… well… healthy.  You want cookies to be a little more on the decadent side of things.  Well, when I tasted the dough straight from the mixer, I knew we had a winner.  And a bite (or two.  or three.) of the moist cookies after they came out of the oven confirmed the fact – this recipe is a keeper.  They were a hit with Phil and the kiddos, too.

Follow the basic recipe linked above, using my ingredients – adding the banana after the eggs (no need to mash it first – just make sure to remove the peel):

1 stick butter, softened + 1/4 c coconut oil
3/4 c Sucanat + 1/4 c Splenda
2 eggs (organic cage free, preferably)
1 t vanilla
1 ripe banana
1 c wheat flour + 1/2 c oat flour
1 t baking soda
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t salt
2 1/2 c oats
1 c raisins

Sorry for the lack of pictures proving their mouth-watering goodness.