“Flowers are the sweetest things God ever made, and forgot to put a soul into.” ~Henry Beecher

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Passion for...Buttermilk?

After getting my share of buttermilk pancakes over the last several weeks, I decided that I needed to do something about the excess buttermilk that was consistently left over. Interestingly, while searching the internet for recipes, I discovered that many people were dealing with the same issue and realized that buttermilk is one of those ingredients that requires planning ahead to use up. There are lots of recipes for baked goods that looked great and I also wanted to take advantage of the health benefits of buttermilk by consuming it uncooked. I have to admit, in the past, the idea of “raw” (meaning not used in a cooked recipe) didn’t appeal to me much; however, because I am more regularly incorporating cultured and fermented foods into my diet, I decided to revisit buttermilk. So, after the last batch of pancakes, I was able to use up the remaining quart of buttermilk in two recipes. The first is not raw­–it’s a blueberry scone recipe that I experimented with (since I can’t leave a recipe alone). I began with a basic recipe by Martha Stewart then put my own spin on it: I used whole grain spelt flour, a stronger sugar, some coconut, lemon zest, and nuts. This recipe produced a moist and not-too-sweet treat that I couldn’t help but dunk in my coffee!

Blueberry Scones

1.5 c whole grain spelt flour

0.5 c cake flour

2.5 t baking powder (aluminum-free)

¾ t salt

3 T sucanat or turbinado or other type of granulated sugar

¼ c unsweetened, shredded coconut

1 t cinnamon

8 T (8 oz.) cold, unsalted butter, cut into chunks

1 T lemon zest

1 c blueberries (this time of year, I used frozen, wild blueberries that I thawed slightly)

½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans

½ cup lowfat buttermilk

1 large egg plus one beaten for an egg wash

turbinado or other granulated sugar for sprinkling

1. Combine the first six ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well with a wire whisk.

2. Cut the butter into the flour mixture, either with a pastry cutter or with your fingers, until it reaches a uniform, crumbly consistency.

3. Add the blueberries, lemon zest, and nuts and mix well.

4. Beat the egg and combine with the buttermilk and vanilla, then add to the dry ingredients. Gently mix with a fork until the wet ingredients are incorporated into the dry. Try not to overwork the batter.

5. Turn the batter out onto a lightly floured surface, gently gather the dough and knead a couple of times. Shape into a flat circle approximately 8-10 inches in diameter and about ¼- ½ inch thick.

6. Slice the dough into 8 wedges and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. If not using paper, lightly oil the pan.

7. Brush the tops of each wedge with the egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake at 375°F for 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

The second recipe is a smoothie. I used buttermilk as the base for a very simple smoothie that was surprising delicious. I confess, I expected it to be extremely tart with a sort of gloppy texture that would be difficult to get down. Instead, the result was a surprisingly smooth and tasty drink that I had for breakfast on several mornings and that was not nearly as heavy as it appeared. In fact, it was perfect about an hour before yoga class. And ironically, I was looking for MORE buttermilk in the fridge by the end of the week. It makes me happy to know that I can now buy it and easily consume it without fear. You never know if you don’t try, right? : )

Buttermilk Smoothie

1 c lowfat or nonfat buttermilk

½ banana

¼ avocado

1 t sweetener (I use maple syrup, of course : )

pinch cinnamon, optional

Blend all the ingredients in a blender and enjoy.

That’s it! So simple and delicious. If you want it thicker, use a frozen banana, or add ice before blending to thin it out. As always, the possibilities are endless and I’m sure I’ll be experimenting with this as well.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Impact of Beauty

Not too long ago, I mentioned in a post that over the last several years, I’ve simplified my life by eliminating the amount of “stuff” I have. Well, this goes for my beauty routine and products as well. After years of experimenting with products that either didn’t work for me or were simply unnecessary, I’ve pared down my routine to a few simple, yet essential items. The benefits of this are many fold:

1. Less of an impact on your body. You may be thinking, No, I want my products to have MORE of an impact on my body! With regard to the positive benefits, yes; however, the less so-called beauty products you put on your skin, the less ingredients you’ll absorb into your body. Many products have synthetic or toxic chemicals that have no business in your bloodstream or in your organs. I currently use a wonderful soap that I found from a local soap maker called Sunflower Farm. Their soaps are made with real, wholesome ingredients like goat’s milk, coconut oil, and shea butter. One of my favorites is “Honey Bee My Soap”. It makes a rich creamy lather and leaves my skin feeling like silk, including my face, which means that I no longer use separate products for my face and body. It’s great for shaving as well and it even leaves my hair shiny and silky. And as far as exfoliants go, I’ve found that an old, knobby washcloth works as well as any scrub you can find. I just use it gently to avoid pulling my skin and it leaves my face glowing.

There are a multitude of sites online that list recipes for make-yourself, at-home personal care products. What works for one may not work for another and it’s a matter of experimenting with different recipes to find the ones that you will like. I do a few simple things that work well for me that I’ve listed here:

Exfoliant - If I do choose an exfoliant or a scrub or a mask, I make it myself with ingredients in the kitchen. My favorite face scrub is a mixture of coconut oil, honey (a humectant which adds moisture) and ground flax seeds or nut meal. I’m using a wonderful, bright yellow sunflower honey right now. Mix about a teaspoon of each into a paste, then massage the mixture gently into the face, avoiding the eye area. Leave it on for several minutes then rinse off with warm water. It leaves my face dewy and fresh looking. This can also be used on the rest of the body.

Hair - A simple trick for incredibly shiny hair is this. Lather your head, then pour a cup of milk into the lather and work it into the hair. Leave in for a few minutes then rinse. The lactic acid helps to remove all the dulling residues that hair products and shampoos can leave behind. If you tend to use lots of sprays, gels, or pastes, another great way to remove the buildup from your hair is a teaspoon of baking soda in your shampoo. Mix it in before you lather your hair, then rinse as normal. No need for a clarifying shampoo! For a deep condition, I work a little bit of coconut oil into my hair (and leave it there during my hot yoga class!). If you won’t be entering a steamy, hot room, wrap your hair in a warm, moist towel for about 30 minutes then wash it out. Just lather hair before wetting, to better remove the oil afterwards.

Body moisturizer - Several oils, such as olive, sesame, and coconut work great on the skin. In the winter months, I use refined, expeller pressed organic coconut oil or even pure cocoa butter on my body – before or after I shower. In the summer, I use sesame oil.

These are just my favorite and most effective tricks that I’ve found that work for me. The key is that you will probably have many of these items in your kitchen and they’re items that you’ll have no problem putting into your body. You can also think of them as your external diet and if you’re like me, you are committed to feeding your body in the best way possible. Which brings up an important point: No product, natural or otherwise will make skin glow and hair shine if it doesn’t want to. The best foundation that will allow any product to have a positive impact is a healthy diet. In fact, a healthy body will glow on it’s own, even without all the potions.

If you’d like to know more about the safety of the personal care products that you do buy, you can look them up in the Skin Deep database provided by the Environmental Working Group. It’s a great resource that breaks down each product into its individual ingredients that it rates separately. It also assigns an overall safety rating to the complete product.

2. Less of an impact on your wallet. By freeing yourself of superfluous or redundant purchases, you’ll clearly save money. I can’t imagine how much money I’ve spent in the past on products that literally sat untouched on the shelf. Once you eliminate all of those, you can spend a little more on a couple of good products that you love. I use a nice, all-natural face cream and a few all-natural makeup products, if and when I do wear makeup. Because if my skin is glowing, the last thing I want to do is cover it up with a foundation!

3. Less of an impact on the environment. The products that you use do not stay confined to your bodies. They get washed down the drain when you shower and the packaging and residual product gets dumped into landfills. Less product means less chemicals and waste in the dumps, less chemicals in the water, and less product taking up space on your shelves!

Simplifying my personal care routine has had a tremendous impact on me overall. It’s something I don’t have to think too much about anymore or even maintain since whatever I need is usually available. It’s helped me to drastically reduce the number of unnatural compounds that I put into my body. And it’s saved me time, which means I have more to do the things I want to do. It can’t get much better than that!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Just Imagine

The other day, I was on my computer at a coffee shop. There were two women sitting across the room from me at two separate tables. Suddenly, a woman walked in with her young son who, I’m guessing was three or four years old. While she placed her order at the counter, her son walked over to an empty table, pulled out a chair, dragged it over to one of the women seated alone, and sat down directly across from her at her table. The woman was astonished. He said hello to the woman and she smiled and laughed and asked the boy how he was. He then moved to the second woman and did the same thing with her. In fact, she taught him how to introduce himself to someone new and they had a very heartwarming and sweet moment before the boy’s mom came over to see what he was doing. After a few words, the mother and son left the coffee shop, leaving the three of us with big smiles on our faces.

Soon after, I said to the women, “We would probably never dream of doing that, would we?” They agreed. Most of us would never approach a stranger for fear of encroaching on their space, or interrupting their thoughts, or simply being afraid of what they might think. As children, we see each other as human beings, but as adults, we divide ourselves into countries, religions, organizations, teams, gangs, and groups. I’m not saying that this is always a bad thing. It can actually be a good thing when the goal is to unite people with common interests. But often, they set boundaries, highlight differences and perpetuate competition, resistance, and fear. Is it naïve to think about the human race as a single, cohesive group? I think so, but there’s nothing wrong with being naïve and in some ways, that’s exactly what John Lennon was doing in his song Imagine:

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.

Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can.

No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.

Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.

You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one…

I guess I am one of those dreamers, and I can’t help but Imagine…

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Things That Make You Go Ahhh...

Last week, I took several opportunities to step out back very early in the morning to take in the stillness and the silence. While enjoying my cup of coffee, I very quietly observed a rabbit, who lives under the porch, nibbling on some greens, the squirrels chasing each other up and down the trees, and the many species of birds flitting through the trees. As the weather warms up even more, I’m sure I’ll be doing it more often. Those are the moments that make me go, Ahhh… Like walking along the early morning beach at low tide, hugs from my grandsons, drinking in a beautiful field of flowers, stepping under a shower after a strenuous workout, listening to the rain fall, the feel of the warm sun on my face, a trip to the hair salon (something about having someone work on my hair puts me into a trance : ), sitting down to a beautifully prepared meal, snuggling up under a warm blanket, the way my body melts into my yoga mat after a class, sitting back with a good book, staring at a full moon, the first sip of my morning coffee – all of these things and more, make me stop, take a deep breath, and soften up a bit.

These may all seem like little things, but to me, they are the big things because they bring me back down to Earth and remind me that life is good. These are the things that allow me to remain peaceful even in the chaos. Maybe they do this, because in some ways, they are their own form of chaos that attenuate the things or events our minds normally perceive as chaos. As still and as silent as the early morning in the backyard seemed, I couldn’t even count the number of bird songs being sung simultaneously. Yet that uncoordinated melody brought tranquility to my soul. The roar of the waves on an empty beach not only penetrates my ears but I can feel it resonate in my chest – yet, as powerful as it is – the energy is somehow soothing. A spray of hot water on a body charged from a workout, the bright light of the moon on a dark sky, little energetic arms wrapped around my neck, a field of sunflowers blowing precariously in the breeze, the vision and aroma of a good meal, and the black words on a white page – all, in some way, create their own forms of chaos. If we can find peace and tranquility in the midst of them, though, then we have a better chance of facing the turmoil over which we have no control or no choice but to experience.

When it comes down to it, life is energy combined into an infinite number of configurations. And it’s this energy that will ultimately contribute to our happiness, or not. Everyday, in pursuit of our objectives, we pass by things, moments, and little jewels of chaos that are worthy of our appreciation, and in fact, are there for that very reason. Yet we often either don’t recognize them for what they are or simply miss them altogether. I believe now, more than ever, that the more of these often-inconspicuous bundles of energy we can discover that make us go Ahhh, the happier we will be because the big things (I mean, little things) that bring us joy, are very few and far between, yet the little things (meaning the BIG things) that have the power to make us happy are presented to us at every moment of everyday. Peace…

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Fragrant and Tasty Chicken Recipe

After the fun I had last weekend, I wanted to try new recipes calling for maple syrup and I found one for chicken that sounded intriguing on the Cooking Light website. I’ve adapted the recipe a little bit with regard to the amounts of the ingredients I used, but I was very happy with the results. The combination of maple syrup, orange, Dijon mustard, and dill was complex but very well balanced - with no single ingredient overpowering any of the others. And because I used some of the same ingredients in the accompanying quinoa, I was able to save some prep time while preparing a side dish that complemented the chicken very well. Together with a simple salad of baby greens (with a dressing of equal parts of maple syrup and fresh lemon juice, whisked with olive oil) this made a lovely dinner. The original recipe for orange scented couscous can be found here and my simplified version of Orange Spiced Quinoa is below:

Pan-Roasted Chicken Cutlets with Maple-Mustard Dill Sauce

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, pounded with a mallet to ~1/4” thick

1 t coconut oil

Juice and zest from one orange (use half of each for the chicken and half for the quinoa)

1T water

1 small red onion, chopped (use half here and half in the quinoa)

1/3 c Dijon mustard

¼ c real maple syrup (I used Passardi’s grade B : )

2T chopped fresh dill

Heat a heavy frying pan to medium high and add the coconut oil, coating the bottom. Cook the chicken by browning on both sides and cooking almost all the way through. Remove the chicken from the pan and place on a cutting board. Deglaze the pan on the heat by adding the water and orange juice (~2T) and scrape up the brown bits. Add the chopped onion, stir well and let cook for a couple of minutes. Add the Dijon mustard, maple syrup, and orange zest to the pan, stir well and cook for 2 – 3 minutes. Add the chopped dill, mix well, then add the chicken back into the pan and heat through to complete cooking. For large pieces of chicken, I sliced them into 2 or 3 pieces before placing them back in the pan. To serve, plate the chicken and spoon the sauce on top. Serve with the quinoa below.

Orange, Spiced Quinoa

1 t coconut oil

½ red onion, chopped

1 c quinoa, rinsed well and drained

2 c boiling water or vegetable broth

juice and zest from half an orange

1 t coriander

½ t cinnamon

¼ t black pepper

Heat the oil in a heavy medium pot. Add the onion and sautee for 3 – 5 minutes. Add the quinoa and stir briefly, then add the water or broth, and orange juice. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. When the quinoa is almost cooked, add the spices and orange zest, give a quick stir, then cover and cook until the water is absorbed. Take off heat and leave covered for a few minutes, then mix well and serve.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Labor of Love

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon in Willington, CT at Passardi Maple on 76 Potter School Road, where I watched the Passardi family, with Noah Passardi at the helm, prepare their maple syrup. I discovered their sign on a drive through Willington a couple of weeks ago and had stopped at their sugar-house with my Mom. As luck would have it, they were setting up lines and taps for their trees to begin the process of collecting syrup. While we were there, Richard Passardi took the time to walk us through the maple syrup producing process and was kind enough to have me come back for a visit to watch and videotape the production. I was able to see and even taste the raw material that comes dripping out of the trees and was astonished to discover that it looks like water and tastes only slightly sweet. I was guided through the entire process from syrup collection, to the boiling/evaporation process that concentrates it down and gives it the deep rich color that maple syrup is known for. I watched how they filter, grade, and finally bottle the finished product. The best part, though, was in the tasting. I was able to try one of their grade A and grade B syrups and was amazed that the seemingly simple (but actually not so simple) process of boiling had converted a thin, clear liquid into something so deliciously rich and sweet.

But what impressed me more than anything about my experience, was witnessing the care and teamwork demonstrated by the Passardi family. While I was there, they worked tirelessly to collect the syrup from their tanks, ensure that the syrup boiled just right, bottled it promptly, and kept the house neat and organized. And besides maple syrup, Noah Passardi keeps bees that produce honey and he pours beeswax candles (which I prefer because they burn cleaner than paraffin wax).

Everyone wore many hats and helped where they were needed to keep the operation running smoothly. In fact, I don’t know of a better way to describe the effort except to call it a labor of love. I spent several hours with the Passardi family, and when I left, they had many more hours of work to go before they were finished for the day. For me, watching how the Passardi family produced their maple syrup was an education and I felt good about buying their product. And I will tell you that this morning, I used their delicious grade B maple syrup on my spelt pancakes. I believe the biggest benefit to visiting the Passardi family’s sugar-house, though, was something much more important than knowledge. A sense of community develops when people become acquainted with those that are producing the food that they eat and those types of relationships are the glue that keep us all human and doing things for the good of everyone. And that's exactly how I felt at the end of the afternoon.

If you’re ever in Willington, CT stop by Passardi Maple for some outstanding maple syrup, honey, or candles. I’m happy I did…

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Time to Celebrate

Last night, my family got together to celebrate my mom’s 74th birthday. It’s hard to believe, but I can clearly remember when she was my age, reminding me of how quickly the years go by. When talking about her age, she usually speaks with pride, without regret or resentment about getting on in years. I say this only because I know that the aging process can be a bitter event in some people’s lives and they’ll do anything to turn back the hands on the clock. What some don’t realize, though, is that by living active, fulfilling and meaningful lives, we remain youthful and energetic, but with the added bonus of having the experience and wisdom of those much younger than us. I believe in my mom’s case, she’s just as active now as she was when she was my age. And although, she’s had her share of ups and downs like everyone, staying active has been an inherent trait for her.

So what is it about aging that causes people to look upon it with sadness or regret? The most obvious regret invoking trigger I can imagine is the feeling that we have not accomplished or experienced what we had hoped to in our lives. We got into the habit of saying to ourselves, I’ll do this later, or I’ll get to that another time, or I can’t do this or that now. And before we knew what had happened, the opportunities passed with time. The simplest way of avoiding that is to go for the things we want to do in life and not let excuses stop us. Easier said than done, I know that for sure. But when we look back on our lives, we’ll less likely regret doing something as opposed to not doing it at all.

For some as well, simply physically growing older and knowing that their bodies can’t perform the way they did when they were younger and knowing that their time here will eventually end puts them into a state of melancholy. I haven’t reached that point, but I can very clearly understand how that eventually happens. I don’t know of any elixir available that can suspend the aging process. We can certainly slow it, though by eating right, exercising, and keeping our stress levels low; however, time will continue to go by. Yet, how would we experience life without the passing of time? It takes time to grow, make mistakes, learn lessons, make memories, discover who we are, share good times and bad, and live through the phases in or lives that we’re meant to experience, if we’re lucky enough to reach them. And to be able to pass on our learning and wisdom to the generations that come after us is a gift that we can all share. Otherwise, the alternative is that we never reach old age, we fall short of the life that we could have lived, and we miss the opportunity to share our knowledge and wisdom. In that sense, having the opportunity to grow older is cause for celebration and I hope that if and when I turn 74, I won’t look back with regret or sadness, but with pride and joy. And one more thing, I hope that I can celebrate with a cake like the one pictured above. The chocolate mousse cake you see is courtesy of La Fiorentina in Springfield, MA and it’s one of the most delicious chocolate cakes I’ve ever had! : )

Monday, March 1, 2010

Today is a Gift

The other day at my parents’ house, I reached into the cabinet to get something and noticed the china. It’s always been in that particular cabinet and in fact, it’s been stored there for over forty years. The thing is, it never gets taken out of that cabinet and every time I see it, I think to myself, what’s the point of having it if it’s never used? Many people reserve their china or their crystal or their nice linens for special occasions (or maybe not use them at all). And I think many of us do the same thing with other “things” in our lives, like nice clothing or accessories or furniture (take, for example, the formal living room that is off limits). We save these things for that special event or day and revert to our “everyday” items the majority of the time. But a couple of years ago, I was moving into a smaller place and had to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away or sell. So what did I do? I saved only my most favorite items. I gave away boxes of shoes and bags of clothing, kitchen items and even furniture that I had accumulated but didn’t need or particularly care for. I lightened my load considerably, which among other things, simplified my life tremendously. And in so many ways, it helps me have less of an impact on the environment. For example, during that time, I decided I would only use my pretty cloth napkins so I no longer buy paper napkins.

The point I am trying to make with all of this is we can make our days more relaxing, more enjoyable and even more special by having less “stuff”, and by only having things that we love. Less stuff helps to create a less cluttered, lower maintenance life style. It leaves more room, more time, and even more money, for “doing” fun and enjoyable things as opposed to “having” things. Life can be chaotic enough with our daily obligations and schedules, so any way we can minimize the busyness, physically and mentally, the better. It also enables us to be present for those moments that may spontaneously arise. For example, last night, there was a mesmerizing full moon that I was able to fully immerse myself in without the worry of what had to happen next. In a similar manner, how would our days feel if we only surrounded ourselves with the things we love? What if we only had nice dishes that we used everyday? And we treated that beautiful outfit as everyday-wear instead of leaving it hidden in the closet, waiting for a special occasion to arrive? What would our lives be like if we considered all of our days special? The fact is, they are all special because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow or next week, or even a few hours from now. When thinking about the things that I’m grateful for, “this day” is always on the list. I get that anything can happen. It’s not something that I focus on, but it’s something that always comes to mind if I’m having a bad day or feeling down. I remind myself that I’m still here, and surrounded by people (and yes, some things) for which I’m grateful. Maybe you’ve heard the saying by Leslie Gerber, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” So if you can, find ways celebrate your days and make them feel like the most extraordinary you’ve had so far - even if you only do something as simple as using the cloth napkins.