Friday, January 31, 2014

February Resolution of the Month: Movement

I gained weight last year.  Not a crazy amount, but enough to make my skirts a little tighter around my waist.  For the last five or six years I might gain a little in the winter months and lose a little in the summer months and end the year maintaining my preferred, healthy weight.   I quite enjoy this natural, seasonal rhythm.  But, 2013 had me ending with an increase that I am not happy about.
An Uncle Mike photobomb, July 2013
Dr. Brain Wansink from the Cornell Food Lab has found that Americans gain, on average, ten pounds a year.  It’s only an excess of 100 or so calories a day.  It’s small.  This slow steady climb is gradual enough that it’s not so easily noticed until all the years add up.  I don’t want to go that road.  I’ve known and loved a good number of folks who’ve struggled with obesity and the resulting complications for as long as I’ve known them.   For much of my teens and early 20’s I was overweight myself.  So, I just want to nip the problem in the bud.  It’s easier to maintain a healthy weight all along than have to work to get pounds off after the fact.  When I went to my class reunion this past summer one of my former classmates remarked, while looking at old photos, how young and thin we looked then.  I was pleased to note that I am both thinner and in better shape now that I ever was in high school.  I’d like that trend to continue.  I've got a lot of mountains yet to climb.
Clothes swap/Sushi party, November 2013
Part of my problem is that I let myself start eating junk food more often again.  I’d snag three lollipops from the jar on the counter at the bank.  I’d buy snacks at the book store on campus to eat at my desk.  I’d ask Matt for quarters to spend on candy or gum from those vending machines in the entrances of grocery stores.  I’d try to drink my body weight in soda when people take me out to eat at a place with free refills.  Stuff like that.
Me and Kel, November 2013
The other part of my problem is that Matt stopped working evenings and so he now picks me up from work much of the time.  He gets off at pretty much the same time as I do and the library is directly on his route home from his work so it is pretty convenient.  I still cycle to work pretty much every day from late spring to early autumn, but that still leaves about a third of the year where it’s cold or icy and I am getting rides every day instead.  As a rule I don’t cycle when it’s cold or wintery.  When Matt was still working nights I always walked or jogged home during the months of snow and cold.  
Games in the park, August 2013
So, I am eating more and moving less.  That’s the classic recipe for weight gain.  But, it also makes clear the path back to my preferred weight.

So, on the heels of my experiment with abstaining from needless beverage calories I am plotting to get myself more active.  This is easy for me in warmer parts of the year so it seemed like February would be a super time to challenge myself to try harder--cold or no cold. 
Yellowstone National Park lunch break, May 2013
The Resolution of the Month for February is to dedicate at least 30 minutes each day to movement, to doing something physically active—walking, yoga, running, sledding, dancing, hiking, bicycling, etc.

This exercise resolution is so cliché that it makes me chuckle a little, but whatever.  It is what it is.  I guess it’s probably cliché because it is such a challenge for so many people in our increasing sedentary, mechanically-assisted lifestyle that abounds with cheap and easy junk food.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Reflections on the January Beverage Fast

Well, first and foremost I want to get it right out in the open:  We quit our water-only beverage fast before the month was up.  Specifically, we went 17 days drinking only plain, unadulterated water. 

It was incredibly interesting and worthwhile 17 days though, I must say, for a variety of reasons...which I will get to in a bit.  I’m glad we did it.  And I was glad we quit when we did.  

But, for 17 days the water-only fast was interesting to say the least.  To become so aware of how much non-water beverage is consumed around me was quite an eye-opener.  So many people drink so many different beverages!  Coffee, hot chocolate, beer, wine, soda, milkshake, lemonade, ice tea, hot tea, fruit juice, sparking water, sparkling juice, sports drink, cider, and on and on and on it goes.  That was really interesting.  I suppose I always knew that there was so much non-water drinking going on, but when I was tuned into it I was really floored.   It was a lot. A lot.

I was shocked to learn that some people do not like water and, in general, do not regularly drink it.  Even people very close to me, as it happens.  I am baffled and a bit disheartened with this realization.  I didn;t even realize that was possible.  I mean, I like to drink my tea and all, but I also drink my eight glasses a day.  Water is life!  Water is us!  Water is so critical!  It seems utterly unnatural to not want to drink it.   To be fair, I also know plenty of people who drink loads of water AND lots of non-water beverages.  My father, who seems to always have a water bottle nearby, told me he could never do the fast because he wants to drink coffee in addition to all that water.  I find that perfectly grand.  It’s the ones who don’t like water at all that make me wonder.

I caught a cold during the fast and was certain I'd be the worse for not drinking an abundance of hot tea--my usual approach to treating a cold.  But, I tried drinking plain hot water and, you know what?  It wasn't bad at all.  In fact, I quite enjoyed it.  The warmth and fluids are highly medicinal, even without an herbal infusion.  I was surprised.  The cold didn't seem to stick around any longer than usual either.

I lost seven pounds in the first 12 days.  That wasn't the intent of the fast, but I certainly was not upset by the little side-benefit.  As I told my sister, I guess they don't call it beer belly for nothing.  (I rarely drink soda, never drink milk, and I hardly ever sweeten my tea so all my beverage calories come from beer.)

So, why did we drop out of the fast early then since it was proving so interesting?

Well, its pretty simple.  We felt like we’d gotten the interesting experiment what we wanted out it and it was Friday night and we wanted a homebrew.  So, Matt made the decision to crack one and it took no arm-twisting for me to ask him to fill me a glass, too.

There was one other factor.  It was socially awkward and isolating.  That was perhaps the most interesting realization.  Just like with food our social events are frequently circled around drink.  Frequently!.  Matt and I are already "left out" from time to time because of our boycott on flesh, dairy, and eggs.  But, there is a moral, ethical reason for that which, for us, makes it worth doing.  There was no moral or ethical reason to exclude ourselves from tea with my grandparents and beer with Matt's brother.

And that was that for the beverage fast.  But, it was a good experience.

Three Things - Inspiration Thursday

"In the end, only three things matter:  how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you."
This quote is usually attributed to the Buddha or, more generally, to Buddhism.  I've found conflicting information and unreliable reports when I looked into the veracity of that.  As such, I am going to leave it as it is--unattributed and true.  Regardless of who said it I think it is a grand measure of a life well lived.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I Finished the Black Dress

I cut out the simple, black dress in preparation for the sewing retreat I went to in know, just in case that five piece Laura Ingalls get-up came together in no time at all.  Ha!  I think I might have sewed a few seams on the bodice of the black dress, but that was it.  So, yeah, its been on hold in cut-out form for going on three months now.  I started at in in earnest last Friday since I had the day off.  Thus, it was with great joy that I finally put the zipper in and finished it up this morning before work.  And so I wore it to work.  Naturally.
Despite how it might look the dress is sleeve-less.  I like to make them without sleeves because then they are cool in the summer and can be paired with short or long sleeves underneath in cooler weather.  Today I discovered that I only have one non-black shirt to wear under my black jumper dress--and that shirt was in the wash.  I usually wear black undershirts under my other dresses.  I am not a big fan of this black-on-black I might have to keep an eye open at the next clothes swap for something with a little color that I can wear under it.  The green of the scarf and sweater (last photo) seemed to help though.
The deep pockets on this dress are one of it selling points for me.  
Ready for work!  Credit for these photos goes to Matt.  I'd tried to take some with the camera's self-timer, but kept cutting my head out of the frame!
I am happy with the dress.  Just as I have been with the other two I have made.  BUT, there are two area I am not 100% happy with...yet  One I already tried to fix--the bottom end of the zipper in back lays wonky drawing much more attention to my behind than desired.  The second go-round made it considerably better, but still not quite just-so.  I may ask my mother or mother-in-law for some advice.  The second area is a small tuck in the dart that isn't supposed to be there.  I didn't notice it until I was wearing it.  I'd already paired the plain dress with a flashy silken scarf a friend brought back for me from her trip to the Mediterranean--for warmth since its gotten quite chilly again and for color since the outfit was otherwise quite monochromatic.  The tails of the scarf just happen to perfectly to cover the little tuck...that no one would probably notice except me anyways.  But, that should be an easy fix--a couple minutes un-sewing followed by a couple minutes re-sewing.

The dress is from Simplicity pattern 2174, altered to keep the neckline high.  I keep saying I am going to try one of the suggested necklines, but...well,  I don't.  What can I say, I like a high neckline and its so easy to sew.

Thai-mazing Tastes

The Director of the library took us out for lunch at the end of the fall semester as a way of saying thank you for our work.  When she asked for suggestions as to where we should go dine our Assistant Director immediately chimed in with "Siam Thai."  None of the rest of us had been there before and so we agreed.  Of the four of us at the library there are two vegetarians and one person with loads of food allergies and so Asian cuisine always seems like a accommodating choice on both accounts.

And I fell in love with Thai food.  Seriously.  Fell in love.  I was blown away by the flavors and smells and textures of every part of my dish--Phad Ma Khuer Jay.  I nearly moaned with pleasure at how good it was.  Every time I got a bite with a basil leaf in it there seemed to be a taste explosion in my mouth.  A taste bud party.  I'd have never thought of putting basil in stir-fry in million years.  And here I thought basil was only for Italian cuisine!!  The eggplants were grilled and blackened on the edges and flavored with the most wonderful garlic-chili sauce.  Amazing.  Just amazing.

So amazing, in fact, that I took my Christmas money from my grandmother and promptly went back a second time.  Matt and I shared our dishes--Drunken Noodles with Veggies for me and Wild Tofu--and both were as equally outstanding as the first time.  The stir-fried broad noodles had soaked up the flavor and the deep-fried tofu was chewy and wonderful.  And, again, oh those basil leaves.  Both dishes were considerably more spicy than my first dish, too, but that isn't really a problem in my book.  The little I knew of it I thought all Thai food was spicy so it seemed quite appropriate.

But, we are not the type to eat out a lot.  I bet it only happens once every few months.  Its too expensive and I prefer to have control over what goes into my food--restaurants have no interest in our health, as a general rule, they lay heavy on the salt and fats because their main concern is that it be delicious.  But, mostly, its too expensive for my taste.

So, I got some Thai cookbooks from the library.  I won't kid myself and say its anywhere as good as Siam Thai, but from what we've tried so far it sure is tasty.  I am willing to spend time perfecting a few recipes.

Thai-style Spicy Peanut Sauce

3 T garlic, minced
1 T fresh grated ginger (or 1/2 t dried ground ginger)
2-4 T honey
1/4 C peanut butter
1/4 C tamari (or soy sauce)
3 T rice vinegar
1 T Thai sweet and spicy sauce
2 T spicy and sweet hot sauce
1 t crushed red pepper flakes

Combine all ingredients.
Toss with stir-fried veg and noodles (or rice)

Or use as a marinade for tofu or vegetables.

I can't wait until there is fresh basil growing right outside my front door again so I can try my hand at adding that to my Thai-inspired dishes.  Yum.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

My First Muffins

So, it came to my attention one lazy Saturday morning back in December that I had never made muffins from scratch.  I've made loads of cupcakes from scratch and I've made loads of muffins back when I used store-bought baking mixes, but I had never attempted muffins from scratch.  This occurred to me as Matt and I considered our options for breakfast that day.  He suggested I make muffins while he made a more substantial breakfast scramble—and I realized it was new baking territory.
I chose a sweet muffin recipe—Coffee Break Muffins from The Garden of Vegan—that were, as their name implies, just as much coffee cake as muffins.  They were delicious.  Just delicious.  And now I know I can make muffins.   Not that I really doubted myself.  I feel quite comfortable in the kitchen these days.

I didn’t use any sort of paper wrapper on them and they came out of the baking pan quite easily none the less.  It makes me wonder if I could skip the wrapper on cupcakes, too.  I’m always looking for ways of reducing my use of disposable products like that.  

And I intend to make more muffins…and cupcakes!

(As an amusing side note, every single time I've typed muffins in this post I've typed 'muffings' and had to go back and correct it.  Every time.  Apparently I've got strong muscle memory for the 'ing' suffix.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Party Snack Mix (a.k.a. Chex Mix)

This is a rip-off of that old party snack classic: Chex Mix.   Gosh, I like Che Mix!  Bowls of those salt, crunchy treats are something I look forward to every year during those magical food weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year.  When I was growing up you couldn't just go buy a bag of Chex Mix at the store year-round like you can now.  It was always homemade and only made an appearance for special occasions--like the holidays!  As it should be, if you ask me.

But, there are a couple things I don’t love about the traditional Chex Mix recipe
One, it uses Worcestershire Sauce which contains fish and I don’t eat fish.
Two, it traditionally called for dairy in the form of butter and I don’t eat dairy either--though I notice that Chex has added "or margarine," to the recipe these days.
Three, Chex cereal is made with genetically modified corn, which I prefer to avoid.

But, a few tweaks here and there and voila!  An equally delicious, but more natural and vegan version of this tasty treat was born!
 Party Snack Mix

9 C chex-type cereal  (Nature's Path brand has a couple of good ones)
1 C peanuts
1 C small pretzels (Newman’s Own brand is good)
6 T Earth Balance buttery sticks or other non-dairy margarine
4 T soy sauce (or tamari)
1 ½ t salt
1 t garlic powder

Heat oven to 250 degrees F. 
Toss dry ingredients together in a large bowl, set aside. 
Melt butter in a saucepan.
Add salt, soy sauce, and garlic powder to melted butter. 
Gradually pour liquid mixture over dry ingredients, tossing to ensure the pieces are evenly coated.
Bake one hour, stirring every 15 minutes.
Enjoy in all their crunchy, salty, oily glory.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things

I am so tickled by certain simple, little things.  If I see them it make my heart happy.  If I can capture them in photos I am even more oh so pleased.

These are a few of my favorite things....

*Tiny animal hands, especially if they are holding things such as nuts or grass
This squirrel on our neighbor's fence was clutching its chest with its little hand, like it had been shocked.  Or was trying to catch its breath.   It was quite endearing.
We watched a pair of beaver in Yellowstone National Park picking vegetation with their amazingly human-looking hands and munching it like it was an ear of corn.
*Singing birds with their mouths wide open
Western meadowlarks have one of the prettiest, trilling songs I've ever heard.  They're real pretty, too.
*Water droplets
Droplets accumulating on the broad leaves of the broccoli.
May 2012 walk at Yellowstone River State Park
*Animals eating (related to #1)
We left these apples on the front porch after deeming them unworthy of applesauce/juice making on account of insect damage/infestation.  Our friendly, neighborhood squirrel thought they were delish which I found absolutely delightful.
We see both white and red-breasted nuthatches about our place.  They frequently come to the feeder for large seeds to cache.  They will make the trip from feeder to cache site over and over and over.
*Hiking trails seen within the greater landscape
Ptarmigan Lake and the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park.
A very rocky section of the Scenic Point Trail in Glacier National Park where the only reason the trail is visible amid the rock scree is that the rocks on the trail have worn down to a much lighter shade.
The steep trail down to Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park.
*People walking, especially as seen from behind
Matt on the tail end of our hike along the South Rim in Yellowstone National Park.
Matt under his shade umbrella on the Trading Post Trail at Red Rocks State Park, Colorado.
*Homecooked food with homegrown ingredients.
Curried rice casserole with homegrown onion, peppers, and tomatoes.

Jelly and jams made with homegrown or foraged fruits--except the peach...I don't remember why we ended up with so many peaches.  Someone gave them to us, but I don't remember who.

A variation on our Caribbean au gratin recipe with homegrown spinach, beans, and onions.

The mountainscape reflected in the astoundingly clear waters of Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park.
*People pointing off into the distance
The boys at Yellowstone River State Park.  I have no idea what they're all pointing at...but I bet it was real neat.
* Glorious sunsets and sunrises
January 2014
January 2011
*Matt being silly for my amusement
He'd looked kind of owly in the first photo I took.  When I said "Try to look like you're having a good time," he responded with this.
Every time I look at this photo--an extreme close up with the fish-eye lens--it makes me laugh.  Every time.  Its the desktop background on our computer so that every time I fire it up I get a good chuckle.

Matt playing with the dough leftover after cutting out English muffins.

*Insects on flowers
There is an ant on this sunflower if you look closely.  The ant is navigating the bridge of green between the two sections where the seeds are clearly visible.   
For me, they all seem like simple, everyday miracles.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Clever Cleaning - DIY Orange Vinegar

Matt and I don’t eat citrus a lot.  We tend more towards berries and apples.  I like citrus fruit—I like all fruit, but we can procure our own, or cheaply buy, the more local fruits like apples, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, plums, pears, and so on.  The only tropical fruit that we buy consistently is bananas.

So, when we do buy ourselves some oranges or tangerines or whathaveyou we try to get the most out of it. 
Matt has been known to zest fruits before peeling to eat them.  The zest can be saved in the freezer for future use.   Like freezing ginger this has proven to be a pretty great kitchen tip.

Another great way to maximize their use is to make citrus-oil infused vinegar for cleaning purposes.  It’s so easy to make.   I've made a few batches now and am quite pleased with it.
I peel my orange (or other similar fruit like satsumas, tangerines, etc.) and toss the whole rind into a quart jar filled most of the way up with white vinegar.  I don’t include the pith if it is easily avoided, but I don’t bother to remove it from the rind specifically either.   As I add more rinds I make sure the amount of vinegar is sufficient to keep the rinds covered.  I also give the jar a shake when I add new peels--though I am not sure this is really necessary, but it certainly doesn't hurt.  Once the jar is full I let it sit for a month or two.  

This part is pretty remarkable.  The completely clear vinegar gradually grows darker and darker as the orange oil is extracted into it.  After a month of two the tonic can be diluted with regular vinegar for cleaning and scrubbing purposes after straining out the rinds which are at long last composted.  It works very well.  The bathroom and floors gets sparkly clean and the vinegar makes the room smell delightfully orange-scented, too.   I like it better than cleaning with just vinegar, in general, if for no other reason than that it smells better.  It can be used in its concentrated form for really tough spots or stains, too. 
Concentrated orange vinegar after two months or so of steeping.
Cleaning the house with vinegar is sure amazing.  To think of all the bottles of specialized cleaners and products we used to buy back before we knew you could pretty much do it all with simple vinegar and baking soda.  Amazing.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Frenchy Fruit and Cheese Dinner

Sometimes you just want to pretend to be French and eat a scrumptious spread of sliced fresh fruits and tangy, spreadable cheeses on a chewy, crusty baguette for a quiet evening meal.  Or is that just us?
Matt has a book on loan called Artisan Vegan Cheese: From Everyday to Gourmet and he has been perfecting his skill at making nut-based (rather than dairy-based) cheese.  Its been superb thus far.  Quite superb, in fact.  Every single one has been quite delicious--though I think I like Matt's other brie recipe just a little bit better than the one from this book.  My favorite, so far, has been the chevre style, but then I always did have a ravenous passion for goat cheese.  Last night we had slices of a fresh sourdough baguette spread with chevre, brie, and a wonderfully herbed and garlicy soft cheese called boursin--a type of cheese which I've never eaten before.
The cheeses develop flavor in much the same was as traditional cheese.  They continue to change and develop depth in flavor the longer you age them.  This was noticeable in cheeses that were just days apart in age.  Of course, I don't know that these will really stick around long enough to experience those differences more thoroughly.  Many of the recipes call for the use of a fermented liquid called rejuvelac which, being rich in probiotics, is what helps culture the cheeses and develop that characteristic tang and flavor.   Making the rejuvelac fit in nicely with all the rest of Matt's projects involving bubbling bottles on top of the fridge--two sourdough starters and a gallon of mead most recently.
The book says you can freeze the molded cheeses for up to four months, too.  We think it would be quite nice indeed to have a freezer stocked with various cheeses.  And we decided that our pretend French dinner would be perfect for a hot summer day when the idea of turning on the oven seems like torture.  But, it was pretty darn good on a winter day, too.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A New Generation of Lefse Makers

My mother-in-law, Sharon, gave me the title for this post.  She didn't intend to, but it was the caption she gave a photo of our lefse making session a couple weeks back.  It seems an apt title in a couple of ways.
The most obvious is that Matt and I really are the next generation of lefse makers.   Sharon is teaching us the tricks and techniques as her mother taught her.
The less obvious reason it is an apt title is this is, indeed, a new generation of lefse iteslf--veganized by my incredibly thoughtful mother-in-law.
While I won't give away this family recipe that is not really mine to give I will give away the secret to non-dairy lefsa, just in case it proves helpful to some other lefse-loving vegan or dairy-free person.  The secret is to replace the cream with coconut milk and the butter with Earth Balance.  Its just that easy.  A simple straight across substitution.  Everything else is exactly the same.  And the end result doesn't take of coconut whatsoever.
Bethany is my full first name.  We were rolling out our dough on a Bethany Pastry Cloth.  I liked that.
Even Roger, Matt's dad, a very meat-and-potatoes fellow who does not enjoy the coconut said he could not tell the difference between the traditional recipe and the vegan recipe.  To my mind, that is really saying something.  Sharon said it was no more difficult to work with than the traditional recipe--though it sure seemed like a pain to work with to us novices that kept ripping holes in the paper thin rounds of dough when trying to lift them on to the griddle with the thin stick used for handling the tender dough.
This new lefse recipe makes me oh so happy.  See, lefsa holds a very special place in my heart.  I've been eating lefsa at every holiday for as long as I can remember--up until I dropped dairy from my diet six or seven years ago.  The community where my mother grew up is regionally famous for its Lefsa Shack which sells its product across the state.  I can remember touring the place as a very young girl.  Lefsa filled with butter and a mixture of white and brown sugar was always present on the table at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter my whole childhood.  It was always relished as the sweet, wonderful treat it is.  As such, I nearly cried with happiness and gratitude when Sharon brought out vegan lefsa at Thanksgiving.  It was a tasty treat to be sure, but it also is sweet with nostalgia for me.
And now Matt and I know how to make lefsa.  Not well, mind you, but there will be time to practice.  There are still a bag of them in the freezer for a rainy day...or maybe just for dessert tonight.  We'll see.