Wednesday, November 30, 2011

the packing frenzy

We hit the road for the entire week of Thanksgiving.  It was really a nice time, and we got to see Jeff's folks.  Jeff is more family-oriented that almost anyone I know.  It makes a huge difference in his mood (and thus in mine!) to be able to spend a solid amount of time with his people. 

Jeff with his step-cousin Ben, who is also his best friend.

Jeff with his closest friends at our wedding.  Included in the bunch are a cousin, a step-cousin, and a step-brother.  The rest are like family.

Jeff with his best friend Brandon and best friend/cousin Robert/Tonto (remind me to tell you the story of Tonto another day).

Jeff with his mom Zan at our friend Julie's wedding.

So, with photographic evidence, now you can see that I'm not lying about Jeff being family-oriented.

Back to the trip.  Because we are still somewhat young and mostly poor, we drive.  And drive.  And drive.  To Nashville.  It's about ten hours.  We can do it in eight or nine, but that was pre-baby and frequent stops to nurse and change and just get her out of the God-forsaken seat. 

The baby was actually quite a champion and didn't freak out too much.  The hard part was just being away from home and any semblance of a routine that we have going on (which isn't much to speak of, but still).  Trying to get her to go to bed at night was hopeless.  She knew there was excitement that she wasn't a part of, and there were protestations at every turn.

Why is Vicki Jo shining like a bright angel in this photo? 

We stayed with our close friends Jeremy and Kat in Nashville, and then we headed even further east to Sevierville, Tennessee.  Sevierville is outside Dollywood/Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge - a breathtakingly gorgeous area of the state.  Jeff's mom (from the picture) and her family originally come from this part of the state, and they have some family land carved up and topped with amazing log cabins.  We stayed there for several days, then back to Nashville, then back to Kansas. 

I learned a few things.  I learned that taking some time away from work and ministry makes me much more refreshed when I return (and not just a day off here and there.  We're talking a week at a time to really make a difference).  I learned that I still get carsick in the backseat.  I learned that a baby who sleeps all day in the carseat probably won't sleep much at night.

But the real question I have today is this:  does anyone else go bonkers trying to clean your house before you go away on a trip?  It's the weirdest thing.  I have the compulsion to do all the laundry, pack, wash all the dishes and clean the stove, wash all the sheets so they'll be fresh when we get back, make sure everything is folded and put away where it goes, scrub the sink and toilet, use up all the perishables from the fridge . . . why do I do this?  What is this crazy-making instinct to leave my house in spotless shape for . . . no one?  I'm not sure, but please tell me I'm not the only one who does this.

Monday, November 21, 2011

chicken enchiladas

I have the great good fortune to live in a geographical area where delicious, cheap Mexican food is everywhereSeriously.  Within a half-mile of our house, I can count six Mexican joints.  When Jeff and I go, we usually split something, because let's be honest - I'm full after the chips.  Also, Mexican restaurants have totally given a bad name to all other restaurants that don't give you some kind of free all-you-can-eat starch.

I'm partial to cheese enchiladas.  I love the soft corn tortillas, the spicy red sauce, and the oodles of cheese seeping their yummy yellow grease out onto the plate.  Something tells me this can't be on my diet plan.  I mean, all the elements in moderation would probably be fine, but that much cheese in one place is dangerous. 

I stewed a pasture-fed chicken last week to make special broth to puree with the baby's food (no salt or spice, no veggies - just chicken and water).  So, I had a ton of stewed chicken meat in the freezer waiting for me to think of something.  Having recently renewed a commitment to exercise and healthy diet after a church member asked me if I was already pregnant again (ouch!, and also:  why!?), I decided to go after my favorite enchiladas.  Here's what I did:

Chicken & Spinach Enchiladas
1 T olive oil
1/4 of a medium onion
3 garlic cloves
1/2 pound shredded stewed chicken (whatever combination of light and dark meat you fancy)
1 cup enchilada sauce (I used this one), divided
2 cups spinach
1/2 cup light sour cream, divided
1 cup grated cheddar cheese, divided
6 corn tortillas
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350.

Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium.  Add in the garlic and onion.  Saute 5 minutes, stirring so it won't burn.  Add in the chicken.  Stir and let it warm up.  Add 1/2 cup of the enchilada sauce to the skillet.  Add the spinach and let it wilt down.  Stir in 1/4 cup of the sour cream and 1/2 cup of the cheese.  Season with salt and pepper and pull off the heat.

Spread 1/4 cup of the enchilada sauce in the bottom of a baking dish.

In a separate, dry skillet, warm each tortilla over medium for five seconds on each side, to make them pliable.  As you finish warming one, fill it with a spoonful of the chicken filling and place it seam-side down in the baking dish.  Place them close together so they won't come apart.  Once all six are in there, pour the remaining 1/4 cup enchilada sauce, 1/4 cup sour cream, and 1/2 cup cheddar cheese over the top. 

You will most likely have extra chicken filling.  Eat it with a fork while you are waiting for the enchiladas to be done (kidding!  Or not.  Or just save it for lunch tomorrow).

Place in the oven until the top is melted and bubbly (about fifteen minutes).  Serves two or three, depending on hunger level. 

Sorry about these photos!!  Photographing food is hard . . . and I forgot until after I ate a couple!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

traying it up

This blog isn't exclusively about bacon, I promise.  But it is a fairly large and important part of my life.  Finding quality bacon after we moved from the South was a challenge.  The bacon at the store is kind of thin and bland.  It curls up in the pan when I fry it (I need a bacon press).  Then I decided to scope out the Farmers Market.  Score!  I discovered a local meat processor who made the bacon I was accustomed to:  thick, nicely marbled strips of pork belly.  It's not nitrate-free or organic, but when I run into the ages-old conundrum (ha!) of local vs. organic, I usually lean more toward supporting local businesses and producers.  Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

As much as I love this bacon I found, I can't make it through a pound before it starts to get a little funky.  So, when I get home with my pound of bacon, I take it right out of the package and start a process my husband and his restaurant friends call "traying up."  I take a sheet pan, spread it out into a single layer, and pop it in the freezer.  Like so:

When it's frozen solid, I pull the pieces off the tray and place them into a plastic freezer bag.  This way, I the slices aren't frozen together, so I can pull out one or two when I need them and leave the rest for later.  I just love when a bright idea comes to me!

Friday, November 18, 2011

counterintuitive cleansing

I have been making a concerted effort of late to rid our home environment and diet of things that aren't natural and wholesome.  I've done the easy stuff for a long time:  cleaning with vinegar and baking soda, drinking filtered water, eating as many whole and unprocessed foods as I can.  It was time to step up my game.

Toiletries and self-care products contain a litany of strange unpronounceable chemicals, and they are subject to even less regulation than edibles!  For example, I recently read a whole article about how Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo contains known carcinogens.  Ugh.  I'm not naive enough to think that I can prevent myself or my family ever getting sick or eventually dying (won't we all?).  But I do want to make the quality of life we enjoy between now and then as high as possible.

I have often wondered about how people in ancient times or even pioneer days cared for their bodies.  In my Latin classes, I learned all about the baths and how olive oil was used to clean the skin.  I never really stopped to think it through too much.  But olive oil?  Cleaning?  How?  My only experience with it had been to grease up pans for cooking.

On a couple of different blogs, I found out about the "oil-cleanse method."  Apparently the idea is that oil attracts excess oil to itself.  Also, many of us were brainwashed by Noxzema commercials when we were teenagers to think that the cure for breakouts is to remove all traces of oil from your skin.  But your skin needs oil!  Sometimes skin becomes more oily as an overcompensation for having all the moisture stripped from it by harsh cleansers. 

So I decided to give it a try . . . and it's been amazing!  It's cheap, natural, and does an awesome job of cleaning my skin while still leaving the proper amount of moisture.  I've been toying with the proportions a little, because my skin tends to be on the dry side (especially as we go into the dry-heat-conditioned rooms of winter).  But start with a one-to-one ratio, and see what happens!

Start with olive oil (cold-pressed is good) and castor oil (I found this at Walgreen's in the "digestive health" section.)  Make a sample batch to see how it works for you:  I just put 1 T of each into a spare little plastic travel bottle and mixed it together.  On the proportions:  the olive oil is the moisturizing element and the castor oil is the purifying one.  So if you tend to be more on the oily side, try 2 T castor oil to 1 T olive oil.  Likewise, if you're dry like me, try 2:1 olive oil to castor oil.  It may take a little trial and error to find your perfect formula.

Massage a quarter-sized amount into your dry face.  Take a washcloth and run it under very hot water.  Drape the hot washcloth over your face and slowly count to ten.  Rinse the washcloth and run it back over your face to remove any excess oil.

You may or may not still need a little face lotion after this.  I actually haven't needed any at all, and I've been doing this every morning for the last two weeks or so. 

This success gave me the courage to think about trying to make more of our own natural toiletries and cleaning supplies.  Next up . . . homemade laundry detergent!

Monday, November 7, 2011

yogurt for the masses

Thick, tangy Greek yogurt became a favorite of mine during pregnancy.  Because it is strained and most of the whey is taken out, it is very high in protein.  When I was following the Brewer diet, Chobani was my favorite brand - 16 grams of protein in 6 oz of yogurt!  You can't do much better unless you're eating meat.

I toyed with the idea of making my own yogurt, but there didn't really seem to be any reason to.  The brand I buy doesn't have any preservatives, and it's made with milk with no growth hormones.  Then, my world was rocked by this book:

I won't go totally into it now, because it's a huge topic, but this book promotes healing from a variety of illnesses through diet.  I'm not sure if I totally buy it, but I don't think that improving nutrition can hurt anything.

The author advocates yogurt (and the whey that you can strain off of yogurt) as one of the best sources of healthy bacteria for your digestive system.  You know how yogurt you see in the store says "contains five live cultures!" or whatever?  That's good, but you can do much better.  You can multiply the probiotics in your yogurt considerably by making your own.  See, yogurt you buy in the store has to be made with pasteurized milk (at least in the state of Kansas, it does).  Pasteurization kills many of the live active cultures, some of which are then added back in during the culturing process.  But if you make your own from raw milk, you never lose all that healthy bacteria to begin with!

I found raw milk at our local dairy farm and decided to try my hand at making some yogurt.  Raw, unpasteurized milk is teeming with healthful bacteria.  It's veritably alive.  It doesn't take much to colonize it with good bacteria.

 I just took 1/3 cup of plain whole-milk Greek yogurt and mixed it into half a gallon of raw whole milk in a large Dutch oven.  I chose this brand because it had the most live active cultures of any at the store (seven!).

I took the mixture and heated it on the lowest setting my oven would reach (150).  You need to maintain a temperature between 105-113 to allow the bacteria to do their work.  It was a bit of a trick keeping the temperature steady.  They make special yogurt-makers, but it seems a little silly to buy a special piece of equipment just to keep something at 110 degrees.  So, I would set the oven, then turn it off, then set it again.  You could also stick a heating pad on high in there.  I just kept measuring it with an instant-read thermometer to make sure it was roughly in the right range.

And then you just leave it for a minimum of 24 hours.  A crazy thing happens.  It thickens and sours a bit.  It starts to taste, well, like yogurt.  After you're done with it, pack it into clean glass jars and put in the fridge.  You can strain out the whey and make it thicker, but be sure to drink the whey or add it into a smoothie or something because it is packed with good stuff.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

bacon fat!

Might I just take this opportunity to say that I'm a huge fan of bacon?  And bacon fat?  I know that makes me sound like a total hedonist, but it's really not so bad!  On the package of bacon I used tonight, two slices is a serving size, and that has seventy calories.  I used just one slice, so for only thirty-five calories, I had a mouth-watering starting place for a pasta dish that was otherwise very lean and nutritious.

This was also a pantry- and fridge-cleaner outer.  As I recently mentioned, we are newly recommitted to home cooking and avoiding eating out except when it's really going to be necessary and/or delicious.  I have also not had time to go to the store in about ten days.  To say things have been hectic would be the understatement of my lifetime.  Although we went out for dinner for a friend's birthday last night, tonight I was sorely tempted to tell Jeff to bring home some wings and fries (when your husband works at the emporium of chicken wings, eating not-so-responsibly becomes dead easy).  But I resisted!  And it was worth it.  Try this one on for size:

Pasta with Shrimp, Bacon and Tomatoes
1/4 lb of your favorite whole-wheat pasta (I used leftover lasagna noodles broken in half, but that wouldn't have been my first choice!  Something shorter and more tubular would be good for this sauce.)
1 oz bacon (typically one slice), sliced crosswise into 1/4 inch pieces
1/4 lb thawed and peeled frozen shrimp
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes (or scant 1 C fresh peeled and diced tomatoes)
salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Cook the pasta and drain.  Meanwhile, saute the bacon pieces in a small skillet over medium.  When they are crisp, remove them to a plate lined with paper towel, leaving the fat behind.  Add the garlic and cook for thirty seconds, stirring constantly to avoid burning.  Add the tomatoes and allow them to reduce.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add shrimp to the tomatoes and garlic.  Cook shrimp just until pink throughout and slightly curled up.  Taste the sauce and add salt or pepper as needed.  Add the bacon pieces back into the dish and serve!  Makes one serving.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

on my shelf: trust and wonder

This is one of a series on books that I've found indispensable in growing, birthing, and parenting a child.  If you're interested in what else is on my shelf, check out these posts.

I have given a lot of attention to the Montessori method in my book series thus far, but I don't want to give short shrift to my other, softer, more pastel educational philosophy:  Waldorf.  Vicki Jo and I did a six-week class at our local Waldorf School, and it was lovely.  I really think that you can read and research all you want, but nothing substitutes for actually being in an environment and feeling it out for yourself.  Also, it helps you understand that for both Montessori and Waldorf, broad sweeping statements are largely useless.  The individual school/community/environment matters most.  There was a slim little volume that went along with the registration fee for the course, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it:

Trust and Wonder:  A Waldorf Approach to Caring for Infants and Toddlers is written by Eldbjorg Gjessing Paulsen (what a name!).  She has been active in both Scandinavian and South African Waldorf schools, so she has seen a variety of contexts.  The book is meant for both parents and Waldorf educators.  There are some sections that are more practical application-oriented for creating Kindergartens (which in Waldorf parlance can go anywhere from two or three years until six or seven), and these aren't really germane to the home-parenting audience. 

Paulsen draws on her personal experience and Steiner's philosophy to describe an ideal environment for very young children:  free of extraneous noise (of all kinds - visual, auditory, touch), well-ordered and attentive to the cyclical rhythms that create structure in our lives.  "Rhythm and routine" was a very important chapter for me.  It helped me see the difference between having my child on a schedule (which I'm convinced will never happen, even if I tried!), and following a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly rhythm in our activities.  Even within the parts of the day, allowing times for the day to inhale and exhale became a part of my thought.  This means that you allow for times when your child is intensely focused on an activity, and then you make sure they have time to recover and integrate their sense experiences.

Paulsen covers the all-important Waldorf concept of free play with nondescript, natural toys, and gives a brief but comprehensive background portrait of the entire philosophy (which has branches related to much more than childhood education!).  She outlines what a day in the Kindergarten might look like.  She discusses the inclusion of the child in the daily activities of the home (baking, kneading, dusting, sweeping - this is one area where Montessori and Waldorf largely agree:  the child doesn't need structured stimulating activities.  The home and the ordinary activities therein provide all the stimulation she needs).

This is a must-read if you are interested in incoporating Waldorf principles into your daily home environment.  I know it has given me much to think and dream about already, and my child is only seven months old!

Friday, November 4, 2011

chili (with beans)

Only somewhat recently did I discover that there is a controversy over what constitutes chili.  I was raised up on one kind:  tomato-based with ground beef and kidney beans.  When I went to work at camp in Tennessee, I first met people from Texas.  Their idea of chili was about as far off from mine as you could imagine.  They insisted that it needed to be discrete chunks of meat, and no beans.  I thought theirs was more like a steak soup - delicious in its own right, but not chili. 

Wednesday evening was cold, windy, and rainy.  I mentally scanned through the list of recipes that I go to in a pinch:  tacos, pasta, stirfry?  None seemed right.  Then my mind drifted to a steamy bowl of chili and cornbread.  Perfect!

Jeff and I have made a serious commitment to cooking more at home.  We had gotten so lazy, and picking things up or eating out seems so easy.  But, my waistline has stopped shrinking since my initial pound sheddage after the baby's birth, and we spent $646 (I'm not joking) on eating out last month.  That's right.  A family of two.  Six hundred forty-six dollars.  So, cooking has to become a priority once again. 

I whipped this up after putting the baby to sleep on Wednesday night, and we ate cheaply and nutritiously.  And I had leftovers last night.  A win-win.  The apple cider vinegar gives it a perfect little tang in the background.  If you're wary about canned foods (and I'm really trying to reduce our reliance on them, since many contain BPA as a can liner), just use a scant two cups peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes and two cups of soaked and rinsed dry kidney beans.

1 lb ground beef (use whatever lean/fat percentage you like, but you may have to skim the fat a little if you use chuck; we used 93/7)
1/2 yellow onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
scant 2 C chicken or beef broth
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes (low- or no-salt)
1/3 C chili powder
2 t cumin
1 16 oz can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 T apple cider vinegar
sour cream
shredded cheddar cheese

Brown the ground beef in a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  Skim off some fat if there seems to be too much.  Add the onion and saute until it is clear and soft (about ten minutes).  Drop in the garlic and saute for a minute or so.  Add the broth and use a spoon or whisk to scrape up all the brown stuff on the bottom of the pot.  Add tomatoes, chili powder, and cumin.  Bring to a boil, then drop back to a simmer.  Simmer for ten minutes, then add beans, vinegar, and salt to taste.  Let it simmer until you're ready to eat.  The longer it cooks, the more the flavors come together.  Serve with sour cream and cheddar as toppings.  Serves four.

We also ate this with cornbread made from the recipe on the cornmeal container.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

our family doctor

Like many families these days, Jeff and I never had a "doctor," per se.  Jeff has had myriad specialists and always has a gastroenterologist because of his Crohn's disease.  I saw a nurse practitioner or midwife every year for an annual exam - as most women do - and that was it.  Because I was in school for so long, I benefited from the clinics that are associated with universities.  I never had to pay for these visits, but I also had no continuity of care.  I saw a different person each year that I went in. 

One of the things I loved about being pregnant was going to the midwife.  It was like a fun little social appointment with some measuring and weighing added in.  I really looked forward to those visits, and when they became more frequent toward the end my delight was multiplied.  It made me realize that I owed it to our family to find a medical professional who could care for us, and with whom we had a solid, lasting relationship. 

The search for a doctor for your baby starts when the baby is still in utero.  They tell you to really begin calling and looking around at about six months.  Most people ask some friends, check with their insurance company, and find a pediatrician who is part of a large practice that specializes in child medicine.  I decided I'd rather have someone who knew our whole family, and would be able to see Vicki Jo past the age of childhood.  I wanted a family doctor.

A general practitioner is surprisingly hard to find these days.  Topeka is a city of about 120,000.  I found exactly four family doctors.  A couple were older and weren't taking any new patients.  One wouldn't accept our insurance.  That left us with Ryan Bennett, DO.  I was curious about what those letters after Dr. Bennett's name meant.  She (yes, Ryan is a she) is an osteopath.  When I began researching DO vs. MD, I discoverd I much favored the approach of the osteopath, anyway.  These doctors are trained in the almost-lost art of diagnosing illnesses with the hands, rather than relying so heavily on testing and analysis.  Also, I loved reading that osteopaths tend to favor a more whole-person approach, finding out about mental, emotional, and physical health as part of one package. 

We made an initial appointment with Dr. Bennett and it was a smashing success.  I was heavily pregnant at the time, and she caught on immediately to the fact that I was quite swollen and my blood pressure was up.  She was actually the first person to suggest I be screened for pre-eclampsia, just based on her initial observations.

She was also knowledgeable about Jeff's Crohn's (although, as I mentioned, he sees a specialist for that).  When we explained that we were still deciding how we felt about all vaccinations for our child, she encouraged us to make informed decisions and offered resources, rather than just pushing a party line. 

After the baby came along, Dr. Bennett was thorough and thoughtful.  Although the baby never gained weight at the rate most doctors would have like, Dr. Bennett never freaked out on me.  When we decided to slow down on our vaccination schedule, she just asked to take a look at it so she could familiarize herself.  She trusted that we had done our research and found what was best for our family.  The only thing she ever pushed was Vitamin D.  She spends a lot of time with us at each visit, and we never feel like our baby is being pushed through a factory.  I kind of love the fact that there aren't a lot of babies in her practice, because she isn't constantly comparing Vicki Jo to a million other babies in her mind and using that to judge whether she is "normal" or not. 

Jeff threw his back out recently while riding the bike I got him for his birthday, and Dr. Bennett helped him regain strength and ease his discomfort through a series of stretches and exercises, rather than just prescribing him painkillers.  That's the kind of thing I love about osteopathy. 

All in all, I am so happy with the decision that we made.  I love that Dr. Bennett can identify patterns in the health of our family, and encourage us as a unit to make better choices for ourselves.  She can see if Jeff's Crohn's is making an impact on Vicki Jo's digestion, or judge whether my anxiety is causing her to have sleeping troubles.  I hope that Dr. Bennett remains a part of our family for a long, long time.