Digital food

Ok, from where I sit behind my keyboard, it seems most people out there need a good, long nap. And it’s not even yet December 1.

What, did Cyber Monday turn everyone into little hand-cramped, stuff-lusted, googly-eyed zombies? Did our computers suck the actual (as opposed to virtual, which would be just too convenient a pun) life out of us? We’ve got a long way to go, people — January is a month away, and we all know that no one really rests until then.

Yes, I’m remembering the adage that when one of my fingers points at you, there are three pointing back at me. I’m tired, too. My eyes hurt, too. I didn’t even buy much yesterday, but it seems I spent much of the day looking at things and wondering whether I should buy them. It’s exhausting work.

And then my world was somewhat rocked last night, after reading this brilliant movie review by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Zadie Smith. Her review of The Social Network was less movie review, more social commentary on how a 19-year old college student absorbed our lives. I recommend the read (when you have more than a few moments to spare) — but it’s left me with that general feeling of dread over what’s becoming to not just one generation of humans, but humanity as a whole. Not really in a moral sense, but a what is real sense.

(At this point, I feel like Garrison Keilor’s voice-over should be announcing that what we all need is a piece of rhubarb pie, or maybe ketchup.)

Which isn’t a bad segue. Because as I was driving this morning, on the outer loop freeway around Indianapolis, following the directions of the electronic voice booming from the navigator on my fancy smartphone (I’m getting to test-drive an Android, many thanks to Verizon for conveniently getting my whole family addicted to Angry Birds), feeling a bit over-digitized myself (even though I’m personally no longer on Facebook, and yes, I hang my hat on that peg) — I just kept thinking about food. And that feeling of panic, of beginning to float above the surface of the earth, looking down on a projection of myself made up entirely of Matrix-like zeroes and ones driving a Honda Odyssey, began to recede.

I thought about listening to Marketplace Money last Saturday, hearing a segment on home-canning, and how there’s a resurgence among middle-class Americans to go back to the kitchen. I thought about our local food movement here in Indy, and hearing Michael Pollan talk a couple weeks ago, and about the ever-present wisdom of Wendell Berry, whose essays are currently my nighttime reading. I thought about the fact that, with food, the trend seems to be going in a direction opposite digital. That many people in our community view technological progress as something to avoid in food.

That, last time I checked, an apple was still an apple. That we still bite them and chew them and swallow them, and you can’t get a sense of their sweetness and juiciness unless you do that. That they still grow on trees, trees that grow in orchards, orchards that need rain and sun.

And these things, no matter what the next 2.0’ers (2.1’ers? 3.0’ers?) can pull out of their virtual magic hats, will not ever be controlled or consumed via screen.


This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday, hosted by GNOWFGLINS, A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, Sustainable Eats, and Culinary Bliss.

Turkey stock. Easy as pie.

Maybe even a little easier than pie. Depending on whether you made your own crust or not. And whether, like me, you realized that foregoing the canned evaporated milk in favor of making your own creme fraiche for the first time (note: it doesn’t really work when your kitchen’s average temperature is 68º) to make the ONE Thanksgiving pie was, maybe, not such a great idea. (In the end, the pie was delicious. But let’s just say the panic that ensued en route did not leave me thinking the old saying had much validity.

I make this stock every year, and more than one time that involved my wrapping up the bones in either Mississippi or Pennsylvania and driving them 8-10 hours in a styrofoam cooler back to Georgia. I talk about that a little more at this post, where you can also find my recipe for Turkey Gumbo, the ultimate goal for this stock each year. But even if you don’t make the gumbo, you should use these bones for stock. You get a ton of bang for your turkey buck — the large size of the bird means you get a LOT of stock. Probably around 6 quarts, depending on the size of your stockpot.

You really have no excuse — other than maybe not having a pot big enough (though I’ll bet you could run out right now and find one on sale). If you made dressing yesterday, you probably already have everything on hand. And if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it an annoying number of times: there is nothing like using homemade stock in soups, sauces, and cooked grains. It makes everything richer, fresher, brighter, and much more nourishing. So, use what’s left of your Black Friday, and get to the stove.

Turkey Stock

  • large stock pot or dutch oven (at least 5-quart capacity, preferably 8 quarts or larger)
  • all the bones from yesterday’s turkey, meat removed and reserved
  • 1 large yellow onion, quartered (no need to peel)
  • 2 medium carrots, well-scrubbed and chopped into 2-inch rough pieces
  • 2 medium stalks celery, well-scrubbed, with leaves if possible, chopped into rough pieces
  • 2 dried bay leaves (optional)
  • a few sprigs fresh parsley (optional)
  • a Tbsp of black peppercorns (optional)

Place turkey bones in stockpot, breaking apart if necessary so they’ll fit. Fill pot with water (filtered if possible), and add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat to a very low simmer. Let cook for about 3 hours, adding water if necessary to keep level close to top of pot.

Strain broth, discarding vegetables and bones. Cool over an ice bath, then refrigerate overnight. Once cool, skim the fat from the surface (freeze for future use or discard). Freeze stock in pre-measured amounts in quart-sized freezer bags. Or use immediately in your favorite soup recipe.


I mean, what else can you possibly write about, the week of Thanksgiving?

It’s not like I’m going to start waxing poetic about green vegetables or anything.


Orange pumpkins, carrots,
sweet potatoes and clementines.
Earth-hued turkey, gravy,
dressing, potatoes.

Ruby cranberries,
golden corn.
is the green?

Not the sage or olive shades
that dot the table in casseroles,
but the bright green of crisp.
The green that makes you feel clean.

A Thanksgiving table,
limited not by the sepia-tones
of depicted scenes
from four hundred years ago.

Like a bride
checking off her list of borrowed, blue, old, new
I am choosing
the thing we will eat that is green.


Or, maybe I will. Just to offset the things at the forefront of my mind: pumpkin, and turkey.

This week I will be roasting my first ever pastured turkey, fresh from a local farm. Our bird was running around, unawares, just 4 days ago. Now, he (she?) is chillin’, shrink-wrapped, in my fridge, waiting for a nice cool bath of salty, herb-infused water. After reading several opinions on the subject, I’ve decided to brine (the main reason being, why not?). The elephant in the room being: outside of the ethical impetus of buying a local bird, will the flavor be worth the price? We’ll know in three days.

Another first: I’ll be making our beloved, classic pumpkin pie with real pumpkin (as opposed to canned). I’ve always heard ho-hum reviews of using real pumpkin, that not only is it not worth the effort, but it actually doesn’t taste as good as a pie made with Libby’s. But — never one to trust much of what I read, I’ve got to try this out for myself. I roasted two pie pumpkins today, and the purée is ready for pie-making early Thursday morning.

And while the poem about greens was in jest, it’s true that no one thinks about them. They are the red-headed stepchild of Thanksgiving day. What do you do to get something fresh and bright into the menu, something that holds its own against a table full of casseroles?

This post is part of the Tuesday Twister at GNOWFGLINS.

Autumn Spice Ice Cream

It’s about 40º outside, with cloud cover creating a world outside my window that can be best described as wet gray. I’m sitting in my office nook, surrounded by drafty windows that chill my bones a bit, and my back faces the single fireplace in our house. The fireplace that has been deemed unsafe for fires.

What I need, I’m thinking, at a time like this is a big bowl of ice cream.

It’s silly, really, to think about ice cream in November. I’m much more likely, at treat time, to go for homemade hot cocoa or a cup of herbal tea. And it’s true that my beloved ice cream maker takes up new residence in a spot at the very back of my cabinet, that place that’s hard to get to without taking everything else out, for the winter months. But I still bring it out a few times just for spite or fun, and one of the more predictable of those times is for pumpkin ice cream.

After several failed attempts at pumpkin ice cream in recent years, I finally landed on a recipe last year that I liked. But even then, as we ate our way through that quart, I was thinking that the pumpkin was getting in the way of something. That really, I didn’t want pumpkin; I wanted the spices that usually go with pumpkin. So yesterday, after I promised to bring homemade ice cream to top brownies at our weekly community group dinner, I decided it was time to take that theory to task.

I started with vanilla ice cream — David Lebovitz’s recipe, Philadelphia-style, minus the vanilla bean (I was out), and using some brown sugar to replace white. I then took my favorite pumpkin pie spices and added them to the mix. The result was exactly what I was hoping for — sweet fall spices that give you all the thoughts of the perfect pumpkin pie, without the pumpkin texture. After a few more tastes from the still-churning cream, I decided the flavor was too polite, too expected. Liking to keep unsuspecting guinea pigs guests on their toes, I scrounged in the pantry for those last few pieces of candied ginger, chopped them fine, and tossed them in at the last second. They froze into hard little gems of intense sweet-spicy heat, lending a layer of sparkle to the inherent homeyness of the mix. Kinda what the holidays are all about, right?

I can tell when something is successful in my judgment when I have a hard time not eating it all. Let’s just say that I felt fortunate when we still had ice cream left to take to dinner.


Autumn Spice Ice Cream

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar (or finely-ground sucanat)
  • heavy pinch salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/8 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 oz candied ginger, finely minced (about 2 Tbsp)

In a small saucepan, combine one cup of the cream, both sugars, and salt. Warm over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Add the vanilla extract and the ground spices (cinnamon through cloves) to the mixture, and whisk vigorously until well-combined and no lumps of spices are visible.

Pour mixture through a fine-meshed strainer into a large bowl. Add the remaining cup of cream and the milk. Stir well to combine, and chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator (you can speed up this process using an ice bath).

Churn in your ice cream maker according to its instructions. During the last minute of churning, add the candied ginger a little at a time so it gets well-dispersed into the ice cream.



This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday, hosted by GNOWFGLINS, A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, Sustainable Eats, and Culinary Bliss.

The scoop on sweets, part 2 (Or, why I was the weird kid at the slumber party)

(You can read Part 1 of this series on sweeteners, here.)

There were actually several reasons I could’ve qualified as the weird kid. It probably started with the fact that I couldn’t handle any sort of remotely scary movie, at all — so when Cujo was the flick for the night, I could be found with a Sweet Valley High book in one of the empty bedrooms. Second strike: I had the audacity of always being the first kid to fall asleep — leaving myself prey to everything from gawking (at my odd ability to sleep with my eyes partially open) to being the object of eyeliner pranks. Thankfully, no one ever put my bra in the freezer — because that would’ve really been traumatic.

And lastly, there was breakfast time.

Pancakes, everyone! With donuts for dessert!

Um, I’ll just have a bowl of cereal, thanks.

What??? Why would a 14-year old not want pancakes? What’s WRONG with you?

Oh, it’s nothing really. They just give me a headache is all.

And that’s where it my whole sugar thing started. One time in middle school I fainted, and ended up in an emergency room (it was unfortunate that this fainting spell happened at the local swimming pool), where they made me drink an orange soda, and then proceeded to prick each of my 10 fingers over the next two hours. The diagnosis: hypoglycemia.

Which really just meant that my body acted like it was supposed to act — that is, a little freaked out — when I ate too many refined sugar and carbs on an empty stomach. When a person eats sugar that is found in nature — like a piece of fruit — that sugar is buried among nutrients and fiber. So the body takes a while to process it all and convert the sugar into fuel (it helps that the whole fruit package brings with it some of the nutrients necessary to do all that processing). On the flip side, when you eat refined sugar, it’s like giving your body an overload of instant fuel. Not only that, but your body has to use up reserves of nutrients to process it since it comes empty-handed. Your blood sugar spikes, and then you crash.

But outside of ruining my 14-year old slumber-party rep, what else does a sugar crash do to your body?

For one, it instantly suppresses your immunity. The “crash” after your body’s blood sugar spikes causes your insulin to drop — and when that happens, your body is affected chemically in several ways. Hormones that help regulate immune response are depressed, and sugar molecules fight for space in cells, leaving no room for vitamin C (which is structurally similar to simple sugar). This, in turn, lowers the white blood cell count, which directly effects a cell’s ability to fend of viruses and bacteria.

Sugar consumption also contributes to an acidic pH in the blood, which is linked to weakened immunity, candida overgrowth, and degenerative disease. Is it coincidence that tons of viruses go around the schools right after Halloween? It seems easy enough to blame the colds and bugs on cooler weather, or more time indoors. But I tend to think it has a lot more to do with all that candy.

Whenever I read about all the ways sugar wreaks havoc on our health, I’m left with one thought: our bodies simply weren’t made to eat this way. One website I read used a great automobile analogy: it’s like we’re expecting our car to run on jet fuel (by the way, smarties — a car on jet fuel would not fly — the engine would burn up).

But this is how we grew up. What do we do about it now? Sure, it’s easy for me to avoid doughnuts in the morning — but am I advocating a Nazi-like approach to a war with sugar?

Not exactly. If you’ve spent anytime at all reading the recipes I post, you’ll notice there are plenty with sugar. My kids still went trick-or-treating, and we make loads of Christmas cookies every year during the holidays. So, how can we take a balanced approach?

There is unfortunately no hard-and-fast answer. I like to limit our sugar as much as possible without being so strict that I cause more emotional stress than it’s worth. To give you an idea of how we attempt to handle sweets (without implying that this is how everyone should do it), I made a list of unofficial rules. Which I’ve never even thought about until I tried to write them down:

1) Absolutely no artificial sweeteners, ever. This includes sugar-free gum (my family doesn’t chew much gum, but when my kids beg for it, they get a piece of Glee gum, every once in a while, as a treat). You can read the first post in this series to find out why I am a tyrant on this one.

2) Most often, our “dessert” is a piece of fruit. And — since fruit is relatively high in sugar, I do actually treat it as dessert or a treat for my kids. They don’t just snack on fruit all day — they don’t get to eat a handful of grapes unless they eat their vegetables and protein alongside.

3) We limit our consumption of processed foods. Yes, there are still nights when my kids eat boxed macaroni and cheese. But most everything else we eat is homemade, so I can control how much sugar is added. This makes a big difference in foods such as granola, spaghetti sauce (yes! those jars can be loaded with sugar!), and yogurt (we only eat plain whole milk yogurt — adding a little honey, applesauce, or real-fruit jam to sweeten. I learned last week at a talk by Michael Pollan that, per serving, flavored yogurt often has more sugar and calories than soda!).

4) We skip sweetened drinks (and soda is banned — the tyrant returns — from my house). My kids get unfiltered apple juice once a day — after they’ve consumed at least 8 ounces of water. And then, they get 4 oz juice mixed with an equal amount of water. I put honey in my tea in winter, and occasionally drink diluted juice.

5) When I make a birthday cake, a pie, or cookies (which I do often!) I use unrefined sugar when possible. But when not (a yellow cake isn’t a beautiful yellow without refined sugar) I use plain old white sugar. Baked treats are just that — treats. So when we get them, it’s ok if they contain more white sugar that we typically consume. The balance is that we eat those things in moderation; and when your sugar intake is limited, one cookie or piece of cake is all your body desires, so it’s easy to stop.

6) We have a “candy box.” We never buy candy, but when it’s given to the children (Halloween, or birthday party favors) it goes into the box. Every few days or so, if they eat a good meal, they get one piece (one lollipop, or one mini-candy bar). I’ll be honest here: I don’t even like this practice. But it’s my way of striking a balance, picking my battles.

All of these things might be difficult to put into practice, at one point or another. But it’s kind of like carseats: yes, it would be lovely to not have to deal with those bulky fortresses, and just stick my kids in the car. But we chose to deal with them because we believe it will keep our kids safe. I feel the same way about sugar — not only can it help build stronger immunity for them now, but it can also help them grow into young adults that are not already fighting a losing battle in addiction to sugar.

Realizing, of course, as I type this, that I’m effectively growing three kids who will be The Weird Kid At The Slumber Party. Oh, well. Maybe all that hazing wasn’t so bad after all…


Part three of this (admittedly long-winded) answers the question: Then what CAN I eat?

ADDENDUM: My husband read this post and told me he thought I (ahem) sugar-coated it. That I made it sound easier than it really is to avoid sugar. Which might be the case — often times I find myself writing more of a reality that I wish existed rather than the reality that… does… exist. If that makes sense.

He says our kids eat candy more often, more like every other day (every day during the week or two after Halloween). Which goes to show how consistency is difficult. AND, that I can hold myself up as a clear example of how we tend to think we eat less sugar than we actually do.

For what it’s worth. I know. Sugar is hard.


The cost of eating well

Nine times out of ten, if I say I’m stressed, it has to do with money.

My husband knows to give me some space during that time of the month — you know, bill-paying/checkbook-balancing time. My tells: snippy comments, straightened hair (from tugging), and frequent sighing, culminating in a freak-out conversation about anything from how much money we spent on beer last month to our 20-year financial plan. It’s a fun time.

And, yeah. Money is a stressful topic for most people, rich and poor alike — everyone has bills to pay, and is trying to get the most they can out of their paycheck. No matter how much money you have, chances are you’ve got at least an idea of a grocery budget — one of the more flexible line-items in the spreadsheet. We’ve had one since our first year of marriage, and my. How it’s grown.

But so have my ideas of eating. And while I think it’s an admirable feat to be able to feed a family of five on a grocery budget of less than $50/week, I don’t think our family can do that and still follow the principles we’ve decided will guide our home-cooking decisions.

But the question remains: how much is a good amount, for our grocery budget? How do we stick with it? We started with a cash-only system, and then wandered into the abyss known as the debit card, only to find ourselves recently back to cash. But  a cash system is very labor-intensive; I buy many items in bulk to save money, and put away each month for those occasional purchases — so I’m often pulling from a savings account to cover the $130 I just spent on chicken leg quarters from a local farm. It makes the cash system more difficult, since I’m left with a spreadsheet to update and a bank transfer to make.

Every month, at the end, when we’re over-budget or eating nothing but eggs for a week to avoid the red, I sigh. I know that the secret to saving money is in planning well; and as much energy as I spend in planning, I often feel maxed out with no reward. I’m out of ideas. But should this bother me? This gnawing question is making me rethink my goals for our budget.

Michael Pollan (my go-to source for quotes for the week) wrote that

“In 1960 Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food, and 5.2% of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped. Spending on food has fallen to 9.9% while spending on health care has climbed to 16% of national income. I have to think that by spending a little more on healthier food we could reduce the amount we have to spend on healthcare.” *

This begs the question: what are my expectations for our grocery budget? Is it in the best interest of my family for us to eat as cheaply as possible? It’s fair to say that we’ve already answered that question, and that answer is no. Our monthly food budget currently makes up 15% of our gross income, so we’re in between the averages of 1960 and today, leaning upward.

If I do see our grocery budget as an investment in our future health, why should this percentage bother me?

At the heart of the matter, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m a thrifty person, always searching for a deal. But I think we also live in a culture that praises thriftiness above food quality. Spending more on food is labeled as gourmet, and that label is pejoratively thought to be elitist or excessive. It’s difficult to defend food purchasing decisions to skeptics; it’s a long-term investment with short-term benefits. And the ways it helps us stay healthier right now? Difficult to scientifically prove.

I’ll be writing an article next week for the newsletter of the Indy Winter Farmer’s Market. It’s about “How to Feed a Family on Local Food.” As I think about the information I’d like to present, I feel the need to start the article with the same disclaimer I use when talking to friends about the subject: “You’re probably gonna need to spend a little more on groceries,” followed by the sentence, “And you’re gonna need to make a few more things from scratch.”

Talk about unpopular demands. No, these costs aren’t tax-deductible, nor will they be reimbursed from a flex spending account. Which has brought me to the realization that eating locally (as much as possible) must be about much more than a trendy fetish. There are costs involved, both monetary and otherwise. The decision to source as much food as possible from a 100-mile radius must be predicated on a belief that it’s better for your body and your environment. That the quality of food that goes into your body is more important, in the long run, than your bottom line.

Now, if I could just remember this during bill-paying time.

What are your thoughts on grocery budgets? Feel free to disagree with my analysis.


*Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. pp. 187-188.

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday, hosted by GNOWFGLINS, A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, Sustainable Eats, and Culinary Bliss.

The scoop on sweets, part one: the fake stuff.

I’ve been asked lot of questions lately about sugar.

And boy. If there was ever a soapbox that I could climb upon with arms outstretched, megaphone in-hand, ready to offend the masses from the free-speech plot of my own making, it is one labeled “sugar.”

Have I talked to you about it before?

If so, are you still speaking to me?

Because I really do tend to go overboard. Usually, the conversations that get out of hand are the ones about artificial sweeteners. Words and phrases like “poison,” “mental illness,” “cancerous tumors,” and “worse than cigarettes*,” flow freely from my self-righteous lips, and I can pin a victim to a board with a sharp point of unrelenting cross-examination.

Since the Internet is a great way for me to throw my opinion to the masses without actually having to face anyone answer many people’s inquiries in one fell swoop, I decided to write a 2- or 3-part series on sweeteners, and begin with the topic of the Worst of the Worst (artificial ones). While I’m not a scientist, nutritionist, or doctor,** I do believe there is ample evidence to support my admittedly polarized opinion.

Let’s start with an anecdotal fact: I don’t know a single person who thinks that artificial sweeteners are good for you. The problem comes when people don’t think they’re all that bad for you — or, when they think that artificial sweeteners are a healthier option than sugar. A lesser evil, if you will.

And why shouldn’t people believe that? Aspartame has been approved by the FDA, right? It can’t be that bad.

But it really is.

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that the FDA is a front for an underground web of conspiring power-mongers, working 24/7 to ensure the slow demise of the American public. But I am suspicious of a government organization that is supposed to be objective but is rather heavily influenced by lobby — and the story of FDA approval of aspartame is rife with stories of conflicting interest. It took the FDA 8 years to approve it, and at the end of that battle [which included the protest of the National Soft Drink Association***, who wrote to the FDA in 1983 “[the manufacturer] has not characterized the decomposition products of aspartame in soft drinks under temperature conditions to which the beverages are likely to be exposed in the United States. Collectively, the extensive deficiencies in the stability studies conducted by Searle to demonstrate that aspartame and its degradation products are safe in soft drinks… render those studies inadequate and unreliable.”(1)] the sweetener was finally approved in 1981 during a change in leadership at the Administration.

But even if you take political influence out of the process, a problem exists with the science behind aspartame’s approval (and the approval of many other GRAS [generally regarded as safe] substances in the FDA): the science, in the words of Michael Pollan, holds the “widely shared but unexamined assumption… that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Put another way: Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts.” (2)

To paint a picture: Let’s say your favorite floor cleaner is Murphy’s oil soap — you think it’s the best product for getting your wood floors clean, and your floor guys says it’s safe for the finish. The FDA’s view of nutrition science, in my opinion, is akin to saying that if I bring a case of Murphy’s soap into your house and drop it on the floor, your floors should be safely clean. It assumes that there are no other elements necessary (i.e., you, and a mop) to help the soap do what it is supposed to do. Instead, not only do your floors not get clean, but you are left with a big box of soap in the middle of your floor. The thing that was supposed to safely clean is now a hindrance.

In the case of aspartame, the parts that end up in your body are two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) and methanol. All three of these metabolites, alone, can be found in some fruits and vegetables. The difference between their existence in nature and in aspartame is that 1) they are usually found in much smaller concentrations per serving, and 2) they are found with other enzymes that render them non-toxic in our bodies. So, if aspartame’s metabolites are the jars of Murphy’s soap, the enzymes provided in fruits and vegetables are a mop and manpower. Quantity also matters: nature doesn’t dump 5 full jars of soap onto your floor at one time — your floor would not be clean, but be a royal mess.

Phenylalanine decomposes into diketopiperazine (DKP) a known carcinogen, when exposed to warm temperatures or prolonged storage (hence the Soft Drink Association’s concerns about storage temperatures). Who believes their soda can has been kept at cooler temperatures, and hasn’t been sitting on a grocery shelf (or warehouse) for months or years? Methanol, or wood alcohol, has been approved by the EPA to be safe at levels under 7.8 milligrams a day — but one liter of an aspartame-sweetened beverage can contain up to 56 miligrams of methanol. The scary thing is, these things aren’t jars of soap on your floor; they are known toxins that effect your brain and other body functions. In the best-case scenario, your appetite is stimulated — one study showed that people who consume artificial sweeteners are more likely to gain weight than those who consumed the same amount of calories in naturally-sweetened foods (3). In the worst-case scenarios, you are playing Russian roulette with your neurological quality of life.

Ultimately, the problem with convincing the public that these sweeteners are dangerous is that the effects are often not dramatic. They occur subtly, over long periods of time. So it’s nearly impossible to directly link a symptom (migraine, memory loss, depression, retinal degeneration, and seizures) with the diet soft drink(s) or sugar-free gum a person consumes each day. But plenty of people made the connection — until they stopped categorizing them in 1992, about 70-80% of the complaints to the FDA about supplements concerned aspartame (4).

There is no easy way to kick the habit — it must simply be a decision to stop consuming artificial sweeteners. If you currently use them in packets to sweeten your coffee or tea, a great healthy alternative is stevia. This is a sweet powder made from an herb, and is used very similarly to artificial sweeteners in that a little bit goes a long way (once hard-to-find, it is now available in the health food section of many grocery stores).  If you’ve got a soda habit, plan for a hard few weeks after you stop cold-turkey. To satisfy a desire for carbonation, drink a cocktail of half unflavored sparkling water, half 100% natural fruit juice (and try to limit yourself to just one or two a day so you’re not replacing an aspartame addiction with a sugar addiction).

And, for the love of friendship — if I know you personally (oh, Indy Tweeps, you have no idea the restraint I’m showing here by not listing handles) please don’t stop speaking to me. I’m just the loud-mouthed messenger, remember? And don’t start hiding your Diet Coke cans if I come to your house — I won’t flush them down the toilet, or even give you a mini-lecture. I’ll just be enjoying the time we have together.

While we still have it.

Tee. Hee.


Read part 2 and part 3 in the sugar series, for more valuable info on sweeteners.

2) Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food, p 28
4) Metzenbaum H. Discussion of S.1557 (Aspartame Safety Act). Congressional Record-Senate August 1, 1985, p.S 10820.

* No, I’m not condoning cigarettes. But I do think artificial sweeteners are worse in the sense that they’re sneakier.

** Seriously, I’m none of these things. If you want a medical opinion, see one of those people — but if they tell you aspartame is safe, keep looking.

*** Ok, the SOFT DRINK PEOPLE didn’t want to use it? Isn’t that a huge red flag?


Crock-pot Apple Butter

After last year’s last-minute teacher-gift debacle just before the holidays, I vowed to be more prepared in 2010. Because as much as I love going to thrift stores, I don’t particularly enjoy scouring all of them in the metro Indianapolis area in a 24-hour period  in order to find adequate vessels for holding homemade tea blends. In the end, last year’s gift-giving went ok, excepting the loss of hair (I pulled it out) and emotional energy (it was The Holidays, after all).

This year, I’m rocking it. I’m so on top of things, I’m honestly waiting for the ball to drop; looking for ways it can all go wrong. One scenario involves my walking to the basement to bring up the jarred gifts to wrap, and none of the jars are sealed anymore (can that happen? anyone?). In another nightmare fantasy, a house fire consumes the jars, and their contents and glass explosions feed the flames (because, if my house burned down, at the very top of my worries would be the botched teacher gifts).

But the jars. They are filled with homemade apple butter. After my first (somewhat) failed attempt, I made a second go, inspired by my friend Jane’s crockpot recipe. I am still tweaking the spices in my recipe, but each batch has been delicious, and quite worthy of a jar. Since fruits are acidic enough to be safely water-bath canned, no pressure canner is necessary, and the canning is a breeze. The very best part is the price: I bought 40 pounds of apples (“seconds” — which means they’re not very pretty, but make great apple sauce and butter) from our local orchard (Wilds Apple Farm) for $20. From that investment, I’ll probably end up with 18 pints of apple butter and a dozen or so quarts of apple sauce. That’s a twenty well-spent.

There are a couple of catches. As far as equipment, a food mill makes your job a lot easier. Mainly because it relieves you of the necessity of peeling or coring your apples. If you don’t have one, you can still make wonderful butter, but you might have an acute case of carpal-tunnel to go with. Probably a worthy trade-off, in the long-run. If you can the jars*, it’ll help to have a canning kit and a very large stockpot. This recipe uses sucanat (“SUgar CAne NATural” sold under brand name Rapadura, or in bulk at a health food store), which lends a slight molasses-y flavor and allows the finished product to be completely free of refined sugars.

* If you don’t want to bother with canning, you can simply freeze the apple butter in jars or bags; it’ll last a few weeks, once thawed, in your refrigerator.


Crock-pot Apple Butter
(a marriage of recipes from The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook and Jane Moore)

makes about 3 pints, with some leftover

  • about 6 pounds apples (any variety — seconds are cheaper and work great)
  • 2 1/2 cups sucanat (Rapadura) or combination of white and brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup apple cider, apple juice, or water
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar (raw, unfiltered is best)
  • 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves

Wash apples well (peel and core if you won’t be using a food mill), and cut into small chunks (I quarter the apple, then cut each quarter in half). Fill your crock pot with the apples.

Add the rest of the ingredients, cover, and turn on high. Let cook for one hour, then turn heat down to low, and cook for another 8 hours (remove lid during last hour of cooking). Can stir occasionally, but it’s not necessary.

Let cool, and run mixture through a food mill (I use the biggest grated screen first, then run it through again on the medium-grate).  If your apples were already peeled and cored, you can simply mash with a potato masher, or for smoother texture use a hand-held stick blender or food processor.

For canning, use a water bath process for 10 minutes (I bring the apple butter back to a simmer in a stockpot on the stove before pouring it into hot jars).



This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday, hosted by GNOWFGLINS, A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, Sustainable Eats, and Culinary Bliss.

Cakes 101

I make a cake about 3 times a year. Notice that’s the same number annually as my headcount of offspring.

Once my kids are able to talk, I give them a choice of what kind of cake they want for their birthday. Then a week before the party, I google the cake. I usually end up on a short video from a website called Disney FamilyFun. Last week’s search for “jack-o-lantern cake” was no exception, and I optimistically watched this video. The cake seemed easy enough — but as is always the case when you condense cake-making into 60 seconds, some details are easier said (by a talking head who doesn’t even make the cake) than done. That little part where you simply flatten the gumdrops into a pancake to make the facial features? Yeah, well. Standing on a stool to put all of my body weight onto a rolling pin for fifteen solid minutes seemed like a bit more trouble than the end result was worth.

Which might be why I totally biffed the “3-dimensional effect” created by using chocolate to shade the features. Tim was the first to notice it (of course) after I put it all together. I was standing there, admiring my work and feeling prideful because there were still 15 minutes before the party started. He looked at it, and said, “Something’s whack with that mouth.”

And lo, there was. I somehow forgot, in an instant, how to do something I learned when I was eight: how to draw shadows from a light source.

Once I saw it (again, thanks Tim) it’s like I just wanted to wipe it off, in a fit of OCD-fury. But alas, our first guest arrived. And her Mom said no, you can’t redo it, not now.

But you know what I can do? I can Photoshop it, for perpetuity. I learned that when I was twenty:

It still doesn’t look right — I think it’s a contrast issue.

But no matter. The real reason I need to get back-to-the-basics of cake-making is that the cake? It was dry. And the truly frustrating part of this is that I’ve given people advice on how to make a birthday cake that’s not dry (especially when you freeze it). For years, I made the same cake every birthday: The Grit’s Vegan Chocolate Death Cake. But this year, with two layers to play with, and wanting to change things up a bit, I went with two Cook’s Illustrated recipes: this one (yellow cake) and one from The Cook’s Bible (chocolate cake). I made the cakes the evening before the party, and immediately wrapped them in plastic after they cooled on the rack. They were iced not 12 hours later. And it was so disappointing, to cut into dry cake at that party. No, the 6- and 7-year olds didn’t notice, but I did. And isn’t that who I’m doing this for, anyway?

There was so much butter in those cakes. And buttermilk. And eggs. Aren’t those the very ingredients that should guarantee a moist cake? What’s a perfectionist, compulsive mom to do? Who can tell me how to make a rich, moist, homemade cake that’s worth the decorating effort?