Farmers market at work

July 19, 2012

Every now and then I tell myself I should try to get to one of the farmers markets around here during the summer. But I am generally happy with the produce at the supermarket near our house, and driving three times as far to get to a farmers market, at an inconvenient time in my schedule, has not been a high priority.

This week at work I saw an announcement of a farmers market that would be at our workplace on Thursdays around lunchtime. This is part of one of the health initiatives promoted by the health committee at the plant next to our IT department.

Talk about convenience! All I had to do was walk out the front door (ten feet from my desk), and walk halfway down the parking lot. (It was a nice walk in today’s somewhat cooler weather – I would have been less eager to go in yesterday’s record-breaking 105 degree heat.) I was one of the first customers, and the sellers at the two stalls were still setting out their vegetables.

The rest of my family is not as fond of fresh vegetables as I am. (I have worked at it, over the last couple of years, to get myself in the habit of eating them and now, finally, to really enjoy them.) So I limited myself to three nice ripe tomatoes (what a difference from the ones at the supermarket, even the ones that look nice and red), a starburst squash, a banana pepper, and a zucchini.

I’ve never eaten a starburst squash, but they looked so nice and bright – and small enough that I could eat one easily and not worry about what to do with leftovers. I’ll have to look up how to cook one – and while I’m at it I can look for a recipe for the banana pepper. I told the seller that I’ve only eaten them out of a jar, in sub sandwiches, and he said he’s heard they’re good stuffed with cheese. Sounds good!

I don’t know that the prices were any better than at the supermarket, but they weren’t any higher, either. (Actually it’s hard to decide how to compare them, since except for the tomatoes, they were sold per piece rather than per pound.) And now I have some great vegetables waiting for me in the crisper.


June 14, 2012

Tuesday afternoon I went with some co-workers on a tour of the local Hy-Vee supermarket. It was part of a program sponsored by our department’s healthy committee, a follow-up to a session about using the Nu-Val scores diplayed on many shelves at the store. Nancy, the Hy-Vee dietitian, asked us about our particular concerns regarding health and food, then guided us through certain aisles, pointing out foods that were particularly healthy and convenient.

I didn’t see much that was new to me. After all, I’ve spent a good deal of time on my own checking Nu-Val scores, comparing ingredients lists, and looking for healthy foods I have trouble finding at other local stores. (I go to Hy-Vee for my tahini, chia seeds, and blackstrap molasses.) The PB2 looked somewhat interesting, but I wasn’t ready to spend over $4 for a jar to try it.

What really surprised me, though, was when we were walking down the breakfast cereal aisle, with coffee and tea on the shelves opposite the cereal. Nancy gestured at the array of tea in many different flavors. She talked about the health benefits of drinking any kind of tea – black, green, or white, hot or iced. But, she pointed out, the herbal teas next to them “have no nutritional value.”

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Garden salad

June 7, 2012

It’s not a very big salad, but it is all from my square foot garden. Lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, some beet greens, and a tomato.

I’ve taken a leaf or two at a time to add to my salad a few times in the past couple of weeks, barely noticeable among all the store-bought spinach. (Al and I have tried various packaged salad as well as romaine lettuce, and baby spinach seems to be our mutual favorite salad green.)

But this evening since I was harvesting the first tomato (it will probably be at least two weeks before the next one, from the look of it), I decided to pick as much as I felt I could while still leaving each plant enough leaves to keep thriving. That wasn’t a whole lot – I still added quite a bit of spinach to my bowl after taking the picture, plus some avocado. But it was enough for a nice picture, and I could actually taste my own garden greens at the bottom of the bowl.

I had hoped for more salad greens, but then I don’t know much about the seed varieties I purchased. Perhaps they aren’t expected to grow as big as the ones sold in supermarket produce aisles. My bean plants are certainly growing tall – I can see why a folk story about a fast-growing plant would have featured a beanstalk. No beans yet, though – not that I know quite what they’ll look like when they appear.

Now I just need to be patient and wait a few more weeks for my beets to grow to – I hope – a reasonable size.

The taxing challenge of eating right

June 4, 2012

Which is harder, to do your own taxes or to eat what is best for your health?

If you say healthy eating is harder, you have a lot of company. About half of Americans think it’s harder to figure out what to eat than to figure out your own taxes.

My own inclination, reading the headline, was to nod my head in agreement. But why, I asked myself, do we see it that way?

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Happy National Chocolate Chip Day!

May 15, 2012

In case you didn’t already know, today is National Chocolate Chip Day. (According to the National Confectioners Association, both May 15 and August 4 have that distinction. It’s a good enough cause to celebrate twice a year, right?)

In honor of this important holiday, I bought Eggo chocolate chip waffles for my family for breakfast, and chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream for dessert this evening. For myself, I have my usual afternoon snack of Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips and some nuts (today I have walnuts and pecans, because I ran out of almonds).

If you want something different from the usual chocolate chip recipes, there are lots of ways to vary things. There’s always M&M’s, various kinds of nuts, and peanut butter. Sometimes I buy mint chocolate chips or raspberry chocolate chips, but if I don’t have those on hand I can always add mint extract to the cookie batter, or mix in some frozen raspberries. I haven’t tried adding dried cherries, but it sounds like it would taste good.

Now, if you want something really different, check out this page. (Note: it takes a while to load.) Personally I don’t care for the chocolate/bacon combination (I haven’t made my own, but I’ve tasted such products from a gourmet bakery). I don’t think I’d mind the dried crickets, but I’m not going to go buy any. (Not that I have any idea where I’d go to buy them.) I’ve heard of adding chocolate to chili, or chili pepper to chocolate cake, but I haven’t tried them – either as cook or consumer.

If you have any great chocolate chip ideas, please share! I probably won’t try them today – but there’s always August 4.

My square foot garden

May 12, 2012

After several disappointing attempts to grow vegetables in my backyard, I decided to give it one more try. Somewhere I had read about square foot gardening, so I checked out All New Square Foot Gardening from the library. I bought some cheap boards at Menards (they have a bin for wood that doesn’t meet standards for lumber) and put together a 2 x 4 foot garden. (That’s smaller than what Mel Bartholomew recommends, but it was ambitious enough for me.)

I asked a co-worker who does a lot of gardening what plants are easy to grow. “All of them,” she answered. But she did suggest beans and beets as especially easy. Along with those I decided on lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard, so I can make lots of salads. And I bought a tomato plant from Menards, since I had read that growing them from seeds was difficult.

I didn’t follow Mel Bartholomew’s advice exactly on the soil mix, since I don’t have a compost pile and don’t know where to get compost that would include a variety of sources. (The town has compost available where residents can also drop off lawn waste, but I suspect the compost is nearly all from yard waste, which would be just about all grass during the summer and leaves in the fall.) So along with a bag of vermiculite and a bag of peat moss, I got one bag of compost from Menards, a bag of their potting soil, and another bag of potting soil from the supermarket.

So far my veggies seem to be doing well – certainly better than in any of my previous gardens (not counting the cucumbers I grew as a child). So far only one plant (the first bean plant that sprouted) seems to have been a victim of roaming herbivores (most likely one of the rabbits). I took some of the chicken wire leftover from making my younger son’s moon costume a couple of years ago, and made a cover for the garden.

Baked Elbows

April 21, 2012

Back when we lived in New Jersey, one of our family’s favorite casseroles was Baked Ziti. When we moved to Michigan, however, I discovered that the local supermarket simply did not carry that particular shape of pasta. (Italian food must not be popular in northern Michigan. For a while I couldn’t find ricotta cheese at all.) So I used penne. It tasted the same, and my family wasn’t pasta-savvy enough to even notice the difference.

After a while, I decided to try making the same dish using plain old elbow macaroni. It’s usually the cheapest pasta, and as far as I can tell it works just as well. Of course, it didn’t seem right to call the dish Baked Ziti anymore. So now I make Baked Elbows. It doesn’t have the same ring to it, but my family likes it just as well.

It’s been a while since I bothered to look at the recipe card, so I don’t know how much I’ve changed it in other ways than the shape of the pasta. I used to also make a dish we called “Unstuffed Shells,” which a friend of mine had given me the recipe for. I tried making stuffed shells once or twice, and it’s way too much trouble. Use little shells, though – the size of elbow macaroni – and mix all the same ingredients in a casserole, and it tastes almost as good. Eventually, though, I couldn’t find much difference between that and my Baked Elbows except the shape of the macaroni. And I just don’t see what difference the shape makes.

I know that you’re supposed to use different shapes of pasta depending on what you add to it. Bigger chunks of vegetables or meat do better with bigger, sturdier pieces of pasta. I used to make Turkey Tetrazzini with the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving each year, using thin spaghetti the way my husband told me his mother made it. I found it hard to get the chunks of turkey to mix in well with the thin spaghetti, though, and I eventually switched to using rotini, which seems to work much better. (I thought for a while I needed to call the resulting dish Turkey Rotini, but it turns out that Tetrazzini was the name of an opera star who lived in San Francisco where the dish supposedly originated.)

It’s hard for me to see why I need more than three shapes of pasta, however. Spaghetti is necessary for spaghetti with meatballs, of course. And it also makes a good base for a spaghetti pizza. Rotini is good for a side dish, with nothing more added to it than a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. And elbows work for just about any kind of casserole (as well as being a good craft material, especially if you color them).

What really mystifies me is the amount of money people must be spending on the various shapes Kraft keeps coming out with for its Macaroni & Cheese. The first time they came out with a cartoon-shaped-pasta, I bought a box just for the novelty of it. (I have no idea now what character it was.) The family liked it, but no more than the regular kind. And the special shapes cost more (same price per box, but there was less in the box).

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is kid-friendly to begin with. I’ve never been a big fan of it myself – my sister learned to make homemade macaroni and cheese when she took Home Ec in school, and soon it was one of my favorite dinners. The Kraft stuff doesn’t come close. But the rest of my family loves it, and it seems to be a favorite with just about every kid I’ve had at the house. I can see trying to coax a child to eat a less appealing food by using cartoon shapes. But if they already like it, why pay more just for the shapes?

Apparently it’s big business for Kraft, though. I find the details of how the shapes are designed and produced interesting. I had never even thought about the possibility of patenting a particular shape of pasta. Or considered the difficulties of creating shapes that would maintain their proportions properly as they cook.

Now that I think about it, I can think of some uses for those cartoon shapes. They could be colored, just like elbow macaroni, and make some interesting arts and crafts. They might even work for stamping patterns, though they might need to be partially cooked to be the right consistency. And they could probably be used as game pieces in some sort of board game.

As food, though, forget it. I prefer elbows on my table.