Thursday, December 30, 2010

Preparation for the New Year!

I'm in full blown nesting mode! Yesterday, on my "day off" from work, I was washing walls, moving furniture (or rather, directing where furniture should be moved), and scouring Once a Month Cookbooks so I can stock the freezer to prevent starvation once our new bundle of sleep-depriving joy arrives!

I figured I'd go into the garage and see what meat we had in the freezer and if there were any leftovers that we needed to use to make space for the new freezer meals I would be preparing...and guess what I found?!

I found the bottom of my deep freezer!

I freaked! This was a first as the freezer is usually packed to the gills with organic flours and local meats and fruits and freezer burned who-knows-what. This was not good. I clearly failed at properly preparing for local winter eating. The thing about trying to eat locally is that you really need to be sensitive to the seasonality of food. Beef isn't butchered in winter. If you didn't freeze your peas back in spring, the only thing local about your vegetable is that it's coming from your local grocery store.

So as I sheepishly returned to the kitchen realizing that a very expensive trip to Whole Foods was in my future, I figured in preparation for 2011, I'd get on Willow Lea's pre-order list for a Quarter Beef in the spring. I spoke with Michele Aavang, and she is taking reservations for butcher dates of March 15, April 12 and May 4. Price is $1.30/lb live weight.

I felt a little better getting my beef order in, only to turn around and see the growing pile of mail on our counter which included 2011 seed catalogs for Burpee and Seed Savers.....

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Be a Local St. Nick!

As a parent, I try desperately each year to instill the REAL meaning of Christmas into my kids and every year one of them lets a comment about toys being the height of the holiday season slip out.

I know how they feel. Except instead of toys, my obsession is cookies. Baking AND eating them. However, I get as much joy in sharing them with others. Nothing says "I love and appreciate all you do for me year round" like a batch of fresh baked, melt in your mouth treats!

My favorite thing to do is give them to those who least expect it in my local our librarians who to go the extra mile and hold new books aside for my kids without us ever requesting them because they know what topics my kids enjoy, or the priests at my church who listen to me complain and confess the same things over and over again patiently without ever yelling "GET OVER YOURSELF".

This year I only baked 5 different cookies. At 8 months pregnant I just couldn't muster up the steam to do many more (and yes, my poor unborn child is also the scapegoat for my lack of outside Christmas decorations and poor gift wrapping jobs). This year's selection included(starting at the top of the picture above and moving clockwise): Cherry Snowballs, Mincemeat Cookies, Coffee Bonbons, Cream Cheese Coconut Thumbprints, and Peanut Butter Kisses. All of the red "frosting" you see is not just food coloring, but actually a cherry chip which I found at Woodman's Market on Randall Road in Carpentersville. They are tasty if you like artificial cherry flavor and the color, but I found the flavor a bit overwhelming to the cookies. I'd stick with what the original recipes suggest. My family did a taste test and we couldn't all decide on a favorite. The strongest opinions were regarding the coffee bonbons. Let's just say you have to love coffee to enjoy them--they're pretty potent!

So this year in the spirit of the REAL St. Nicholas, set aside a dozen and surprise someone special in your neighborhood who may have been overlooked. I bet it will be the greatest gift you give this season.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Say No To Drugs!

So I've got this crazy idea in my head that I'm going to birth this baby with no pain meds, despite the fact that with both of my prior deliveries I was drugged to the hills, and both of my babies were very large. In preparation, my husband and I are learning the Bradley Method of natural childbirth. We've been taking a wonderful class through Jennifer Budney (who is a doula as well, in case you're looking for one:, which has an entire section dedicated to nutrition. Now it doesn't take a PhD in nutrition to know that the best thing anyone, preggo or not, can give their body is dark, leafy greens.

I don't know about you, but sitting around munching on collards or mustard greens is not my idea of a good time. Sure, I can deal with a romaine salad, or a spinach omelet, but after 4 weeks of eating those twice a day, it was time to branch out.

Now don't knock the recipe I'm suggesting today until you try it. I know when you first read the recipe you will probably think I'm ON drugs. This baking method takes away any bitterness in the kale and your kids might even enjoy eating it (especially if they aren't on a "green thing" strike):

Kale Chips
1 bunch kale
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt to taste

-Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
-Trim stems off of kale and cut or tear the leaves into bite sized pieces.
-Wash and dry kale leaves, and then place on a baking sheet.
-Toss the leaves with the olive oil and season with salt.
-Bake for 10-15 minutes until edges are brown, but not burned. Be careful, if you overcook the kale will disintegrate when you touch it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Side

Local foods are sometimes difficult to find this time of year unless you've done a fair share of canning, drying, or freezing. However, thanks to Farmer Nick "making" us travel all the way to Greyslake to pick up our pastured-raised, 26 lb bronze beauty for our Thanksgiving feast, I've discovered a farmer's market that's open long after most have closed.

The Greyslake Farmer's Market is located in the center of downtown Greyslake and is open from 10am -2pm on Saturdays until Christmas. There was quite a variety of vendors with all types of meat (bison to beef to poultry), eggs, olives, cheese, wine, produce, as well as beautiful homemade candles and flower arrangements.

Also, even those of us who lost track of the summer months and failed to preserve the local bounty probably have a few winter squash lying around. I still have a small mass of acorn and butternut squash that require no maintenance to keep.

Here is a perfect recipe to grace your Turkey Day buffet that looks as beautiful as it tastes! Plus, you cook it in the microwave, which is great because we never have enough oven space on the holidays!

Fruity Stuffed Acorn Squash
(adapted from Fruity Acorn Squash on
makes about 4 servings

2 acorn squash
1 peeled and diced apple
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 Tbsp raisins
1/2 Tbsp brown sugar
1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice

1. Cut acorn squashes in half lengthwise and remove seeds.
2. Place squash cut side down in a greased microwave safe dish and microwave uncovered for about 7 minutes (until almost tender). You may have to do this in batches depending on how large your microwave is.
3. In a bowl, mix remaining ingredients.
4. Flip squash over and fill with the mix in your bowl.
5. Cover and microwave about 4 minutes longer or until everything is tender.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Shortcuts in the Kitchen

We all cut corners in the kitchen from time to time, right? Or am I the only one who is so lazy that I regularly use a dishtowel instead of an oven mitt to remove a hot casserole from the oven? Or who tries to make muffins by using only one mixing bowl instead of two (one for wet and one for dry)? Well, I've learned my lesson. No more cutting corners for me. least when it comes to de-seeding jalapenos with my bare hands. I thought, "but I only have two peppers to do and the latex gloves are all the way downstairs". Put a big fat "L" for lazy loser on my forehead! Trust me, go get the gloves. That one pair of gloves will save you hours of researching the internet trying every home remedy known to mankind in order to get the EXTREME burning to subside. Sure you might get an education on how to use Colgate toothpaste or baking soda and lemon juice or rubbing alcohol or milk to ease the throbbing, but it's NOT WORTH IT.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, aloe vera gel (yes, the green goopy kind you use for sunburns) worked best....

While you might my little experience may turn me off from jalapenos, you're mistaken. These empanadas are just too tasty to keep me away, even when my fingers were on fire!

Ok, now I have to admit that there is one allowable shortcut I use in the recipe. I buy pre-made empanada dough (thanks for this tip, Margarita! I owe you!). It saves so much time and frustration. I buy the Goya brand from Joseph's Marketplace in the freezer section. The package looks like this. Yes, I realize that they are from Argentina and are therefore not local, but most of the filling ingredients are local, and Joseph's is a locally owned small business, so I've rationalized it.

Shortcut Empanadas
(adapted from Hope's Edge Edible Schoolyard Empanadas)
makes 24

3/4 lb waxy potatoes (yukon gold, fingerlings or red work well), peeled and cut into 1/4 inch dice
6 scallions, sliced into thin rings
2 jalapenos, de-seeded and chopped fine
1 cup grated cheese (pepper jack or sharp cheddar work well)
3/4 cup diced precooked chicken, optional
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
10-12 pre-made frozen empanada shells, defrosted

1. Cook diced potatoes in simmering water for 3-4 minutes. Drain and cool.
2. Combine potatoes and all remaining ingredients (except the dough) in a mixing bowl. This is the filling.
3. Set out one empanada dough piece and scoop about 2 Tbsp filling into the center.
4. Fold in half and seal edges by pressing with fork tines. Brush with melted butter if you like.
5. Place empandas on a cookie sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 10-15 minutes (until golden brown).

Monday, October 11, 2010

How Do You Spell Relief?

At 23 weeks pregnant, I want to scream with envy when I hear other moms-to-be beam about how "wonderful and beautiful" they feel. Not me.

I'm eternally in pain. Ok, maybe "pain" is an exaggeration. "Discomfort" is probably a bit more accurate. Acid reflux, backaches, braxton hicks contractions, round ligament pain--- I suffer them all. My husband says I remind him of that poem by Shel Silverstein: Sick. Only, I think he's mistaken because unlike the little girl in Silverstein's poem, I even complain on Saturdays.

Not that I wouldn't suffer all my symptoms 10x worse for my unborn offspring, but it is nice to get a little relief every now and then. Like massage. Just the word calms my body. Say it with me out loud and see if you agree. Massage. See what I mean?!

I was lucky enough to experience a prenatal massage this weekend with Alison Kruger at Akasha Yoga. I've taken yoga classes there before (which are also wonderful), and so when I heard they did massage, I told my husband that I wanted a gift certificate for Valentine's Day. It was worth every penny.

In return, I purchased my husband a massage from his favorite massage spot: Infinity Day Spa.

As I've been lucky enough to have experienced massages at both places, I'll give you a quick run down of what I see as the major differences. Akasha's masseuses seem more experienced (better) to me. Akasha is also a bit less expensive. However, Infinity's ambiance is superior to Akasha's. They also pamper you with tea, a small treat, a robe and a waiting area with candles and flowing water. And if that wasn't enough for your senses, they use a massage oil with your choice of scent. Overall, Akasha is a no frills massage from a quality masseuse, but Infinity pampers the senses. You really can't lose with either!

The holidays are just around the corner.....

Show Me the Love!

We each show love in a different way. Some people are physically affectionate, some shower gifts on their beloved, some keep an immaculate household for their family....I cook. The amount of time I spend preparing the menu, buying the best quality ingredients and making every ounce of the meal from scratch gushes with the love I have for the recipient.

And my purpose is (mostly) selfless. In fact, I will not even get to share the meal with some recipients.

My passion for cooking has lead me to join a number of food delivery ministries. This past weekend I prepared a meal for the priests of our parish, who without meal deliveries from parishioners, survive on microwaved meals and whatever they can scrounged up at baptism parties and women's club potlucks.

My menu had to please a crowd of time-crunched, meat-and-potatoes kind of men. I knew the perfect main dish that was both beefy and beautiful!

Stuffed Flank Steak Pinwheels
(modified version of Rolled Flank Steak on

2lb Flank Steak
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tsp Lawry's Seasoning Salt
1/2 lb sliced provolone
4 slices of bacon
1/2 cup fresh spinach
1/3 cup sliced mushrooms
1 small jar roasted red peppers

1. You want the flank steak to be cut really thin. If your piece seems thick (greater than 1/2 inch), slice the meat horiztonally down the long middle to "butterfly" it.
2. In a plastic bag, mix soy sauce, olive oil and seasoning salt. Add steak and marinate for at least 4 hours.
3. Precook the bacon. Set aside.
4. After marinading, lay the steak out flat, and top with provolone, bacon, spinach, mushrooms and red peppers leaving a 1-inch border.
5. Roll up the flank steak and secure every 2 inches with cooking twine.
6. Place the flank steak roll in a GREASED glass baking dish.
7. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about an hour (internal temp of atleast 145 degrees).
8. Slice into 1 inch "pinwheels".

Monday, September 27, 2010

Turkey Day

It's almost October and that means that if you don't already have your organic, free range, heritage turkey ordered through your local farmer, you may soon be out of luck. Keep in mind, they aren't cheap. Your average grocery turkey takes only 18 weeks to mature, where a heritage breed takes up to 30 weeks. Anywhere from $4-$8/lb is not unheard of. But what a treat! Consider it a gift to your Thanksgiving company. All of the hype you hear about the flavor difference is true.

Typically, you need to place your order well in advance and a deposit may be required. If you are already using a farmer for pastured chickens, check to see if they will have turkeys. Another option is to check with your CSA. I know my CSA offers turkeys to members on a lottery system. We order our turkeys from Farmer Nick at the Crystal Lake Farmer's market. He'll take a $10 deposit and let you pick the size range of your bird. Find other local sources here.

If you'd like a little overview on what exactly a hertiage turkey is, check out the Heritage Turkey Foundation's website.

Word of caution, pastured poultry cooks faster than your average factory farmed bird. This is true for chicken as well. And I mean A LOT faster. They are typically leaner and smaller than the grocery birds. No need to cover the breast with foil while roasting. You should cook your heritage breed turkey at 425-450 degrees until the internal temp (taken at the fatest part of the thigh, making sure your thermometer is NOT touching any bone) reaches 140 degrees and then take it out of the oven, cover and let it rest for 10 minutes. Also, if you plan to stuff the bird you will need to precook your stuffing because given the reduced cooking time, your stuffing will NOT be fully cooked if you don't precook it.

Here is a specific recipe you can try when cooking your heritage breed turkey, but it doesn't have to be complicated. I just cover in butter, add a little salt and pepper, and put in my roasting pan. No brine or anything. They always come out juicy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

One a Day Keeps the Doctor Away!

This weekend my family and I had a great time with friends conducting an apple taste taste. Kids and grownups sampled about 10 different apples and were surprised to learn just how different the textures and flavors of each can be. Despite the fact that the two youngest participants rated every apple a "5" (the highest rating available-they really like apples), the rest of us had very clear preferences. Crisp "meat" was good, thick skin was bad, dry aftertaste was bad, sweet was good, tart was only popular with a few. The most interesting discovery was that no one cared how the apple looked on the outside. The color or irregularities of the skin didn't effect us one way or another.

When I was a kid, I only remember ever eating one kind of apple, the Red Delicious (I think grocery stores also regularly carried Granny Smith as a cooking apple, and a few may have carried Golden Delicious just for pizazz). Ironically, in our taste test, Red Delicious didn't rank too high. Tough skin, flavorless, medium crisp--nothing about it was thrilling. But commercial growers and grocers love them! Why? The thick skin ships well over long distances, the shiny red exterior is attractive, and, well, it's not like you're going to taste test it in the flavor is irrelevant, especially if you don't even carry an eating apple alternative.

At least, until the stores starting carrying a wider variety of apples. Ever notice how during Honeycrisp season, people are willing to pay 3 or 4x as much for an apple that actually has flavor. Go figure!

If you want a real treat, expand your horizons and go apple picking in a local orchard. Not only will you have a fresher product, but the variety is wonderful. Even better is if you can get your hands on an heirloom variety.

Below is a list of a few local picking farms that you and your family might enjoy, although I've heard that crops are down this year, so make sure to check what is available before you pack up the family van:

All Seasons Orchard

Homestead Orchard

Lang's Orchard

More Than Delicious Orchard

Prairie Sky Orchard

Royal Oak Farm Orchard

Monday, September 13, 2010


Is "potlucking" a hobby? If so, I should add it to my profile. There is no single more efficient way to find and share the best tasting dishes. Instead of subjecting your family to thousands of untried recipes from cookbooks one at a time, a potluck gives you the chance to get your hands on a dozen great recipes in one meal. Potlucks also allow you to test a recipe with a group of unsuspecting guinea pigs. You either get asked for the recipe or find yourself heading home with a dish full of food.

And please, don't bring a dish to a potluck that is a secret family recipe you don't want to share--it's just cruel. It's unsaid potluck etiquette that all recipes are to be shared. In fact, I think all participants should tuck preprinted recipes under the dish in case you want to steal it for your own blog--or recipe box!

The downside to potlucks is that because everyone tries to "one up" their neighbor's recipe, generally any concern for nutritional value goes out the window. The recipe below is no different. Don't try to short cut it with healthy versions of the ingredients either. It won't be nearly as delectable. Just save it as a special occasion treat for when company comes. They'll think you slaved over the dough all day.

Oh, and the most local thing about this recipe is that it was stolen from a friend at my local parish, St. Thomas the Apostle. Local honey shouldn't be to difficult to come by either...

Sopapilla Cheesecake
Stolen from Amy and claimed as my own at many potlucks

2 packages of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
2 bricks of cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup sugar
4 Tbsp cinnamon
1 stick butter, softened
1/4 cup honey

-Roll out one package of crescent rolls in a 9x13 pan sprayed with cooking spray
-In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese and vanilla with 1 CUP SUGAR until really soft and fluffy (like 5 minutes or more on high)
-Spread cream cheese mixture onto the rolls
-Top with the other package of crescent rolls (rolled out, of course)
-Mix butter, cinnamon and 3/4 CUP SUGAR in a separate small bowl with a fork until well mixed
-Top second layer of crescent rolls with this butter mixture
-Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees
-Take out of oven and drizzle with honey
-Serve warm

This is the dreamiest, easiest, cinnamon rolly dessert you will come by. Don't believe me? Take it to the next potluck and see if you don't come back with an empty dish and a list of requests for the recipe.

Shopping Green

One of my favorite local events is coming up this Saturday!!! The Mothers and More group is featuring their fall children's resale on September 18th from 8am to Noon at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Crystal Lake. There is everything from baby gear, to clothes and shoes, to toys and books.

Here are just a few benefits of shopping this resale:

1. A portion of the proceeds go to local outreach programs and food pantries.

2. Did you ever consider that by purchasing preowned clothes and toys you are making the planet a little bit greener? Less new manufactured materials, less dependence on oil to transport goods, and less items in garbage dumps.

3. The prices are rock bottom, the sale is well organized, and the goods are in excellent condition. It's a joy to shop, and if you don't believe me, go to the church at 6am and see the line already forming out the door and around the parking lot.

4. I'll let you in on a secret insider's benefit that no everyone knows about. If you volunteer to help for a few hours with the resale, you get to shop the PRESALE on the Friday night before it's open to the public. You can also become a seller/consigner, but you need to volunteer at the sale a time or two before getting your name on the very popular seller's list. To register to volunteer, click HERE. Volunteering is also a great way to meet other moms in the community!

My kids love this resale because they know when I come home it's like Christmas morning at our house! I'm smiling because they're happy, I donated to local charities, made the earth a little greener, met a few new moms and kept my budget in one piece!

Choose Your Own Adventure: Salad or Sandwich?

When you have 8 kids, 3 of whom have special needs, I'm guessing you don't always have the time/energy to ensure that your bread box is stocked with ciabatta (of course, I only have 2 kids, so I always have ciabatta on hand -- NOT!). Thanks to this "failure", one of my dearest friends created the freshest, tastiest salad on earth.

However, feel free to use the same ingredients and pile them on ciabatta bread to make an equally scrumptous sandwich.

Remember the children's book series "choose your own adventure"? Yeah, it's kinda like that.

This is another one of those "a little bit of this and a handful of that" approximate recipes, but I have yet for the proportions to turn out anything other than DELISH!

Caprese Bacon Salad
by Maureen

Dressing (enough to fill one regular sized mayo jar):
5 cups fresh basil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
5 cloves pressed garlic
1 1/2 tsp hot sauce
2 1/2 cups mayo
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup olive oil

- In a blender, blend basil, lemon juice, garlic, hot sauce, and mayo until basil is chopped and the mixture is evenly green.
-Add balsamic vinegar and olive oil and blend until mixed.

The dressing should top a humongous salad of chopped romaine lettuce, tomatoes, small fresh mozzarella balls, and chopped, crispy-cooked bacon. The portions are up to your disretion.

This makes enough dressing to serve a huge crowd, so it's perfect for a party. Just remember not to top the salad (or sandwich) with the dressing too early, or you'll end up with mushy, wilted lettuce.

To maximize this recipe's full potential, use the freshest local ingredients you can find. It's amazing how beautiful this salad becomes when you make it with an array of different heirloom tomatoes. Hurry up and grab them before the season is over!!!!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Better Bittman Recipe: Potato Leek Soup

Fall is knocking at the door and I'm ready to let it in! Hearty soups, bountiful winter squash, apple picking, pumpkin carving...I love autumn!

As I was laying in bed feeling guilty over mentioning my lackluster experience with Mark Bittman's fried okra recipe, I was trying to recall a special Bittman inspired recipe to feature that uses some local fall ingredients. There are so many good ones to choose from.

Then I tried to narrow it down to a recipe that uses at least one major ingredient I am growing in my own backyard. Eureka! I still have an entire plot of potatoes from Seed Savers that will be ready to harvest this fall!

How about Potato Leek Soup?! My version tastes a little like clam chowder without the fish. I don't puree the potatoes and I add cream.

Potato Leek Soup
inspired by Mark Bittman's Potato and Leek Soup
makes 4 servings

2 Tbsp butter
3 leeks (or 1 leek and 1 large chopped onion), white and light green parts sliced thin
3 medium potatoes, diced
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1/2 cup heavy cream

-Saute the leeks (and onion, if applicable) and potatoes in butter for 5 minutes in a stock pot or dutch oven
-Add chicken broth and water and bring to a boil
-Once boiling, turn down to simmer, cover and cook for about 20 minutes or until potatoes are cooked
-Add cream (this is also optional, but to me it makes a world of difference)

A word of caution, if you reheat this soup, please don't bring it to hard boil and burn the cream.

Unfortunately, I know my homegrown potatoes aren't quite ready to harvest yet, because the green plants growing out of the top are still green and strong. It is best to harvest potatoes after the top plant has turned brown or yellow and died back. Many people wait until after the first frost if they can.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Southern Fried Disappointment

Okra. I so badly wanted to sing the praises of this vegetable that, in my opinion, is one of the most attractive to grow in the home garden. (If you have no idea what I'm talking's a picture and instructions on how to grow). I've seen them in green or purple always with an eye catching blossom before the veggie itself emerges. They can be harvested from an inch to about 6 inches long and the more you harvest, the happier they are. They look exotic and yet not as intimidating as some of the other more unusual farmer's market offerings.

In fact, the only thing that freaks me out about them a little, is the slime that seeps out when they are cut. But this Labor Day, I pulled out my cast iron pan and made my first attempt at classic southern fried okra.

But alas, one a scale of 1 to 10, I rank it about a 3. I'm no okra cooking veteran, but I followed Mark Bittman's recipe to the letter, and the fried coins were perfectly golden with a crisp cornmeal coating and pleasantly textured inside. But they lacked any real flavor. I dipped them in ranch dressing...they just tasted like ranch. I dipped them in ketchup...tasted like ketchup. I added hot sauce...yep, you guessed it, just made them spicy. Mr. Bittman gave no other serving suggestions so I stuck the leftovers in the fridge hoping some flavoring miracle would happen overnight. This morning, I topped them with salt. They tasted like cold salt.

Perhaps there is some beauty in fried okra's simple flavor(lessness) that I'm missing here.

So onto the next cooking adventure! They can't all be perfect or what fun would that be?!

And by the way, I am not knocking Mr. Bittman's recipe. I adore Mr. Bittman's cooking and consider his cookbooks my secret kitchen weapons--especially How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Too much squash?

If you're like me, you've got more zucchini and summer squash than you know what to do with! This weekend, stop by your local farmers market (or your backyard garden) and pick up some eggs, onions and squash. I've got a great family-friendly recipe that will "hide" any kind of squash from your husb...I mean, kids ;) . I love it because you can serve it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It also would be fine to bring to a brunch potluck. Serve it with some nitrate free bacon or breakfast sausage and you've got yourself a full meal in no time!

Summer Squash Egg Casserole
(adapted from Zucchini Pie by IMTHECOOKSTER at

3 cups diced summer squash (we've tried zucchini, yellow summer squash, and crookneck squash)
1 cup chopped onion
4 beaten eggs
1 cup Bisquick (we usually use "Heartsmart", but any kind will work)
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 tsp dried marjoram

-Preheat oven to 350 degrees
-Combine all ingredients in a large bowl
-Dump into a GREASED 9X12 baking dish
-Bake for 30 minutes

Yes, it's that simple. And it's pretty cheap.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Run For Your Life!!!

Isn't it amazing how the life experiences we have in our teen years can effect our self esteem for the rest of our adult lives?! Like many people, my defining moments were in gym class. Specifically, it was the 1-mile "warm up" run at the start of each class. I don't recall a single day where I made it through the entire mile without stopping to walk...and I had gym class every day for all 4 years of high school.

College wasn't much better for improving my physical fitness. I selected a university that tore down its football stadium and erected a library. You can see where my priorities were....

As an adult, in an attempt to have the ability to eat more without gaining weight, I started working out at the gym on and off during the years. Most recently, when I turned 30, I enrolled in a boot camp at 5am. Why? Because I'm a complete Type-A with an all or nothing approach to everything I do. Throughout the 12 weeks (which I hated every minute of) I grew stronger. At the end, we did a 3 mile treadmill run as a test. I ran the entire way. I amazed myself and learned that the key to running the entire way was running slowly.

I enrolled in a 5k, and then another, and then in January 2009 I decided I was going to run a half marathon. For 9 months, I adhered to my training plan on and trained entirely on my own. On September 13, 2009, I ran (without walking) the Crystal Lake Half Marathon in 2:12. It was truly a defining moment in my life because I never thought I could do it.

The following year my husband, who has struggled to add muscle to his naturally tall and lean physique, finally realized that maybe he should take up running since he looks like a runner anyway. His approach was entirely different than mine. He started participating in the FREE fun group runs at our local running store, the Running Depot.

I would never have been caught dead running with a group during my training, because it was like a flashback of high school gym class, where I risked coming in dead last every time. However, when I went to pick up my husband after one of his fun runs, I noticed that many of the people there were "normal" looking people. They came in all shapes and sizes and all levels of fitness. Some were even working on a run/walk plan. Some of them had run 1-3 miles, while others had run 17 miles.

The Running Depot in downtown Crystal Lake is a real local gem with employees who are there to support and promote the overall love of the sport, not sell you a bunch of gadgets you don't need. If you have ever considered running, I highly recommend you go and get fitted for a good pair of running shoes and then read The Courage to Start by John "The Penguin" Bingham.

And for those who already run, there is still time to sign up for the 2010 Crystal Lake Half Marathon!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Incredible Edible Egg

As if you needed one more reason to know the source of your food....

228 MILLION eggs recalled!

Don't worry--I am not going to shock you with the gory details of the likely conditions in that Iowa egg production plant at this center of this recall, you can google around for that info on your own. What I can tell you is that as a pregnant mom with two young kids, I was happy to have the peace of mind that my family, born and unborn, was safe. I know the farmer that raises the chickens that lay my eggs. Last fall, my son even had the privilege of going on a real live "egg hunt" on our CSA's farm and meeting our hens in person.

Even though I swallow hard each time I pay $4/dozen for the brown and white protein packed beauties, I know that I'm paying a 400% mark up for superior taste, nutrition, safety and a little kindness to the animals entrusted to human care. Plus, when I buy the eggs right off the farm, I get a shelf life of a full month or so before I have to use them up. In my house, they never go to waste.

Try this experiment some time to see how fresh your eggs are (or have your kids try it as a wonderful educational project):
Place an egg in a glass of water.
-If it sinks and lies flat on the bottom, it's really fresh
-If it just begins to float, it's about a week old
-If it will stand upright at the bottom of the glass, it's about 3 weeks old
-If it floats, don't use it

And if you've been dying to know whether you have to refrigerate your eggs-here is the answer. Fascinating!

Eggs are a staple in our diet. We eat them all the time because they are a great way to "hide" vegtables for the kids. Here is one of my favorite egg recipes that "hides" turnips: Cooking Light's Rosti Casserole. If you want to go hard core, you could skip the frozen hash browns and grate your own locally grown potatoes in this recipe.

Most of the local farmer's markets I know in the area have at least one vendor selling eggs. Here are only a handful of local sources for eggs:
Walkup Heritage Farm-Crystal Lake
Green Earth Farm-Richmond
Robinson Family Farm-Poplar Grove (Woodstock Farmer's Market)
Farmer Nick's-Walworth, WI (Crystal Lake Farmer's Market)

If you've never tried a farm fresh egg, let this 228 million egg recall be your sign that today is the day to give one a whirl!

Monday, August 16, 2010


I have a bit of news that has kept me from blogging: I'm expecting baby #3 in February 2011!

While I had full intentions of experimenting with okra and squash blossoms in July and August, the baby decided against it. Sleep and crackers was its preference! Nothing that was spicy, sweet, salty, or had the faintest odor of any kind was crossing my lips. I have even given up coffee. *GASP* My friends are still sticking their heads out the window looking for flying pigs!

But welcome second trimester! My energy is up and I'm ready to dig deeper in that CSA box and re-enter my garden (which my husband has done such a beautiful job maintaining while I was napping) to discover new recipes with local food.

One edict that my doctor set forth was not handling raw milk or eating non-pasturized cheese (listeria risk). This forced me to cancel my much anticipated participation in a cheese-making class featured at Angelic Organics in Rockford. Angelic Organics Learning Center offers so many wonderful classes--see the schedule of upcoming events here.

So please accept my apology for my absence and stay tuned for more local love!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Crock Pot: A Bachelor's Dream

Today I'm featuring a recipe that my dear20-something bachelor friend made up entirely on his own with items he had handy in his kitchen one hungry night. You'll notice the cooking methodology is a bit unusual to say the least, but the final product is worth the effort.

My favorite part of attempting to duplicate this recipe was simply trying to follow it. It read alot like the recipes from my husband's Italian grandmother. No measurements, just "season with some of this". My type-A personality doesn't like the risk involved in that kind of cooking. So I got out some measuring spoons and made some guesstimates you'll see below. Feel free to delete all of my measurements and take this recipe back to its roots.

The finished product is a cross between a stew and chili. It's the best of both worlds and uses quite a number of ingredients you can grow/find locally. Per its creator, it's designed to be really spicy. In fact, he adds 3 jalapenos WITH SEEDS to his recipe. I've left them out in my slightly altered version.

Schwan's Stewchili (slightly adjusted by Ingrid)
1 lb ground beef
1 bottle light beer
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp Lawry's seasoned salt
1/2 Tbsp chili powder
1 minced garlic clove
1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Heat a large, non-stick skillet over high heat. Add the ground beef and all the seasonings above. After 3 minutes, add the bottle of beer to the pan and continue to cook until the beef is browned. Once the beef is brown, drain everything and put just the cooked beef in the largest slow cooker you've got along with:

1lb stew meat
2 Anaheim peppers, sliced
1 onion, diced
3 red potatoes with skin, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 Tbsp chili powder
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp salt
2 (15oz) cans diced tomatoes with green chilies
1 1/2 (8 oz) cans of tomato paste
1 (15 oz) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained

Cook in your slow cooker for about 2 hours on low. The mixture should cook down and make a bit more room in your slow cooker. Then add:
1 additional (15oz) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained

Cook for 6-8 hours on low or until the potatoes are cooked through. Do NOT attempt to rush this one by cooking on high. The finished product will not be the same.

Enjoy with shredded cheddar and sour cream if you'd like.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Get a Life! (Read this Book)

I read mostly non-fiction. In the summer, I try to lighten up from my normal regime of deep theological works or feisty environmental debates to easy reads, like memiors. So far this summer I've read Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls (she also wrote the Glass Castle a few years back) and, my new favorite book, 703 : How I Lost More Than a Quarter Ton and Gained a Life by Nancy Makin.

Once I started reading 703, I was hooked. My poor kids lost their mom for nearly 2 full evenings. The author allowed her self-defeating demons to send her to hell and back. She doesn't play victim or blame anyone specifically for her self-destruction. The wisdom and love of the little things in life that came out of that experience were unbelieveable. Not only did she develop a healthy relationship with food, but she figured out through trial and error that it is only through loving and serving others that we can truly love ourselves.

I highly recommend both of these books for a quick summer read. Support your local library and go check them out!

Canning without a Canner

When I first started canning, nothing scared me more than the idea of a jar not properly sealing and an innocent family member doubled over in the bathroom due to my failure. So I started with recipes that required no huge pot, high heat, and which left plenty of room for human error. I started with refrigerator pickles.

These are so great because when you pass them out to all of your neighbors and friends, they will "oohh and ahhh" over how homemade and time consuming they look. You can even dress up the jars with ribbons, labels and fabric if you're feeling crafty.

This year I made two batches, one is sweet and the other is dill. The sweet recipe I made last year and it was a huge hit with everyone but my daughter, who insists that pickles should always be sour. This year I tried the dill version, which we all loved. I'm not a pickle fan, mostly due to the texture of the kind you find in the grocery store, but homemade pickles are more like cucumbers with flavor. Crisp and refreshing (and oh so low in calories!).

Sweet Pickles
Makes 2, 1-quart jars

1-1 1/2 pints pickling cucumbers, sliced very thin (I use the slicing blade on my food processor)
1 cup onions, sliced very thin
2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups sugar
1 tsp celery seed
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp sea salt

Cram the cucumbers and onions into 2, 1-quart jars. Fit as much in as you can.
Put 1/2 tsp of the celery seed, mustard seed and sea salt in each jar.
In a separate container with a lid, combine the apple cider vinegar and sugar and shake well.
Pour liquid mix into each jar. If there is not enough made, make enough so that each jar is filled.
Put on a lid, refrigerate and shake daily for 6 days.
In the early days the sugar will sit on the bottom, but by day 6 it will dissolve into the vinegar.

Dill Pickles
Makes 2, 1-quart jars

1-1 1/2 pints pickling cucumbers, cut into spears (cut twice lengthwise, 4 spears to each cucumber)
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 cup fresh dill
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp black peppercorn
2 cups white distilled vinegar

2 cups cold water
3 Tbsp kosher salt

Put 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 cup dill, 1/2 tsp mustard seed and 1/2 tsp black peppercorn in the bottom of each 1-quart jar (you will need 2, 1-quart jars).
Add the cucumber spears to the jars and stack them so you fit in as many as you can.
In a separate container with a lid, combine the vinegar, water and salt and shake well.
Pour the liquid mix into each jar. If there is not enough made, make some more and fill the jars.
Put on a lid, refrigerate, and shake daily for 6 days.

Honestly, it took me about 15 minutes to make 2 quarts of each. And that was with both kids helping!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Where's the Beef?

For Christmas 2008, my husband and I gifted to ourselves a chest freezer. Romantic? No. But after 8 years of marriage we'd decided our love was secure enough for a practical and not-so-spontaneous Christmas gift. Plus, now we could order a 1/4 beef and fill that freezer.

On my mad hunt for the rancher that was going to fill that freezer, I met Michelle Aavang of Willow Lea Stock Farm at the Woodstock Farmer's Market. Her family's local operation right in Woodstock fit the bill. At that time, we paid about $390 for the beef and $125 for the processing at Lake Geneva Country Meats. The pricing may have gone up since then, but this gives you a rough idea. There is no huge savings by buying beef this way, but the price is very fair given that this is local, pasture-raised beef. Over a year later, my family of four is still eating our way through that quarter. Some families who eat more beef might go through it faster, but for us, it's been a blessing of quality beef for more than 365 days.

By the way, the 1/4 beef is a "mixed quarter", meaning you don't just get the front right quadrant of the animal, but rather you get 1/4 of each part of the animal.

The process went a little like this:
1. In January I emailed Michele and got on the wait list for the next available animal
2. In May Michele called and said the animal was ready, and verified that I was still interested
3. Animal was sent to Lake Geneva Country Meats (although Michele indicated if we wished to use a different butcher she could work with us), who called me and walked me through my options on how I would like the animal butchered (most of the cuts are standard, but you do get the choice on size of roasts, whether you want soup bones, etc)
4. About a week later we picked up the meat at Lake Geneva Country Meats (yes, in Lake Geneva--it's a little drive). They had it all individually wrapped and packed into two boxes.

I always "save" the best pieces for special occasions. This past 4th of July we invited my mom over and ate the T-bone steaks. When the plate of juicy, grilled T-bones was passed, my mom dug around for the smallest one. I told her to just take the top one and someone would finish what she didn't. Well, not only did she eat the entire steak, she ate a good 1/3 of another. I've never seen her eat so much beef in one sitting. However, this was exceptional beef. Believe me, all I did was throw it on the grill with a little salt and pepper. The beef itself did the rest.

If you aren't ready for such a big commitment like a 1/4 or 1/2 beef, Michele also sells her beef at the Woodstock Farmer's Market by the piece, so you can just pick up exactly what you'd like.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I'm Whipped! My Adventure at the Daley Plaza Market.

What just happened?! I thought I'd take my lunch break and enjoy a leisurely stroll around the Farmer's Market at Daley Plaza. Leisurely! Ha! Urbanites are hard-core!

Unlike my friendly northwest suburban farmer's markets, this one felt more like Best Buy on Black Friday! Wall to wall people, pushing and shoving to get their hands on some very expensive Michigan blueberries. There was no time to really enjoy the sensory experience that comes with food selection at my neighborhood markets. No friendly chats with the farmers either. This was grab what you can and keep moving or the crowd behind you would swallow you alive. And be wary that a random arm may dart over your shoulder and grab that patty pan squash assortment you're eyeing up. Now granted, my experience may have been particularly frenetic given that it was noon on a workday and the weather was in the 70's and sunny.

And it wasn't just me, the vendors looked whipped too.

The bright side is that there is clearly a real demand in the city for homegrown, local, often organic foods.

The hard-neck Italian garlic and pickling cucumbers I bought were absolutely stunning, even if I only did get to appreciate them once I returned to my desk.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Yes, I'm Stepping On My Soapbox

Those of you who know me personally are probably surprised that I've waited this long to do a post from high upon my soapbox. Every now and then a topic ruffles my feathers so much that I step up and make my announcement for all to hear. Today the topic is local. The topic is taxes.

I've never been one to complain about paying taxes and I'm not particularly politically active although I've done my fair share of voting (and not always for the right person in hindsight). I recognize that there are inefficiencies in the system, but overall am thankful that they generally provide for the needs of my family and the greater good of my community.

HOWEVER, when I learned that state funding has been cut so severely that my local library, which is my family's single greatest source of information and entertainment, will no longer be able to offer interlibrary loans, I was dumbfounded. We don't watch a ton of t.v., so for us, this was the equivalent of taking satellite service away from the average American family. We just went from 400 stations to just NBC, ABC, and CBS.

The next area of tax funding cuts which is getting my goat is the public school system. Particularly, the increase in public school class size due to staff cuts. While this doesn't effect my family personally, as we were concerned about a class size of 30 back when my kids entered school enough to shell out entirely too much money for a private school education, it does effect my community. 40 kids to an elementary classroom is a puzzle to me. How exactly does a class that size function? How can one teacher properly educate that many children during the most formative years of their education? And then we are all supposed to be shocked and appalled when those teachers aren't in complete support of having their wages frozen or accepting less benefits. I'm exhausted just thinking about what those teachers face in one day.

Overall, what concerns me about these two areas of funding cuts is that they so blatantly reveal what little value our government/community places on education. Truthfully, I'd rather pay more taxes now than face a generation with less education than the last.

I think it's time for me to step off my soapbox and visit my local politicians...

Monday, June 14, 2010

It's Not Easy Bein' Green

This weekend, I went a little greener...but not entirely by choice.

We own one vehicle, which is rarely inconvenient given that I rely so much on the Metra to get me to and from work during the week. However, this weekend my husband drove the kids to their grandparents' house in Pittsburgh where they will stay while we celebrate our 10-year anniversary in Italy (talk about wonderful local eating!). I stayed back to avoid missing any additional time from work.

Despite the on and off rain, I managed to run all of my errands on foot or bike. One more reason to love living in downtown Crystal Lake: everything you need is within a few miles of home.

In only 48 hours, I experienced my share of travel adventures. At one point I was riding my bike to church while toting a homemade cake in the rain. It was a much more pleasant experience than it sounds. On another bike errand, a white-tailed deer jumped out in front of me. It was a much more unpleasant experience than it sounds. It's scary enough to have a deer jump in front of your car, but in front of your bike is a different experience entirely.

The whole weekend I had to consider shopping at the closest market (which luckily for me was the farmer's market), combining errands for efficiency (like returning library books while dropping off mail), and adjusting my travel time to include my slower transportation.

I challenge you to park the car for a weekend and see how rewarding slowing down and reducing your carbon footprint can be.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bee Vomit

Its golden undulations bring sweetness to my morning yogurt. I don't care if kids around the world taunt it as "bee vomit". It's local, it's natural and I have an unquenchable sweet tooth. I love honey!

Apparently I'm not the only one. A family in Richmond, IL has designed their retirement around the stuff and their charming shop "My Honey" reeks of their heart's desire. Isn't there something so refreshing when you encounter people who are living their life in a way that is true to the essence of who they are? They make no apologies for their idosyncracies (and we all have them) and in turn you feel 100% comfortable in their presence. Like many local, family businesses, the shop is a hodgepodge of everything they love.

Take a field trip to Richmond (which is right on the way from Crystal Lake to Lake Geneva) and buy yourself a few honey sticks or some beeswax candles....or a vat of honey. You may even learn something about how honey is made as you view the hive that is exposed behind plexiglass. Ask the owner to play the harmonica for you. Enjoy yourself!

And if you can't make it to the shop, this small local establishment distributes their honey to all of these stores.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Berry Tart Cake

It's June already?! The first sign of summer arrived at the Woodstock Farmer's Market this weekend: strawberries.

My garden yielded its first lone strawberry last week, but one of the many slugs taking over my garden beat me to it (more about my slug solution in a future post).

The variety of fruit naturally grown in Northern Illinois is relatively limited, so when any fruit is in season I gorge myself on it in the hopes of not wanting to touch it again until the following year. Strawberries always seem to be the exception. I could happily eat them every day at every meal for the rest of my life.

One of my favorite strawberry recipes requires a few non-local ingredients. But I make the splurge for patriotic holidays because the red, blue and white in this cake make such a beautiful presentation. Don't you agree?

Double Berry Lemon Cake
(adapted from Cooking Light's Lemon Blueberry Bundt Cake)

Cooking spray
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 (16-ounce) container reduced-fat sour cream
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh strawberries

1 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Coat a Bundt pan with cooking spray and dust with 2 tablespoons sugar. Set aside.
  3. Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk.
  4. In a separate large bowl cream 1 3/4 cups sugar, butter, and lemon rind with a mixer for about 2 minutes at medium speed.
  5. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.
  6. Beat in vanilla and sour cream.
  7. Add flour mixture; beat at medium speed just until combined.
  8. Gently fold in blueberries and strawberries.
  9. Pour batter into prepared pan.
  10. Bake at 350° for 1 hour - 1 hour 20 minutes or until a clean knife inserted in the center comes out clean. The baking time seems to vary dramatically based on your type of Bundt pan. Mine is a silicon one that always seems to take the full 1 hour 20 minutes.
  11. Cool in pan 15 minutes on a wire rack.
  12. Remove from pan and cool completely on wire rack.
  13. To prepare glaze, combine powdered sugar and lemon juice, stirring well with a whisk. Drizzle over cooled cake.

If you would prefer a less tart cake, omit the glaze and just dust with powdered sugar.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Backyard Animal-less Farm

So I know you've been dying to see my backyard garden. Here it is behind the white fence. Enter the gate, and this is what you see.

Not much to see this early in the season, but if you look very closely you might just see some onion, asparagus, peas, kholrabi and radish.

I try to utilize every inch of sunlight throughout the yard as well. The result is a strawberry patch next to the garage....

Herbs in our front walkway beds...

And pots filled with edibles randomly strewn throughout the yard (yep, those are tomato plants).

Monday, May 24, 2010

Speaking of Dairy, You've Got to Try Making Yogurt

I believe God gives each mother exactly the talents and traits needed for her to properly raise the specific children He gives her. However, I'm still not sure what He was insinuating by giving me a momma who can only cook two items: french toast and cereal. I grew up in the most spotless house, thanks to her, but if it weren't for my father, we all would've starved.

And my dad cooks "manly" things like country fried steak and the best ribs on earth. Canning and making yogurt aren't part of his repertoire. These things I had to teach myself.

I attempted water-bath canning first as it seemed the least dangerous. If the seal failed, I would likely know in a month or two when the mold started to grow. Yogurt, however, was MUCH scarier. I could poison my kids with live bacteria! I was always raised that dairy products are to remain cold all the time. Any exception to this and you'll wind up doubled over in your bathroom...or worse.

Turns out, that's not quite right. If it were, we wouldn't have sour cream, buttermilk or yogurt.

Thanks to Katie Kimball at Kitchen Stewardship, I no longer live in fear of "live and active cultures". Her simple, failproof instructions for making yogurt are here. The only thing I do differently is that when I put the jars of milk into the fridge to cool, I do NOT put the lids on. I make 4, quart-sized jars at a time and they last my family 2 weeks. None of us have even gotten sick.

One beauty of homemade yogurt is that if you incubate it for about 6 hours, it is not nearly as tart as store bought. My kids will gladly eat it with fresh fruit and no additional sugar or sweetner (although they won't turn down honey if it's offered!).

Try it. For the cost of a gallon of milk and a cup or so of Dannon plain yogurt you might surprise yourself. Although she's never tried, I bet my mom could make it, too.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mom, There Are Chunks In My Milk!!

I've been really lazy about getting my hands on raw milk. It took quite awhile to navigate the underworld of farmers to locate a few local dairies still willing to sell milk, albeit for "non-human consumption" *wink, wink*. Now I have to go and buy glass containers to store the milk in. Can you believe I've been meaning to do that for like 2 months now without success?

One reason I've been stalling is that I've found a non-homogenized, vat pasteurized, grass fed, no added hormones milk from small family farms in Iowa selling at Whole Foods in Schaumburg (yes, it FINALLY opened in early May). It sounded like a great solution, until the next morning, when my gallon-guzzling son wrinkled his brow and exclaimed "MOM, there are chunks in my milk!!!". I explained to him the value of the type of milk he was drinking, but his 5-year old senses were having none of it.

He's been on a dairy product strike for 2 weeks. I've created a meat-eating vegan.

Now I'm not the kind of mom who trims crust off of bread or negotiates eating brussel sprouts. I cook, you eat. No exceptions. And I know what they say about a kid having to be served an unusual food 20 times before they accept it. I'm telling you, the boy would rather eat his shoe. The only way I can imagine him even considering it would be to serve it from a different container (because kids make such serious connections between the package and the product--ask any fast food marketer) and strain it. I just can't do that. It runs completely against my grain.

My last hope is that a trip to the farm to see the cow and milk it himself will offer just enough novelty to rekindle his love of dairy. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eureka! Local Ingredients Only!

My recipe collection is ridiculous. The shelves are overflowing with cookbooks, random scraps cut out from magazines, and homemade binders with internet printouts. While I've managed to make it looked relatively organized to the outside world, the reality is that I'm secretly a recipe hoarder. There is no organization to my collection and I refuse to throw anything away unless I try it and it's unbearably gross. It would take at least two lifetimes to try every recipe I've stuffed on those shelves.

Despite my massive compilation, finding a recipe that doesn't use A) foreign ingredients or B)ingredients that are never naturally in harvest at the same time, is a monumental task. Two nights ago, I found one. And it was yummmmyyyyy! It is a beautiful, sweet and easy to prepare soup (especially if you have leftover baked potatoes lying around). The texture was a bit surprising. The broth is simply milk. While I expected the potatoes to thicken it up a bit, it never really did. It was a bit like eating warm, sweet, vegetable cereal. I know it sounds bizarre, but I wouldn't post it if I didn't love it.

Summer Sweet Corn Soup
(adapted from Weight Watcher's Summer Corn, Bacon and Potato Chowder)
4 servings

1 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup onion, chopped
4 ears corn on the cob, cooked and kernels removed with a knife
1 red sweet bell pepper, chopped
4 oz Canadian bacon, diced
2 cups whole milk
2 medium baking potatoes, peeled, cooked and mashed
salt & black pepper, to taste
hot pepper sauce (optional), to taste
  1. Melt butter in a saucepan.
  2. Saute celery, onion, corn and red pepper over medium-high heat for 5 minutes.
    Add bacon, milk & mashed potato.
  3. Season with salt, pepper and hot pepper sauce.
  4. Cover and simmer 10 minutes (do not allow to boil).

Monday, May 10, 2010

CSA: A Win-Win

As I’ve mentioned, I have not yet devised the perfect method by which the amount of sun-kissed land in my yard can sustain my family’s fruit and vegetable needs all on its own. Nor do I have chickens for eggs or my own turkey for our Thanksgiving bounty. I have to call in for back up. I order a CSA box. I let Scott and Kathy Mor at Green Earth Farm do all that work for me.

To find a CSA near you, try an internet search (Local Harvest is a great resource), ask your locavore neighbors, or speak directly to the farmers at your local farmers market. Many farmers selling at the market also offer CSA shares to their farm. While most CSA’s are only available for the growing season, we found a farmer who delivered grass fed meat and eggs all winter long! Network! Network! Network!

With a CSA box, you have absolute no control on what’s put in your box. That’s half the fun. Kholrabi. Black heirloom tomatoes. Delicata squash. Earthly delights that I could have gone an entire lifetime having never tasted without my CSA box!

The reason I chose Green Earth Farm is that Scott and Kathy treat each CSA shareholder as an owner. You are welcome to stop by the farm anytime and they encourage families to come and experience farming hands on. Last year they hosted a CSA member open house where my kids got to feed the goats and horses, chase the turkeys, hunt for real eggs, and sample some treats made with food fresh from the farm. Each year there is also the possibility of working on the farm a few hours a week to subsidize the cost of your box. I’m helping the Mor’s live out their dream, and in return they fill my kitchen with homegrown goodies! In corporate speak, it’s a clear “win-win”.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Talking Shop

My palms were sweating, I had bags under my eyes from the excitement that prevented me from sleeping the night before, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. We were enroute to the first farmer's market of the season!

The Woodstock Farmer's Market is my first every year. It opens a little earlier in the year than most. It's also arguably my favorite because all of the vendor's must produce their goods locally. While that sounds like a given, it's not so. Crystal Lake's Farmer's Market is a blend, and you really have to be an educated shopper and ask a lot of questions if you're a locavore-in-training.

Early in the season, pickin's are often slim. Usually the offerings are limited to plantlings and flowers, soaps, honey, breads and other not-so-seasonal items. If you're lucky and you get there early enough, you can snag the limited vegetable selection. So despite the 39*F, rainy weather, the kids and I ventured out on our hunt!

At the market this week, I scored:
  • Jersey asparagus

  • Butterkase cheese

  • 2 dozen free-range large eggs

  • 1/2 lb pasture-raised Canadian bacon

  • bunch french radish (organic)

  • spinach (organic)

  • lettuce (organic)

  • tart cherry preserves

One of my favorite aspects of the market is you can chat with the farmers about how their crops are growing and compare it to your home garden. In my experience, the farmers are always happy to talk shop. Ask them about bugs, or plant varieties, or any other gardening questions you have and I guarantee you'll leave the market with information more valuable that whatever dollar amount you spent. Also, if you're trying to find a particular local food that they don't offer, there is a good chance they know someone who produces it. Thanks to my discussions with some farmers this week, I learned some tips on growing asparagus, located a few additional raw milk sources, and was invited to an upcoming open house at one of the local farms! Make it a goal to make the acquaintance of one new farmer each week.

Here are some other farmer's markets in Mchenry Country.

Here you can search for farmer's markets in your local area, wherever that may be!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake!

My family is the anomaly among most of our friends. We have two kids in a prep school, I work, dad stays at home and we only own one car (yes, a minivan). Most of our friends are significantly larger families who homeschool with mom staying at home and dad working. So whenever we all get together, which is usually twice a month or so, we feed our army potluck style.

What all those kiddos don't know is that they are my own personal test kitchen tasters. The youngest of the crowd are so brutally honest that there is no mistaking whether a recipe gets a thumbs up or down. Color, taste, texture--they let you know what's not working!

So last weekend, I took a risk and pushed my luck. I brought Black Bean Avocado Mocha Cake. Gluten-free AND 2 super nutritious foods. Rather than keep my trap shut, I kept "warning" the grown ups of the unusual ingredients before they took a bite. I mean, my reputation was on the line!

No one could believe it! Word of the cake spread like wildfire across the room, and before I had the time to say "Black Bean Avocado Mocha Hazelnut Cake" three times fast, it was gone! Give this recipe a whirl. I double dog dare you.

Black Bean Avocado Mocha Hazelnut Cake
(adapted from this recipe at 'The Crazy Kitchen')

-15 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
-3 eggs
-1/4 cup butter
-1/2 cup agave nectar
-6 Tbsp cocoa powder
-1/8 tsp salt
-1 Tbsp vanilla extract
-1 Tbsp decaf instant coffee
-1/2 cup hazelnuts
-2 tsp baking powder

-1 ripe avocado
-1/4 cup agave nectar
-2 Tbsp cocoa powder
-2 1/2 tsp decaf instant coffee
- 1 Tbsp hazelnut liqueur

1. Preheat the oven to 350*F
2. Puree the first 8 ingredients in a food processor until smooth.
3. Add hazelnuts and baking powder. Pulse about 8 times.
4. Pour batter into a GREASED 8x8 pan.
5. Cook for about 35 minutes. It is ready when the cake looks dry with some cracks in the middle.

1 . Puree the flesh of the avocado and the last 4 ingredients in the food processor for about 2 minutes, or until smooth and fully mixed.
2. Once the cake is done baking, top it with the icing.
3. Cover and refrigerate until the cake is completely cooled, at least 2 hours.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Small Business Spotlight: The Cocoa Cabana

Small businesses are the fabric of each suburb’s charm. Yesterday, while tooling around for an ice cream fix, my family stumbled upon a local gem: The Cocoa Cabana. Although we must have passed this shop a million times on our commute along Route 31 to my children’s school in Elgin, we’ve never stopped. Its location in one of the many forgettable strip malls shadowing the Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee doesn’t do justice to the quality of small-batch, hand-dipped chocolates you find upon entering. In fact, I had an “open-mouth-insert-foot” moment when I asked the female shop owner, Ronda, (local, small business, AND female-owned—triple score!) what chocolatier she ordered from. She looked puzzled and politely informed me that she hand-dipped them right there and then generously offered each of us a sample of the chocolate-dipped potato chip. Yes, potato chip. In chocolate. Yum!

Unlike the novel potato chip, the majority of their selection is more standard, sophisticated, higher-quality chocolate fare, at honest pricing. Chocolate dipped pretzels run $5.95 for a small bag. A 1 lb. box of assorted chocolates is $19.95.

Mental note: they do fondue for $11/person, but you have to call ahead. Good date night or special outing for the kiddies. And if you’ve had enough Chuck E Cheese parties for the rest of your existence, remember Cocoa Cabana for your next 5+ year old’s birthday party. Need a party favor? Give them a call. No doubt you’ll get the personal attention that only a local, small business provides.

Just a reminder, Mother’s Day is on Sunday (hint, hint). They ship anywhere in United States.

Oh, and the ice cream was outstanding, although not homemade.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

0.25 acre is all I've got. 95% of it is dense shade. The 5% with full sun is jammed pack with edibles. Sometimes I step into my yard, look up at our mature maples, and daydream of a time when our half-dead grass is replaced with lush vines and stalks. I know, I know--it's environmental blasphemy to wish for the early demise of our trees. But just look at the Dervaes family's front yard in Pasadena and tell me honestly that you aren't drooling, too!

I have completely failed to embrace the shade. Or our relatively short growing season.

Cramming everything I want to grow into our limited space is a test in geometry that I seem to get a C+ on every year. I've tried square foot gardening, row gardening and container gardening. There is usually enough produce to have a few meals of homemade happiness each week, but not enough to preserve for the off season. And to my daughter's dismay, not enough room to grow corn. I need to perfect my layout considering that my backyard farm is the most local food I can get.

While I try to keep my farming methods as organic as possible, there are times where I find myself utterly powerless to the woo of the non-organic seed racks and plantlings in the local garden center. However, I try to order as much as I can from Seed Savers Exchange. Not only is their variety of heirlooms unbeatable, but they are based in Decorah, Iowa (zone 4) which has a similar plant hardiness zone to Crystal Lake, IL (zone 5A). I can usually trust that if a seed performs well in their garden, it will in mine as well.

This year my garden features the following Seed Savers varieties:

Golden Sweet Peas (I grew these last year and they were a great performer. Yummy stir fry!)

200 mile road trip to Seed Savers' Heritage Farm anyone?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

I love where I live. I love it so much that I sacrifice 2 ½ hours every weekday of my life traveling on the Metra train from my quaint, butter yellow, 1936 American foursquare in historic downtown Crystal Lake, IL to my modern office with a view in the downtown Chicago Loop and back. My life suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.

City dwellers argue that Crystal Lake is an exurb rather than a suburb, but if the number of minivans, strip malls and soccer moms defines a suburb, I win the debate hands down. My suburb just also happens to include plenty of cornfields and John Deere.

A year ago I stumbled upon the book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. It was a life-changing read. If you haven’t read it, flip over to Amazon or your local library’s website this instant and get it. Barbara and her family ate locally for an entire year from their farm in rural Virginia. Inspired by her words and motivated by her recipes and children’s apparent love for all things green, I set out on a mission to make a change in my family’s eating habits. I mean, how hard could it be to get all of my food from within, say, 100 miles of my home in America’s heartland? Boy, was I in for a rude awakening!

Necessity is the mother of invention. Before Barbara took on the challenge of eating locally for a year, she undoubtedly did her homework. Unfortunately, she didn’t publish the detail of it. This blog is a tale of my year of preparation before embarking on a local suburban eating challenge of my own. You will watch this weekend homesteading warrior learn to make cheese, maintain a worm compost farm, and maybe even start a beehive. I’ll share how networking within your community is the key to locating raw milk, eggs, grains, vegetables, fruits and meat. I challenge you take this journey with me and help fill in my gaps and share your experiences and sources along the way.

Make this commitment with me to vote with your wallet. Vote for produce that actually tastes good. Vote for local farmers who are properly caring for the world’s precious soil. Vote against the use of foreign oil. Vote to enrich your community by meeting new neighbors. Vote to bring back the family table with home-cooked food you feel good about serving your family.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Nutrition-Common Sense or Nonsense?

I'm a self-diagnosed orthorexic; I'm obsessed with healthy eating. Only, I don't actually eat that way all the time, I'm just neurotic about devouring any information on the topic. I tend to eat by the "if some is good, more is better" mantra. Yes, I'm a true American.

The BMI charts say I'm walking a tightrope between "healthy" and "overweight". I exercise regularly (I even ran my first half-marathon last year), and rarely eat out--so what gives?!

As I've been drinking diet Coke to keep my calories low and eliminating entire food groups from my diet, my weight keeps creeping up (and my running times too). I've also complicated my life by cooking separate meals for myself and my family in my dieting attempts. The irony is that my husband and kids are squarely within ideal weight ranges despite the fact that they are eating full "homestyle" meals. Makes you wonder...

So I'm going to try this novel idea: eating real food as close to its original form as possible. What fascinates me is that when it comes to the topic of "real food", there is such dissent among its advocates over what constitutes a "real food". Case in point: milk. Whole or skim? My common sense is telling me whole, raw milk is best since that's its original form. However, for as long as I can remember doctors (who, like many Americans, I've trusted to know better than me what is best for my body) directed me to skim.

I trust God with all other aspects of my life, why not trust that what he provides is good enough for me to eat?

I'm giving up the nonsense and trying common sense.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Are those elephant ears?

When we first purchased our home, I envisioned the possibility of a sunny backyard garden brimming with a cornucopia of fresh vegetables. It would always be beautiful to look at and provide any desired vegetable at any given time of year---sort of like the produce department at the grocery store, only closer! More about this misconception later....

The first new home task my husband and I set out to do was clear out the 400SF raised garden plot that the previous owner had let go au naturale. And when I say clear out, I mean the equivalent of taking a machete, wearing battle armour and blindly swinging. We had everything from a miniature pine tree to head-high thorn bushes to the dreaded invasive mint growing. Worst of all, we seemed to have about 13 plants of what looked to be "elephant ears" with root systems anchored in the center of the earth. Those large leafed pesky weeds!

"Yeah", said our new neighbor, "how much rhubarb can one family eat?".


I rationalized that even if it was a real vegetable that theoretically belonged in a kitchen garden, it didn't matter that we yanked it all out and whisked it into the trash heap. I don't know how to cook rhubarb anyway. And the only recipe I'd ever heard of using it was strawberry rhubarb pie. My husband is allergic to berries, and I don't "do" pie crust. So it's all good.

My heart sighs when I reminisce back 4 years ago when we dismembered all that rhubarb. Since then, I've developed an obsession of cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Rhubarb has become a spring staple in our house, but alas, I have no rhubarb plant to call my own and am at the mercy of 2 lowly plants belonging to my generous, 90+ year old neighbor for my annual supply.

For those totally unfamiliar with rhubarb:

1. Don't eat the leaves. They're poisonious.
2. You don't have to peel the rhubarb when using it in a recipe.
3. Click on this link to learn how and when to harvest rhubarb.

And if you think your kids won't eat it, try this:

Whole Wheat Rhubarb Cake
(modified version of Rhubarb Cake I by Barb Oke on

1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups white sugar (I'm tempted to try honey, but I haven't yet)
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups rhubarb, chopped
1 tablespoon whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup packed brown sugar (Maybe try sucanat?)

1. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together. Beat in egg and vanilla.
2. In another bowl, whisk the flours, baking soda, and salt.
3. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk to creamed mixture.
4. Toss rhubarb with 1 tablespoon whole wheat pastry flour and stir into batter.
5. Pour batter into buttered 9 x 13 inch pan.
6. Make the topping by blending together 1/4 cup softened butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar, then sprinkle on top.
7. Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes.

Now I need your help. I challenge you to modify this recipe to increase the number of local ingredients and/or nutritional value.