Go With Your Gut (Flora) – The Great Pickle Experiment (Part I)

My first batch of crock pickles!

Gut bacteria have been on my mind a lot the last few years.  I bet that if you had a nickel for every time someone’s told you that, you’d probably have 5 cents.  Unless you’ve had problems with your digestive track, you probably don’t give much thought to the friendly little guys that call your intestines Home Sweet Home.  People are only just beginning to understand how big a role gut flora plays in, not just digestive health, but in our entire immune system.   Perhaps this is not the most delightful topic for a blog post, but I think its worthwhile to share.

 It seems like I’ve been hearing a lot about beneficial gut bacteria in the news lately — or maybe its just that I am interested in the topic and pick up on it when I hear it.  A few years ago I was diagnosed with a whopper of a case of diverticulosis.  After a few bouts of diverticulitis I noticed that when I am eating things that promote healthy, happy, friendly gut flora, they keep the bad ones at bay and all is well in my digestive world.  Initially my sources of probiotic were Kefir and yogurt.  However, after going paleo I stopped eating most dairy — particularly the processed Kefir I was drinking.  That got me thinking about the other probiotic rich foods there are out there — sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles to name a few.  The catch is, once these foods are pasteurized, the cadre of microscopic gut warriors are wiped out.  The food still tastes good, but you lose the probiotic benefit.  If (and that’s a big if) you can find a source of raw unpasteurized products, you will get an ulcer from the sticker shock (I may have just paid $10 for a small jar of sauerkraut).  No point trading one gastrointestinal problem for another!

So what to do?  Make my own of course!  I’m starting with pickles and sauerkraut.  Depending on the results  that I get, I may try some kimchi (I’m not even sure if I really like it) or some other pickled veggies.  Last weekend I downloaded “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.”  Up first — crock pickles.  I decided to start with pickles because:

  1. I totally love pickles.  My aunt always bought 2 jars of pickles for the holidays.  One for everybody else and one jar for me.   She also had to add extra mini hotdogs to the baked beans — but that’s a different post.
  2. Cukes are at the very end of the season here in Ohio and if I didn’t get them now, I wouldn’t be able to find local fresh ones.

So why are fermented pickles different from the jars of Vlassic in the store (other than pasteurization)?  I’m still a newbie to the whole fermenting thing, but I shall explain it as I understand it.  Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  The bulk of the pickles in stores are not fermented at all, but are preserved in a vinegar/spice solution.  A crock pickle is preserved through fermentation.  And fermentation is where the probiotic benefits come in.  There are two or three different types of bacteria that appear at different stages, but as things reach that fully fermented stage, the primary bacteria is lactobacillus.  You should recognize that from yogurt labels as one of the major (known) friendly bacteria.  So not only do you get the crispy crunch of a fresh dill pickle with your burger, but you get a little something something for your gut health on the side!  Some people even drink the pickle brine as a tonic.  I will probably try it.  I like dill pickle juice. And I’m a little bit of a freak like that.

There isn’t much to report yet.  They just went into the jar today.  I am super excited by the project — and by the adorable vintage pickle jar I picked up from a farm estate auction last weekend!  I’m glad I didn’t go with a crock because I can see whats going on — they just look so darn pretty in there!   They are like little pickle shaped fish in their own underwater world.

The ingredients are just baby cucumbers, dill, garlic, pepper, salt, and filtered water.   I don’t have a recipe to share yet.   I thought I’d wait and see how they come out first.  My mom and aunt will be here this weekend.  I think they will make excellent guinea pigs dinner guests.

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I’m back…

Sorry for my extended absence!  In addition to having a ton on my plate, I haven’t been eating particularly well the last couple of months.  Due to the combination of lack of time and lack of content, I have sadly neglected all of my faithful readers.  Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been getting a little closer to being on track.  The release of It Starts With Food by the Hartwigs helped motivate me to gear up to do a Whole 30 in August.  Anyone wanna join along?  In addition to some recipe posts, I may post weekly-ish updates on how my Whole 30 is going.   Feel free to jump in on comments if you are doing it too.  The more the merrier!

 

 

 

 

A little frog told me you missed me (and to get my ass off the couch)!

Did you all miss me?  I missed you.   My holiday writing break was extended a little longer than originally planned while I had surgery for the torn cartilage in my knee.    My convalescence was filled with lots of lounging, little decent cooking (i.e. non-paleo crap), and lots of mad crocheting to finish off a couple of baby blankets for my brother and SIL’s baby shower.   Oddly, it was one of the baby blankets that helped inspire me to get up off the couch and back into the kitchen.  This is the culprit.

 

Don’t be fooled by its cuteness, this was a monster 4 years in the making.  About 4 years ago I tracked down the pattern for the frog squares.  After fiddling for a while with colors and layout, this was the final design I came up with.   As with any new pattern, learning how to do the frog squares properly was a bit of trial and error.  Eventually I got it assembled and finished off.  I was quite happy with the result.  As a matter of fact, it was  the favorite afghan I had ever made.   Then I washed it before sending it off as a gift.  I was shocked to find one of my frogs in the center of the blanket had come unraveled.  I’d never had that happen to an afghan before.  I was puzzled and more than a little pissed at myself.  I took off the border and cut apart the squares so I could fix the bad one.  I’m not quite sure what happened after that, but it got put back in my closet, unfinished and forgotten for 4 years. 

Now its time for a new baby.  I finished two other baby afghans before I remembered this one, but I desperately wanted to finish it for my new nephew in place of one of the others.  So I dug it back out, remade the bad square being extra sure to securely knot off the center of the frog, pieced it all back together and added a border around the whole thing.  Finished!  Wrong.

After I had it all back together I decided I had better check the other squares for problems (not the greatest example of planning ahead on my part).  In the process I managed to unravel another frog and found at least one other that showed signs of possible future weakness.   I felt like crying.  The shower was 6 days away and I had three options.  Take it back apart and fix the bad squares (hoping no other bad ones show up), start over from scratch completely, or put it back in the closet and rethink it later (if ever).

I’m still not sure why, perhaps I was insane, but I decided to scrap it and start over from scratch.  And do it right.  In 6 days.  It was a ton of work and I barely finished — I barred my brother from his own dining room while I feverishly stitched the border at midnight the night before the shower — but I finished and it was even better than the first one.  I was able to work out all of the minor things I was unhappy with in the first one.  Plus, I know this thing is sturdy.  Come the Mayan apocalypse in December, the only things left will be Chevy trucks, Twinkies, and this freaking blanket.

Blame it on the late night, exhaustion from traveling, or just my sappiness in general, but as I was finally finishing the last few stitches it dawned on me that this afghan was a bit of a metaphor for my quest to  live a healthier life —- I spent a lot of time searching for the right way to do it, I made mistakes along the way,  and just when I thought I had it right, it unraveled on me.  I gave up for a while, but picked it up again.  The second try was better than ever and although it took a little effort and a lot of love, it is getting done.   I’m not done with my personal transformation, but I feel that I have all the pieces now and that they are strong.  Although I came unraveled a bit and wasn’t eating well during the last month (and feeling crappy as a result), I’m determined not to put myself back in the closet, unfinished and forgotten.     So, its off the couch and back into the kitchen (and onto the blogs), all thanks to a little frog afghan.

 

 

Love Potions, Passion, and My (Current) Favorite Cookbooks

I once received the following love-life advice from a psychic (so you can take it for what it’s worth).  When you find someone you really like, and want to be sure they return the sentiment, cook them a stew.  As you chop and assemble the ingredients, concentrate on putting love into it, just like you do the meat and vegetables.  If it is meant to be, the other person will eat the meal and wham, bam, thank you ma’am, true love is born.  One part dinner, one part love potion.   While I can’t vouch for the efficacy of the technique in landing a spouse, there is a little nugget of truth there.

Cooking is more than just throwing ingredients into a pot.  It is one part art, one part passion.  The act of chopping, stirring, and creating a meal from scratch is deeply satisfying.  In some ways a little bit of love goes into every pot — especially when cooking with family and friends.  If you don’t feel a little passion for food when you cook, maybe you need to find a way to incorporate some.  If you can’t muster any culinary love, do yourself a favor and marry someone who does —- you’ll eat much better.  🙂

What brought to mind my unusual psychic encounter and the subsequent contemplation of food and passion?  I was trying to figure out why I loved my favorite cookbooks.  Have you ever read a cookbook cover to cover?  I have, but not very often.  The cookbooks that I have actually treated like a book rather than a recipe reference are the ones I keep coming back to.  What makes them so good?  It’s the passion for food. The zest for, well, zest, that differentiates the ordinary cookbook compiler from the great cookbook writer. 

Anyone can throw together a book of recipes.  Put a good index in it and if someone needs to know how to bake a bundt cake, they’ll know where to go.  Add some good pictures and you may catch my attention a little longer.  Take the time to tell me why something works, what you did wrong or really liked, why a specific recipe is special to you — in short put yourself into it — and I know that those are recipes I want to make.  Those are the ones I always go back to.   So what are my current favorites?  I’ll list three below.  One I have been using for over a year regularly.   The other two are very new for me, but I already love them.

1.)  “660 Curries” by Raghavan Iyer

As far as I am concerned, this is a must have for anyone wanting to explore Indian cooking.  You can tell by the curled cover and random post-its sticking out, that it is well-loved.  The recipes are the author’s family recipes, friends’ family recipes, and old family recipes from random people he met while creating the book.  These are old school Indian recipes, but the author makes them contemporary (and easy to understand for someone unfamiliar with the culture), and even includes a section of fusion cooking —- mixing his Indian heritage with his very american upbringing.  The recipes are interspersed with personal anecdotes and information on the origin of many of the recipes.  The multitude of spice blends in the beginning chapters alone is worth the cover price.  The smell of store-bought spices has nothing on a fresh ground masala blend.  I didn’t do an official count but I’d bet at least half of the 660 recipes are paleo or could be easily adjusted. 

2.)  “All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art” by Molly Stevens

I stumbled across this book by accident the other day while killing time perusing cookbooks at the bookstore.  After thumbing through it for a few minutes, I knew I had to adopt it and bring it home.  The beginning chapters cover the basics of roasting and talk about the different techniques for roasting and how and why each does what it does.  I learned more about roasting meat and veggies after a half hour than I’ve learned in the last 38 years.   It also includes sections on roasting  fish, vegetables, and fruit.   The recipes are fairly simple and let properly roasted food take the center stage.  The author’s passion for roasting (and good real food in general) comes across.  I wish there were photos for all of the recipes, but the photos that are there are beautiful.  I’ve used a couple of techniques I’ve learned already and will definitely be pulling this out a lot.

3.)  “Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat” by Melissa Joulwan

This one is hot off the presses and just came out this month.   Well Fed has it all — great pictures, good recipes, and commentary that is as entertaining as it is informative.  Plus the layout is fabulous.  There is a “notes” section on each page (no more squeezing notes in the margins) and references for which other dishes in the cookbook go well with it.    The cookbook features favorites from her website www.theclothesmakethegirl.com plus a few recipes that don’t seem to be on her site. 

The chocolate chili recipe I reviewed yesterday was hers.  I tried the mayonnaise recipe (I’m still determined to find a good paleo mayonnaise!).  I had problems getting mine to thicken properly, but the flavor was pretty good, so I’m going to work on my technique some more.  I already have a number of recipes bookmarked and on my list of “must-makes” including the Moroccan meatballs and Jicama “Potato” Salad.

You can download a free 30 page pdf  sampler of the cookbook on her website.  There aren’t many recipes in the sampler, but you get a great sampling of her writing and the full table of contents.  A number of the recipes are available on her website if you want to give them a try first.  The cookbook includes alternate ways of making things and suggested items to pair it with so its worth the purchase if you like what you see.

There is  a pdf version available as well as athe print copy.  When you buy a print copy, you get a code to get the pdf copy for only $1 more.  Do your self a favor and get the print copy.  I bought the pdf e-book  because I didn’t want to wait for shipping (I may have some impulse control issues).  I’m not super happy with the pdf version  because it shows two pages at a time and prints out at 11×17.  It’s nice because you can see facing pages as if you are looking at the open book, but its hard to view on the screen without increasing magnification and scrolling.  If thats not a problem for you, it may be a good option because it does cost half of the print price.   It drove me nuts though and  I ended up printing the whole thing on 11×17 paper and then cut the pages apart and punched and assembled it in a binder.  Its good enough for now, but I may end up splurging and getting the shiny, pretty print version eventually.   And it really is a very pretty well laid out book.  Hard to believe it is self-published. 

 

My Newest Kitchen Toy

There’s no snow on the ground yet, but the first Christmas gift has made its way beneath my tree.  I may have put it there myself, but I’m still counting it!  I’m all grown up, but I’m still a sucker for toys — although the adult me likes kitchen toys.  My gift of choice this year?  A new meat thermometer!  Exciting right?  I’ve never actually had one, but considering the amount of meat I’ve been cooking lately, I thought it was about time I got one.  Plus I had a 20% off coupon at Meijer I hated to waste — kinda like throwing money away, right?

Here’s the one I picked:

My newest toy. Does everything but turn the oven off!

The thermometer got its maiden voyage while roasting my leg of lamb the other day.  I used to think meat thermometers were for sissies.  A true cook should just know when the meat is perfectly done, right?  I am a bit of a moron at times.  After using the thermometer just once, I don’t know how I’ve cooked meat without one!  It did everything but turn the oven on and off for me.  You just set it for the type of meat and the level of doneness you want and it beeps you when it gets close to the right temperature and again when it hits the temperature.  Don’t like the temperature options it provides? No problem, just custom adjust the settings.  You can even wander around the house getting other things done, because it comes with a handy portable pager unit that you can wear around your neck or clip to your belt.   As an extra special bonus, it also doubles as a kitchen timer.  How much would you pay?  If you act now, we’ll also through in a set of Ginsu knives!

O.K., perhaps I’m a little overly excited by a meat thermometer.  Can you imagine what I’d be like if I could afford a Vitamix or Soux Vide or an iPad?  Technically an iPad isn’t a kitchen toy, but I could open cookbooks on it and pretend it was.

While the thermometer is cool and still shines with the glow of newness, it’s not my all-time favorite.  My Kitchen Aid stand mixer holds the top place in my heart.   What is your all time favorite kitchen toy?   Respond below and let me know.

Can I See Your I.D.? — Christmas Cookies and the Meaning of Life

I’m not usually the sort to spend hours on end pondering deeply philosophical issues such as the meaning of life, but I’ve found myself lost in thought over the last few days about how/why we develop our personal identities.  Our family may see us in certain ways, our friends another, and our coworkers yet another.  I suppose it is human nature to find that niche where we both fit in and yet still stand out.   This may seem like an odd topic for a food blog, but it all started over an internal debate I’ve been having over Christmas cookies.

My great grandmother was famous for her baking, particularly her pies, which I unfortunately don’t remember.  I do remember her cookies, however.   I remember sneaking up to the giant Tupperware container when I was a tiny kid, standing on tip toes to reach my hand inside, fingers searching between the layers of waxed paper to find a chocolate chip cookie (my favorite).  They were fabulous.  She died when I was 10 and no one else ever really filled her shoes.   When I was in high school I started baking chocolate chip cookies.  I took a batch to the family Christmas party one year and everyone exclaimed that they were just like grandma’s.  That praise was like crack for a teenager who really wanted to be seen as something other than a little kid.

My repertoire was pretty much confined to chocolate chip cookies until I finished grad school.  Suddenly I had my own kitchen and some disposable income for extravagant things like flour and butter.  I started making other traditional family favorites, from both sides of the family.  Every year I made more and more as the matriarchs got older and did less.  I never did an official count, but during peak years I baked 8 to 10 different types for a total of 80 to 100 dozen (I may have gotten a little carried away).  Huge cookie trays went to family parties and to my office as well as smaller trays to many family members, friends, and neighbors.   Everywhere the cookies went, the praise followed (It turns out I inherited my great grandmothers knack for baking).  So it is no surprise that one of my identities, particularly within my family, is as the official Christmas cookie baker.  I freely admit that there are worse identities to have — You could be the crazy aunt with six cats and a collection of corn flakes shaped like famous people.

So where does my internal debate arise?  I have only been doing paleo for a relatively short period of time, but there is something to it that has really clicked for me.  It just feels right.  I’ve been losing weight without trying.  Everything I’ve read about the way sugar, grains, and legumes effect the body was spot on for me and my life-long struggle with my weight, so it has really been fairly easy for me to make some pretty big changes in my diet.   I’ve been following paleo fairly strictly, but certainly not 100% (I’ve already confessed to my ongoing love affair with Miracle Whip).  I’m not really opposed to baking cookies for the masses (and even munching on a few myself) for a few days each year.  However, considering my new outlook on eating, I wasn’t as excited about baking as I have been in the past and I thought about not baking at all.  When I considered not baking, I felt vaguely panicked.  What would people think if I didn’t bake?  Would they be disappointed?  Why does this freak me out so much?

My brain kept churning on these questions over the last few days. I’m sure you have all intuited by now that my unease had less to do with people being disappointed over a lack of Christmas cookies as it did with what would be a radical change in how I saw myself fitting into the family — and the loss of a source of some self-esteem boosting praise as well.   This got me thinking about how our personal identities — those we impose on ourselves as well as those others give us — effect how we live our lives and effect how we deal with changes in our lives.  Are these the things we let stop us from making positive healthy changes in our lives?   How do we go about changing our identities to ones that are healthier for us (physically, emotionally, whatever)?  Beats the crap out of me — I’m still a work in progress.  Although I suppose realization is the first step.  We could have an Oprah moment where I send you all out to figure out what your own personal “Christmas cookies” are, but I won’t.  Instead I will tell you how I’ve decided to tackle my problem (at least the immediate one).  I’ve decided to bake two or three family favorites and to experiment over the next few weekends with a few paleo friendly treats too.  I’m going to try to figure out a recipe for a bite size paleo pumpkin pie and also for a date & nut mini tart — all cookie tray friendly!  Hopefully I’ll get the kinks worked out in time to share some recipes with you in time for the holidays.  Maybe one day I’ll be known as the “healthy one” in my family and can inspire others to make positive changes in their own lives.