Sunday, September 13, 2009

Note to Self:

Stop consuming the food you want to post recipes of before you take the picture.

Cloth Diaper Update!

I am totally in love with cloth diapering. Is that silly? Perhaps, but I'm shamefully silly about nearly everything I do, so nothing new there. I've gotten my youngest daughter back into cloth, and I absolutely love it. In fact, since I've gotten my routine down, I'm finding that the whole, "disposable are so convenient" line to be total hogwash for my situation. For me, they are no more convenient than cloth. In fact, I find them to be less convenient. (Ironically, that was my same conclusion for formula vs. breastmilk: who EVER said that constantly washing, sterilizing, and measuring bottles was convenient when you can just whip out your boob and have the perfect meal at the perfect temp with no clean-up? And need I mention that it's FREE? okay, rant over). Constantly dealing with the smell, hauling out the trash, going to the diaper box to discover that I am COMPLETELY out of diapers and need to run to the store for more, my daughters inevitably outgrowing a size when I have just purchased a $45 bulk box and I have tons leftover....None of those things spell convenience for me. Of course, they are preventable with extra planning. But any inconvenience with cloth is preventable with extra planning, too. Here's what I've learned to streamline my current cloth-diaper routine:

Get a diaper pail liner: If your washing machine has an agitator, you can just dump the whole bag into the wash and the diapers will agitate out of the bag during the cycle. Since I have a front-loader, I just turn the bag inside out in the washer and wash the bag with the diapers. No more sticking my hands in a dirty-diaper pail! Genius!

For cloth wipes, get a regular wipe-warmer and fill it with your pre-soaked cloth wipes. That way they are already damp and warm and ready to use. I cannot tell you how much of my life I wasted at the sink with the baby in a dirty diaper on my hip, waiting for the tap water to warm up so I could get the wipe wet.  I didn't hear this tip soon enough! I had heard of the 'spray bottle at the changing table' idea, but that didn't solve my dilemma of wanting the wipes to be warm (I certainly don't want my bottom wiped with a cold rag!).  The wipe-warmer has been the perfect solution!

Make sure the diaper pail gets some airflow. If it is sealed airtight, it will smell. I always sealed it before because I thought that would keep it from smelling, but the opposite turned out to be true! I just set the lid on top of the pail without sealing it, and there is no smell. I don't mean it doesn't smell much, I mean there is no smell. My experience is that disposables in the diaper genie are far more offensive to the nose. While my diapers are washing, I do a quick rinse of the diaper pail with water and vinegar, then put in a fresh liner (I have two).  It takes me about five minutes to start the diapers in the wash, rinse the diaper pail, and put in the fresh liner-- about the same time that it takes me to take the garbage out.

Be willing to experiment. This was the advice that I got from Green Mountain Diapers, and it is just about the best advice I've ever heard. There are SO many different ways to cloth diaper, and so much of it is subjective, based on your own taste and your own, unique child. Really, it is over-whelming. When I first started, I was convinced that it would be easier with expensive diaper covers. Now that I bought three to try, I found that the cheap Dappi Nylon Covers were easier for me and fit my daughter better. It took a lot of experimentation, too, to find the routine that worked for me and my daughter. Here's what we have so far:

I have two diaper pails: one for poopy diapers and wipes next to the toilet in the bathroom, and one next to the changing table in my daughter's room for wet diapers and covers that do not need to be rinsed. Since not every diaper needs to be rinsed, I don't have to walk to the bathroom at EVERY diaper change like I did for two years.  Every night, I pick up the diaper pail as I leave my daughter's room and immediately throw everything from both pails in the wash. I rinse the pails and change the liners. It takes me five minutes.  At some point before I go to bed, I hang everything up to air-dry over night. This takes about 5 minutes. When I wake up in the morning, I toss the diapers only (not wipes or covers) into the dryer for 15 minutes to get soft. It takes me two minutes. Then I put everything away whenever I put away the other laundry.

Maybe that does take me a few more minutes total (I believe I'm at 12 minutes of my actually time being used) than it takes to take the trash outside and put a new plastic bag in the trash can or diaper genie, but it's not nearly as big a difference as disposable diaper companies would have me believe. You also have to rinse out diaper genies occasionally to keep them from getting nasty. You are also supposed to take disposables to the bathroom and dump the poop into the toilet before throwing it away. Let's face it: diapering children is not convenient no matter which method you use. And for me personally and my situation, what little difference in convenience there is, it is not enough to convince me that it is worth the astronomical price tag, or exposure to harmful chemicals.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Recipe: Summer Tomato Risotto with Spinach

I can't say enough about spinach. What a nutritional powerhouse! This leafy green, which is thought to be native to Persia (now Iran), should be a staple in the diet of every health-conscious person, but should especially be incorporated during pregnancy. Spinach is an excellent source of iron, a host of B vitamins, including riboflavin (B2) and folate (the naturally occurring form of folic acid), as well as calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and K. It's also a good source of dietary fiber. Your baby will thank you for eating as much spinach as you can. Folate is known to prevent the birth defect, spina bifida, and vitamin K, calcium, and iron are all essential to bone development.

So, now you may know of a few of the many reasons why you need to eat more spinach, but nutrition alone has never been enough to convince anyone to eat anything. But guess what? It's delicious! This is one green that I usually prefer fresh over cooked, and I easily incorporate it anytime a recipe calls for it's less-nutritionally dense cousin, lettuce. I'm not a fan of the soggy, gross boiled spinach that I remember from my childhood (the kind Popeye ate from the can), but luckily there are a host of ways to prepare spinach that are both more delicious, and more nutritious. It's hard to beat a good spinach salad, but spinach sauteed in olive oil with garlic is right up there in my book. I also like it wilted in stir-fries. And can we get a shout-out for spinach dip, please?

I like to make a game of buying fresh, baby spinach in bulk at Sam's and seeing how much of it I can eat before it goes bad. Of course, since I wash it in my fabulous lotus washer, it lasts longer than it normally would, but still. It's a lot of spinach to consume. Naturally, I add it to everything I can, and tonight's dinner was no exception. Simple tomato risotto sounded boring. Where was the color variation? What it needed was some green.

Risotto is a traditional Italian rice dish, made with a short-grain, round rice. Arborio is commonly used and easy to find.  It seems that rice was known in Italy a-way back in the Roman days, but was not common and was used mainly for medicinal purposes. It seems that the Arabs introduced rice to Northern Italy sometime during the Middle Ages, and it became a staple crop of the Po Valley sometime in the mid-late 1400's. Risotto is an extremely flavorful dish that takes some practice, but I found to be more forgiving than it is rumored to be. Just be patient and keep stirring!

Here is my recipe for Tomato Risotto with Spinach. There were no leftovers!

Tomato Risotto with Spinach

1 small package arborio rice
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes with liquid, warmed

1/3 cup good wine, warmed (white would be best, but I only had red and it was fine. I warmed mine in the microwave...DO NOT add cold, or it will "shock" the rice) 
1 medium onion, diced (I had a red onion on hand)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chicken stock, warmed (again, cold liquid will shock the rice), use more or less if needed

2 tablespoons butter, divided
2 cups fresh baby spinach 
salt and pepper to taste

In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, melt 1 tbsp butter and saute onion until translucent. Add garlic and saute for 1 minute more. Add rice and saute until golden brown (5-7 minutes), stirring constantly. When rice is toasted, add the wine in slow constant stream, stirring gently to keep mixture from sticking. Next, add the stock, one ladle-full at a time. Keep stirring gently, adding each ladle-full once rice has absorbed what is in the pan. Then add the canned tomatoes with liquid and continue to stir gently. When rice has reached the "al dente" stage, add the spinach and stir until it is tender and incorporated.  Turn of heat and stir in the last tbsp of butter to make it extra rich and creamy. Top with grated pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately! Enjoy!

Late-Summer Baking

I don't really bake, and I'm not sure why. I love baked goods. But maybe it is because once the delicious goodies are made, I feel compelled to eat them. I feel that I cannot waste even a single one, and so I hear an evil little voice in my head whispering, "Go on! Just one more!" and I wilt.  And let's face it: even when home-made, baked goods are little more than empty calories. Delicious, empty calories. So normally, I abstain from the temptation as much as I can, but yesterday I couldn't resist getting my girls in the kitchen and making some sugar cookies. Two sugars making sugar cookies: how could it go wrong? Well, it couldn't, and it didn't, and our cookies were magnificent. I wish you could have seen my littlest one's face when she poured scoops of flour into the mixing bowl. You would have thought  we were making something magical. Their squeals of delight brought a surge of joy to my soul. Yes, this is what life is truly about, and I've decided in my Heaven, my children and I will bake cookies together every day, only there won't be any calories or sugar highs. Oh, and we'll actually take naps. Yes. Naps and cookie baking. That MUST be Heaven.

The girls poured all the ingredients in the mixer for me, then I rolled them out and they picked the cookie cutters and cut them out. I must say, it was a learning process for me. I consider myself to be pretty easy going (as far as women go. Let's face it, what woman is TRULY easy going? I can't think of one), but I found myself having to relax when they pulled at the dough and tore the shapes, causing me to have to re-roll them and cut everything out again. I mean, we weren't baking for anyone but ourselves, and it was just for fun, so I don't know why I got uptight about it at first. But after a good reality check, I was able to calm down and remember that this was their time and their project, and we needed to do it at their pace. It's amazing where we pick up these little kernels of realization. What did it matter if we ended up adding extra sugar, or if the flour went everywhere? I feel it would be totally unrealistic to expect two toddlers to not make a mess in the kitchen! But what a rich experience it was! There were so many learning opportunities, and the girls were ripe with excitement. It is definitely something we will do again!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Things I Love This Week

ScharffenBerger 70% Dark Chocolate Bar
I've been indulging in this artisan chocolate recently, which I can only find at my local Whole Foods. I LOVE the texture. It has that real hard texture when you first bite into it, which I love, but immediately melts smooth and creamy in your mouth. Plus, there's no bitter aftertaste, even though it's not sweet.

The Republic of Tea: Pomegranate and Vanilla Red Tea
I'm loving the soothing flavors of this red tea. Even though it's caffeine-free, I've found it's just the thing for a break on a hectic afternoon. And sip easy, because $1 from the sale of this tea will support the Susan G Koman for the Cure.

Innobaby Packin' Smart
I love these little stackable containers. I pack the girls' snacks for our trips out and about. They are perfect for raisins, cheerios, etc, but would be great for vitamins, paperclips, whatever. However, if you are using them for little ones, you can rest assured that they are BPA-free.

Homemade Vanilla Yogurt Pops
 I filled out basic popsicle molds with regular, Brown Cow Vanilla Yogurt and put them in the freezer. Then I told the girls it was ice cream. They never knew the difference!

Farm Fresh Eggs
I found egg from pastured chickens at my local farmer's market for about half the cost of the grocery store. The flavor is far superior to store-bought eggs. Plus, I love supporting the farmer's directly! Here's a tip: egg yolks are bright orange when they are fresh. Those yellow yolks from the grocery store mean they're poor quality eggs that have already had a long shelf-life.

Muscadine Update: Muscadine Sauce

So, I promised to update about the muscadines. I didn't attempt jelly like I had originally planned. Honestly, I've never made jelly before, and I chickened out. That's a project to attempt another day. So I went a route I'm more familiar with: muscadine syrup. I make fresh blueberry or strawberry syrup every time the girls and I make pancakes, so I figured I would just substitute the muscadines for the blueberries. The resulting sauce was delicious! But I wouldn't call it a syrup. The nature of the muscadines made this much thicker, so it was more like a sauce. I could have strained the skins, but I wanted to keep more vitamins in the sauce, so I pureed it instead. The muscadines took a long time to cook down, more than 30 minutes. I actually let it cook a bit too long, and so my sauce was quite thick (that's what we get for crafting while we wait!) but it was still delicious spooned over our pancakes this morning!  Here's how I did it:

Muscadine Butter

2 quarts muscadines, seeded
1/2 cup pure sorghum
1 tbps lime juice (that's what I had on hand)

combine all ingredients in a large Dutch oven. Let cook down for about 30 minutes or until all combined and muscadines are tender. Blend in with either immersion or stand blender.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

How I Try to Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season

As a single mom with two active kids and one on the way, I cannot afford to get sick this winter. Period. In our household, there is so much to do that we need all hands on deck and I do not have the luxury of staying in bed or "taking it easy" (honestly, who nowadays CAN do that?). Luckily, neither of my kids go to daycare or school, so their exposure level is far below normal, but that doesn't mean we won't pick something up at the grocery store. The way that I try to get healthy is to not get sick in the first place. Easier said than done, right? Well, there are a few things that I do to give my immune system a boost:

Eat well. Flu season especially is no time to eat junk. I try to eat a wide variety of colors to ensure I'm getting enough vitamins and minerals. I know that if my body is struggling to process excess sugar or protein, it's already going to be too stressed to fight off any foreign entities!

Brush, floss, and Listerine at least twice a day, that's how I keep myself healthy. The mouth is a gateway to the body. If you can keep it clean and kill the germs BEFORE they enter your stomach, you're giving a major boon to your immune system. When I start to get a scratchy throat, I rinse my mouth with Listerine for at least 30 seconds several times a day. I have found that for me, this will stop a cold dead in its tracks faster than any medication.

Wash hands! (we all know that one!) I also try to keep from touching my face.

I take a Probiotic Advantage every day. This tiny pearl of acidophiles replenishes the "good" bacteria in your gut, which will not only keep you regular, it keeps your immune system in a healthy balance.

And if my body is giving me signs that it is struggling: acne outbreaks, mouth ulcers, (what signs does your body give you?), I start taking extra Vitamin C and drink lots and lots of water. I also drink a cup of hot green tea with local honey for the antioxidants- something I should do year-round, and not just when I'm getting a cold.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Late-Summer Garden

I am STILL getting okra from my 8 okra seedlings. And some of it is growing so fast that I can't keep up. I never dreamed it would do so well (note to self: do not plant okra in a 4-foot raised bed next year, as it grows to be 7-feet tall. The resulting 11-foot branches were hard to reach). Also, all my eggplants are coming ripe at once, and we are finally getting substantial peppers! I found the problem to my witherings squash: little white, flat-bodied bugs crawling all over it! They seem to be (thankfully) ignoring everything else, but they were totally immune to my insecticidal soap. Here's what I picked yesterday:

It is by no means a huge haul, but I am incredibly proud of it. This is the first year I've actually grown enough to eat all summer. Usually I just have one tomato plant in a pot.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Test Kitchen Recipe: Farfalle with Eggplant Cream Sauce

It happened again: I had 5 eggplants sitting on the counter begging to be eaten. I had impulsively bought all that was left in the last five minutes of the farmer's market. The eggplants were beautiful: shiny, small, but heavy. Firm, but not hard. Perfect. Then the indecision of how to use them overcame me, and they have sat on my counter ever since, whispering "Eat me! Eat me!" every time I walked past. I've already written about eggplants a couple of times (here and here) and I've made several eggplant dishes this summer. In fact, I've probably eaten more eggplant in the last three months than I have in my entire life. Plus, I've got 8 pretty purple fruits ripening in my own garden bed. I know I'm going to make the roasted eggplant spread again this summer, but today, I wanted to try something different. In my head, I thought up a luscious-sounding recipe: farfalle pasta tossed in an creamy eggplant sauce. My inspiration was a twist on an artichoke sauce I had at Mimi's Cafe. I carefully thought out my ingredient list, and this afternoon, I set to work. Here's what I came up with. It was by no means perfect, but there was enough promise that I'm going to try again. It will, however, need some major tweaking. Here's the recipe (tweaks in red):

Farfalle with Eggplant Cream Sauce

5 small eggplant, sweated and cubed (that ended up being a lot; probably 2 medium, or 3 small is enough. Needs to sweat longer than 30 minutes, more than one bite ended up being bitter. Should peel it next time, although color will be missed)
1 large tomato, diced (needed more. Probably at least 2)
3 cloves garlic, minced (try roasting garlic first)

1 handful spinach (spinach was too bitter; try fresh basil leaves)
3 TBSP butter
1/2 onion, diced (try a sweeter onion, like a red onion or vidalia variety. Needs the whole thing)
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated pecorino romano (needed more, but I ran out)

1 tsp basil (wasn't enough. Eliminate dried basil if using fresh, above)

fresh ground pepper to taste
1 tsp sea salt (needed more)
1 package farfalle (or preferred pasta shape), cooked according to package instructions

In a large Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat. Sautee onion until tender, add garlic. Sautee 1 minute more, then add the eggplant. Sautee until soft. Add the tomato. Sautee until soft. Add cream. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Add dried basil, salt, and pepper (eliminate dried basil if using fresh. Add fresh basil in place of spinach). Let simmer 15 minutes. Stir in spinach, continue stirring until it is just wilted. Add pecorino romano. Pour over cooked pasta. Toss. Serve immediately.

The Result
Not my favorite result, but there is promise. The eggplant ended up being bitter, which might be because it was a few days old. If I had used it the day I bought it, I think it would have been better (eggplant really does not save well, and should be used ASAP). I plan to try it with the adjustments in red and see if it turns out better. Also, mine ended up being under-seasoned, which is really rare for me. Usually I am very freer with spices. I think if I get those things fixed, this could be one of those dishes where you lick the bowl at the end. I served it with a hearty French bread, which was perfect. This was a very rustic sauce, and it takes a hearty bread to hold up to it! I thought a great addition might be roasted red bell peppers instead of tomatoes, to add some extra sweetness to the sauce. And I think the addition of mushrooms (maybe crimini mushrooms?) would lend itself well to the rustic nature of the dish.

Cloth Diaper 101: Do Your Research!

I am trying to get back into cloth diapering again. Since potty training is in reach with both my girls, I might be tempted to just ride out baby #3 in disposables, except that baby #3 is a boy, and I feel even more passionate about cloth diapering boys than I do girls, as disposable diapers have been linked to lower fertility and infertility in men, due to overheating of the scrotum. Cloth diapers allow more air circulation, which allows the body to keep the testicles at the right temperature--several degrees cooler than the body--for proper development. Of course, certain chemicals in disposable diapers cause female problems in the workers who manufacture disposable diapers, so maybe it is not more important for one sex over the other. But there are other reasons I chose to use cloth diapers, too.

-They promote more frequent changing. Since they are not as absorbent as disposable diapers, cloth diapers guarantee frequent changing, which means that all that waste isn't held up next to your babies skin for hours.
-They are easier on baby's skin. Disposable diapers are laden with chemicals that your baby could be allergic to. Cloth diapers, especially organic ones, are free from such agitators. (for an article outlining some of the health risks of disposables, click here.)
-They are better on the environment. Our landfills are literally full of disposable diapers, which are not biodegradable. Also, read the package instructions on those disposables: you're supposed to put the poop in the toilet anyway (although nobody does), because the poop in the landfill doesn't get treated at the sewage plant. Instead, it seeps into the ground and contaminates our ground water.

and the number one reason that I love cloth diapers and chose to use them:
-they are so much cheaper, it is unbelievable.

I got sidetracked back into disposables during our move from CA to AR, when things were so crazy I wasn't able to wash diapers. Don't get me wrong: I LOVE cloth diapering! It is my diapering method of choice, but it does come with some drawbacks: it is more time consuming and takes more planning, as anything worthwhile does. However, the enormous financial benefit, as well as the health benefits that I believe to be true of cloth diapers, far outweigh any inconveniences in my mind. For my first two girls, I was a novice. I know I made a lot of cloth diaper mistakes, but as it happened, no mistake was crucial. However, the upfront cost of cloth diapering is significant. And while your savings over time (think of shelling out an extra $150-$200 per child in diapers per month for two years for disposables*) far outweighs this initial investment, it is great enough that you really need to do your homework before making a purchase. I wish, wish, wish that I had found The Diaper Pin my first time around. Although my cloth diapering experience turned out okay (I used BumGenius! bamboo diapers with a Dappi nylon cover), I wish I'd had The Diaper Pin's product reviews when making my initial selections.

Before, I purchased diapers from Cotton Babies, an online store that also has a retail location in St. Louis, MO. the customer service was excellent, the prices reasonable, the website helpful. I have nothing but good things to say about them.

This time, I ordered diapers from Green Mountain Diapers, because they carried a brand of Indian cotton pre-folds that were more highly reviewed on The Diaper Pin than the Indian cotton pre-folds sold at Cotton Babies. I placed my order at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, and it was shipped that afternoon. This website was also incredibly helpful, with lots of pictures of babies wearing the diapers so you could get a better idea of how they fit. My order was sent UPS, and should arrive next week. I also found this store to carry only what is necessary. For example, they don't sell diaper pails, because they said that you can use any container with a lid. That's the kind of "cut to the point" sales that I appreciate.

*NOTE: I recently saw an ad by a diaper company that estimated the cost of disposable diapers as much lower, about $75-$100. per month I totaled up in my head, and this estimates the cost for diapers only, and does not include the significant cost of disposable baby wipes, which are nearly as expensive as the diapers themselves, but you go through much faster. My experience the last few months in disposables has been about $300-$350 per month for two toddlers.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Things I Love This Week

Apricot Baby Oil
 Summer days in the sun and wind dry out my girls' skin, so I've been using this all-natural apricot oil after bath-time to keep them soft and smooth. Its natural scent is nice and mild, and once it is dry on their skin, it is not greasy at all.

Wicked Plants
This book is one of those books that is great for browsing through, not really to read all in one sitting. Nice if you've got just a few minutes to peruse. It is full of cautionary tales, interesting histories, and the pictures are great (if a little gruesome). Who knew that over 68,000 people die every year from accidental plant poisonings? Many of the plants featured in the Harry Potter series actually exist and are featured here. It was fun to learn the actual history behind Wolf's Bane and Mandrake Root.

A Homemade Life
I love Molly Wizenburg's thoughtful prose. Some stories have made me laugh out loud, and the recipes sound delicious. I haven't had a chance to make anything yet, but you'd better believe that I'm planning to!

The Diaper Pin
I'm planning on doing cloth diapers again for my new baby, as well as for my other two, who are both potty training. I wish, wish, wish that I had done my homework and found this website when I was choosing cloth diapers before. Although I lucked out and ended up with some quality diapers that served me well through two babies,  the reviews on The Diaper Pin are indispensable. I feel very confident with the choices I made this time around, and I ended up spending way less money.

I just had my first "Etsy" experience! My aunt made stockings from Bucilla Kits for all my brothers and me when we were born, and it has always been one of my most cherished Christmas traditions. Although I would have loved to make a stocking for each of my own kids, these stockings are tedious, requiring between 40-60 hours to make (that translates into about 100 hours for a novice crafter like me) and I knew I simply would not have the time. Thanks to Etsy, I was able to buy a completed stocking for my little baby's first Christmas. It doesn't come personalized, of course, but I'm handy enough to do that part myself. Of course, I spent way too much on it, but it was worth every penny to satisfy my sentimentality and not have to make it myself.