Kefir

A few weeks ago I saw an interesting item come up on my online local food co-op, Coastal Farms. Jen Vaughan, of Vaughan Farms Produce, had posted that she had some extra kefir grains, and was selling them, along with a mason jar and some instructions on what to do with them.  I was intrigued, so I did a little research and it turns out that kefir grains are not actually grains, but rather a symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria. Yummy! When brewed, they ferment (just like beer or wine) and create an active probiotic culture (just like yogurt). Kefir is probably most well known as a yogurt type of product or kefir milk, but it turns out you can also brew kefir into “kefir water” which is sort of a sparkling-like fermented beverage. The fizziness of it comes from the fermentation and can be adjusted based on how much air is allowed in during the process. The whole process and product is very similar to Kombucha, which is probably a little more well recognized.

Kefir grains and my first kefir water batch

Kefir grains and my first kefir water batch

I ordered my first batch and got to brewing! Jen had a few great suggestions for recipes to give the water flavor. Plain kefir water isn’t exactly delicious, so it’s recommended that you mix it with flavorings, which can range from green tea to juice to vanilla extract, depending on how you want it to taste. For my first batch I did a green tea flavoring, then I followed that with a cream soda style flavor and now I am on to a citrusy grapefruit juice. The process is simple:

1. Dissolve 1/4 cup of raw, brown sugar (I’m using raw demerara sugar) in 1 quart of distilled water (or spring or mineral water, according to the interwebs) in a container with a lid (I used the 1 quart mason jar Jen provided). Make sure the water is room temp and not hot – that will kill the grains. Drop in a raisin or two (they will be your ‘tell’) and a lemon slice if you have one (helps with the Ph). Put in three tablespoons of kefir grains. Put the container with the lid just set on top – not screwed on, in a warm place out of direct sunlight. For me, this was on top of my fridge.

2. When the raisins have floated to the top of the water, usually 2-3 days, the water is done “brewing.” Remove the lemon slice and raisins, then strain the water through a fine sieve. Here’s the trick – kefir doesn’t like metal – you have to use glass or plastic or in my case, I just put a paper towel on my metal sieve and strain it that way. Cheesecloth would also work, if I could find it anywhere, ever. Put your kefir grains back into your mason jar or container and start again with 1 quart of water and 1/4 cup of sugar, raisins, lemon, etc – the grains can pretty much be brewed indefinitely.

I strain the kefir through a paper towel lined sieve since metal can kill the grains

I strain the kefir through a paper towel lined sieve since metal can kill the grains

 

3. Take your strained kefir water and add your preferred flavorings. Here is what I’ve tried:

  • 1 part very strongly brewed green tea to 1 part kefir water.
  • 1 tbs vanilla extract and an extra 1/4 cup raw sugar (creates a cream soda style water)
  • 1 part grapefruit juice to 1 part kefir water, one sliced lemon, one sliced lime

Once you’ve added your flavors, put it through a second fermentation – so put it back in another container with a lid just resting on top in a warm place out of sunlight for about 2 more days. At this point, if you’ve added things (like lemon and lime slices) strain it again and then bottle it up and put it in the fridge. The water will last as long as whatever you’ve brewed it with would. So however long you’d leave a pitcher of brewed tea in your fridge is how long you can leave the kefir water brew in there and it will be fine. Keep repeating the process with your other fermenting batch and you can have indefinite kefir water!

my first taste!

my first taste!

There are innumerable ways to prepare and brew your kefir water and also tons of sites online where you can purchase the grains. I found this site particularly helpful: http://www.culturesforhealth.com/water-kefir-frequently-asked-questions-faq

I have noticed that since I’ve been drinking the water every day, my stomach issues have decreased some. It’s like I’m drinking my probiotic pills (which I also continue to take) and it certainly can’t hurt to get as much good bacteria going as possible. If you suffer from any kind of intestinal issues, or even if you don’t – I would really recommend giving this a try. The fizziness is nice without being too much (I hate soda and carbonated beverages, but this is the perfect amount of fizz for me), and the flexibility of flavorings is really nice. And because the grains basically feed on the sugar in the brewing process, the overall sugar content of kefir water is much, much lower than you would imagine based on how much you put in at the beginning. According to CulturesforHealth.com “approximately 20% of the sugar you start with will remain following a 48- hour culturing process and almost all that sugar will have been converted to fructose from its original glucose-fructose state.  Therefore if you use our recommend ratio of 1/4 cup sugar to 1 quart water, the finished kefir will contain approximately 1.4% fructose.” That’s pretty low – much lower than fruit juice, juice cocktails and certainly less than soda.

So give something different a try! Love the good bacteria!

strained kefir grains

strained kefir grains

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the other green

I was reading a story in Edible Piedmont this morning about a kale recipe, which could also be made with collards. The author made this substitution because she said she knew how popular collards are in eastern North Carolina, so much so that the region has been referred to as “The Collard Belt.” I’ll take it. But I’ll also take kale. Any day of the week. I think it’s actually a bit more palatable to the general population than collards and is usually cooked in more various ways.

I know it’s sort of cliche to have a food blog and regale the benefits of kale. Everyone gets it, I know. Kale is great, it’s good for you, it’s a super food, put it in your smoothies, bake it into cookies, blah blah blah. But seriously. It’s great. So great that I highlighted one of my favorite kale recipes in my January column in Tidewater WomenThe column this month is about resolving to “Live Locally” and what that means, how it benefits not only you personally, but your community as a whole. I also put it in there to remind people that local food isn’t in hibernation during the winter months. It’s readily available, if you’re willing to look for it, and to try something you might not otherwise try (ie – kale. or chard. or other things that are green and look like dinosaur food.) Not wanting to be a hypocrite, I went out yesterday, tracked down some kale and made this recipe, which I share with you below. It really is a great recipe, especially for the new year, if (like me) you are trying to drop a few “party pounds” from the holidays….this meal is so packed with protein that after only half a bowl you’ll feel completely full. It’s also so lo-cal and healthy that even if you down all four servings in one night, there’s really nothing to feel guilty about. Except for the amount of flatulence you will inevitably plague your family with if you decide to do that. ANYWAYS.

I found this kale at a little roadside stand out in front of somebody’s house. These are my favorite places to shop because it’s fresh, you’re helping support someone’s backyard gardening habit, and the produce is usually dirt cheap. I got a pound of kale and a dozen fresh, free-range eggs for $4. I could also have scored 4 lbs of sweet potatoes for a dollar if I’d liked. Keep an eye out for these stands in your neighborhood or town. And don’t feel shy or weird about driving up to them. The people who set them out are usually so nice and happy to have a customer. The chicken came from a Crock Pot Chicken I’d made earlier in the week. This was one of three meals I got out of one five pound chicken. The only change I make in this recipe is that I use dried lentils that I cook and season myself. I’ve never been able to find canned lentils in my grocery stores, but if your store has them – more power to you. If you go this route, use half the bag (1/2 lb) – not two whole cups of dried beans, as they will expand as they cook. 1/2 lb will give you just over two cups once cooked.

Shredded Chicken with Kale and Lentils

kale cooking

CAST IRON LOVE.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper
  • 2 bunches kale, tough stems removed, torn into bite-size pieces
  • 2 cups lentils (from a 15.5-ounce can), drained and rinsed
  • 2 cups shredded cooked skinless chicken breasts
  • Lemon wedges, for serving

Method:

  1. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add onion and thyme; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add kale and cook, stirring occasionally, until kale is wilted and tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl.
  3. Add 1 tablespoon oil and lentils to skillet; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until warmed through, about 20 seconds. Transfer to bowl with kale, toss to combine, and divide among four bowls. Top with chicken and squeeze lemon over top. Serves 4.
Shredded chicken with kale and lentils

Shredded chicken with kale and lentils

I agree with what you’re thinking – this looks like a recipe you see in those magazines all about getting fit with advertisements for muscle milk supplements. But honestly, it doesn’t taste like that. It tastes yummy AND healthy, which is possible, I promise. Jeremy even got seconds. Flatulence be damned!

 

The root of it all

I just gave myself an award for the most clever blog title ever.

i ❤ beets

It is a shame, I realized, that this blog’s namesake has never really been examined thoroughly. I think in my very first blog post I may have posted a picture of a beet dish I had done, but I’ve never really delved into this amazing little root that inspired me to make this blog. There are a few reasons that beets are the thing I happen to heart. They are available locally, they are available at several times throughout the year and many people don’t like them. Why is that a reason to make beets the central theme of a blog? Because I think I can change people’s minds. I think a lot of foods out there that deserve our attention but suffer general distaste have just been presented wrong all this time. Like the poor Brussels sprout, which I will post about later . . .

Take, for instance, my husband who insisted he hated beets. So I asked in what format he had experienced beets in the past and he said either canned, pickled or boiled to death. Well, no wonder. He also hated Brussels sprouts for similar reasons. But there is a simple answer to both of these food fears and it is this: roasting. Roasting, which uses dry, indirect and diffused heat (such as an oven) increases flavor by caramelization and the Maillard browning reaction. Essentially, roasting enhances the sugars in foods through a process called pyrolysis, which I will not get into, because I barely passed chemistry. But here is what I do know: it makes food delicious. Especially foods like beets, which already have a high natural sugar content, just waiting to be released.

Beets are also so nutritious. Here are some facts from Nutrition and You about beets:

  • Beets are a rich source of phytochemical compound, glycine betaine. Betaine has the  property of lowering homocysteine levels within the blood. Homocysteine, a highly toxic metabolite, promotes platelet clot as well as atherosclerotic-plaque formation, which, otherwise, can be harmful to blood vessels. High levels of homocysteine in the blood result in the development of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and peripheral vascular diseases.
  • They are also a rich source of B-complex vitamins such as niacin (B-3), pantothenic acid (B-5), pyridoxine (B-6) and minerals such as iron, manganese, copper, and magnesium.
  • The root has very good levels of potassium. 100 g fresh root has 325 mg of potassium or 7% of daily requirements. Potassium lowers heart rate and regulates metabolism inside the cells by countering detrimental effects of sodium.

And while us die-hard beet fans can eat a beet canned, pickled, boiled, grilled or anything else, for those skeptics out here, this is my GO-TO beet recipe. I’m not sure where it originated from…I think a friend may have suggested this method and I’ve just sort of made it my own over time, I’m not really sure. My hope is that you will love it enough to make it your own, adding, subtracting and substituting to your liking.

Roasted Beet Salad with Vinaigrette

Ingredients: Beets in vinaigrette

  • One bunch beets (as seen above)
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • 1 tbs vinegar of your choice (balsamiq, red wine, champagne, whatever you like)
  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • 1 tbs dried herbs (Italian, Herbs de Provence, fresh or powdered garlic or whatever else you’d like)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Method:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375 Fahrenheit. Cut the beets off their stems and trim off the tops and the “tails” of each beet. Clean each beet so they are free of dirt. Wrap each beet in individually in tin foil and place in the pre-heated oven, directly on the center rack. Roast for 30-40 minutes, or until each beet is easily pierced with a knife. 
  2. While the beets are roasting, create your vinaigrette. The most important thing to remember here is the a vinaigrette dressing always 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. You can use any combination or any measurement (tsp, tbs, cup, etc), as long as you keep that ratio the same. Pour your oil, vinegar, shallots, herbs, salt and pepper into a medium sized bowl and whisk until they are emulsified. Set aside until beets have finished roasting.
  3. When beets are easily pierced with a knife, unwrap from tinfoil and allow to cool. Take an old dishtowel and peel the beet’s skin off with the towel – if it’s roasted to completion, the skin should slide off easily. Do this with each beet.
  4. Cut each beet in half or in quarters, if large, and cut into thin slices. Re-whisk your vinaigrette so it is well blended, then add your beets to the bowl and toss to coat. Plate, then top each serving with a spoonful of feta cheese.
Trim and wash beets

Trim and wash beets

A well emulsified vinaigrette

A well emulsified vinaigrette

Beets

After roasting, remove skin with a dish towel

Served with Greek salad, crusty French bread a Pinot Grigio.

Served with Greek salad, crusty French bread a Pinot Grigio.

If you don’t like beets like this, then I grant you the right to dislike beets. But before you file them away in things that are gross and that you refuse to eat, please try this recipe. Please. Give beets a chance.

Note: these beets were purchased from Westside Produce and Provisions where they were sourced from New Earth Farms in the Pungo area of Virginia Beach, where they use sustainable and organic growing methods. 

Detox Lessons Learned

I am back to a pseudo-regular diet and the good news is that wine does not seem to affect me at all. (Huzzah! And just in time for Virginia Wine Month!) However, beer is probably off the menu for good. And anything that combines dairy, cheese and wheat, although separately, they seem to be OK.

So here are some lessons I’ve learned and things I’ll continue to practice now that my detox is done:

  • You don’t need nearly as much food as you think you do. Hunger is a state of mind, not of body.
  • Fast (with juice and smoothies) one day a month, or once a week if you can. This gives your digestive system a break, particularly after a long weekend or the holidays, etc.
  • I do not NEED coffee every morning. Substitute herbal tea a few times a week and only have one cup of coffee on the days I chose to. Drinking 2-3 cups of coffee on an empty stomach was clearly one of my primary irritants. (yes, I figured that out by myself; I’m a genius)
  • Detox isn’t just about food. Get rid of other toxic things in your life like negative thoughts, actions, judgments, relationships, jobs, etc. We have one life, and it can end at any time. Don’t waste any of it on things that don’t serve you well or contribute to your overall improvement. This is not to say get rid of everything you dislike. Sometimes things we dislike are good for us and can and will improve us.
  • Stretch every single day. I like to do this right before I go to bed, it seems to help me sleep. I particularly like twisting stretches, as they are good for your internal organs and can help them detox. Gaiam has a few great suggestions on yoga for detox.
  • Fast 12 hours every day. This means that once you finish dinner, you do not eat anything for 12 hours. So if you finish dinner at 7, eat breakfast at 7 the next morning, with nothing in between. This is a great detox and weight loss principle. Your system needs the rest – food consumed late at night and right before bed doesn’t do you any favors at all.
  • Treat your body well. Not just in what you eat, but in what you do for it on a daily basis. I’ve started going back to a chiropractor since I started my detox and it’s doing amazing things for how I feel over all. Get a massage, get your spine adjusted, do some yoga, or just take a walk (they’re free!).
  • Take probiotics every day. They can do no harm, and can only help balance your digestive system.
  • Focus on “clean” foods whenever possible. Eliminate processed foods, eat your veggies raw every once in a while and I’ll say it – just get rid of sugar. Period.
  • Drink SO MUCH more water than you are. I’ve always been a big water drinker, but during the detox I was drinking a gallon or more a day. My skin, hair and eyes looked better. It’s amazing. Just drink it.

There are so many more things I learned while I did this, but those are just a few that I think are fairly easy to implement.

Has anyone else out there ever done a detox or similar program? What are your lessons learned? 

Saucy

Remember how I mentioned that I’m not exactly into measuring and precision? Principles that are important in things like baking, rocket science and canning. Can something without following all the right steps and BAM, everyone has botulism. That is why when I want to preserve something, I usually freeze it. I wish I could can, I really do. But I know how that science experiment would end up and it is with a trip to the hospital.

So every year, near the end of the summer (*weep*) I freeze a big batch of tomato sauce that I make from local tomatoes. This year a large basket of tomatoes was donated to me via my great uncle and aunt, Joe and Carol, who are pretty amazing gardeners. Free food is the best food, just ask the freegans! (I’m kidding. That movement is gross. Talk about botulism. . .)

Making tomato sauce is kind of an ordeal, but worth it in the long run. I usually have to block out several hours of my day to get this done. This tomato sauce is a little looser than pasta sauce and can be used in place of canned tomato sauce. Basically, it can become the building blocks of spaghetti, marinara, pizza sauce, tomato soups – whatever you want.

So let’s get started. First, you wash and dry your tomatoes. I was working with 3 1/2 lbs here. I usually do a batch twice this large, but this is what I had to work with in this case. On the bottom of each tomato, cut a small ‘x’ with a paring knife.

cut a small ‘x’ into the bottom of each tomato

Then get a large pot of boiling water going. You are going to blanch the tomatoes, which means they will bathe in boiling water for just 2 minutes or so, until you start to see the skin around the X peel back. When you see that start to happen, get the tomatoes out of the water with a slotted spoon and deposit into a colander where they can drain and cool. There is a serious system to this and you need to get your “mise en place!” (A fancy French term meaning ‘get your $h*t together before you start working’)

Mise en place!!

 

blanch and peel the tomatoes

Once you’ve done this in small batches to all of your tomatoes (don’t put more than 4 or 5 small tomatoes into your water at once), and once they’ve cooled to the touch, peel the tomatoes starting at the X in the bottom, pulling the skin away up to the top. Do this to all of your tomatoes. Once they are all peeled, start chopping and you’ll want to remove the hard area of the tomato where the stem was. Everything else gets chopped and thrown into your pot.

dump chopped tomatoes into your pot

Then you add your other ingredients (these measurements are based on using 3 1/2lbs of tomatoes):

  • 1/4 cup of olive oil
  • 3/4 tbs black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tbs minced onion
  • 1/2 tbs dried oregano
  • 1/2 tbs garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp dried parsley
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbs tomato paste
  • a few dashes of crushed red pepper flakes

You can use fresh herbs rather than dried herbs, but you don’t need too much. Remember, this is tomato sauce – a base, not your finished product that goes on your spaghetti. Also, if you don’t care for spice AT ALL, omit the chili powder and red pepper, but those two ingredients don’t really make this that spicy, so if you’re OK with a little spice, no worries.

Then the fun part. You probably don’t want your tomato sauce this chunky. If you do, awesome, move on to the next step, but if you’re like most people, you want a smooth sauce and you can accomplish this one of two ways: with a stick blender right in the pot, or with a regular blender in batches. I use a stick blender, because I feel bad ass when I open this thing up.

The 007 theme music starts playing

Seriously, it looks like a weapon custom designed for James Bond. But if you don’t have one of these, then just use your standard blender, blending in batches and returning the mixture to your pot. Do this before the sauce gets hot so nobody gets hurt.

After it’s been blended, simmer your sauce for at least an hour, or longer. It should look something like this:

droooool

If you’re using it right away, then do whatever you need to do, but if you’re freezing it, let it cool, off the heat for 15 minutes or so. Then dole out 1 cup portions into tupperware containers that are freezer-safe. Make sure you leave enough head room in each container – this stuff will expand, according to the laws of science. I buy tupperwares that have measurements right on the side of the container so I don’t actually have to measure, because we all know how I feel about that. I just ladle it in until it hits the mark.

Ready to chill out

Stash them in your freezer and pull them out whenever needed. To thaw, either put in the fridge overnight or let them float around in some cool water in the sink for an hour or so. Or if you’re super impatient like me, just dump the frozen sauce right into your pan and heat it up until it’s thawed. Look guys, I just need my tomato sauce RIGHT NOW.

You may be thinking that this is a lot of work, and so be it. It is. But the taste is amazing, you’re preserving a little piece of summer and perhaps you are not aware of the health implications of most canned food? Did you know that Bisphenol A (BPA) is widely used as a lining for cans holding canned food? BPA is thought to be harmful because it mimics human hormones and has been classified as an endocrine disruptor. BPA has been associated with a variety of health problems in laboratory animals, including cancers, early puberty, and developmental problems. Canned products are also laden with sodium (hello high blood pressure, blood clots, heart disease, etc etc etc) and other preservation chemicals. So avoiding canned products could be a life saver. There are a few small organic companies making canned beans and some veggies that are in BPA-free cans, but they are difficult to find and can be expensive. In the meantime, spend a little extra time to know and make what you’re eating. And if you’re NOT like me, and you are capable of following intense directions, start thinking about canning – which of course, is actually “jarring” and so avoids the BPA, sodium and chemicals in store-bought products. The Ball Jar website has great recipes and tutorials on how to do this. If I can ever get my brain to function on a linear plane, I may just try it myself.

BERKFERST NOT MAH FAVRIT MERLS

If you need context for that title, check this out.

Breakfast is hard. Mostly because I don’t get hungry until about 11, but they tell you you’re supposed to eat within 30 minutes of waking up to boost your metabolism. I’ll be perfectly honest here and say that sometimes 11 and “within 30 minutes of waking up” are not always that far apart….but that aside, sometimes I just want a cup of coffee and for everything else to somehow make itself. Also, since I don’t really care for breakfast (on the weekdays – weekends are another story full of bacon and cheesy scrambled eggs and toast with strawberry jam), I try to make it as healthy as possible since my taste buds haven’t always totally woken up.

Last week I had gotten a few local peaches from my co-op and when I got up that morning, somehow all the cereal, bread, jam, and milk had magically disappeared. So I opted for oatmeal with peaches. I told you when I started this blog, there would be some major fails. This one wasn’t major, but it was a misstep – the directions on the oatmeal said to add a 1/4 tsp of salt to the oats while they were cooking. I cut the recipe in half, since it was just me and just threw in a “dash” of salt. Well, either these instructions are bobo to begin with, or my brain is so dysfunctional in the morning that my “dash” was actually a giant pour and this was the saltiest oatmeal I’ve ever had in my life. I tried to add some cream and honey to it to tone it down, but to no real avail. I ended up just mostly eating the peaches with a little bit of the oats. My advice: just don’t put salt in oatmeal. Seriously, whose idea was that anyways?

In any case, I think it turned out “pretty” which is sometimes all I can ask of my food:

BERKFERST

Local honey and peaches with rolled oats

So despite the salt-lick fiasco, let’s talk about the benefits of this meal while pretending it didn’t taste gross. First off, oats are a whole grain, and rolled oats are a less processed version of a whole grain. I’d like to say I can stomach steel cut, as-little-processing-as-possible oats, but I can’t. They’re just gross and should be reserved for horses. Thick rolled oats are my in-between healthy option. I get this brand from the organic/natural aisle of the grocery store. They take 10-20 minutes to cook. Word to the wise – if your “whole grains” take less than 5 minutes to cook, they aren’t really doing you any good. Whole grains are good for your heart, cholesterol, blood pressure (reducing the likelihood of having blood clots, stroke and heart attack), and provide you with folic acid, fiber, b vitamins, iron and more. You can find out more about the benefits of whole grains on the whole grain council website.

Honey is full of antioxidants, is a great way of sweetening food without giving you a sugar rush because of its quick glucose and slow fructose release and if you suffer from seasonal outdoor allergies, locally produced honey can help curb some of those issues because it gives you a healthy, low-dose of the pollen you are allergic to, sort of like a vaccine or an allergy shot would. Find more fun honey info here.
Locally produced honey is the best kind to get (of course) because it will provide your system with the local allergens and pollen, because it helps keep your local honey bee population thriving (which is incredibly important for agriculture overall) and because it taste better because it has to go through less processing. I buy mine from Bee’s Knee’s apiary here in Chesapeake, VA.

Finally, peaches. Ah, peaches. The epitome of July. The highlight of summer. Who would even care if they had health benefits or not, they are so good? But, luckily, they are full of potassium (low potassium is the source of MANY health issues including hypertension, fatigue, muscle weakness and more), beta-carotene (which your body turns in to Vitamin A), lycopene and lutein. They are also high in fiber and vitamin C. It’s important to note that while almost all vegetables and many fruits are “high in fiber” – the fiber usually resides in the skin of the product. Some fiber is contained in the flesh, but when it comes to things like peaches, cucumbers, apples, etc – if you are peeling them before eating them, you are losing out on a lot of fiber and nutrients. Whole food is the best food.

Alright, that’s enough for today’s nutrition lesson. Just remember – skip the salt, use a minimally processed whole grain, leave your fruit’s skin on and skip the sugar and replace it with locally produced honey. And coffee….don’t forget the coffee…..