Canned

Pear butter

This year, we decided to take our first steps into the world of canning.  Jeff’s mom and grandma passed on a huge love of, and tradition for, canning (My MIL’s pickled green beans are to die for as is her sauerkraut.)

While we’ve done some preserving in the past,  this year we’re stepping up.  Thankfully, Jeff is all in when it comes to this endeavor.  I even bought him a pressure canner for his birthday and he was thrilled.  In fact, if anything,  he might be even more into this than I am.

This past weekend was busy in our kitchen.

We have five pear trees in our yard and they were ready to be picked and processed.  This caught us a bit off guard as it seemed early but our Italian neighbors assured us that now was the time to get started.  Jeff started Saturday off with a batch of pear butter and then I wrapped it up with a double batch of pear sauce.

Basil for Tomato Basil Sauce

Prepping for Tomato Basil Sauce

I was so motivated to keep going that on Monday I hit our local market and bought 9 kilos of roma tomatoes (at .79 euro per kg!!).  I knocked out a double batch of Tomato Basil Sauce from Ashley English’s  “Canning and Preserving.”  I also got a batch of Pomodori al Forno into the oven.  Both are great but please, make the Pomodori al Forno immediately.  Jeff and I scheduled a mini date night at home with it, some crusty bread, goat cheese and  prosecco.  YUM!  I regretted not making up a double batch immediately.  (Though I did chop up the two remaining tomatoes and mix them with my scrambled egg the following morning.)

Done.

Up next, pickles and salsa.

Bean Roasting

Raw

We’re a DIY family when it comes to most things.  Especially things of the food and drink variety.  Jeff has home brewed beer since 2000(ish) so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he set his sights on other projects, including coffee.

In a recent beer supply order, he added a pound of green coffee beans.  He did a bit of reading, some Facebooking with my brother (I love how country crazy seems to run in the family!!) and he was on his way.

Bean roasting

It was so easy, done before before work, using our air popper (retired after our WhirleyPop acquisition) and finished off in a cast iron skillet over a camp stove.

Freshly roasted beans

The final result was delicious with no bitterness.

First product, home roasted beans

Is it worth the effort?  I think so.  The price per pound is about the same and the satisfaction of finishing it off just so is priceless.   Besides, how many people can say they roast their own coffee?

 

Family Dinner on Busy Nights

We are big believers in family dinners. Both Jeff and I grew up in families where gathering around the dinner table regularly was the rule rather than the exception. For us, it’s just what you do and we did so even before we had kids.

However, if you talk to other parents at school, soccer practice or work you’ll quickly learn that family dinner is not that common anymore. There’s a lot of information out about the benefits of family dinners, this article is one I stumbled on yesterday. It is full of great information and suggestions.

Yet it many ways, I know it isn’t that simple. American families live very busy lives. With both parents often working outside the home, nightly homework (often crazy amounts in my mind) and activities for the kids it is difficult to get everyone home at the same time.

Yes, we have chosen for me to be home full time for many reasons and I’m so thankful that has been possible for the last nearly nine years. It works for us. However, it can still difficult to ensure that we are regularly eating together. Part of this is due to Jeff’s crazy work schedule and part is due to afternoon and activities. Though we are very selective and deliberate about how many activities each of us is committed to. Yet, even if Jeff is working 15 hour days and gets home just before bed or while he was deployed, the kids and I sat at the table together most nights and ate. It wasn’t always gourmet but we connected.

That’s the key in all of this, that you are actually gathering at the table. The focus really isn’t on the food at all (as long as it’s mainly healthy, whole foods). There are tons of meal planning resources and suggestions for dinner. The struggle seems to come on the evenings when things are just a bit crazier than normal.

Here are some ideas to get you to the table even when there are three practices, scouts  and homework.

Use your crockpot. I’m a huge fan of the crockpot and use it year round. While most often used to slow cook meat, you can also do beans, soup, pasta and even cake in the slow cooker. Our house in Colorado didn’t have A/C so in the summer I used an outlet in the garage or on the deck.

Pasta. A simple marinara sauce can be made in the amount of time it takes to boil the water and cook the noodles. Saute some veggies or slice some fruit and you’re set.

Breakfast for dinner. Scrambled eggs, toast, fruit. Ten minutes. Done.

Popcorn. Make a batch of popcorn (the good stuff, please), slice some cheese or a grab a handful of almonds and add apples.

Freeze ahead or join a meal exchange. There are several ways to do freezer meals. The easiest is likely doubling a recipe, serving half and putting half in the freezer. Then on those busy days, pull a pan of enchiladas out of the freezer to thaw in the morning and reheat quickly to serve. I wrote a bit about the meal exchange I was part of here.

Clean out the fridge. There is nothing wrong with leftovers.

Sandwiches. Quick and easy. Round it out with some veggies or fruit.

Really the options are endless.

One other idea that I’ve seen several families do is to pack a picnic. It seems that when multiple children are playing the same sport their practice may be at the same place on the same day but there is a 30 minute gap between. So, take any of the options above and pack dinner to go. This also works well on Saturday when one child has a game at ten and the other at one.

The important thing is to gather your family (sans phones and tv, of course) and settle in. You never know what might happen any given evening.

Obviously, this picture isn’t from a busy day.  Just a Monday.  But it’s what I had.  Besides,  every Monday needs some flowers and candlelight. Right?

Also, there have been seasons for our family (we’re actually headed in to one soon) where all five of us aren’t home for dinner.  Ever.  During these times, we try to shift our main meal to breakfast.  The important thing is that we gather.


Snack Time

A sweet friend recently suggested that I do a post about what (unprocessed) snacks I offer the kiddos.  This can be such a challenge and even with the kids all in school all day (and thus, less snacking), I still struggle to put a good snack on the table at 3:15.

With a little preparation it really can be done quickly and easily.  Plus, if you include the kids in preparing the baked goods, you can teach kitchen skills, math, reading and attention to detail while you’re at it.  (And, let’s be honest, during those long days there is always room for another 30 minute activity.)

Here are some of our standbys when snack time rolls around:

Roasted Garbanzos I love these though the first few tries weren’t huge hits with the kids. I think mine are the exception because everyone else’s kids seem to love them. Give them a try!

Whole Wheat Muffins (Note: Lisa uses white whole wheat flour, we’ve had great success with plain ‘ole whole wheat. I even sent these to school as my monthly snack contribution and they were gobbled up.)

Apples/Peanut Butter (other nut butter or sun butter would be fine)

Popcorn Until we moved, we’d always used an air popper. Since we’ve been here in Italy, we’ve used a Whirley Pop (thanks for the rec, Dortch family!) with great success. I highly recommend it for quick, healthy popcorn. My usual recipe is 1 T coconut oil, 1/2 C popcorn and a bit of salt. Not only a great snack but I often send it as the “crunch” for the kids’ lunches.

Triscuits These are only crackers I’m buying these days.  With only three ingredients I think they’re a good choice. Pair them with a bit of cheese, some hummus or some fruit and you’re set.

Yogurt with berry sauce.   I’ve had great success with this recipe for homemade yogurt.  You can also make parfaits by layering them with fruit and granola.  (We’ve made our granola in the past but also enjoy the Bare Naked granola.)  This also makes a great breakfast.  And, the kids can make their own!

Hummus and veggies

Granola Bars

Graham Crackers

Nuts (especially almonds and pistachios)  Raw unsalted almonds are the best and watch the salt content on the pistachios though I must admit that the salt and pepper variety disappear very quickly around here.

We just found raw almonds for the first time here and the kids and I ate them like candy.  YUM!!  

Quinoa Patties with homemade ranch. We usually have this for dinner but it seems like it could be a delicious, satisfying snack as well (also a great lunch with salad).

Another thing I love is putting together a snack tray.  It seems kids are more likely to try new or different foods when they are presented in a fun way.  This is also something the kids could help with and the combinations are endless.

Of course, as warmer weather approaches there are all kinds of fruit-cicle options to explore.  The fun of a popsicle without the sugar and other junk.

Finally, I stumbled upon this list of ideas through my Whole Food Kitchen workshop and thought there were some great ideas.

How about you?  What do you offer between meals?

Recently in our Kitchen

I know I’ve had a lot of kitchen related posts but as the head chef for a family of five much of my life is spent in the kitchen.  That continues to be even more true as grow in our whole food diet.  I really do have more to share and that is coming soon but I thought I would pass on a bit of what has been happening in our kitchen.

So, what we’ve been up to includes:

* Whole Grain Bread from Cynthia Lair’s Feeding the Whole Family. This has become the bread we live on.

Roasted Garbanzos

* Carrot Tomato Soup

* Butternut Squash Apple Soup (I subbed sweet potatoes and it was delish.)

* Whole Wheat Muffins

There are many more but those will come in time.  I also wanted to updated on our “Real Food Challenge”.

I’ll be honest, we made it 100% for five days.   Then I broke in order to enjoy a wonderful, long awaited date day with the hubs.  I had wine and white flour and I’m totally ok with that.  Jeff and I have “debriefed” throughout the first few days of this project and we’ve realized that overall we’re very much okay with where we are.  I’m just not going to worry about the sugar in ketchup as we eat very little anyway. (Though I would love to make my own.)

The two areas that have come to our attention for our family are crackers and cereal.  The products we bought in these categories, though considered “healthy”, are still full of junk.  We are working to eliminate them.

I have also realized what an obscene amount of coffee I’ve been drinking.  Actually, I knew but it was my early morning comfort.  Strong and warm, that’s what I’ve turned to at five in the morning.  I’ve found a Yogi Green Tea that I really enjoy and will be drinking that from now on (with the occasional coffee).

So, while we didn’t finish the actual 10 days, I feel totally ok with what we’ve done.  Jeff’s on board for the few changes ahead as are the kids.

So here we go.

Clean Food Challenge

Today is the day that we start the 10 Day Challenge.  This isn’t going to be as much of an adjustment for us as it is for many.  We already eat whole grains, natural sugars (lots of honey and syrup with a bit of turbinado) mainly whole foods and rarely eat fast food (they just don’t have it here and we’re never on base).  In fact, when I told Jeff about it he said, “no problem.”

The challenge is going to be sugar.  I know how pervasive HFCS is and it is the rare exception when it comes into our home.  But I got a sure awakening when I did our pre-challenge shop.  Sugar is everywhere.

Mustard? Check.  Salsa? Check.  My beloved spicy sriracha sauce?  Check.

Gross.

And when there’s not sugar there is just so much added crap.  Again, gross.

Now, let me stop right here and say that none of this, not the clean(er) eating, meal planning or shopping happened overnight.  This part of our family live has been evolving slowly over the past few years.

We aren’t perfect.  Both Jeff and I could stand to lose weight.  Just today we ran out of cumin for the refried beans.  When we’re in the states we occasionally eat fast food.

But we put one foot in front of the other and plug away.

Anyway.

For the next 10 days we’ll be following the plan.  The kids are on board though they know that if someone brings cupcakes to school they are welcome to have one.  Connor eats lunch everyday at asilo (we’re talking an awesome Italian feast each day).  He won’t be getting whole wheat pasta or bread there and I’m fine with that.

Since I feel pretty good about where we’re at already, I decided to add a little extra fun to the mix and am going coffee and alcohol free.  My coffee consumption is ridiculous and well, I live in Italy and have enjoyed the benefits of local wineries.  So, it’s two cups of green tea a day and water for me.

I’ve got meals and snacks planned and the tea pot on for hot lemon water.  Here we go.

 

Monthly Meal Planning {Part 2}

156:365

Well, then.  This little topic got sucked into the black hole that is December.

In case you missed it, check out Part One here.

Menu planning is just one part of the picture when it comes to a stress-free dinner time.  You have to make sure to have the needed ingredients on hand.  That’s step two.

I know that it seems over whelming to shop for two weeks (or a month) at a time but it’s really no different than shopping for a week or a few days.  The only difference is volume.

As I sit down with the calendar and select menu items for the month, I add ingredients to my grocery list.  Sure, some things I (almost) always have on hand but they get annotated none the less.  I keep one list for the 1st to the 15th and a second list for the 15th to the end of the month (I usually keep the list for the 2nd half on the back of my meal calendar so it’s less likely to disappear).  Once I’m done planning dinners, taking into consideration snacks, special baking or other things I have planned I add lunch items and other necessities for the first two week period (or make note for the second half of the month).

After everything is compiled, I check the pantry.  Yes, basil is almost always in the pantry but it really cramps my dinner time style to be making spaghetti and not have it.  So, this is the time to double check.  If I have it great, an item crossed off.  If I’m close to running out, it stays.

Once these list are compiled (I double check the mid-month list right before I shop also),  I should need to hit the store for a major shopping trips only twice a month.  During these trips I purchase everything for a two week period except produce, milk (we had it delivered from the local dairy when we were in CO but that’s not an option here) and bread (I make our sandwich bread but we buy everything else in town as needed though I’m starting to try making other bread items as well).  Yes, you need a bit of storage but it is so worth it.

Wholesale Shopping

The love of Costco runs deep in my family.  It knows no generational boundary.  When Jeff was deployed last year I really embraced my monthly Costco run and stocked up on everything I could.  In fact, I made a comprehensive list of those items that we used in a month that I could get there (really, what can you not get there?). My list included:

TP, diced tomatoes, Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese, tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella, whole wheat pasta, canned green beans, vanilla, frozen berries, Pellagrino, syrup, Tillamook sharp cheddar, coffee, dry pinto beans, contact solution, toothpaste, jam and taco seasoning.

I even kept a spreadsheet with the prices (yes, a bit annoying) and could change the quantity needed and print out my shopping list with a good idea of my total. Let’s be honest, there’s always a few extra things in the cart at Costco.  Though the list really helped me be disciplined.

So, Costco knocked out a big chunk of my shopping for not only two weeks but the entire month.  The rest of my list for the first half of the month gets sorted by aisle (again, annoying but it makes it so much easier to shop, especially if you have littles with you) and off we go.  Every non-perishable item on the list for the 1st to the 15th is purchased at this time along with perishables for the first week.  I head home with my bags of deliciousness and am thrilled to know that I don’t have to think about it again for two weeks.  I have everything I need.

Now, a few other things that really help.

The last two years we were in the States we bought beef from a rancher.  The first year we got quarter steer and the second a half.  The half steer lasted our family of five nine months.  No, we don’t really eat that much beef but it was so great having amazing, high quality meat (ground, steaks, roasts, etc.) already in the freezer.  The only drawbacks were the up front cost and the amount of freezer space it took up.  Otherwise, we loved it and will definitely do it again when we move back.  If you eat beef regularly at all, I suggest looking into it.

Buy your bread in bulk!  We bought some of our bread at Costco but the most cost effective place is the Orowheat Outlet.  For my FtCo friends, there is one in Loveland and I know there is at least one in the Everett area.  The same 100% Wheat bread that was around $4.00 at my local store in Colorado was $1.89 at the Outlet.  But here’s the kicker.  More often than not I would leave with around 15 bread items having only paid $20.  At the beginning of the year they give a calendar of coupons usually buy one get one.  The Loveland store also did punch cards and Thursday was double punch day.  After you filled one card you got two free loaves.  I could fill a card in one Thursday trip.  Finally, for every $7.00 you spend you got to get an item off the free table.  So, bread, hamburger/hot dog buns, tortillas, english muffins all done for the month I spent about $20.

I’m still figuring out the best way to do our shopping here in Italy.  I’m making even more from scratch, we’re trying to use the local markets, butcher, etc. as much as possible, I’m still getting used to remembering to buy enough milk on base, and planning the monthly wine stock up at the local winery but my general approach is the same.

Yes, it does take a bit more time initially but I think that’s totally worth it.  I’d love to hear what you think if you give it a try.

End of summer lunch

Yum…the perfect “last day of summer” lunch. 

Pasta Bella from Simply Classic (which, by the way is a fabulous cookbook that celebrates the NW).  This was actually left over from last night and was probably even better today.  The veggies, brie, blue cheese, pasta.  A favorite of both Jeff and I.

Tomato & Cucumber Salad with tomatoes from our neighbor’s garden.  The harvest of others is giving us high hopes and expectations for our garden next year.

In the mean time, I’m growing anxious for soups, stews, casseroles and all of the other yummies of fall and winter.