Finding healthy ingredients

I’ve been doing more internet “research” over the last few days on ingredients that I was unsure if we would use or not. I hate to call it research because I am just barely scraping the surface of knowledge that is out there, and I realize that internet knowledge often contains quite a bit of falsehood, rumors, and half-truths. I try to read articles from several different sources, and the main thing I am searching for is how a product is made. I am trying to avoid processing that seems extreme or involves the use of chemicals. Here are some of the things I’ve looked up:

Sugar- we will be using sucanat sugar and muscovado sugar. These sugars are minimally processed and still contain much of the original sugar cane in them. We will not use white sugar, or the brown sugar available at the grocery store.
Maple syrup- I’ve ordered some organic maple syrup, which I hope will have no additives in it.
Sorghum molasses – this is also a minimally processed sweetener. I have some I bought in Indiana that I will use. I should do more research on the source of it, but for now, I will use what I have on hand. (I would like to note here that as I searched for natural sweeteners I came away with the realization that no matter what sweetener you are using you should use it in moderation. Even these “natural” versions of sweeteners are not really good for us.)
Olive Oil – I’m using for now what I have on hand, but I am searching for sources for olive oil that I can be sure is minimally processed and actually pure olive oil. The certifications for olive oil are confusing and I am still trying to figure out how to go about determining the best ones.
Canola Oil – After doing some reading on this, and throwing out the completely bogus information that is out there, I have still decided to not use canola oil in June. Most of the canola oil available to me is most likely processed using hexane. There is some that is cold-pressed (similar to how the best olive oils are collected), which I might look for, but even then, there is a decent amount of extra processing to get this oil to a clear, tasteless oil with a long shelf-life. I’ve decided to avoid it for now.
Agave Nectar – Thanks to Heather, who shared an interesting article from Food Renegade with me, I’ve done more reading on agave nectar and discovered that unless you are sure you are buying from a source that extracts this in much the same way maple syrup is, it can also be overly processed. There is also some debate on how healthy this sweetener actually is for you. So we will not be using agave nectar after all.
Salt – I have ordered some sea salt that is collected by evaporating sea water and is minimally refined. It is grey in color and contains the extra minerals from the sea water, with no added ingredients (like anti-caking agents).

So, sorry if this is a boring post, but I know that there are some of you that have asked me specific questions about what we will or will not be using, so this is an update to the things I was still unsure about. I’m sure I’ll think of more things once we actually start the process. Tomorrow I plan on sitting down to make out my first week’s menu with the kids’ help. Once I know what we want to try to eat, we will start working up a plan to make sure we can have all the ingredients on hand.

Little Butter Churners

Sunday, we decided to try our hands at making butter. I’ve decided that as I experiment with making things, it is important to include the kids in the process. This doesn’t come very naturally to me. I love cooking . . . by myself. Cooking with three extra pairs of hands . . . not nearly as much fun. But, as I worked out my summer schedule first draft, I realized that I need to try to make this work. So three nights a week, I am allowing one helper to work alongside me while I make supper. And two mornings a week, I am allowing all three kids to help me make something food related. We will normally gather around the kitchen table to accomplish that, as it is extremely hard to line three chairs up to the counter and still have room for me. But for our first project, we did the first step in the living room as it involved shaking a large glass jar, and I wanted to avoid dropping it on the kitchen tiles. This, by the way, was really good, because the jar did fall as the book warned it might.

Normally, I would hope to have raw cow’s milk on hand to skim cream off in order to make our butter. But for our first attempt we used heavy whipping cream I had left over from a recipe. I had a lot more than I remembered, so we almost completely filled a quart jar. I made sure to boil my jar and lid to prevent any unwanted contamination. The cream sat out on my counter for about an hour and a half so that it was not quite room temperature, but warmer than refrigerator temperature. Once we had the clean jar filled with cream, we began to shake it, and shake . . . and shake . . . It didn’t really take very long, but I will tell you it was quite a work out for the arms. The kids all took a turn, but they required my extra muscle to make any significant progress in a reasonable amount of time. Using the glass jar meant we could watch the cream change to whipped cream (at which point we had to stop and remove a small amount for tasting) and then finally to butter. After letting it sit for 5 minutes to let the butter finish solidifying, we dumped the whole thing through a clean flour sack towel in a colander. We made sure to catch the buttermilk though, because I really wanted to see what it tasted like. I have read lots of books talking about drinking buttermilk, which I always thought sounded horrible, but that is because I had been imagining cultured buttermilk, which is an entirely different thing. The sweet buttermilk we collected from our butter making was indeed delicious!

I didn’t get much of it though because the kids finished it off in a few minutes time. There are other uses for buttermilk too. If I am ever able to save any of it from the kids, I will try some buttermilk cheese or put it into my bread.
After straining the butter, I worked it with a rubber spatula and then while it was still in the colander, rinsed it while working it some more. Then I divided it up into two sections on a plate, salted one and put them in the refrigerator (after sampling it on our mango pecan muffins of course). After the butter had hardened in the refrigerator I removed it from the plate and wrapped it in waxed paper and then put it into plastic ziploc bags. The unsalted version went in the freezer to prevent spoilage, and the salted version is in my refrigerator. We used some on our baked potatoes for supper and on muffins this morning. John’s verdict: “Tastes like butter.”
Next on our list of things to try – goat milk yogurt.

What is a processed food?

John brought this up this morning at breakfast. “Are you going to use sugar?” he asked. Thankfully I had already thought about this a bit already, and we decided that no, there were plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t make an exception for sugar. Not only is it “processed,” it isn’t very good for you either. Plus, I am wary about the sources of commercial white sugar and the working conditions of the people involved in the process. I am not too worried about taking it out of our diet though. I have a good source now for local raw honey. We have other choices like molasses and agave nectar that I think fall more in line with what we are trying to do. Plus fruits have plenty of natural sweetness in them that doesn’t really need to be drowned out with added sweeteners. But the discussion brought up other things that are also technically processed, yet not easy to substitute.

What about flour? Flour by definition is processed grain. But I don’t have the time or the money to spend on grinding my own grains. So yes, we will make an exception for flour. Though I am only buying 100% whole grain flours.

As I was putting together my bulk order for organic whole wheat flour that I will be buying this month from Azure Standard, I started to add rolled oats to my order, and then read the description: “Rolled oats are made from seeds which have been cleaned, dehulled, lightly roasted, steamed, and flaked.” How much processing is too much? Where will I draw the line? Obviously they haven’t added anything to these oats, but they have run them through a pretty extensive process to get them to the form I am familiar with. After doing some more research on oats, I have discovered that without the roasting process, the oats would turn rancid too fast for them to be useful. So, in a sense, even though the process is more in depth than milling wheat for flour, it is still a necessary process.

But this got me thinking. The flour I was buying was ground using the unifine method. It is blown quickly through a grinder, no heat added so that the natural oils are all still left in tact. I’m ok with that. But I’ve also been adding vital wheat gluten to my baking recipes to increase the elasticity of the 100% whole wheat breads. Vital wheat gluten, though very “natural,” also is highly processed, because they have to remove everything but the gluten from the wheat flour. I think I am going to have to do some testing of my recipes without this to see how they turn out.

And then John brought up coffee, which is roasted, and lately he has been buying pre-ground. I don’t drink coffee, but John does, and he wasn’t sure he was willing to give it up for a month. And then we thought about milk. Commercially packaged milk is really ultra-processed if you think about it. And this is one area where I would agree that the processing, though protecting you from diseases, harms the nutritional value of the milk. We are looking into our options in this area, but I know I have to be very careful where I get any raw milk from and how I use and store it. But hey, this is about learning more responsibility in our food right?

For now, I’ve decided to start keeping two lists of food we eat over the next few days. One will be food that definitely will be out next month, and the other will be those foods that are questionable. Then we can sort out which exceptions we want to make. As a general guideline, if a one ingredient food item is processed, it will go on the questionable list. After about a week of keeping a list, I will go back though and decide which “processes” are acceptable and which are not.

Unprocessed Food Month

The Challenge: Un-Processed Food Month

The Goal: To significantly reduce the amount of processed/pre-packaged foods we consume.

I’ve been talking about this for awhile now, and I decided it is now time to write it out. In June, our family will be undergoing a challenge to eliminate most if not all processed foods out of our diet for one whole month. I’ve been using the term “processed” very generally, for me it means, pre-made, pre-packaged food. These food items, though they allow for quick, easy meals, often contain extra added chemicals to keep them “fresh,” lots of salt and/or sugars, and lots of packaging that ends up most often in landfills. So for us, this is primarily a health experiment. But it is also an attempt to be more connected to what we eat and buy. The current US lifestyle distances us from where our stuff comes from. This doesn’t only apply to food, but food is a big part of this. It is hard to be responsible in our choices if we don’t know where our food was grown, what the factories were like where it was processed, and why certain ingredients were chosen to add to the final product. So we are committing to this lifestyle change for one month. The hope is that after the month is over we will know which things were worth eliminating from our diet, and which were not. The month experiment will hopefully give us a good idea of the cost effectiveness (in time and money) of a long-term lifestyle change. Throughout the month, and leading up to it, I will be blogging often, so that you also can benefit from our journey. My hope is that my research, new learned skills, great local finds, and whole food recipes will make this process easier for others who want to try a similar experience.

The Rules:
-We will not buy most multi-ingredient food items. This includes frozen meals, cereal, crackers, baked goods, soup, sausage, chips, dressings, and sauces. I can’t think of any multi-ingredient item that I would need to buy, so I may change this rule to “will not buy any,” but I want to leave it slightly open for now in case there is something incredibly important I have forgotten.
-1-2 ingredient items that I can make myself we will also not buy. These include butter, yogurt, and cheese.
-When buying vegetables and fruit we will opt for fresh whenever possible, frozen as a second choice (as long as nothing has been added to it), and stay away from canned. This includes beans, which we can buy dried. We will also try to buy as much local produce as we can.
-Though we will buy flour, sugar, baking powder, and other baking ingredients, we will attempt to stick to the types that are closest to the original ingredient (i.e. whole wheat flour, raw sugar or honey, etc).
-Items already on hand that do not fit these rules can be used, though we will try to avoid them. I have already limited my buying in these areas and have not been replacing many of these things.
-Where possible we will buy products without packaging, when packaged, we will strive to choose the most environmentally friendly option and will recycle what can be recycled.

The Benefits:
-Healthier diet
-Motivation to learn new skills, like cheese and yogurt making, bread baking, etc
-Fits with our life goals of being more natural
-Encourages us to try new things
-Helps our kids realize a new way of eating, hopefully encouraging them into lifelong healthy eating habits
-We’ll hopefully learn what whole foods are availably locally
-An educational opportunity for our children to learn and practice some handy skills.

The Challenges:
-Cost. I’m not sure yet how the cost of this style of eating will compare to our current budget. We’ve been making some changes already, and I’m hoping that we’ll buy less items though those items might be more expensive.
-How. I have to learn to do some things I’ve never done before. I also have to search out where to find some of the ingredients I need.
-Time. It will take time to research, find ingredients, make things from scratch, and plan meals for the month.

I know that some of you may think I am crazy to attempt such a huge change in a such a short amount of time. But I find I am more successful at making changes when I jump in headlong, with clear rules and guidelines. And as John says, setting goals goes a long way towards actually accomplishing them. John and I are both committed to this, which is important. My kids, though not too thrilled, are getting used to the idea. To be honest, we aren’t jumping in unprepared. We’ve been slowly working up to this month and will continue to prepare over the last couple of weeks of May. I started working on losing weight last month, and the meal plan I am using online actually uses mostly whole foods. It is getting me used to making a grocery list that is over half fresh fruits and vegetables. There are a few things I will still have to weed out, but for the most part, we’ve been eating pretty close to this goal for a month now. I bought the Healthy Breads in 5 Minutes a Day book and have found it extremely useful in learning how to make healthy homemade pita bread, crackers, buns, bagels, etc. I’ve been practicing some of these already. I plan to buy some goat milk from a friend and start the process of learning cheese and yogurt making. I’ve been keeping track of other useful sources: a website I can order organic foods in bulk once a month, a local dairy for cow milk (for butter and yogurt), which stores in the area carry natural foods and hard to find items, and other things.

This does not mean we won’t eat at other people’s houses or eat out at restaurants, though we most likely won’t be eating fast food, something we tend to avoid anyway. It also doesn’t mean we won’t eat things like donuts, cake, bread, cheese, etc. We just have to make it ourselves.

Baking Adventures Part 2

In my quest to see how many things I can make from scratch, I tried a couple more recipes from my new bread baking book: Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. This week I needed pita bread for one of our lunches. It was actually very simple to make. I used the 100% wheat bread with olive oil dough, and followed the instructions for the seed-encrusted pita. I think you could use the technique on any dough. The secret is to roll the dough out really flat, so that when it bakes it will puff up leaving an air pocket in the middle. It’s basically the same technique that I’ve been using for crackers (another recipe from this book), except the crackers are punctured with a fork first so that they don’t puff up. The crackers and pita bread were both delicious fresh. I tried making extra crackers this last time and storing them, but they tasted stale just one day later. So these are an eat right away treat, which is actually fine, because my kids absolutely love them. I didn’t make enough pitas to try storing them. You are supposed to be able to store them in an air tight container. But they are actually so quick and easy, it seems just as easy to me to roll one out and pop it in the oven if you already have the dough made. I will definitely be making them again, though I can’t say the same for my homemade onion mushroom veggie burger. I’ll think I’ll stick to vegetarian dishes that don’t try to disguise themselves as meat dishes when I am looking for a meat free meal.

Baking Adventures, Part 1

I have recently started to try to make some changes in the way we eat in our house. Both John and I have started to read labels more, and we are dismayed to find how many of the things we normally buy contain ingredients we’d rather not eat. In an attempt to be a little more natural in our meals, I have started to try to make some of the things we’d normally buy. Bread has been one thing I have been “trying” to do for awhile. Though I know it is possible to make absolutely beautiful bread at home, the art of it has often escaped me. Sure, I have things that turn out almost every time, but they are not the healthiest of creations. I know how to make cinnamon rolls, banana bread, butterhorn rolls, etc. These all use white flour, lots of sugar, and a decent amount of butter. I can try to switch out some of the white flour for whole wheat flour, but this doesn’t always produce the best results. Whole wheat sandwich bread, wheat rolls, and even things like french bread I have never been able to do very well.
I was shopping for books online several weeks ago, searching for cookbooks and other helpful resources that I could use to make more natural healthy food from whole ingredients (something I am planning on spending a whole month learning to do in June, but more on that later). I came across a book called Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The authors of this book, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, wrote this book in response to their many fans asking for more healthy recipes after the great success of their book: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I bought this book and very quickly read through the introductory chapters. The basic method is to mix up a huge batch of dough, which rises and then is placed in the refrigerator. The dough can be used over two weeks, so all you have to do is take out the amount you need each day, shape it, and let it rest before putting into the oven. The 5 minutes a day, is the time it takes to shape and ready the loaf. All the rest of the time, the bread is doing its own work with no effort from you. Glancing through the recipes, I was excited to see that there were instructions and recipes for almost every type of bread I would need to make – sandwich bread, bagels, crackers, pita bread, and even some healthier versions of sweet breads. All the recipes are made with whole grains, and many have other healthy additions, like nuts, seeds, and fruits.
Last night I mixed up my first batch of dough, let it sit for two hours and then put it away in the refrigerator. This morning, I pulled out the dough and attempted not only my first loaf of bread, but also the cinnamon raisin bagels. The bagels obviously take longer than 5 minutes of active time, but they were well worth the effort. The kids and I couldn’t resist splitting one while they were still warm.

The loaf of bread was definitely the easiest bread I’ve ever made, and had the best results for a whole grain bread that I’ve ever had. I pulled out my chunk of dough, shaped it according to the instructions and set the sorry looking little lump on a pizza peel sprinkled with cornmeal. There it sat while I filled, shaped, boiled, and baked my bagels. It did get a little bit bigger and smoother and looked more promising as the morning went on. All that I needed to do to prepare it for baking was brush it with water, sprinkle on some seeds, cut some slits and slide it onto a preheated stone. They recommend also pouring some water into a preheated metal pan below the stone and then quickly closing your oven door to trap some steam. I don’t think I produced much steam, but regardless the bread baked beautifully. I discovered two things in this process that most likely contributed to my prior failures. The first is how I gauged my bread was done. The book said it would take about 30 minutes to bake this bread. About 15 minutes into the baking time I pulled the bread out because it was a beautiful golden brown. I didn’t want to overcook it. But I looked carefully at the loaf, then at the instructions that said it should be a very dark brown, and then at the picture on the front of the book. My loaf was too light colored, so I slipped it back in and ended up baking it for almost the entire 30 minutes. It did not burn, as I had feared, and came out looking just like the picture. The second thing that I changed in my bread making process, was not to give in to temptation and cut the loaf as soon as it came out. I used to time my bread so that I was pulling out a warm loaf from the oven just before suppertime. I love warm bread and it smells so delightful right when you pull it out. But when making french bread, I could never figure out why I couldn’t cut my bread without squashing the whole loaf. And there was not a good crumb (the texture of the inside of the bread, a term I learned from this book). The book instructs to never ever cut your loaf fresh out of the oven, no matter how tempting it is, unless you are having rolls or a very small loaf. Bread is best two hours after pulling it from the oven. So I waited. Two hours later, I cut into my bread and was rewarded with a perfect crumb. The bread tastes good too, though since I was just doing the plain recipe, it will be better as toast or in sandwiches. I look forward to the more doctored up versions if I can get these good results every time.

Lunchtime + Craftime = Good Healthy Fun

The other day John was talking about the possibility of joining us for lunch on a regular basis. “We’ll save grocery money,” he said. “Because we won’t have to buy two sets of lunch stuff, one for my office and one for home. You’ll just have to make a little more of what you are already making.”

Hmm, I sat for a few moments quietly. Something tells me this won’t be as easy as it sounds. I realize that John has no idea of what happens here at lunch when he isn’t here. “We are usually eating leftovers or cheese and fruit,” I say. “Oh.” is his only reply. John doesn’t like leftovers, unless it was exceptionally good the first time around.

But we don’t eat leftovers all the time. Sometimes lunch is very creative, but by creative I mean in an artistic way. If I don’t have leftovers begging me to use and not waste them, then lunchtime is my time to give the kids something that they will eat, that doesn’t require a whole lot of work from me. And it helps if it is really fun.

For example, sometimes we do mural lunches. I cut up whatever fresh fruit and veggies I have on hand. Then I dice some cheese quite small (I’ve found that I can stretch 2 slices of cheese between all three kids by cutting it into little tiny cubes). Then I create a mural design with the items and all the kids dig in. Today we took this a step further. I left all the food on the cutting board, gave each kid a plate and instructed them to create something and then eat it. Since we had missed craft-time today to go to the grocery store, this was a way to combine creative time with lunchtime. Elise designed a very cute owl. Will made creations with mostly apples and tomatoes. And Seth wouldn’t stop eating long enough to make anything. So I made him a monster.