Sunday, October 20, 2013

What I Learned from My Month Without Sugar

I might have been happier before I saw this picture and 
knew how much sugar is in Thanksgiving dinner.

In the past month, many people have asked me why I was going a month without sugar. The answer I generally gave? “For a challenge”. The real answer is a little longer.

Last year, two of my friends from college shared their “30 before 30" lists and I noticed that they both included one particular goal in common. They both wanted to go for one month without sugar. They inspired me to develop my own “30 before 30" list, and I decided to add it to my list as well. I didn’t really give much thought to this, but thought it sounded cool.

Flash forward to September of this year, as I’m reviewing my list to see what remained to be done before my birthday in December. My first impulse was to just ignore this item and not even try. I didn’t think I could do it even if I wanted to. In fact, I challenged the possibility that anyone could do it. I messaged my friend Jodie on Facebook to see if she had attempted this item from her list, expecting a negative reply. Instead, she informed me that yes, she had done it several times, and it helped her lose the pregnancy weight.

Ouch. What was I going to say? “No, my body really needs sugar to support all of this weight I gained during pregnancy...”  It was on. I wanted to do this before the holidays, so I jumped right in. I limited myself to eliminating refined sugar. Here are some of the things I learned during the past month:

-First, sugar is in everything. Reading labels is essential because it is in seemingly healthy items too. Almost all of our cereal, our balsamic dressing, even our natural peanut butter had sugar in them.

-Cravings for sugar supposedly go away after 2 weeks. Not true for me. Constant craving went away after about 10 days, but then cravings came and went throughout the month. Some days I was glad I was doing this no sugar thing because I felt I didn’t need it. Some days I thought it was the stupidest thing ever and I was irritable because all I wanted was a brownie with walnuts or a slice of apple pie. I suspect hormones have a lot to do with why we as women crave what we crave and the timing of our cravings.

-My lifesaver was a smoothie made with frozen bananas, unsweetened almond milk, and cocoa powder. I'm not sure I could have gotten through some days without this pick-me-up!

-I have a big fear of failure. I had many dreams in which I unthinkingly indulged in dessert and then felt horrified that I had fallen short of my goal.

-I have a food addiction, like most Americans. I love flour+sugar. It makes me happy. It also makes me fat when indulged in too often. At the same time, baking and sharing is part of how I nurture and connect with other people, and I don’t think I need to give it up permanently. There do need to be limits, however, and I have been thinking a lot about what those limits should be in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. When I return to eating sugar, my new goal is to only indulge on the weekends or special occasions.

Conclusion: I  can't say that giving up refined sugar improved my mood. I may have felt more stable on average, but I also felt irritable a lot. Going without refined sugar did help me lose weight. So far, I’ve lost over 40 pounds since I gave birth about 3 months ago. I have more I want to lose, and I hope that my new sugar limitations will serve my purposes well.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Winter Squash and Sage Pasta

Two weeks ago, I was visiting one  of my favorite farm stands at the West Sacramento Farmer's Market, Moon River Farm. The farmer, Sara, was selling some beautiful, smooth-skinned butternut squashes. It was a hot August day and I thought it seemed a bit early for me to be making squash, which seems so autumn-y. After all, tomato season seems to last through September in Sacramento. But the squashes were so lovely, and the farmer, Sara, told me that it would keep on the counter for several weeks.

Sure enough, my squash was still in good shape today when I got around to chopping it up. I've been wanting to try a certain winter squash recipe ever since I read The Quarter Acre Farm by Spring Warren, who lives about 30 minutes away from me in Davis, CA.  The dish is a deconstructed version of butternut squash raviolis, only much simpler. For my take on it, I attempted to make it healthier, too, by cutting back the butter and cheese and using whole wheat, organic noodles. To add more flavor, I roasted my squash extra long, until the edges were brown and the squash was decidedly caramelized. The end result of my experimentation still felt indulgent and was totally delicious.

And can I just say-  roasted, caramelized butternut squash, where have you been all my life?! Oh... probably sitting on the shelf because I was too intimidated to cut you up and too lazy to prepare you.  I'm just glad that I've found you now, especially with fall and winter coming up. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Winter Squash and Sage Pasta

4-6 cups any winter squash, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1-2 cups sage leaves
8 oz. whole wheat pasta (I used penne)
1/2-1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 cube butter
2 T. brown sugar or honey
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place the cubes of squash into a bowl. Drizzle squash with olive oil and sugar or honey. Stir until the moisture from the squash and the other ingredients form a thick juice to envelope each squash cube.

Pour the squash onto a lipped cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil, spreading the squash into a single layer. Place in oven and roast until squash is tender on the inside and browned on the outside, about 40 minutes. Put squash on the counter to cool slightly.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, adding your sage leaves. Allow the butter to barely bubble and cook the sage leaves until crispy, about 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta as the directions indicate. When the pasta is cooked and drained, place it in a large bowl. Add your butter/sage and a large handful of Parmesan. Toss together. Place the squash over the top of the pasta (to avoid having it gravitate to the bottom of the bowl). Serve with a green salad if desired. Mangia!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Summer Highlights

The last time I blogged, summer was just beginning. Now it's (more or less) over!  I can honestly say that it has been a summer unlike any other. Here are a few of the highlights of my summer, beginning where I left off: with tomatoes.

We got so many tomatoes from the garden this year! Here's a picture of one early harvest:

 The tomatoes would become salads, like the one below (with basil, peppers, and garlic from the garden, and olive oil, chevre and sea salt from the Farmer's Market):

And, more recently, when we had too many tomatoes to eat them all fresh and wanted to store some for later, we experimented with homemade sun-dried tomatoes on the dehydrator:

 We got an unexpected first harvest of golden raspberries (since we didn't expect any berries until next summer on our still-young raspberry canes):
  One fun aspect of maternity leave was having a few (very few) opportunities to experience things that go on during the week when I'm usually stuck at work. For example, the Capitol Farmer's Market, which was scenic and delightful:
  Another rewarding aspect of maternity leave was having an adorable baby (see below). This, by the way, was my #30 on my "30 before 30" list. I didn't do much else on the list this summer; this item was a full-time job! :-)

 Finally, I couldn't let summer end without making a peach pie. We're headed to Apple Hill this weekend, ready to usher in fall with some apple picking! 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

June 8th Garden

Here are some shots from the garden as of today. This year my focus was on tomatoes, as you will see, and many of them are doing well.

I do have some pole beans growing up some chicken wire - here's a future bean:

And some cucumbers also growing up the chicken wire:

And now for the tomatoes: San Marzanos -  

Green Zebra tomatoes-  

 Black Krims, always excellent producers:

Jaune Flamme tomatoes, looking gorgeous and turning color already (they'll eventually be orange):  

I don't even know what this is is because I lost the label in the transplantation process... but look how huge it is already!
And that's the state of the garden today!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Napa and Sonoma: One Last Trip for Two (For Awhile)!

We spent a glorious day in Napa and Sonoma this weekend. It was one last trip we wanted to take with just the two of us, since I am officially due this month! We already did the olive oil tasting and vineyard thing back here, so this time we went with a more historical focus, included Sonoma and Glen Ellen this time, and plenty of good food too.

We started at Napa Valley Biscuits, which opened last year and was featured in this month's Sunset magazine.

The place was hopping on a Saturday morning, and for good reason. Everything we had was delicious, and what we saw that we didn't get, we wanted to return and order next time. We split the Yardbird (biscuit, fried chicken, bacon, and gravy):
and the Pappy (crispy waffles, fried chicken, bacon, red pepper jelly, and maple syrup for dipping):
When we come back, we would love to try some of the other menu items like homemade cinnamon rolls and a from-scratch twist on a ding dong. On to Oxbow market, which was looking lovely and had a Farmer's Market in the parking lot (where we bought the sweetest Sugartime peaches and apriums to take home).
Also, we wanted to try the famous English muffins at Model Bakery. They are supposed to be the world's best, and we plan to see how they taste tomorrow at breakfast.
The Fatted Calf, because my husband can't resist artisan cured meats:
From there, we took off for Sonoma through the vineyards:

Once we arrived, we started by visiting the Sonoma Mission, the most northern of all the missions in California:
In the garden, they had this prickly pear bush. The fruits didn't look very prickly but I discovered that they in fact are covered in little tiny, microscopic thorns. Look, don't touch, people!

Then we walked to what had sounded like a nearby historical site, the Vallejo House, but which turned into a 2-mile trek in blistering heat. I recommend driving there, especially if you happen to be 8 months pregnant. No pictures because I was too focused on not getting heat stroke, but after my husband rescued me by fetching the car to retrieve me, and reviving me with ice water and AC, we moved on to our next destination: Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen.

I remember reading "To Build a Fire" in school, and of course I'd heard of "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang", but I didn't know much about Jack London before today. Turns out, Jack London was quite an interesting and ambitious character, his life colorful and thrilling, though brief. After reaching commercial success through his writing of adventure books and short stories, he bought over 100 acres of land in Glen Ellen, including this old winery building:

Besides using the cottage next door as a country escape from city life in his hometown of Oakland, London sought to create a self-sustaining agricultural model here, including terraced vineyards, pigs, horses, cattle, winery, blacksmith shop, you name it! Here are some of the grounds of his old property today:

We also got to tour the cottage where he died of kidney failure at the age of 40. He had picked up a tropical disease while sailing the South Pacific islands (cause that's how he rolled) and used mercury to treat it, which destroyed his kidneys. His heavy drinking and smoking didn't help either. But he certainly had an impressive life, and it was fascinating to learn more about him at this park.

Hungry after hiking around all of these sites, we returned to Sonoma for an early dinner at the famous restaurant in Sonoma Plaza called The Girl and the Fig, where we ordered this amazing cheese and fruit platter:

I felt justified in ordering this wonderful sirloin burger with housemade pickles and aioli for the French fries. All that hiking, you know.

And for dessert, we split the vanilla bean profiteroles with bittersweet chocolate sauce.

Conclusion: Flawless food and great ambiance at the Girl and the Fig. It's acclaimed for a reason and I would love to return again.

With that, we returned home to take delightfully cold showers and ponder how trips will be different when there are three of us, and look forward to the day that we can share all of the wonderful culture and beauty of Northern California with our daughter.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

5 weeks left!

I only have about 5.5 weeks left till my due date, which is, of course, making me feel like I need to make a pre-baby bucket list. Quick, time to go to the movies and eat at nice restaurants and go on spontaneous trips and... all that other stuff you don't have time for with a newborn. Of course, we're also bracing for the medical bills too, so that keeps our spending in check.

Just wanted to do a quick update with some more items from my "30 before 30" list.

#5 Read 30 books - So far I am on book #21 of 30, "Fever" by Mary Beth Keane, a fascinating historical fiction piece about Typhoid Mary. It is the next selection for our book club. Speaking of which..

#21 Host 5 book club meetings - I have my third one scheduled for June, a week before my due date. Assuming the baby doesn't come early, that should be fun!

#20 Invite 12 people/families over for dinner - We have done plenty of entertaining this year already and have had many people over! Even more are coming this weekend for Memorial Day.
#9 Participate in 3 service projects - Finished this one. I was able to participate in two drives for a local crisis shelter and a huge, amazing project beautifying a series of run down, neglected neighborhood parks in South Sacramento. This last one also qualified for...
#8 Beautify a public space. (Picture below of all the participants in one parking congregating for a project kick off.)

#26 Try 3 new types of food- Bet you thought this would be the first item I finished, but I've actually only tried 2 new types of food so far: Russian, and, more recently, Salvadorian. I enjoyed the pupusas and trying Salvadorian horchata, but the pineapple tamale (pictured below) was my favorite. I think Turkish may be my next (and last) one (although I admit that all Mediterranean foods seem very similar to me)!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Chocolate Oreo Pie

Chocolate? Store-bought cookies? This recipe is clearly not the norm for me, but sometimes you do what you gotta do for your mom on Mother's Day. And frankly, everyone in the family loved this pie, so I need to write down the recipe because it has a high likelihood of being requested again next year!

Note: This pie is a lot like those lazy pudding pies people used to make back in 90's, only in this version, everything is homemade... Except the Oreos, because I'm ambitious, but not THAT ambitious! 

Chocolate Oreo Pie

24 Oreo cookies, finely crushed
1/4 c. butter, melted

Crush Oreos in food processor until finely ground. Add melted butter and press into a pie pan.

1 1/3 c. sugar
1/2 c. cocoa powder (I used dark)
6 T. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. salt
3 1/3 c. milk
4 T. butter, cut into cubes
2 tsp. vanilla

Combine dry ingredients in a medium-large saucepan and gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a slow boil, and whisk constantly one minute. Remove from heat, and whisk in butter and vanilla until smooth. Pour filling into crust and chill at least 4 hours. When completely cool, top with:

1 pint sweetened whipped cream
12 Oreo cookies, crushed but still a little chunky

Spread whipped cream over the top of the pie and sprinkle the chunky Oreo crumbs evenly over the top. Press down lightly on the crumbs to set them, then chill pie until ready to serve.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Big Sur: Check!

One thing I love about living in California is the repeated experience of discovering something new and wondering: "How have I lived in this state my whole life and never been here before?!" Such was the case in Big Sur.

We drove up from Southern California through Solvang, a Danish community that makes you feel like you're in the Old World. Great bakeries, especially if you like almond paste-filled pastries, which I do! The town also includes the Santa Ines mission, which we got to tour (below). Some day I hope to visit all the California missions!

Then we continued north to Big Sur, a place so beautiful, I couldn't believe that it was my first time visiting, especially since it's only about 3.5 hours from Sacramento.

We began our day at Pfeiffer Beach, the first place I have ever encountered purple sand. Check it out!

Then we hiked to a vista overlook of the breathtaking McWay Waterfall. Here was the clearest water I have ever seen on the California coast, and I couldn't stop taking pictures of it.

Finally, we ate lunch at Cafe Kevah and dinner at Nepenthe, two adjoining restaurants famous for their shared world-class view of the Big Sur coastline. For once, I neglected to take pictures of my food (although it was very, very good) in lieu of soaking in and photographing the view instead!

Bottom line: Big Sur should be on everyone's bucket list of places to see. As for me, I look forward to my next trip there!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

My First Quarter Progress

Just wanted to include an update on my 30 before 30 list! I haven’t forgotten about my list and am chipping away at it, despite having my first baby shower last weekend and going out of town this weekend for Easter.

Here’s what I’ve done so far (or will within the week):

#6 Go to 3 new places. Going to Big Sur on this trip, which is my second new place after Bolinas.

#14 - Go on a road trip! Driving down to Southern California to visit family and then back up through Big Sur! Blog post to follow.

#19 Take 12 self-portraits. I’ve been taking weekly pictures of my pregnancy, so I’ve already met this one.

#18 Sing in public 3 times - done! Last week in church I sang for the third time, before my diaphragm can shrink too small to get any sound out.

#28 Write a biography of my grandma’s childhood - done! I loved learning more about her upbringing in Portugal in the 1920's and her family’s immigration to America.

#10 Do something with the retreat in our house. The conversion to a nursery is almost complete!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Carrot Ginger Muffins

Sigh. How I love muffins. They freeze well and make a perfect breakfast or snack on the go. They're easy to make and easy to make healthy! I just can't get enough.

Several months ago, I received the quarterly newspaper from my local Natural Foods Co-Op and right away, hungrily eyed a recipe for Ginger Carrot Muffins. I liked that it used carrots, which are always available and cheap, and as for ginger, I'm always hearing about how good it is for you. Last night I finally got around to making them and it was worth the wait.

I loved the way these muffins smelled, that spicy ginger and a touch of citrus. I used my food processor to make quick work of the carrot grating. Peeling the carrots and ginger is optional but not necessary. The texture was great as is, but next time I will for sure add some candied ginger and walnuts. The chunkier, the better, as far as I'm concerned. I tweaked the original recipe a little; here is my my version. The recipe made 18 muffins, enough for several weeks of breakfast and snacks. Hooray!

Ginger Carrot Muffins

3/4 c. white sugar
3/4 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
1.5 t. vanilla extract
Zest and juice of 1 orange
2/3 c. milk
1 t. fresh ginger
8 T. butter, melted (1 cube)
3 c. whole wheat pastry flour
2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
2 t. cinnamon
3 c. grated carrots (about 5-6)
1/4 c. candied ginger (chopped) (optional)
1/2 c. chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350F.  In a medium bowl, mix together the sugars, eggs, vanilla, orange zest and juice, milk and ginger until well combined. Stir in melted butter.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and cinnamon. Mix to combine. Add grated carrot and optional candied ginger and walnuts (if using) and stir to coat. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in liquid mixture. With a wooden spoon, stir until combined and moistened. Do not overmix.

Spray a muffin tin with nonstick spray or line cups with paper liners. Divide batter evenly among the cups. (Mine made 18.) Bake on the middle rack until muffins are golden brown, and top of the muffins bounce back when you press on them - about 20-25 minutes.

Set on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Remove the muffins from the tin and let them cool another 10 minutes (if you can wait that long- I couldn't!).

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hidden Falls Regional Park in Auburn

I'm quite pleased that I have been making progress on my "30 Before 30" list despite being a week away from 6 months pregnant. I've been fortunate to enjoy good health and decent energy levels so far. It turns out that my list, instead of being a distraction from preparing for the baby, has been a great way for us to make the most of our time together before the baby comes.

When I was making the list, I remembered a friend several years back telling me about a hike up in Auburn that ended in a waterfall. Since I had always wanted to go, I thought I'd throw that on my list.

This weekend the weather was to be gorgeous with highs in the low 70s, and I knew this was our chance to get outside and enjoy it. The drive up to Auburn took about an hour from Sacramento and took us through some pretty ranches and this hill covered in daffodils:

The hike itself took us through rolling green hills that contrasted with red soil trails and early spring wildflowers:

About 45 minutes into our hike, we arrived at a nice overlook on the hidden falls. It overflowed into a rather still wading pool area that looked like, come summertime, it would be a fun place for kids to splash around in.
Just in case you suspected me of handing my camera off to a more vigorous hiker to get the previous shot, here is another one proving I actually did hike my own self in and back:
After the hike was over, we stopped for lunch at Tsuda's Eatery in Downtown Auburn, which boasted great sandwiches and nice ambiance.

I'd like to return and explore of downtown Auburn. I'm fascinating by towns with history behind them. Walking to the cafe, we passed what looked like the beautiful remains of a decaying cellar.
And one of the best parts about Northern California in early March is seeing cherry trees in blossom. Tell me, is there a more stunning sight than a tree covered in those pale pink blossoms? Here's to early springs and lots of hiking in the future!