Jerseygator's Blog


Posted in Uncategorized by jerseygator on August 22, 2012

jerseygator:

How many times in life are you up to the challenge of an adventure? Follow Fran’s adventure as an ESL teacher in China for one year!

Originally posted on Teaching ESL in China:

Why not?

I moved to New Jersey from my native Vermont in January, 2012 to be nearer to my family. I found a job right away, but three months later found myself unemployed in a tough economy.

I have been, having started work at the age of 15, a camp counselor, a delicatessen sandwich maker, a diner waitress, a janitor, an actor doing children’s theatre, a house parent in a school for the deaf, a UPS driver, a mathematical quotations clerk for a large insurance company, an insurance clerk in a small insurance company, an elementary school teacher, dairy farmer, a baker/owner of a home bakery, owner of a rototilling business, a substitute teacher, a special needs advocate, an EMT with a non profit ambulance, a telephone receptionist, an Executive with a direct selling company, a newspaper columnist, a freelance writer for a newspaper and magazines, an…

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The Big Finnish (trip)!

Posted in Friends,travel by jerseygator on June 26, 2012
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Kenz gets up close and personal with a Norwegian troll in Epcot.

Have you ever had a moment where you ask the universe for something and it responds in a big way?  A couple of months ago I was visiting Orlando with McKenzie, my BFF Stephanie, and Steph’s niece Chelsea.  While in Epcot we rode the Norwegian ride and afterwords I mentioned how much I wanted to visit a Nordic country.  Less than two weeks later we got the opportunity!  Stephen’s best friend from his teen years was tying the knot in Finland, where he has lived for the last 5 years, and we decided to give the trip as a gift to Stephen, as long as he let us tag along.  Jake and Cecilia graciously let us crash the wedding and our trip to the top of the world was on.  Lesson here…when you ask the universe for something, be prepared for an answer and don’t say no.

We started our trip with a drive up the Jersey Turnpike to Newark airport.  Off in the distance we could see NYC and the Freedom Tower, which is already dominating the skyline.  It’s an impressive site.  We made it through security with only one hiccup…we all had carry on bags only (we travel light) but Stephen had forgotten that he had a little present for Jake in his backpack.  Stephen was pulled over by security after they scanned his bag.  The TSA gentleman joked “Whadda ya got, a beer in there?” at which point Steve realized he DID have a beer in there!  He had carefully wrapped a home-brew for his buddy as a gift and nestled it down into his clothes.  After a laugh, the TSA official told him not to toss the beer, but to check his bag (free of charge) and even walked him to the counter through a side door so he could take care of it.  Don’t believe all the horror stories you hear about TSA…this guy was seriously cool.

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Those Dutch know how to run an airport.

Once Stephen’s bag was checked we were ready to get on board.  Darrol had sprung for slightly more spacious seats, as he and Steve are both six footers.  We had lots of leg room, so were pretty set up for the 7 hour flight.  The movie choice wasn’t much, but we all had books and Darrol had downloaded some movies on his iPad.  We even got a little bit of sleep, which is good, as we left at 6pm our time and 7 hours later were in Amersterdam at 8 in the morning.  Hmmm…where did our night go?  After a brief stint at the Amsterdam airport, we hopped a flight to Helsinki,

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We knew we’d find some McMullens if we just started looking!

Once in Helsinki we picked up our rental car and headed out of town.  The wedding was being held on the island of Pollinge on the crinkly bits of Finland. (Although not Norway, I think Slartibartfast would have approved.)  We got to the ferry and started wondering how we would ever find the B&B or the wedding venue.  Stephen suggested we just start “looking for McMullens” and within 30 seconds we saw the groom’s Mom and brother in a neighboring car.  Jane, Josh and Tracy rode the ferry over with us and we followed them to the wedding site.

Finland is beautiful.  Five times the size of NJ with just over half the people, with the lush summer foliage of an area that knows it’s got to get green while the greenin’ is good.  There were times when it reminded me of Tennessee or Virginia, with it’s slightly rolling hills and green pastures.  It was cool enough for a sweater some days, but sunny and clear while we were there.  Our little B&B was set up like a hostel…2 twin beds and a small powder room in a little room with a big attached balcony that looked over the water.  There was a huge shower room downstairs with a tricked out sauna that we never had the chance to use (next time!) as well as a communal dining area.  Stephen bunked in the room next to us, and we got to meet “Uncle Coop” and Kim, Jake’s uncle and aunt from the states who stayed on the other side of us.  Sitting on the porch well into the night (as the sun never really sets) drinking Karhu beer with Coop, Kim and Steve was a good beginning to our adventure.

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The amazing, soon-to-be-famous fish stew. Seriously, it tasted even better than it looks.

Wedding traditions vary in other countries of course.  There was no rehearsal, but they did hold a rehearsal dinner for family and friends.  We had the soon-to-be-famous amazingly delicious fish stew (which recipe we did NOT get but will, I swear it!), as well as slabs of thick bread and the most scrumptious butter ever.  I literally went back for seconds on soup and butter.  The soup was salmon with potato and dill, delicately flavored with just the right amount of spice.  We met new folks, gave toasts, laughed over traveling mishaps and generally just had a great time.  The bride’s father, Kennut, gave a moving speech about how having Jake in their lives had made the world a smaller place by bringing them new friends and family, a sentiment shared by us and our new friends in Finland.

The wedding was held in a community hall that had been built by the members of the community (of which Cecilia’s family belonged.)  It’s deep, warm wood tones felt very close and comforting, and the homey touches that decorated the tables and ceiling were so sweet.  Have you noticed that, once reaching a certain age (ahem), you’ve been to so many weddings that you can tell right off which ones are going to be fun?  This had that vibe right from the get-go.  We came into the hall the first day we arrived to find the groom’s friends stringing paper hearts from the ceiling, and a laid-back party feel already established.  Red checked napkins and thought out guest placement cards mixed and matched cultures, ages and genders.  I sneaked a peek at my place setting and saw I didn’t know anyone around me but Darrol.  WooHoo!  Time to get to know people!  The day of the wedding was beautiful…someone ordered up some great weather.  It was warm and sunny (I didn’t even need a sweater and that, my friends, is just weird).  The bride and groom walked down the dirt path that led to the community hall and up the front steps while the guests congregated in the grass.  The ceremony was short and very heartfelt.  Jake was so moved by his new bride’s written vows that he was unable to give his own for a bit, as he was overcome by emotion.  Honestly, it was about the sweetest thing I have ever witnessed.

Ultimately, weddings become parties and Finland knows how to party!  Darrol learned very quickly that tapping on the glass does not prompt the couple to kiss, but quiets everyone down so that the tapper can give a speech (*snicker*–he was warned before he actually tapped very long, but I would have liked to have seen his face!).  There are no speeches given, but as a concession one of the groomsmen allowed that “if anyone wants to make a speech, come see me.”  Still not sure if that was to check for content and to lock them in a closet.  The highlight was the Finnish tradition of drinking songs.  There were sheets of lyrics on the tables and someone in the room would start stomping or banging a beat then everyone would burst into song, punctuated by shots of homemade schnapps and ending with everyone belting out “skol!” and downing the drink.  Seriously awesome.  Followed by more awesomeness as Jake’s band (with a fill in drummer) rocked the house down and everyone danced the night away.

The following morning was going to be an outing on the amazing hand built boat captained by Cecilia’s uncle, but the day dawned the opposite of the wedding weather…cold and wet.  Guess we’re going to have to wait until next visit to sail the beautiful Alexandra.  Stephen, Darrol and I said our goodbyes and heading back to Helsinki for the next part of our journey.  Amsterdam!

Update to Paleo…I’m coming up to my one year anniversary!

Posted in Cooking,food politics,food pyramid,Primal by jerseygator on May 17, 2012
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If you and I haven’t talked lately, you may not know that I changed my dietary template last July, becoming a “cavewoman.”  Well, I’m not out hunting bison, but I am continuing to refine my version of the ancestral or “Paleo” diet.  First the basics…my diet consists mostly of the following:  grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, limited pastured chicken/pork (just cause I’m not a fan), lots of vegies, fruits in season, and healthy fats (coconut oil/olive oil/ghee/nuts/seeds/avocados).  I don’t eat grains, legumes, or dairy (with the exception of ghee or grass-fed butter).

I think the key to a good diet is simple: does it make you look, feel and perform optimally?  Add to that your health indicators (blood tests, etc.) and I think you have something to go on.

From a physical aspect, I ended up losing 30 pounds, so am sitting at 125 pounds on a 5’2 frame.  My BMI, which is not a great measure but is what the government uses to measure obesity in America, went from 28.3 (overweight) to 22.9 (normal weight).  (A BMI of 30 is considered obese, so I was on my way.)  I lost 6 inches off my waist, going from a size 10 to a size 2.

How do I feel?  Man, I haven’t felt this good in decades.  Mental clarity and memory have been noticeably improved (and commented upon by coworkers). I went from sleeping 8+ hours per night to sleeping about 6-1/2 to 7 hours, waking up without an alarm clock every morning refreshed and ready to go.  My sleep is much deeper; I just don’t get sleepy as early as I used to.  My feeling is that a lot of this can be attributed to the addition of coconut oil to my diet.  (That is a post of it’s own.)  Interestingly, I have not had any illnesses since changing the diet with the exception of a UTI (that was my own fault…I let myself get dehydrated).  I have had NO allergy symptoms this year, and it’s been a tough year for allergies due to the warm winter.  Normally in the spring I’d be on Allegra, Flonase and Singulair.  I haven’t taken anything this year at all.  My skin problems (seborrheic dermatitis) have completely cleared up.  All gut issues are gone (no heartburn, or IBS symptoms).

Performance:  I certainly have more strength and endurance than before, but now that I have the diet dialed in I’m looking at adding some exercise.  I’m currently reading “Body by Science” by Dr. Doug McGuff and am intrigued.  I’m certainly leaner and have visible muscle definition in my abs.

Blood parameters have not been measured since my last post, but to repeat those:  Fasting blood sugar 67, total cholesterol 148, HDL 63, LDL 70, VLDL 15 and triglycerides 76.  My physician was thrilled with the numbers and encouraged me to “keep doing what I was doing.” I take no medications.

I get lots of questions regarding the diet, of course.  One is about macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein).  My current diet is about 60% fat (by caloric intake), 30% carbs and 20% protein.  This is not a high protein or low carb diet (although I certainly eat less carbs than someone eating a standard American diet).  Nor is it an “Adkins” type diet…paleo focuses on food quality…whole, real unprocessed foods.  Adkin’s is really all about processed foods lately, since they can sell that.  Adkin’s also focuses on ketosis (especially during the induction phase), which paleo does not.

A typical day of eating looks like this:

  • Breakfast:  “Bulletproof” Coffee (coffee made with grass-fed butter and coconut oil) or 3 pastured eggs scrambled in coconut oil, or a coconut milk smoothie (coconut milk, frozen berries and almond butter).
  • Lunch:  A big salad with nuts, dried cranberries/cherries, topped with a protein (chicken, salmon, tuna, strips of steak or other meat) and 2-3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, or leftovers from dinner.
  • Dinner:  Protein (grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish) with 2-3 vegies in season.  Right now that means lots of asparagus and spinach.  We eat a cruciferous vegetable almost nightly (cauliflower “rice,” broccoli, cabbage).  We may add in-season fruit for desert.
  • Snacks:  I’m seldom hungry so don’t snack often.  Usually it will be a handful of raw almonds, perhaps with a couple squares of dark chocolate.
  • Alcohol:  very rarely.  An occasional glass of wine, and if I’m going off template I may have a beer.
  • I eat fermented foods daily in the form of kombucha tea, sauerkraut or other fermented products.  I think this has been key to the improvement in my digestion.  Without going into TMI territory, let’s just say everything runs very smoothly.

Another question I get is about saturated fats and cholesterol.  As a traditionally trained (Western medicine) pharmacist, I have been taught that eating cholesterol and saturated fats are harmful.  However, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and reviewing of clinical studies and can find no real evidence to support this hypothesis.  I can, however, find many to refute it.  Since eating more saturated fats and cholesterol, my blood lipids have improved.  If I didn’t tell my physician what I was eating, he would probably assumed I was drinking the low-fat/high carb Koolaide put out by government recommendations (mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean).  What I have discovered in all my research is that government recommendations are highly political.  What a shock, huh?  When dietary recommendations are put out by the same government agency that subsidizes the food it recommends (The USDA), what else would you expect?  I’ll stick with my sample size of 1 and keep doing what I’m doing.

Darrol has moved to Paleo more whole-heartedly as well.  I convinced him to go dairy-free in January and within 3 days all his sinus symptoms disappeared: no headaches, no congestion, no snoring.  This was, truly, a life-changing event for him and the rest of the family.  Of course, we all know when he “cheats.”  He can’t hide how the dairy makes him react!  Since embracing the diet more fully he has taken off over 25 pounds and is now going to go off his cholesterol medications.  He looks awesome and feels great.  He is key to our diet, as he does most of the cooking.  We have amazing meals at our house!

This post is a lot longer than I expected, and there’s still so much to talk about.  I promise I’ll try to keep posting, in between 2 full time jobs and being a wife, a mom and a Memaw.  Please let me know if you have questions…I have tons of resources, links to studies, recommended reading, websites and podcasts that I can share.

Good eating and good health!

I liked it so much I bought the store.

Posted in Uncategorized by jerseygator on November 6, 2011
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Our family has been working toward eating in a healthy fashion for a long time. As noted in my last (long ago…sorry) post, we recently changed to eating using a paleo template. I’m fairly strict, Darrol not as much, and the kids are 50/50, as they eat what we cook but are old enough to knosh on whatever they want. Since going paleo I’ve lost almost 30 pounds, getting back down to my college weight; however, I’m a significantly smaller size. Despite not being overweight, I’ve always been a size 6 or so (although I’d gone up to a size 10 pre-paleo). Now I’m a size 2, as most of my weight loss occurred in my middle area (from back-boobs to muffin top, hehe). I look and feel much better, and the inflammation that had flared up in the form of arthritis is gone.

I had been shopping at a small, local natural foods market about 1/2 mile from our house. It was nice to be able to stop in there and get some organic foods or try new things. In early September I stopped in and the owner informed me she was moving out of state and selling the store, which had only been open for just shy a year. We were heading out of town for a family event and we spent much of the drive discussing what we would do if we were to own such a store.

I have an excellent job at Target, which I love. It offers a good salary, good benefits and professional satisfaction. However, it also has its frustrations. I see people at a certain point in their healthcare continuum, usually when they’ve already been diagnosed with an issue and put on medication. At this point, many of the patients are overwhelmed with their diagnosis and my job is to help them understand their medications and how to get the best results from them with the fewest adverse effects. Patients who have been on medications for a while are often unwilling to make lifestyle or dietary changes which can change the need for medication. I thought it would be great to talk to people who were interested in their health before it became an issue. For Darrol’s part he was working at a job which he wasn’t as happy with. He is an excellent cook and would be able to talk passionately about preparing healthy, delicious foods.

It was decided. We were becoming small business owners. Yikes!

The stars aligned and financing quickly came together. Two weeks later we owned Natural Harvest Food Market in Mullica Hill, NJ! Now I spend 4 days a week as a pharmacist, talking to people about their health conditions and 3 days a week as a business owner, talking to people about how to avoid dangerous health conditions! I’m loving it. Darrol talks to people about how to best cook wild caught fish, game and grass-fed meats. We’re both learning the ins and outs of inventory control with perishable products and how to balance our time. We’re making mistakes, but we’re learning. And we’re having fun.

We’re currently in the process of updating the markets webpage, so stay tuned. We’ll be blogging over there, Darrol on cooking and me on health. We’re excited to have you follow us on Facebook and on twitter, if you’re so inclined. Mostly, we’re excited to be on this journey together, as a couple. Wish us luck!!

Moving toward Meatless? A semi-vegetarian goes Paleo

Posted in food politics,locavore,Primal,Uncategorized,vegetarian by jerseygator on September 6, 2011

Earlier this year a friend of ours lost a tremendous amount of weight following “the caveman diet.”  I had never heard of it, but it didn’t sound healthy.  It is, however, hard to argue with success,and I reserved judgement until learning more.

If you’ve been reading this blog you know that we’ve been trying to decrease the amount of meat we eat, both for health and ethical reasons.  But have our “healthy” changes met with success?  Over the last few years both Darrol and I have had difficulty maintaining a healthy weight, despite eating a diet that is pretty consistent with the government’s food pyramid (or the new MyPlate).

October 2010

In addition, we cooked most of our meals at home using good ingredients: olive oil, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, organic/local vegetables and pastured meat from a local farmer.  Despite this, we were both overweight and on various medications.  Something wasn’t working!

I started researching the Paleo or Primal way of eating, first by asking our friends how they ate and what the rational for the diet was.  They were very helpful and pointed us to a few websites.  In college, my initial degree program was biochemistry and I was fascinated by evolutionary biology (total Stephen Jay Gould fangirl).  So when I began to understand that the underlying science of this way of eating was based on the evolution of the human species, I really got interested.

The basic premise of this eating lifestyle is that humans evolved for the vast majority of their time on earth as hunter-gatherers, not agrarians.  The introduction of grains, in the grand scheme of time, is very recent.  In addition, the last 100 years or so have seen a rapid manipulation of our foods, moving us farther away from “whole” foods to manufactured, processed food-like substances.  So to adapt to this lifestyle, one moves back to the initial way of eating to which our bodies evolved.

In addition to that basic premise, the role of insulin and other hormones and how they have evolved to work with our physiology is critical.  By eliminating grains, one is eliminating massive amounts of carbohydrates from the diet.  As insulin responds to carbohydrates, and insulin also promotes fat storage, the amount of fat stored decreases.  (I will blog on all these points soon, but just want to hit the basics today).

So what changes have we made? Surprisingly few.  The basics of the diet are grass fed/pastured meats (already doing),  vegetables (which have increased exponentially), some fruits, and healthy fats, such as coconut oil and avocado.  We eat a lot more eggs (pastured, from a local farmer) and no processed foods.  We seldom eat out, but when we do we avoid grains, breads, and starchy foods.  I’ve eliminated most dairy (no big deal for me), and Darrol’s moved to 2% or whole milk instead of skim.  We eat some cheese, mostly as garnish.  No breads, pastries, rice, pasta, etc.

Well, the proof is in the paleo pudding.  I had my lab work done and a doctor’s appointment today.  I have lost 14 pounds (just shy of 10% of my initial weight) and am in the healthy weight range for my height.  I’ve also lost 4 inches (!!) off my waist.  More importantly, my doctor looked at my lab work and stated “Wow!  Whatever you’re doing keep it up!”

Fasting glucose 67 (down from 87)

Total Cholesterol 148 (relatively unchanged…I was still on pravastatin)

HDL 63 (up from 54)

LDL 70 (down from 112)

VLDL 15 (down from 26)

Triglycerides 76 (down from 132!)

My vitamin D level went from 14 to 28 (still low but doubled from last time), so I’ll continue supplementation for a while, plus get my 30 minutes of sunshine daily at lunch (and much more when I’m not at work).  My thyroid level has been low off and on, so we’ll continue to monitor (I have no metabolic symptoms so am not overly concerned).  I’m off all medications and don’t have a follow up for 6 months!

So, I’m retiring the “Moving Toward Meatless” posts.  I’m excited to learn more about eating this way, and can’t see ANY reason to go back to the conventionally taught nutrition (eg, MyPlate).  I think one of the reasons it’s working is the focus on whole foods; removing the processed garbage removes so many non-food, potentially toxic things from the diet. I’ll be blogging about the science behind some of the ideas, as well as recipes we try.   Feel free to ask questions, and I’ll research what I can, or link you to some great sites.  I’m off to make some guacamole!

Darrol and I celebrate his recent birthday at Fogo de Chau

The Pot: Hard Cooked Eggs in the rice cooker

Posted in Cooking,locavore,Rice cooker by jerseygator on June 12, 2011

We are lucky to get fresh farm eggs whenever we want from a local farmer, so we eat a lot of them.  I wanted to boil some eggs up to make deviled eggs to take to a friends house today, and figured the rice cooker would be easy and keep the kitchen cool.  Using Alton Brown’s steamer method (found in his book I’m Only Here For The Food), I figured it would be easy!  Our cheap rice cooker came with a steamer basket so I was set.

Fresh eggs in steamer basket

Fill the pot with a bit of water for steam (about 3/4 cup) and turn to cook.  After a few minutes lay eggs in the steamer basket and close lid.  (Do not adjust your set.  The eggs range from white to brown to blue, depending on the hen’s breed.)  Set timer for 12 minutes and walk away.  When timer goes off, remove eggs with tongs and place into ice bath for 5 minutes.  When cooled, crack on flat surface and peel for delicious hard cooked eggs.

I have to say that this is the way to cook eggs.  Kitchen stayed cool, I used very little water (took two batches of 6 eggs each with original water), and the eggs were perfect.  They also peeled really easily, which could be due to their freshness or the cooking method; I’m not sure but every one peeled in seconds with no gouged whites.  I had also laid the egg carton on its side to center the yolks…seemed to work.

Yet another win for “The Pot!”  I didn’t have to spend “forever” peeling the eggs, as mentioned in this classic infomercial for Eggies.  (www.geteggiestv.com)

Creamy hard-cooked eggs were a breeze

Moving Toward Meatless: The Pot

Posted in Cooking,vegetarian by jerseygator on June 3, 2011

No, not that kind of pot.

Those who know my know that I’m not the family cook.  I’m not the cook at all, actually.  Browse through the blog and you’ll notice that most of the cooking action shots involve Darrol.  But as I am working to make my diet healthier I am learning more techniques.  My latest adventure it a rice cooker.

I’ve always avoided rice cookers.  Seemed stupid.  With my chemistry background, I proudly proclaimed I could cook rice and boiled eggs…both require timing.  Why get a rice cooker?  Then I started following Roger Ebert on twitter, then facebook.  Prior to his cancer, Ebert lost around 100 pounds with diet and exercise change.  Subsequently, he had numerous surgeries that prevent his eating…he gets his nutrition via liquid nutrients only.  However, he continues to cook healthy meals for his wife and friends.  Ebert is a devout follower of “The Pot,” as he calls it.  After reading his tweeted recipes and facebook posts, I broke down and bought an inexpensive rice cooker ($16.99 at Target).

I bought The Pot three days ago and have made things in it: barley, grits (real southern grits and easier than anything), oatmeal, and basmati rice.  I’m hooked!  The rice cooker is fast, non-stick, doesn’t heat up the kitchen and is intuitive.  Plus, for a cook like me, it’s simple.  On and warm.  Plus it turns itself to warm when it’s done cooking, so I don’t even have to monitor it!  Lazy cooks dream.

Last night I cooked dinner (don’t faint…I even cleaned up) and made a dish using the pot that was a great hit.  I adapted it from a couple of Mark Bittman’s recipes.  I started by cooking couscous in the pot, and while it was cooking a sauteed some chopped onion, garlic and chopped roasted red pepper in a little olive oil.  When the couscous was done I added it to the vegetables with a little more olive oil (this one was basil infused, something my husband had made last month).  I topped this with a topping that Bittman featured on one of his minimalist recipes.  Not sure what it’s called, but basically pureed 1 Tbsp smoked paprika, 2 garlic cloves and about 1/4 cup olive oil in the food processor, then added a couple slices of pumpernickel bread (rye is also very good) to the processor and ground it into wet breadcrumbs.  This taste like chorizo sausage and is amazingly good and very pretty.  Bittman used it in a lamb recipe, but I just put this over the couscous and popped it under the broiler for a couple of minutes.  Everyone loved it, it’s vegan (although not low-fat!) and it looked pretty on the plate.

This morning I got up and cooked some oatmeal while getting ready for work.  This has become my morning ritual.  After I emptied the oatmeal out of the pot I put some barley in to cook to take to lunch.  I’ll have it with some white beans and dressing (olive oil, lemon juice, herbs) plus a slice of that leftover pumpernickel.  If you have a rice cooker, dust it off and do some experimenting.  If not, less than $20 may be a good investment for you.  Enjoy!

30th Wedding Anniversary – Saint Kitts (part 1)

Posted in restaurants,travel by jerseygator on February 22, 2011

Instead of the usual dinner & a night out on the town, Tracey and I opted for something a little more memorable this time around; A trip to St. Kitts.  Where and what is St. Kitts you may be saying.  It is one of two islands in the West Indies that make up what is known as the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis.  Several things attracted us to visit St. Kitts in February.  First of all, it’s warm & sunny, something we truly needed after another long winter in South Jersey.  Secondly, it’s one of the few Caribbean islands which have both rainforests and a volcano you can hike up.

Aerial view of Mt. Liamuiga on St. Kitts

While Mt Liamuiga is currently dormant (last eruption is said to be in the late 17th century), there are still active sulfur vents in the caldera. Added to this is the fact that St Kitts only gets around 50,000 visitors per year, not a lot by Disney standards (in the tens of millions).  The population of 35,000 is English speaking and have a 98% literacy rate; However, due to their British heritage they drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (sorry Sarah!).

Darrol w/our scooter from 'Ride St. Kitts' - Thanks Tim!

This did not stop us from renting a scooter to tour the island on our own.  BTW, Tracey loves the freedom of having me drive while she is free to sit on the back and take lots of pictures and direct me on where she wants us to go.  Tracey and I liken ourselves to travelers and not tourists.  This means we try to find out where the locals eat and the places they go and we try to avoid the standard ‘tourist traps’.  Renting a scooter allowed us to go where we wanted and spend as much or as little time at a particular place as we chose. Note:  Getting off the beaten path in St. Kitts on occasion meant following trails & roads that were less than ideal for a scooter (and I use that term ‘roads’ loosely as at one time I’m almost sure it was a paved road but the potholes/canyons on the south part of the island rival anything we have in Jersey).  However, this afforded us access to places that the typical tourist just doesn’t get to see.  There are several former sugar-cane plantations on St. Kitts that have been restored and now serve as inns/restaurants.  The lush vegetation on these plantations and the entire island in general was breathtaking.

Brimstone Hill Fortress - St. Kitts

Speaking of which, the Brimestone Hill Fortress is a must see, to tourist and traveler alike. Started about 1690 and sitting about 1000 feet above the sea, overlooking Sandy Point Town, the fortress is the largest such structure in the eastern Caribbean and is listed on the UNESCO site of historic places.  While we were there, the clouds started rolling in from the east over the mountain.  Not only was it amazingly beautiful but a full rainbow formed, an auspicious sign of things to come (see additional pictures on Facebook).

Let me backtrack just a little here and tell you about the scooter rental.  ‘Ride St. Kitts’ has two flags flying outside, the flag of St. Kitts & Nevis and the Canadian Maple-leaf.  Turns out the owner is a Canadian who transplanted to St. Kitts about 10 years ago.  Tim and the gang were not only knowledgeable but very friendly.  Tracey & I hit it off with them from the get-go!  Tim gave us a detailed run-down on all the places to visit, as well as the best beach-bar on the island, the Shipwreck!  And when he discovered what foodies we were and my love of goat meat, he told me to order the ‘Goat Water’, a caribbean stew that wasn’t on the menu, but just ask for it.  Needless to say, less than 24 hours after returning from St. Kitts, I pulled a leg of goat out from our freezer  (yes, among other delicacies we have goat in our house) and tried my hand at making ‘Goat Water’!

Shipwrecks beach bar - home of Verdant Monkeys & Mongooses

Shipwrecks was a classic locals bar that didn’t seem to mind the occasional traveler.  The menu was not large, there was no electricity (just a generator out back to power the kitchen) and the floor was sand.  Everything you could want in a beach bar!  The food was great, the island -brewed beer cold and the sea-breeze enticing!  Tracey absolutely loved the fish tacos and I had my first, but definitely not last, Guinness Foreign Extra, a nice stout beer (ABV 7.3%) brewed right on St. Kitts by Carib brewers.  All in all, an incredible start to what would be a wonderful but all too short vacation.

Moving toward meatless: Gardein products

Posted in Cooking,food politics,vegetarian by jerseygator on January 31, 2011

As we look toward more meatless dishes to serve our family, we are investigating some “meat substitute” products.  I had always felt that eating something fake, as in pretending to be something it’s not, was counter-intuitive to eating real, natural foods.  Most vegetarians I know don’t eat meat-like products; they simply don’t miss eating meat.  For my family of omnivores, however, that could present a problem, so a little experimentation was in order.

I recently read “The Conscious Cook” by Chef Tal Ronnen.  He cooks vegan meals which are beautiful and (presumably) tasty, and uses a product called “Gardein.”  This meat substitute gets its name by combining garden + protein.  It’s been shown that vegetarians get plenty of protein in their diets without any additional supplementation necessary, however many eaters like the taste/consistency of meat and these products are designed for them.  I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to find them, but they were in the frozen case at my local supermarket.

Gardein Chick'n Scallopini

We choose two products to try: the Chick’n Scallopini and the Beefless Tips.  For the first dinner, I made a “chicken” piccata using Chef Tal’s recipe from the book.  The Gardein product looks like chicken patties when removed from the bag, and, after dredging in flour, fried up just like any chicken pattie.  After cooking the chick’n, I made a sauce using lemon juice, white wine, veg stock, shallots, capers and garlic.  The chicken was placed back in the sauce for just a couple minutes then served.

Chick'n fillets

The finished dinner fooled my son, who loved it and couldn’t believe the meal was vegan.  The “meat” had a pretty good consistency; not stringy like chicken but toothsome.  My biggest complaint is that it tasted just like a chicken.  I’m just not a big fan of the bird.  However, everyone loved the meal and it will definitely be added to the menu list.

Chick'n Piccata

The next evening we tried the beefless tips.  I modified one of Chef Tal’s recipes and

Gardein Beefless tips and Earth Balance buttery spread

made a sauce from mushrooms, wine, veg stock, shallots, garlic and Earth Balance “butter.”  The chunks of Gardein went from freezer right to saute pan and cooked up within minutes.  Once combined with the sauce in the pan for just a couple more minutes, the dish was placed on a bed of rice.  Again, the meal was delicious.  The meat substitute tasted like meat and the consistency was close (not stringy like meat would be).

Gardein beefless tips sauteed right from the freezer and cooked in about 3 minutes

The sauce was amazing, and I went back for more rice with sauce drizzled on top.

I think Chef Tal nailed the secret to good vegan/vegetarian cooking: fat.  Too many vegetarian dishes are what he dismisses as “hippie food.”  There’s nothing wrong with brown rice and steamed vegies, but it’s not very satisfying over the long run.  By using butter or a butter substitute, you add flavor, unctuousness and satiety.  Using capers, mushrooms or other umami flavors adds richness.  It’s interesting, because many people feel vegetarian food is boring, yet most omnivores I know cook the same things over and over.  Yes, it’s comfort food, but it’s not much of a stretch. I’m excited to add more vegan/vegetarian dishes to our repertoire.

"beef" tips in a mushroom/wine sauce over rice

Links:

http://www.talronnen.com for more information on “The Conscious Cook” as well as recipes and videos demonstrating some of the recipes.

http://www.gardein.com for more information on the products, as well as the company philosophy and mission.

http://www.earthbalancenatural.com for more information on Earth Balance spreads, made from cold-pressed oils, no hydrogenated oils or trans-fats.  Plus, the “butter” spread really taste and cooks just like butter and is my new go-to for toast and cooking.

An Offal Party

Posted in Cooking,food politics,Friends,locavore,New Jersey by jerseygator on January 27, 2011

As part of our conscientious eating, we are working to eat the whole animal when we choose to eat meat.  Recently we invited our friends to an “offal” party, that is a dinner party serving organ meats.

When we purchased our meat last fall, we ordered 1/2 cow, a whole pig, 2 lambs and a goat.  We opted out of the scrapple, having ordered that last time and determining that, if you didn’t grow up with it, it was nigh inedible.  (When the butcher asked if we wanted it, I inquired what it was.  Her response?  “Just what it sounds like, sugar.”)  This time, we took the organs from the cow and goat: heart, liver, kidneys and one non-organ, the cow tongue.

Beef heart

Let me start by saying that, other than liver and onions, none of us had eaten cow or goat organ meats before.  Darrol and the kids do eat the chicken hearts, so had an idea of what that tasted like, and we’ve had pate’ made from goose livers.  Fortunately, Darrol is both an experimental eater and an experimental cook, so he was up for it.

He started by making some beef stock with bones from Mr. Cow, then prepped the different cuts.

The beef tongue, which wins for weirdest looking thing we've ever cooked.

The heart was huge and was examined for the valves and chambers out of curiosity.  It was a least 4-5 times larger than a human heart; Darrol cut it up into slices to stew with broth and vegetables.  The tongue was incredibly odd looking and really didn’t look edible at all.  It was placed into the pressure cooker with some water in order to cook the meat.  Once removed, the “tongue” part (what you’d see if you looked into a cow’s mouth) was removed, leaving a large piece of meat.  Taylor had eaten a tongue chimichanga at a little Mexican place near the Delaware border, so Darrol decided to make taco filling with the tongue meat.

Beef kidneys. Darrol separated them into lobes then chopped finely.

In looking for recipes for steak and kidney pie on the internet we were repeatedly warned that kidneys stink!  Watch out for the stink, here’s how to get rid of the stink, etc.  Well, I guess that happens if you buy kidneys from the grocery store (in England…can’t say I’ve ever seen them over here), but kidneys from a grass fed cow that is immediately processed and brought to your freezer evidently have no odor at all.  I even held one up to my nose trying to smell something bad.  They smelled faintly of meat.  Darrol chopped them up finely with some chuck and sauteed them; the pie filling was topped with phyllo dough and baked to a golden finish.

The last thing in was the liver and onions, as they cook quickly and should be eaten right away.

Liver in all it's bloody glory

This was a familiar smell to most of the older generation, as we had moms or grandmoms who used to cook up a batch.  The frying onions made the whole house smell wonderful.

Darrol managed to bring four diverse dishes to the table all at once, an amazing feat that was appreciated by all.  We had some local cheese from Philadelphia, courtesy of Tim, and some homemade latkes made by the amazing Lil.  Tim, incidentally, recently lost close to 100 pounds on the “primitive” diet, which is based on meat, veg, fruit and nuts with almost no refined grains of any type.  Lil had also brought some crackers made with nut meal, and some “primitive” brownies to add to the table.

Everyone sits down to try the offal stuff

Everyone sat down to give the fare a try.  I will say that the young men of the group ate heartily and seemed to enjoy pretty much every dish.  We had one participant who basically thought the concept was interesting in theory, but not in practice.  She stuck to latkes.  The overall impression was favorable, with the favorites being the liver & onions (2 votes) and the steak & kidney pie (2 votes).  The tongue tacos were my favorite, as I just don’t like the texture of organ meats, and tongue is basically just a meat from an unusual place.  The heart stew was good, but didn’t win any votes as favorite.  I wonder if we put some dumplings in there if it would have won over more people?

Steak & Kidney pie

Liver & onions

Heart and Veggie stew

Tracey tries a tongue taco

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