Changes

First, this blog is undergoing some changes.  Many posts are missing, temporarily.  This is getting fixed, and I apologize for any inconvenience in the meantime.

For now, know this: this place will be changing.  It’ll probably broaden a bit in its scope to include more lifestyle posts, but recipes, as always, will continue to be its heart and soul.  I look forward to spending more time with you.

xo,
Jenny

Meal Planning

Before there are groceries, there are meals.  There’s a plan.  Built on the weather, what’s fresh at the farmer’s market, what’s cheap at the supermarket, and whatever my/my husband’s work schedule looks like this week.  I always try to plan the more complicated meals earlier in the week, because I know I’ll have more energy.  Warm meals should coincide with cold nights.  Grilling with warm nights.  And these days, North Carolina is getting both in the same week.  Plan a salad for Tuesday instead of Thursday, and you might seriously regret it.

Completely unrelated, but I fell asleep while watching Scandal last night, which means I was watching what I had missed this morning, and I just spent the last 5 minutes with my hand covering my mouth, gasping repeatedly as things became more and more intense.  Why did I think this could be a chill watch-as-you-write-a-blog-post show this morning?

And that’s how we ended up with shepherd’s pie planned for this last Monday.  Monday was supposed to be cold.  I had come across a picture of shepherd’s pie on pinterest, and very much wanted to eat it.  Joel has been requesting shepherd’s pie basically since we got married.  I didn’t grow up with it, and thought the whole concept was gross.  But oh, that picture.  I wish I could find it again, but well… you know the internet.

I didn’t even realize Monday was St. Patrick’s Day until I got to school that morning and saw my colleague’s shamrock tie.  But even then, I didn’t put together that shepherd’s pie was a good St. Patrick’s Day dinner.  And if I’m being really honest, Monday was a rough day for me.  I got home and made a huge mistake.  I sat down.  As soon as I sit down in the evenings, I don’t get up.  Knowing this, I sat down anyway.  I browsed instagram.  And whoa… St. Patrick’s Day was happening in a serious way.  It was all soda bread and Guinness.

The coincidence was irresistible.  To the point that I actually got off my hindquarters and made it.

Shepherd's Pie

In the end, it was a whole lot easier than I expected.  Here’s how it went down:

Shepherd’s Pie

Adapted from Alton Brown

For the potato topping:

  • 1 1/2 pounds red skin potatoes, chopped with skin on
  • 3 T. unsalted butter
  • 1/3 c. milk
  • 1 t. salt

For the filling:

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 small carrots, diced
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1/2 t. black pepper
  • 2 T. corn starch
  • 1 1/2 c. chicken broth
  • 2 t. tomato paste
  • 1 t. gluten free Worcestershire sauce
  • 3/4 t. dried thyme
  • 1/2 c. frozen corn
  • 1/2 c. frozen peas

Get the potatoes in boiling water.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large (preferably oven safe) skillet, cook the onion and carrot in olive oil over medium heat until the onion is just barely translucent.  Add in the ground beef.  Cook until browned.  Add salt and pepper.  Stir the cornstarch into the chicken broth until mixed completely.  Set aside.  Add tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, and chicken broth mixture to the ground beef mixture.  Continue to cook until just barely thickened.  Add corn and peas.  If your skillet is oven safe, you can use that.  If not, transfer to a casserole dish.

When potatoes are cooked through, drain.  Add butter, milk, salt, and pepper.  Mash.  Spread over the filling, beginning at the edge and working your way to the middle.

Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until potato topping is just starting to brown.

Meal Planning

I’ve gone through several approaches to meal planning.  I’ve stuck with some longer than others.  Sometimes, a system will last me a couple years, sometimes only a month.  The real problem with any of these systems is that they just don’t work when my lifestyle changes.  I’ve gone from college, to internship, to office job, to teaching, to a summer off… and now I’m preparing to teach at a new school, which will be unpredictable in its own very unique ways.  I’m starting back next week, and I’m trying to make sure I’m prepared to eat healthy, even when my schedule is a bit demanding.  The beginning of the school year always requires a lot of time.  A new school will require even more.  And a new grade level, well… I’m prepared to disappear for a little bit.

So… eating healthy.  Meal planning.  How do I do this?

Step 1: Prepare.

We were given a stand alone freezer this year, which is a tad ridiculous for a home with only 2 people in it.  Nonetheless, it’s enabled me to squirrel away all kinds of meals.  I’ve made gluten free pizzas, butternut squash lasagna, gluten free meatloaf, and a couple chicken and broccoli casseroles.  That’s 1-2 meals a day that all I have to do is pull out of the freezer and bake.  Not everyone has a massive freezer sitting in their living room.  I get it.  But even if you do this on a much smaller scale (e.g., weekly vegetable prep), it can still be a lifesaver when it comes time to prepare dinner after a 12 hour work day.

Step 2: Stock the right groceries.

Know what you eat.  Don’t buy things you don’t really like in the hopes that after a really hard work day, you’ll suddenly start stress-eating carrots.  You won’t.  Well… I guess you might.  But more likely, you won’t.  So keep those staples handy.  Here’s a guide to our pantry, fridge, and freezer staples:

Pantry:

  • Chicken stock
  • Rice
  • Corn tortillas
  • Canned beans
  • Evaporated milk
  • Corn starch (a gluten free girl’s best friend)
  • Sauces: spaghetti sauce, barbecue sauce, and pretty much anything gluten free by San-J

Fridge/Freezer:

  • Cooked chicken strips (kept in the freezer)
  • Sausage (I like to have cooked and uncooked both available)
  • Chicken (I like to get whole cut chicken from the farmer’s market)
  • Ground beef (I leave it uncooked so I have flexibility, but once thawed, it cooks up in a flash)
  • Steak (I use bison steak more often than not, but it turns into tacos super fast)
  • Bacon bits (typically I cook these up in a batch, but I’ve also purchased high quality bacon bits when in a pinch)
  • Veg (I stock my favorites in large quantities in the freezer, and smaller portions in the fridge)
  • Gluten free bread (udi’s multigrain from costco, flatbread from med deli, and the occasional gluten free biscuits

Step 3: Have a game plan.

Now that I’ve got all the right stuff, I can start cooking.  Having a game plan in the past, always meant a day-by-day meal assignment.  Monday this, Tuesday that.  You know the drill.  This never worked me before, because each day was completely unpredictable.  So I’m throwing that out the window.  I have a bunch of meals that I can make (or that my husband can make), and I’m keeping that list handy (along with the very abbreviated directions I might leave my husband on the fridge).  Here goes:

Comfort Food:

  • Chicken pot pie (veg, chicken, and chicken stock into an oven safe skillet; add cornstarch and cook until thickened; top with bisquick biscuits; bake)
  • Cheesy rice (cook onions in large skillet; add rice and chicken broth; cook until almost all broth has been absorbed; add cheese, spices, protein, and veg of choice – some veg and protein will need to be added earlier in the process to ensure they’re cooked through)
  • Creamy pasta (cook onions in large skillet; add pasta, evaporated milk, and chicken broth; cook until almost all broth has been absorbed; add cheese, spices, protein, and veg of choice – some veg and protein will need to be added earlier in the process to ensure they’re cooked through)
  • BBQ chicken quesadillas (combine cooked chicken with bbq sauce; warm in toaster oven; build quesadillas and cook in nonstick skillet until slightly browned and cheese is melted)

Healthy:

  • Salad (chop lettuce; top with whatever you’ve got on hand)
  • Lettuce wraps (cook rice in rice cooker; cut lettuce into hand-sized cups; cook chicken in sauce of choice)
  • Tomato caprese (slice tomatoes and mozzarella; add basil if you have it on hand; drizzle with balsamic reduction or vinaigrette)

Ethnic:

  • Roasted tomatoes with pasta (drizzle cherry tomatoes with olive oil and roast; top with italian sausage if desired; cook pasta)
  • Steak tacos (grill steak along with chopped onions and peppers; warm beans and corn tortillas; slice steak)

Other Random Ideas:

  • Honey lime chicken (mix honey and lime juice; pour over chicken and bake; cook rice in rice cooker; warm black beans)
  • Grilled sandwiches (fill with cheese, protein, and veg of choice; grill until golden brown; flipping in the absence of a panini or sandwich maker)
  • Grilled sausage and vegetables (grill sausages and vegetables; done)

There are definitely tastier versions of some of these recipes.  But you can’t beat the simplicity of these ideas.  All of these recipes keep my diet relatively well balanced.  They’re not necessarily the healthiest, but they’re certainly better than the popcorn I had for dinner multiple times this past school year.

Although some might take 30 minutes to an hour to cook, this time is largely unsupervised.  I like to stick around the kitchen and finish up my evening chores while they cook, since my recipes don’t include cooking times.  But in 30 minutes to an hour, I can wash breakfast and lunch dishes , feed our pets, get some laundry started, and maybe do a quick sweep of the house.

Being Realistic

I’m trying to be realistic about this school year.  We’ve discussed this before.  I’m anticipating a lot of late nights, possibly without a lot of warning.  Joel and I have been discussing this and how we’re going to stick to our budget and eat healthy during this time.  So Joel’s taking over one dinner per week.  We’ve got 1-2 meals per week in the freezer.  One meal a week, Joel gets home late, so we do dinner separately.  That just leaves 1-2 meals per week.  Weekends don’t count because we have them off, and I enjoy cooking those days.

And with the irregular schedule that I’ll be keeping, this is less about meal planning and more about appropriately stocking the fridge, freezer, and pantry.  We’ve stocked up at Costco on all the usual time-saving suspects: Organic chicken stock, rice, frozen veggies (these don’t save time, necessarily, but they’re handy when I don’t know exactly when we’re going to be eating what), gluten free frozen grilled chicken, cheese (put into smaller packages and frozen, so it doesn’t go bad

Burdens

It’s a bad word.  Nobody says “burden” in a good way.  Ever.

But what does it even mean?  Something that weighs down on you, often times impacting every other part of your life.

I’ve been reading a lot about minimalism this spring/summer, and I’m finding that minimalists like to throw this word around a lot.  “Stuff is a burden.”  Sure, I can get behind that.  All stuff requires work and money (however little) to maintain and space to be stored.  Such a burden.

But I’m finding, that at least for me, minimalism can be a burden as well.  In all the reading I’ve done about minimalism, I’ve found myself frequently frustrated and in a poor mood after I read a blog post or article on the subject.  That isn’t right.  The idea is that minimalism is supposed to be life giving.

So why hasn’t it been for me?

Well, in many ways, it has.  Shrinking the amount of stuff in our bedroom gives me a real sense of peace when I’m going to bed.  The kitchen is easier to work in, frequently cleaner, and all around more pleasant to be in, now that I’ve gotten rid of unnecessary items.  Our living/dining room have always been fairly clutter free, and with few exceptions, it’s remained so during this season.

But there’s this other side of minimalism that I find very burdensome.  It’s the legalism, the rules about how I’m supposed to live, and they’re driving me bonkers.  For example, I read a blog the other day that had an important principle to living with less: “Live on only one income.”  And then I become very discontent with the amount of money that my husband and I make because this seems close to impossible without severely cutting back our lifestyle (hello beans and rice!) and postponing or altogether removing our long term goals (having a family).  My discontentment is my problem, and it’s not fair of me to outsource that on somebody else.

At the same time, hard and fast rules seem unrealistic, however well-intentioned.  When people say things like “live on only one income”, they assume that one of your two incomes is sufficient to live off of.  And while Joel and I certainly could live on only one income if we really needed to, there are a lot of families that simply can’t without governmental aid which they wouldn’t qualify for since they still bring in the two incomes.  And then the spirit of the rule is that you live simply, which Joel and I would certainly accomplish by living on only one income, but I have plenty of friends who still could and would live extravagant lifestyles doing the same.  So the rule doesn’t even accomplish the purpose.  There’s just no way that you can assume that any family could (or should) cut their spending in half, or that if they did, the result would be simplicity.

But the more burdensome part of this to me is what it would mean I would have to give up.  Fresh, sustainably grown fruits and veggies.  Humanely treated and sustainably raised meat.  Dinner out with my husband.  Bella Monica, forever and always.  A breakfast date with a friend.  The possibility of having children of different sexes (because while it’s not necessary, I really think it’s important for boys and girls to have separate bedrooms).  Living within walking distance to an amazing park and fantastic museum.  Living in a neighborhood where I feel safe.  Extra school supplies so that the kids whose parents can’t afford it don’t feel left out and are still able to learn.  Vacation.  And the list goes on.

Could we give up these things?  Certainly.  Should we?  And here’s where the question gets trickier.  Sure, I sometimes spend my money on things that are less than life giving, but the majority of my money goes towards things I really want and enjoy, things that are life-giving.  (And it goes without saying that my husband and I are savers and are debt free except for our mortgage, so we’re not being foolish by putting a dinner out on the credit card.)

Money is meant to be used.  And the ideas behind minimalism were never supposed to make me unwilling to spend it.  Rather, they’re supposed to challenge the way I choose to spend it, which is an idea I gleaned from Vanderkam’s All the Money in the World.  And I choose to spend money in a way that gives life… to others, to my family, to the world.

I’ve found myself buying fewer clothes, fewer shoes, and fewer kitchen gadgets.  But I also didn’t hold back at all when my husband and I saw the latest DC Heroes game (I checked our budget, but didn’t hold back when I saw we had the money there).  There’s room in life for stuff.  Stuff can squeeze life out, but lack of stuff can also do that.  The trick is to find the balance.

Summer Update

Remember that list of Summer To Do’s I created before the summer began?  I wanted to check in and let y’all know what progress I’ve made.  And also some goals that might have changed.

1) Hard Core Decluttering

Clothes: Check.  We got rid of our dresser which really opens up our bedroom.  All of our clothes now fit into the closet.  After I did this, I was enjoying just how open the bedroom felt and wanted more of it.  So I kept going with the clothing purge.  I managed to find a place in the closet for our laundry basket and my jewelry, which had previously been on my night stand.  Then I got rid of the nightstand.  I’ll explain more on this project later, but suffice it to say that I am loving my bedroom without all the stuff.

Kitchen: Check and check.  I went a bit further with this than I expected.  I expected to get rid of a bunch of unitaskers and utensils.  I didn’t expect to be so ruthless with our appliances.  Several left our home completely (afterall, do we really need a blender and a food processor?).  Others went to the attic.  They’re accessible when I really want them, but they aren’t unnecessarily cluttering our kitchen.  Loving the bare counters and organized cabinets.

Cleaning Supplies: I finally got around to this yesterday.  It’s so nice to know that we don’t have all these toxic chemicals sitting under the counter.  I also stocked up on baking soda and vinegar (my two favorite cleaning supplies) from Costco, and it’s nice that I have space for them now.

2) Organization

Flours: If you follow me on instagram (@eatingourheartsout), then you know that I did this awhile ago.  I stocked up on quart sized mason jars, labeled them, and placed them neatly on a narrow rolling cart that fits perfectly under the counter in this bizarre crevice between the wall and the cabinets. (Our kitchen has a kinda wonky layout, which I actually really dig, but it means for some odd angles.)  What you may not know is that less than 5 minutes after I posted the picture to instagram, I went to push the cart back under the counter, only to have it completely collapse.  Whoops.  I found another rolling cart that is actually an even better fit, as it completely fills the space.  It’s fits all of my flours on the top two shelves, and now I can put extras on the bottom shelf.

Craft Supplies: After I ditched my nightstand (which was really just a really ugly shelf), I replaced it with my antique sewing table.  Aside from a box of tissues and a glass of water, nothing goes on the surface, which really adds to the openness of the bedroom.  I also put all the fabric into underbed boxes.

Comic Books: I just remembered that I said I was going to do this.  Blech!  I need to get organizing.

3) Becoming a Little Crunchier

This is by far the section I’m most excited about.

Shampoo: I’m using a really simple water/baking soda mixture.  It’s a sort of paste that you just rub into your hair.  Then, after I’ve rinsed, I do a quick apple cider vinegar (highly diluted) rinse.  The result is super soft, super affordable dream hair.  I’ve heard rumors that you can wash less often, as the chemicals in conventional shampoo are often what causes your hair to look so disgusting so fast.  I haven’t played around with that yet, but so far so good.  I use zero styling products, just a blow dryer and a straightener.  Loving it!

Body Wash: One of the ingredients should be coming in the mail tomorrow.  I’m jazzed to try this out.

Face Wash: This wasn’t something from my original to do list, but I’m thrilled I switched over.  My dear friend Bekah from Pretty Little Snippets did a post this last winter all about oil-based face wash.  If you’ve seen her skin, you know that clearly whatever she’s doing works.  That said, I was still a little skeptical about smearing oil all over my face.  Still, if I was going to go all natural with the shampoo and body wash, this seemed a natural companion.  I followed her recipe exactly, and I am digging the results.  Day 3, I noticed loads of pimples, but I stuck with it, allowing my body chemistry to adjust, and it sure has.  I’m on day 7 now, and my face seems cleaner and fresher than ever.

Make-up: Again, this wasn’t originally on the list, but it quickly got there as I started researching cosmetics.  I wasn’t willing to go make-up-less, but I wasn’t liking what I was putting on my skin.  Then I found Shea Moisture, which is not only far more natural than what I was using, but also cruelty free, fair trade, and sustainably produced.  Woot for ethics!  It’s also quite affordable, which is a bonus to me.  But this did mean cutting back on the foundation I was using.  I now only use a light powder, which at first scared me to death.  I’ve never had particularly good skin.  But using all natural products seems to be helping with the skin, and now I can’t imagine going back to a heavy foundation.

4) Health/wellness

Exercise: With Joel being so busy with work this summer, I’ve taken over the morning dog walks.  Unfortunately, that’s about all I’ve done in the way of this.  Need to get on it.

Food: Certainly, this summer has been a lot better for me.  I’m learning new ways of cooking that require a whole lot less time.  I’ve also been freezing meals so that I have healthy easy options during the school year.  So far, frozen pizzas, lasagna, and chicken and stuffing casserole (a favorite from my childhood).  I’m also hoping to put away a couple meatloaves.

Mind: I’ve done better on both of these, but not well enough.  Meditation usually only happens when I’m feeling tired, but it’s good that I recognize it as a viable solution.  I did really well with reading at the beginning of the summer, but have really slacked off these past two weeks.  The first week, I had an excuse.  Last week, well… I’m just assuming becoming obsessed with the Kim Kardashian app is not an excuse…

So all in all, I’m making progress.  I do have some other things to update you on.  One, I’ve moving to a different school which I’m excited about.  I’m still working with a very high needs population, but it’s a better fit for me, which I’m hoping will translate into less stress.  There’s some other exciting things in the works, but I’m going to wait until we actually break ground on them to share.  Jinxing and what not.

What summer projects have you made progress on?  Or are you simply soaking up the sun?

Butternut Squash Lasagna

I remember watching TV once when I was a kid.  If I remember correctly, it was 7th Heaven, but I can’t say with any real authority.  Sorry.  Anyway, one of the characters said something about how they made a vegetarian lasagna, and I (stupidly) said, “ew… gross!”  My mom got a little offended, or maybe she was just calling me on my picky eating BS (it’s hard to call, really), and responded with “My lasagna is vegetarian, is it gross?”

And in my stupid little preteen brain, when I thought of vegetarian, I wasn’t thinking meatless.  I was thinking veggie-full.  And my stupid little preteen brain told me that veggies were gross.

This lasagna is the polar opposite of my mom’s lasagna from back then (although since getting this recipe from my sister-in-law, she only makes her lasagna this way).  There are tons of veggies.  And meat.  It makes no sense, really.  You could make it meatless, sure.  But I prefer not to.

Lasagna Done

And it doesn’t have veggies like my stupid preteen brain was picturing.  It doesn’t have mushrooms and olives, which I still maintain are pretty disgusting.  It doesn’t even have spinach, which even my preteen self was ok with in lasagna (primarily, I’ve stopped eating spinach because I’m pretty sure I was having an allergic reaction to it, at least in the large quantities that I was eating it).  It has a really sneaky vegetable masquerading as noodles.

Say what?!

Yep.  That’s how this thing is gluten free.  Zero pasta.  We could call into question its validity as a “lasagna” at all at this point, but once you see how yummy it is, I’m not sure you’ll want to.

I like to make it in little loaf pans because that’s about exactly right to feed me and my husband for dinner.  But when I’ve had it with my family, I’ve made it in 13×9 pans, and since that’s a more typical amount of lasagna, I’ve made the recipe thus.

On this particular occasion, I made a quadruple recipe and froze a ton of little loaf pans.  My husband and I are the proud owners of a new to us freezer that is currently sitting in our living room.  More on that later.  In the meantime, know that this meal freezes extraordinarily well.  I’ll even tell you how.

Lasagna Prep

Here’s how this lasagna goes down.

Butternut Squash Lasagna

  • 1 medium butternut squash
  • 1 pound ground beef (optional)
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 2 jars spaghetti sauce
  • 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Brown the ground beef with the onions.  Add in the spaghetti sauce.  You can leave the sauce alone at this point.  Or I like to add some black pepper and fresh herbs and then just let it simmer.  This is all optional.

Peel the squash, then cut the skinnier part into thin round disks (about a quarter of an inch or less, try to be as uniform as possible).  Then cut the larger part in half vertically if it’s standing on its butt.  (I have no idea the technical terms for a butternut squash, so just go with me on this…)  Use a spoon to scoop out all the seeds and what not.  Now cut these into moon shaped disks.

Spoon a bit of sauce into your pan.  Then cover with a layer of butternut squash.  Top with sauce.  Then cheese.  Then repeat.  And again.  Until all the ingredients are used up.

Here’s where you cover with foil and freeze if you’re into that.  Then you just pull it out of the freezer, thaw, and follow these other directions when you’re ready to eat.

Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 45 minutes or until the squash is fork tender.  Then bake uncovered until the cheese is just slightly blistered.

P.S. The butternut squash really dried out my skin today, a problem I haven’t had when I’ve made this in the past.  I mean, we’re talking peeling skin dried out.  It’s gross.  If you have a similar problem, you should know that a bowl of sugar to rub your hands in and an episode of house hunters should do the trick.

Choosing Wisely

In general, I don’t really think of myself as a product of my culture.  I think of myself as “different” and “thoughtful”, which is probably giving myself too much credit.  Because truth be told, I don’t challenge my ways of thinking very often, and I often surround myself with people who think similarly.  And I realized the other day that I don’t want to be one of those bonkers conservative people who only listen to Ann Coulter and Fox News.  But I also don’t want to be their liberal counterpart.  I want to be thoughtful.  I want to be challenged.  I want to consider new ideas and reject some while adopting others.  I want to change and grow, not go deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole I started when I was in my early 20’s.

I’m reading this book by Laura Vanderkam called All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know about Getting and Spending.  It has affirmed some of what I already believe, but it’s also pushed me to think about things very differently than I have in the past.  Primarily, Vanderkam introduced me to the idea of choices.  She says, quite simply, that every decision you make about your money, whether it’s how you get your money or how you spend your money, is just that… a decision.  A choice.  And while many other people would have made similar choices, that doesn’t make it any less of a choice.

And while I understand this intellectually, I often act as though my choices were inevitable.  I make the salary I do because I’m a teacher.  Gosh darn state legislature, why don’t you give us a raise?!  My husband makes what he does because although he works in IT, he does so at an education non-profit.  Yes, it would be nice to have more money.  But at the end of the day, we make what we do because we chose to.  Others are not as fortunate as us in that they did not receive an essentially free education at one of the best universities in the state and even the country.  They don’t have the choices we do.  Regardless, these are still choices.  Other states pay their teachers better, and moving is an option.  But then we wouldn’t live here, less than 4 hours away from either set of parents, seeing my little sister on a regular basis, and in a community I absolutely love.  I choose to stay.  That means the income I have, unfortunately.  And I can whine and cry about it, or I can accept responsibility for the fact that I get what I get because of choices I have made.

I get to drive less than 5 minutes to a farmer’s market that is open two days each week.  It’s a huge farmer’s market with gluten free baguettes, tons of fresh veg, gorgeous flowers, and fresh eggs and meat that make me feel good about what I’m putting in my body.  It’s right down the street from the best gluten free bakery where I picked up a couple scones for breakfast this morning.

Scone

I’m pretty happy with this choice.  I spend more on groceries than I’d like, but I also recognize that I could spend less.  Less money on groceries could mean more in savings or more on clothes or more… whatever.  But I choose groceries, because I really like food, and I like food that I can feel good about.  I like fresh fruits and veg, I like supporting sustainable farming.  I’m making choices.

I don’t want to be a product of my culture, but in order to avoid this, I must acknowledge my own agency in creating my life.  I’m making choices.  And because I get to make choices, I have the power to change things in my life that I don’t like.

So I’m doing a lot of pondering these days.  I’m trying to imagine the life I want to have, and then I’m figuring out how to get it.  I’m making choices.  Today, I’m just thankful for all the choices I have before me.  And most of us do have a lot of choice, when it comes down to it, perhaps not the choices that we want, but still more than so many other people in the world.  I’m trying to do things because I’ve weighed the pros and cons, and I’m generally pleased with the outcome.  I’m trying to ignore social and cultural pressures so that I can live a life I’m proud of and that I enjoy.  I’m trying to challenge myself.

This morning, I made some pretty simple, but also meaningful choices.  I chose water instead of juice.  I chose cleaning instead of tv.  And then I chose a scone instead of cereal.  And you know, I’m pretty happy with these choices.

A Practical Guide to Composting

Composting always seemed like a really daunting thing to me.  You have to touch with gross, dirty stuff full of worms and bugs, and the only real use for it is if you garden.  I was pretty sure there was no point in my ever composting since I never intended to garden.  I was willing to go along with it at my mom’s house, but the whole idea just kind of grossed me out.

Until I had a roommate who composted in a totally easy, fuss-free manner.  She made composting seem like something I could actually do, something I sort of wanted to do.  So here it is, a practical guide to composting.  I guarantee it’ll make the process more accessible.

Practical Guide to Composting

Let’s start with why composting is such a good decision regardless of any garden you may or may not grow.

1. Composting food waste means less trash into the landfill.

You know how I feel about landfills.  They’re gross and stinky and almost exclusively affect the lives of people who don’t have the knowledge or ability to advocate for it to be somewhere else, usually the elderly or those in generational poverty.

2. Composting is a way to recycle organic materials.

Yay recycling!  Right?  Recycling means we’re using things to their fullest.  Even if you have no intention of starting a garden, offering your compost to a neighbor could be a huge help for their garden.  Besides, even if neither you nor anyone else ever uses the compost, it is still the most efficient way to dispose of organic materials.  Even if you don’t want a garden, you can spread your compost out into the yard and start filling up your composting container again.  I almost want to start singing “The Circle of Life”, but I’ll refrain.

3. Composting can be an amazing learning opportunity for kids.

Decomposers are one of the most difficult part of an ecosystem to understand.  Kids see producers (most plants) and consumers (most animals) on a regular basis.  And while they might see decomposers (fungi, bacteria, etc.), they probably can’t even begin to explain the difference between these and other types of plants and animals.  Watching the decomposition process in action can be a huge help with this.  And understanding how ecosystems work along with the interdependence of organisms is the first step to kids understanding why stewardship of our earth is such a huge deal.

Now that we know why, let’s discuss how.

Composting can be so much easier than you think.  For less than an hour of your time and less than $30, you can already begin composting.

1. Contain your compost.  … or… you know… not.

My composting set up is super easy.  Chicken wire is wrapped around two posts and wire tied to the fence.  Done did.

My roommate’s set up was even easier.  She just had a pile at the back of her yard.  Done did.

I opted for some guard between the compost and the rest of the yard mainly because we have a dog.  I’ve seen Ramona foraging through the cat litter before, and I didn’t want her getting it in her head that rotten vegetables would be a yummy dinner.

Some people will buy prefab composting bins with holes and everything, but these can be pricy.  I’ve also seen people create their own by simply drilling holes in plastic tubs or trash cans.

All of these work.  Really, you just need to choose a method that will work for you.

2. Include “green” and “brown” matter.

Green matter includes stuff like weeds and grass clippings.  This should be about 1/3 of your compost.

Brown matter includes stuff like dead leaves and dirt.  This should be about 1/3 of your compost.

3.  Kitchen scraps.

Kitchen scraps will make up the remaining 1/3 of your compost.  This should include eggshells and scraps from fruits and veg.  Other than eggshells, you don’t want to include any animal byproducts in your compost.  These take way longer to decompose than the rest of it and will likely attract animals to your compost.  Obviously not ideal.

4. Air and water.

Air and water are some of the most important components in composting.  To let air in, you’ll need to mix up your compost from time to time.  Compost containers usually let you roll them around to mix them up.  I just use a rake every time I add some new kitchen scraps to the mix.

Water is a little trickier.  Where I live, we usually get enough rain so that I don’t have to actively do anything to ensure my compost is moist enough.  If you live in a drier climate, you’ll have to add water to your compost from time to time to make sure it has enough water.  You never want your compost to be soaked, though, so watch out not to overwater.

5. Create a inside compost receptacle.

This needs to work a lot like your trash/recycling center.  Keep in mind that old bits of fruits and veg do attract fruit flies, so be sure to close the container up.  We use a couple of dog treat containers because they stay closed and because they’re free.  Again, I’ve seen fancy composting containers for use in the house.  You’re free to do it, but they’re not necessary.

Compost

Now you’re ready to get going!  Don’t be scared of the process.  And if you’re afraid that the whole thing will be gross, don’t be!  The worms and bugs have no desire to chill out on the surface of your compost.  And the more often you empty out your compost containers, the less disgusting they’ll be – a lesson I may have learned but haven’t put into practice.

A Time For Everything

When I was a kid, I was so obsessed with ketchup.  It went on/in everything.  From mac’n’cheese to the more conventional french fry, I was obsessed.  And then, with no real warning, our sordid love affair was over.  Ketchup was disgusting, and I didn’t want it on my hamburger, let alone my mac’n’cheese.  Everything was barbecue, those days.  And really, barbecue is an ideal dipping sauce: spicy, sweet, with a little tanginess thrown in for good measure.

And then Joel and I went to the Old Salt Restaurant in Beaufort, NC.  First, let me begin by saying that they have a fantastic gluten free menu and a staff that’s actually educated on it.  Second, they have these sea salt brined fries…

I recognize the fact that in creating a food blog, I’m signing on to be able to write about food.  But sometimes… the texture and the flavor are just absolutely so amazing, that you don’t even have words for them.  And to be honest, I’ve been chasing that sea salt brined high ever since.

Five Guys fries are not a bad stand in when I’m back in Durham.  They’ve got the flavor just right, but the texture isn’t quite there.

But the thing is, the fries weren’t even it.  They serve them with their own homemade ketchup that is unbelievable.  I just… words…. not there…

And ever since, I’m back on the ketchup wagon.  I knew I was going to have the house to myself on Friday night with a new season of Pretty Little Liars on Netflix (I recognize that I should be watching Orange is the New Black, but that’s a together show while Joel doesn’t really care for PLL).  I was out running errands, and I thought some fries with some sort of fancy ketchup would exactly do the trick.

Balsamic Ketchup

Oh man, did they ever!  Heinz has this ketchup with balsamic vinegar.  The fries were everything that prepackaged frozen fries are, but this ketchup is a game changer.

When I told Joel about it after, he wanted in on that mess.  So we manufactured an excuse to use it again: corndog muffins with tater tots (a preference of his I’ll never understand).

Corndog Muffin

Corndog muffins were a pinterest find from forever ago.  They’re the easiest way to satisfy a corndog craving, which, if you’re anything like me, come fairly regularly.  The recipe is from Iowa Girl Eats, and while I like the concept, her method simply doesn’t work for me.  A) I don’t have a mini muffin tin.  B) I have found the best gluten free cornbread mix in the whole wide world, and I really don’t see any reason to mess with that.  C) I also think we can do a smidgen better than regular ol’ hot dogs.

So let’s simplify this a bit.

Corndog Muffins

  • Prepared cornbread batter*
  • Kielbasa sausage, cut into 12 equal pieces

Pour batter into muffin tins as the recipe directs (do not overfill).  Insert a sausage piece into the middle of each filled muffin tin.  If there is batter leftover, I like to pour it into a small pan and bake plain to have with butter and honey for dessert.

* My personal favorite of the gluten free varieties is Pamela’s.  My homemade cornbread isn’t that good.  I figure if I’m having corndogs for dinner, I might as well go whole hog and treat myself with my favorite cornbread (see what I did there?).

P.S.  The combo with the ketchup.  Absolutely divine.