Mommy Cafe

Vegetarian home cooking, kid tested and approved

Simple Staples

Since last October’s unprocessed challenge, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to labels. And after reading Food Rules by Michael Pollan, I’ve been thinking more about what actually constitutes food. I know what flour is. But is it really still flour after it’s been stripped of all its nutrients and then “enriched” to add those nutrients back in? I have my doubts.

As a result, I’ve been looking at my staples and trying to find ways to make them healthier. For example, instead of all-purpose flour I use white whole wheat flour, which is less dense than a whole wheat but still has all the nutrients… naturally. Instead of white sugar, it’s raw sugar or organic evaporated cane. Table salt won’t be found on my table, it’s sea salt or bust.

In other words, my budget is stretched.

For a long time I was buying organic peanut butter. Spendy stuff. And when we consume a lot of PB&J, it was starting to break the bank at $5 a jar. Then I discovered how ridiculously easy it is to make peanut butter. The ingredients consist of peanuts. That’s it. Just peanuts. Unless you want to make something fancy, like cinnamon or chili peanut butter, in which case you add cinnamon or chili (who would’ve thought?). Drop them in a food processor. Turn it on. Walk away and come back in five minutes or so and you’ll have peanut butter. Yep, it’s really that easy. Kudos, Averie Cooks, for sharing this recipe. Is it still a recipe with just one ingredient?

Another thing I’ve been making is brown sugar. It had never even occurred to me that it could be homemade! For one cup of white sugar, add one tablespoon of unsulfured molasses. Mix with a fork until it comes together. Takes all of 3 minutes. And you can make any amount you need. My new favorite dressing calls for just 1 T of brown sugar. I eyeball the molasses and add more if it doesn’t look dark enough. Crazy simple. Thank you, Joy the Baker, for showing me the way.

Speaking of dressing, I’ve tried a bunch of organic whole foods dressings. I’ve hated them all. Save your money and make your own vinaigrette. Three parts quality oil, 1 part vinegar or acid (red wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or some freshly squeezed lemon juice), and a little salt, sugar, or minced herbs to taste. Put it all in a small container with a lid and shake it up, baby. Base your ingredients on your salad, your entree, or your mood. I love red wine vinegar with a little oregano. My absolute favorite is a blueberry vinegar on spinach with fresh strawberries. With a flavorful, quality vinegar, you can get away with less oil — use just enough to make the vinegar stick a little! My good friend Mandy, pantry chef turned food design queen, taught me the way to remember the vinaigrette ratio: vinaigrette is three parts oil, and oil had three letters. It was much prettier when she said it, but at least the concept stuck. ūüôā

One of the hardest parts of going unprocessed is no ketchup. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like ketchup, and I am certainly no exception. Nearly a year later I still miss the stuff like crazy, so I tried a couple of recipes. I served this one to Will’s cousin recently, and he exclaimed “This is the BEST ketchup I’ve EVER had!!” I agreed. It’s not quite as easy as the previous items, but it is by no means difficult. Credit to Skinny Taste for coming up with this deliciously easy recipe.

Last but not least, my latest discovery: almond milk. Oh man. This takes a little more effort. I don’t care. It’s worth every minute. Especially after you look at the ingredient list on store-bought almond milk. After much internet research, I tried this recipe. Bingo! My only complaint is that it disappears so much more quickly than the stuff in a box. The solution, I think, is to make two batches: one for everyday use, and one with a little extra honey for making chai tea or, now that the weather is cooling, a creamy hot chocolate.

So there you have it. A handful of ways to lessen your intake of processed foods, save some money in your wallet, and give your taste buds a new reason to thank you.


September 12, 2012 Posted by | Food for thought, Recipes, Vegetarian | , , , , | 2 Comments

Day 31 and Beyond!

October is over, and some of you may be wondering how I fared with my challenge to eat only unprocessed foods for a month.  I talked to my dad the other night and he brought up my bumpy road post and jokingly wondered if it had only gotten worse.

To be perfectly honest, I did have a few slip-ups.¬† Some were intentional.¬† When a girl is sick and put in charge of pizza delivery, one can expect certain liberties to be taken with said pizza.¬† Other slip-ups were discovered at the very end of the month.¬† Who knew chili powder would have anti-caking powder and “natural” flavors?

Overall, I think I did pretty well with keeping my diet in check.  I diligently read labels, I shopped exclusively at the local co-op, I gave away my refined/enriched/preservative-laden foods.  I even donated a nearly full case of Vanilla Coke to the needy (i.e. friends with a very busy toddler).  And you know what?  I feel fantastic!

Yes, it takes more work to bake my own bread than to buy a loaf at the store.¬† Sure, it’s a tad annoying to grate my own cheese rather than buy a bag of already shredded.¬† Of course I still miss my soda… but not nearly as much as before.¬† In exchange for opting out of these conveniences, I have more energy, I sleep better, and my concentration is improving.¬† The memory thing is taking a little longer, but let’s not expect miracles here.

Perhaps my biggest success story, or at least the one that is most fresh in my mind, is that I went trick-or-treating with my son and have yet to sneak a piece of his candy.¬† He even tried tempting me this afternoon, listing off each variety saying “You know you want it!”¬† (Incidentally, where does an 8-year-old learn this sort of taunting?)¬† Each time I said no thanks until finally, frustrated, he said “Don’t you like any kind of candy??”¬† Honestly, none of it appealed to me.¬† Not in the least.

Though I have learned to appreciate dark chocolate.  Mmm.

So the big question I’ve been getting lately is “How long are you going to keep this up?”¬† The big answer is “For as long as I want.”¬† This is my new food lifestyle.¬† I don’t plan to be as strict as I was last month.¬† But I will still check every label before purchasing food.¬† White flours and sugars are limited to the rare special occasion.¬† High fructose corn syrup will have no place in my home.¬† I’ve switched to natural sodas and am only consuming them on my weekly “indulgence day.”¬† When I do indulge, it will be with intention, acknowledging that, while not good for my body, every once in a while the soul deserves a little treat.

November 2, 2011 Posted by | Food for thought | , | Leave a comment

Days 4-6: A Bumpy Road

Day 4.¬† Ugh.¬† How many days left??¬† I’m getting sick of spending all my time in the kitchen.¬† Not to mention the dishes.¬† And the mishaps that abound.¬† And the constant cleaning and rearranging of my counter tops.¬† And the dishes.¬† And daily grocery store trips.¬† Have I mentioned the dishes?

To be fair, I brought today’s struggles on myself.¬† I volunteered to make dinner for friends who were too sick to slice bread.¬† I knew exactly what I was going to make by noon (Poblano Jack Pizzas, made from fresh garden peppers!!), and planned to make the same for dinner at home as well.¬† However, once I got home I failed to double-check my recipe for the most-awesome-pizza-ever to see how long it took to make it and exactly what ingredients went into it.¬† I also forgot to check my dough to see if I had enough for two pizzas.¬† Which I did not.¬† Dumb, right?

I needed corn.¬† I always have frozen corn in the freezer.¬† Except, of course, for today. ¬†So I cheated.¬† I found a can of corn in my cupboard, and I cracked it open.¬† Don’t ask why I even had canned corn in my cupboard, because I don’t know the answer myself.¬† But there it is.¬† I ate 1/4 cup of processed canned corn.¬† Sigh.

The pizza was delicious, by the way.¬† Horribly misshapen, slightly doughy crust, but delicious.¬† Recipe to follow… after the dishes are done.

Highlight of the day:  I bought a 2 liter of Ginger Ale for above-mentioned sickos and managed to deliver it without cracking it open for a sip!


Day 5.  After so many hours in the kitchen these past several days, I promised myself a day off.  I cooked a double batch of beans the night before so as not to be tempted to worry about it tonight.  With plenty of leftovers in the fridge there was no concern for what to eat for dinner.  So the most labor-intensive kitchen moment for today was tossing a fresh veggie salad with homemade vinaigrette.  Ahhh.

So what did I do with all this free time?¬† Cleaned.¬† Yep, I had so much energy that would otherwise have been devoted to cooking that I decided to sweep and mop the floors and give my bathroom a good scrub.¬† Livin’ it up!¬† I also managed to avoid anything that resembles a grocery store.¬† I’m starting to feel normal again!

Highlight of the day:¬† Ate lunch next to an open bag of Sun Chips (my mouth is watering just typing the words) and didn’t sneak a single one.


Day 6.¬† I wasn’t sure I was feeling the positive effects of eating unprocessed.¬† Until today.¬† I had a business lunch meeting this afternoon.¬† I was nervous about grilling the waitress (ha!) in front of a client, so I did some homework in advance.¬† I checked out the menu online and then called the restaurant to see what items were made in-house.

Thinking I was pretty clever, I ordered a salad (hard to go wrong there) with local bleu cheese, grilled chicken (don’t tell Will!), and walnuts.¬† I knew that all their dressings were house-made, and I asked for plain walnuts instead of the candied variety.¬† Well… the chicken was so salty that I just pushed it to the side.¬† And the dressing was so sweet that I found myself looking for undressed lettuce.¬† So very unlike me.

So, try as I might, this meal was another bump in the road.¬† Not surprisingly, shortly after lunch I faced a sugar crash.¬† Big time.¬† In fact, I’m still not recovered at 9pm!

I think it’s safe to say that eating clean, while not an easy road to travel, is a more enjoyable journey.¬† One which I can have the energy to appreciate!

October 6, 2011 Posted by | Food for thought | , | Leave a comment

Day 3: Feeling challenged.

I knew it would be a rough day when I woke up and thought “I could sure go for a vanilla Coke, a bag of chips, and some cookies.”¬† Yep, that was 8am.

Here’s how it started.¬† Last night as I was falling asleep, I heard the pitter-patter of footsteps approaching my bedroom.¬† Sure enough, Will was sleepwalking and found his way to my bed.¬† After a short discussion about what he was doing and why (which he does not recall whatsoever), I ended up with what seemed like at least a dozen flailing arms and legs in my bed for the night.

Needless to say, I was not ready to wake up this morning.  At all.

But we had errands to run, a newborn baby to meet (yay!), cookies to bake (you can’t visit a newborn without bringing goodies for mom), and a house to clean.¬† So I eventually rolled my crabby self out of bed.¬† After all, I needed to check the status of my sour cream experiment.¬† Food is such a good motivator!

I head to the oven where I’d left my setting cream to find that it was the same goopy consistency as when I mixed the cream and buttermilk yesterday.¬† Annoying.¬† Maybe it will set up in the fridge, I thought, and optimistically placed it where the sour cream lives.¬† As of the last check, I still have goop.¬† Super annoying.

Cookies would make me feel better, I reasoned.¬† So I decided to make a batch of my favorite White Chocolate Oatmeal Craisin cookies.¬† Oops, doesn’t make the cut, thanks to brown sugar.¬† That’s okay, because I found a cool recipe for honey almond cookies.¬† The ingredients, in addition to honey and almond, are egg whites.¬† That’s all.¬† Three whole food ingredients.¬† Can’t go wrong!¬† Thirty sticky minutes later, I learned that it could indeed go wrong.¬† Tasty, but consumption required a fork and knife.

Other kitchen struggles of the day included too-thick-to-stir hummus that nearly killed the blender, running out of olive oil after just returning from the store, every single homemade skinny french fry sticking to the pan (when they’re skinny, there is no room for potato loss!), and dishes, dishes, and more dishes.

Where’s my caffeine??!!

I realize that challenges are called such because they are meant to be challenging.¬† I realize that not every day will be easy and craving-free.¬† And I realize that most days will be.¬† My silver lining for today came at dinner when Will, tremendously pleased with the homemade ketchup (something finally turned out as planned!), said “Mom, we should always eat unprocessed foods in our house.”

Proud mama.¬† He is completely forgiven for last night’s restlessness.

October 3, 2011 Posted by | Food for thought | , | 3 Comments

Day 2 of October Unprocessed

I have to admit, this has not been as difficult as I thought it would be!  After studying blogs, recipes, and cookbooks for three days, cleaning all the rule-breakers out of the fridge, pantry, and snack cupboard, and stocking up on produce, bulk grains, and local, organic dairy products, I felt more-or-less at ease with the transition.

My cart-full of fresh produce-- isn't it beautiful?!

Cleaning out the fridge was an experience itself.¬† I can’t believe how much junk was taking up space!¬† Old dressings, ice cream topping syrups, capers (I don’t even like capers!), honey mustard from 2009, a jar of cracker spread so old that I’m embarrassed to share its age.¬† I should be ashamed.

This doesn't even include things in plastic containers!

On Friday, in an effort to make October 1st go smoothly, I checked out Healthy Breads in 5 Minutes a Day from the library.¬† I made two loaves worth of dough, one to bake in the morning and one to keep in the fridge until the first loaf runs out.¬† Because I refused to turn the heat on in my house, the dough didn’t rise to make the delightfully light and airy sandwich loaf I was promised, but Will didn’t seem to mind.

Saturday morning started with a late breakfast of my favorite cereal which, thankfully, is made with a whopping 4 ingredients– all organic!¬† Since I still had apples from my parents’ apple tree, I made a cleaner batch of applesauce using honey instead of brown sugar.¬† I also added a few fresh pears to try to sweeten it up.¬† This met with success only when the sauce is served warm.¬† Bummer.

Lunch was one of my favorite easy fixes: stir fried leftover rice, chickpeas, and lacinato kale.  Will was not a huge fan Roasted Carrot Soupof this, sadly.  Maybe not so sadly, since that means more of the delicious (and expensive) kale for me!  A new recipe, roasted carrot soup, was filling and soul-satisfying alongside a slice of homemade bread.  I was pleasantly surprised to find myself sated after a day of clean eating.

I made a sweet find at the co-op the other day: organic french vanilla creamer.  Somehow coffee passes the kitchen test (who am I to argue with the experts??).  So I rewarded myself in the late afternoon with a creamy vanilla icCouscous with fresh veggiesed coffee: my salvation for this cola-free month.

Today was even easier.  I stuck to some simple meals: couscous with steamed veggies and chickpeas and a side salad for lunch, and cheese pizza with a homemade crust for dinner.  I snacked a lot today, but a piece of fruit or handful of nuts always drove away the pending hunger pangs.  Only once I felt myself craving my favorite go-to snack of ultra-salty, trans-fat drenched chips.

My big experiments for today are still in the making.  I have a jar of soon-to-be sour cream doing its thing and a pot of homemade ketchup cooling on the stove.  Will was so excited about the ketchup that he helped assemble the spice bundle and peel tomatoes!

I’m glad this unprocessed challenge popped up in my Twitter feed.¬† It gave me that kick in the butt I needed to get my eating back on track.¬† Any day now I expect to wake up and jump out of bed, ready to face the day head on.¬† I’m already starting to feel more focused, and my energy is slowly creeping back.¬† By the end of the month I expect to feel like a rock star!

But I still miss my cola.

October 2, 2011 Posted by | Food for thought | , | 1 Comment