Friday, August 31, 2007

The Kitchen Is Closed

A few months ago before Dog's tenth birthday, he and I were standing toe to toe over some now-forgotten issue that he was waxing mouthy about. I snapped back at him that I'd tolerate no teenage lip while he was still in single digits. Heh. I was expecting to have a few more years of "kid" stuff before we got into the "teen" stuff, but Dog has always been old for his years, so I shouldn't be surprised.

One of the more memorable discussions we've had of late is over, not surprisingly, menu options. I expect that food choice is going to become a much-debated topic in the coming years. This discussion wasn't what one would necessarily expect, though.

As a bit of background, when we first started with our "free" lifestyle, I made some conscious decisions about how we would structure this. Since things are so very limited, I wanted to offer the Hobbits as much choice and control as possible within the very tight framework of our operational limits. To that end, I came up with ways to provide three choices of meals that could be prepared quickly and gave each of them the opportunity to choose for themselves from those three options at each meal. My version of convenience food...kind of a Once A Month Everything Free Cooking...except my major food prep ala OAMC is more frequently than that. This might mean that I might make up three (or four, counting dinner meals) different dishes for the same meal, but at least they would have some control over what they were eating.

We've gone on this course for about four years now and it's worked rather well. Not much fighting over food nor complaints about not liking what was for dinner. Still and all, some days it can be rather tiresome. There are days when I just want to do one thing and be done. This was one of those days. I just made food for the meal, set it on the table and called the Hobbits to come and eat. Dog sulked at me that he hadn't been consulted on his menu option and was prepared to be disagreeable about it. I pointed out to him that the number of children in the known universe who were at liberty to choose what they wanted to eat at every meal, every day probably totaled three. That was, of course, before I'd read the UCLA dinner study....I was stuck in my Baby Boomer childhood memories. Still, I'll entertain an "amen" chorus of comments to anyone who cares to leave any...any ammunition would naturally be shared with Dog. Hey, coming up on this pre-teen thing, I need all of the help I can get!

I decided that it was way past time for him to understand the amount of work that goes into making one meal, let alone coordinating three, however quickly they could be assembled. I'd meant this as a "taste of his own medicine" kind of natural consequence to his petulance, but he was actually rather excited about the idea. I'd settled on a quick and beginner-friendly recipe inspired by one shared by my gardening mentor. It's especially nice for those who are sensitive to tomatoes--not that this is us, for a change--because it relies only on herbs and spices for flavoring and color, not tomatoes. The lost-to-posterity cookbook called it "Real Deal Chili" (let me know if anyone knows the attribution for this recipe!) but I call it the

No-mato Everything Free Chili.

4 lbs ground meat
1 onion or 1 T onion powder
3 garlic cloves or 1 T garlic powder
4 T paprika
4 T chili powder
1 T cumin
1 T oregano
2 t pepper
1 t kelp (only because I'm always looking for a vector to sneak in sea vegetables)
1/2 lb. sliced mushrooms
2 t salt if not using bone broth
1 quart bone broth or water
2-3 T arrowroot or tapioca starch (optional for thickening)

While slicing mushrooms, brown ground meat in dutch oven and drain. Pour broth, mushrooms, and seasonings into dutch oven and boil until mushrooms are soft. If using starch flour for thickening, dissolve starch in small amount of water and add to boiling mixture. When the opaque liquid becomes translucent again, return ground meat to the oven and mix thoroughly until heated through. Allow to simmer to reduce if desired. The Hobbits like it served with rice snaps.

Dog took eagerly to chopping up the mushrooms--he's been one of my prep chefs for a while now--and measuring out all of the ingredients. He'll be able to lift me someday, but right now he still needs some help handling a hot cast iron dutch oven. The rest of it he does very well by himself. These days he considers this recipe his specialty and would be mightily offended if I were to presume to usurp his prerogative. Gotta smile. Just don't let him see it. We're always sure to have chili in the refrigerator, whatever the weather. So whenever Dog complains about what's on the menu, I direct him to the refrigerator where he can find his very own bowl of chili. I cooked one dish, hung up my apron and the kitchen is closed.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Lions and Tigers and Bears...Oh, My!

Tool Guy was called away on business for two weeks. All three of the Hobbits and I looked at each other and wondered what we would do with ourselves while he was gone. Still lots of tomatoes to can and, to their everlasting joy, we have begun our homeschooling year. Needless to say, I could have suggested instead that we watch paint dry--and in this very damp summer, a task that wouldn't happen with any rapidity--and they would have responded with something like alacrity. Party Planner and I conferenced and decided that we needed to plan some fun things to do during the interminable Absence.

The play date was lots of fun. PP brought her Grandson over to play. He's also an age mate in Princess and Bug's group in our homeschooling co-op. All of the Hobbits were orbital over having him over for fun. It's funny. There's a three years' age spread between each of the Hobbits, but each of them considers this little lad to be their own particular friend. Each of them planned what they wanted to do while he was visiting. Mostly, they wandered Christopher Robin fashion through The Bog and The Woods, poking around and releasing a captured frog back into the wild. PP and I sat on the back deck and relaxed with cups of cinnamon tea.

The next grand plan was an outing to a relatively nearby wild animal entrepreneur's version of a zoo. PP and Grandson are old veterans to this place and, from their descriptions, the Hobbits were beside themselves to go. Unfortunately for everyone in general and PP in particular, she suffered a toe injury that seemed to present as broken. Walking was out. Though they were crest-fallen, the Hobbits rallied well and we promised that the next week would bring the expedition, the toe turning out only to be strained. Dog organized his compass, binoculars, notebook and pencil. He takes this Stanley Livingstone thing rather seriously. Bug was jazzed about the idea of using his new Buzz Lightyear back pack. Princess was dreaming of all of the animals. As an aside, Princess loves animals. In theory, that is. In real life she's too afraid to touch's an interesting ambivalence to watch.

On the appointed rained. Amid the sounds of much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the foray was postponed again, crossing our fingers that the following day would be improved. Nothing could solace them but a trip to the library that netted two bags of books and a whole series of Marvel Comic graphic novels. Whew. For a minute there, I thought I was gonna have to break out some candy. Luckily for me, they're easy.

The following day was mizzly and chilly, but we decided "Sydney or the Bush" and pressed on. Private animal preserves can be either brilliantly choreographed or depressingly seedy and neglected. Fortunately, this concern was the former. For a small place, the collection was quite varied, well-tended, and comfortable. The schedule of events was spaced so as to be able to comfortably roam the park between the punctuations of programming. The first activity we plunged into was the Lorry Parakeet feeding. I hesitated a moment because replacement food for animals can be problematic food for some people. That would be us. When I observed that the workers passed out apples to the crowd, we joined the line into the habitat where everyone spread their arms out, apples in hand, to lure a bird to come feed. I've never seen any zoo that was so relaxed. Each of the Hobbits had an opportunity to feed one and I even had a couple crawling on my head to reach the apple I held. Princess was fascinated to watch but declined the honors.

We raced around, avoiding puddles and the occasional stroller, and didn't leave until we'd seen and done all of the enclosures and the activities, consulting an exotic animal fact notebook the whole time. (Well, I did have to veto the petting farm...all of the feed was a corn and gluten landmine.) All the Hobbits love a zoo. Princess was a bit disenchanted with the smell, though, Animal Planet having the obvious advantage of being odorless. The rest of the Hobbits were game for holding up carrots for the sticky embrace of a giraffe's prehensile tongue. The only thing that could have topped this for them was actually getting to pet the gibbon that entertained us for a long while with her calls and gymnastics. Bug felt a burning wish to be able to be a gibbon. Dog plans on perfecting his brachiation technique. I expect to see lots of workout on the playscape when the weather clears...

Packable foods can be somewhat of a challenge when most things that we consider convenience foods are off the menu. Being the special occasion this was, I'd planned way ahead of time and splurged, using up my store of beef in the freezer that I'd been saving for just such a purpose....beef jerky. Back when soy was off the menu (and it is currently enjoying only a probationary return) I felt frustrated by the fact that almost all jerky recipes called for soy sauce or tamari sauce. While twiddling with a recipe that called for a wine-based sauce--and not being able to get reliable confirmation that any wines are actually corn-free--I rolled the dice and used kombucha tea as the base instead and it yielded a dish that was a delight. This inspired me to use k-tea to make jerky.

Kombucha Tea is a fermented tea, aged with the assistance of an inoculation of some "starter" tea and a rubbery pancake of a fungal organism called a SCOBY. Tool Guy, of course, has his more graphic descriptors. The flavor of this beverage ranges from tangy to sour, depending on the amount of aging. There are lots of sources for this on the internet beginning with free-for-shipping sharing all the way up to some very pricey "kits." One suggestion that I've never tried myself is to buy some commercial raw k-tea bottled for drinking, open bottle and pour into glass jar, allowing brew to continue aging. Some people have reported that in continuing to age, raw tea will develop a new SCOBY, all of which can then be used in making more tea per the tea-making directions.

Kombucha Tea

The base of this tea is simple green or black tea--and amazingly there have been flame wars over to caf or to decaf--sugar, and water. The rule of thumb I use is four tea bags and one cup of sugar, the type of which is also subject to flame wars (I use white, but I have used honey...eew), per gallon of water. Boil water, add tea bags and sugar, and leave to brew until completely cool. Never add hot tea to starter and SCOBY or risk killing the whole thing. Brew needs to be room temperature. Using approximately 1/3 starter to tea ratios, pour aged tea starter saved from previous batch of k-tea to fresh tea and plop SCOBY into gallon glass* jar. I use one SCOBY per gallon jar. Cover jar mouth with coffee filter or cheese cloth and rubber band, place in cool location away from airborne dust and oils (ie, the kitchen isn't the optimal location) and allow to age 7-14 days. The brew grows more sour as it ages, so keep personal preferences in mind when planning this. When decanting, simply remove filter, fish out SCOBY (a new layer of "baby" SCOBY will have formed on the surface) and pour out. Save a couple of cups of tea as starter for the next batch.

*never use plastic or metal, as the acidity in the tea leaches constituent properties out of non-glass containers

Kombucha Tea Jerky

2-3 whole roasts of beef/buffalo/venison, sliced into strips
2 gallons of k-tea, aged two weeks
2-4 whole onions
2-4 T minced garlic
2-4 knobs raw ginger
2-4 T Real Salt
1-2 sheets dried kombu
1-2 t red pepper

When purchasing the beef, I generally buy roasts and section them into proportions that, when frozen, will make convenient sized strips. Thick cut steaks will do just as well. After freezing the meat, I allow it to thaw just enough to push through the single slicing blade of a mandolin...especially using a carpenter glove for this. Muscling semi-frozen meat through a slicer takes a bit of force and protection is a Good Thing.

Peeling and sectioning the onions, I toss them and all of the spices/seasonings into a food processor and reduce to a slurry. Using the same glass jars I used for making the tea, I leave 1/2 gallon of tea in each, pour in the half of the seasoning, and add meat strips until the jar is full, keeping enough tea added for the meat to have contact with liquid on all sides. Repeat with second jar. Allow this to marinade overnight. It can be stored in the refrigerator or in cooler weather, I have left it out. The acidic nature of the tea is a great inhibitor for bacterial growth.

The next day, I dump the jars into a colander, draining off the tea. I don't take particular care to remove seasoning bits...if they dry on the meat, so much the better. Carefully separating the strips, I lay them out singly on drying racks and stack in the oven, having lined the bottom with foil for easy clean up of drips. My dehydrating sources encourage 170* for safe meat handling practices. Meat this thin generally dries at this temperature in 6-8 hours, possibly more, depending on stacking and air circulation. If racks are stacked vertically, there may need to be some rotation of the trays to allow for even drying.

Though this treat generally doesn't survive beyond the first day--Hobbits can disappear an amazing amount of meat this way--I store any left overs in the fridge or freezer. Since there are no nitrites or preservatives added, I find that the flavors tend to go stale and flat if left out.

Home from the zoo, the Hobbits are each enjoying the fruits of their trip to the gift shop. Dog is target practicing with his toy bow and arrow set, Bug unearthed the pteradactyl from his Dinosaur Dig egg, and Princess is repeatedly going through labor and delivery, birthing her new plush puppy. It's to listen to. Bug is her birthing partner.

Even though it is misty and damp, it is still summer and the great outdoors call. Pack up the jerky and head out. Sydney or the Bush!

Friday, August 17, 2007

That Was Then, This is Now

Yes, Breatharian, brace yourself for more gardening drivel. I know. I'm intolerable on the subject. Just a little this time, I promise! It's the time of the year when all of the preparation and planning and waiting comes to fruition. I'm swimming in tomatoes. After scoring a stock pot from a yard was a "make me a deal" deal and the seller accepted my dollar....I'm reaching back through my recipe files for my favorite tomato sauce recipe. This has become a seasonal event in our house. The smells of baking bread and bubbling sauce tantalize the neighborhood....or at least the Hobbits. Everyone walks around with their noses in the air, sniffing. I don't think there's anything that evokes more of the feelings of "home" and "nurturing" than such good food wafting through the windows.

I've been spending such spare time as I have browsing through the archives of lists that chronicle our first furtive scrambles to figure out what was causing our problems and how to fix them. The medical community is singularly unhelpful in this area and almost all of what informed us came from those people who were fumbling and groping as we were. The Complementary Alternative Medicine community takes a lot of flack for giving little relief for the money that they collect, but I don't find the mainstream medical community to have a better track record. Somehow my searches for solutions always comes back to food.

Particularly the posts during our grain-free years stand out to me. Having a few years distance from that stage of our struggle, I'm reading my old posts with fresh eyes. What stands out to me most is how light-hearted they sound compared to how I felt. It certainly didn't feel light-hearted to me then. Some days, I felt like I was drowning. It was during that time that I developed such a strong feeling for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After reading the books, I was never able to watch Peter Jackson's interpretation without having a stack of kleenex next to me, especially during Sam Gamgee's monologue about his favorite stories...the stories that really mattered.* I could strongly identify with the sense of profound weariness driven forward by desperation. It sounds melodramatic, perhaps, but watching the progression of my posts where more foods disappeared and the list of intolerances grew longer, I remember that this was how it felt at that time. Some days, I wished I had a Sam to carry me up the mountain.

The sense of unknown was an overwhelming burden. The not knowing why things were going wrong. Not knowing how to fix them. I saw a lot of guessing and groping in my posts. I'm not sure that I shared with other posters just how fearful I was. Afraid of not finding the answers. Afraid of things getting worse and not learning how to make it stop. And things did get frighteningly worse before they got better. One memorable post expressed the trap I found myself in, struggling to nourish children who couldn't tolerate the nourishment they need to be able to tolerate the food they need to nourish them.

I'm finding that dealing with personal disequilibrium is very much easier than dealing with it in your children, especially small children who have only a fuzzy grasp of why they eat differently from everyone else. It's easier to accept that I can't have that slice of pizza sitting on the table than it is for a four year old. And these Hobbits were absolute troopers. I can't sing their praises enough. I've never had a moment's concern about them sneaking food or not cooperating. Which is one of the reasons that I feel so highly motivated to find ways to get them the tastes that they so desire in a safe form. In the middle of our grain-free years, Bug sighed wistfully that he missed pizza. I asked him what was it he missed about pizza: the sauce or the crust? The sauce. Since fruit leather has always been one of his favorite snacks, I decided to use this platform to jump from the sweet to the savory.

The base of pizza leather is the tomato sauce. Since the flavor concentrates when dehydrated, it is necessary to add something that will dilute the taste without altering it. My first solution was to use zucchini or squash. This was a wonderful way of disposing of the excess from the garden that I thought I wanted to can, until I discovered what canned squash tastes like. Um. Won't do that again. Another solution--Bug's preference--is to dilute with apple puree, since he prefers a sweeter taste. Hey, I don't eat it, I just make it. Besides, this is a thrifty way of disposing with all of those odds and ends of apple slices that never seem to get eaten up. I have a bag in the freezer that I toss them into and bring out when it is time to make leather of one kind or another.

Foods that are low in pectin will crumble and separate when dehydrated. This is one of the reasons that apples are in all commercial fruit leathers. Another way to enhance the texture is to use pectin. Pomona makes a terrific product that is derived from citrus and is corn-free. Adding pectin, either through apples or canning pectin gives the pizza leather cohesive smoothness and chew.

Leathers are elastic in quite a few ways, both texturally and ingredient-wise. I confess that I don't have a hard and fast recipe for this, since I tend to just dump in what's on hand, using up the leftovers, bits and pieces of flotsam and jetsam in the fridge and freezer. It's all good.

Pizza Leather

2 quarts pizza sauce
1 quart squash or fruit puree
2-4 T fruit pectin

Run the sauce and fruit through the food processor until incorporated, adding the pectin slowly through the cap. When thoroughly blended, spread at approximately 1/4 inch thick evenly onto sheets of parchment or silicone baking sheets over dehydrating racks. Set temperature to 100-120 degrees and let dehydrate for about 6-12 hours. Some people swear by portable dehydrators, but I've never found one that I liked better than my own stove. It may happen that the edges will dehydrate faster than the center. In that case, I trim the dried parts away from what is still tacky. When it is completely dry and while the sheet is still warm from the stove, cut into strips with scissors.

Store in a dry container. I'd like to tell you how long it will stay edible in the cupboard, but I've yet to discover the end of the shelf life of doesn't stay around long enough to find out.

The last couple of years has seen the happy return of a few of our off-menu foods--grains not the least--but some of the things we relied on back then are still staples in the house. With the smell of tomato sauce curling through the house, appetites for pizza have been sharpened. Given the demands of canning this time of year, pizza isn't something I'm finding time to readily throw together. It's nice to be able to point to the pantry and say, "If you're really hungry for a taste of pizza, nibble on some pizza leather" and promise the real thing later.

While I still long for that future day when I can gleefully snoopy dance with the rest of the joyful "just" glutenfree-ers, it helps to remember that I'm still in the middle of the story and have yet to read the final chapter.

* "It's all rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were and sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you...that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But, I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now."

Friday, August 10, 2007

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Let no one say they weren't warned. I said that I'd wax extensive about gardening and, dear Breatharian, it's gardening season. Lots of stuff flowing in and I'm weighing, charting, and journaling what is doing what in order to plan for next year. So far the Celebrity plants are out-performing the heirlooms. I'd planned on saving the heirloom seeds until I realized just how busy the bees have been in the garden. Doubtless the heirlooms have been cross-pollinated with the hybrids. Oh, well. Scratch that idea. I'm enjoying the fruits of this year's labor nonetheless.

Even though it doesn't outweigh the cucumbers or tomatoes, one of the most satisfying crops that I'm harvesting this year is the daikon radish. I've tried unsuccessfully for three years with seeds whose "get up and go" got up and went. Lots of green stuff but absolutely no root. I used a different company for this year's daikon and the results have been highly gratifying. As I pull in these saber-sized roots, I remember a couple of summers ago when a friend of mine graciously tutored me in the art of making kimchi. Looking back, I can't think of a better way to spend a crisp, sunny autumn day with the kids playing outside than to be inside making kimchi.

We started out with HUGE mixing bowls that looked like they could hold five gallons. I had no idea that they came in that size! My friend had jump-started our project by quartering napa cabbage and soaking it overnight. She'd soaked about a dozen heads in about 3-6 pounds of rock salt dissolved in one of these monster bowls. She told me that when the leaf is limp enough to bend without snapping, the consistency is right. Then rinse the cabbage two to three times before continuing.

Off to the side, she had pureed up about 3 heads of garlic, a finger of ginger, and coarsely chopped scallions, about 10 bunches. Then we took about 5 pounds or so of daikon radishes and shredded them on a mandolin style shredder. After shredding these (and these days I use a carpenter glove), we dumped in the ginger, garlic, and onions with approximately 1/2 cup of brine shrimp and 1 cup of very mild pepper. I tasted the pepper and it had a very slight bite to it that took a while for even that to kick in.

After mixing all of these together--wearing rubber gloves the whole time--she then picked up one of the quarters of napa, grabbed up a handful of the spicy "stuffing" and rubbed the napa all over until it was covered in red juices. Then from the bottom of the quarter, she started folding back the layers of cabbage and spreading small amounts of the spiced and shredded radish between the leaves. Spread radish, fold down leaves, spread radish, fold down leaves, until the entire quarter was "stuffed. She then folded the quarter in half and crammed it in the bottom of a 1/2 gallon glass jar....ironically with a commercial kimchi label. Lather, rinse, repeat until the jars are full and all of the product is gone.

All of this filled up 7 or 8 jars. She said that she puts half in the refrigerator immediately and half out on the porch for two days. The porch batch then comes in and they start eating that batch, which lasts them approximately a month. When that kimchi is gone, then they start on the half that lived in the refrigerator.

Re-creating the recipe for a smaller kimchi appetite was a bit challenging. I had to catalog approximate measurements, as she doesn't measure anything and does all of this intuitively. With a little trial and error, I came up with a kimchi for my size appetite and my heat tolerance. I prefer a larger ratio of radish to cabbage and this recipe reflects it. I've made radish kimchi, but it lacks something, as well as possessing a certain--what's the word Tool Guy used?--I'll call it "pungent" instead. Yeah, radish kimchi is more pungent. So I throw in radishes to cabbage in a 2:1 ratio. There's even a hint that radish was the original vegetable in kimchi.

Kimchi is one of those dishes that the Western palate considers to consider with relish, but there are a lot of good reasons for learning to love it. According to the World Clock, digestive diseases are the #4 leading killer among non-communicable diseases and takes a bare second to AIDS in number of lives lost.

Recently, with SARS and Bird Flu making such a sensation in the headlines, kimchi has enjoyed renewed popularity. It seems that a concentrate of kimchi actually cured Bird Flu among birds that were positive for the illness. Of course, officials were very cautious about any claims and were very low-key about the study results, but at the time, kimchi was a sell-out item on Korean restaurant menus. The story even caused an upswing in sauerkraut sales on US shelves. Unfortunately, I suspect that the beneficial variable in kimchi and possibly sauerkraut is the live probiotic value that is cooked out in the canning process. The study didn't go far enough to pin down the variables, but it's nice to know that we can protect ourselves from something without the help of big government or big pharmaceuticals. Imagine. Flu vaccine. In your own kitchen.

Downsized Kimchi

3-6 T salt in a gallon of water for soaking
1 head napa cabbage, quartered
4 lbs. daikon radishes
5 green onions
1-2 T or to taste of Korean/Chungok red pepper
1 clove crushed garlic
1 small piece of ginger or 1/2 tsp powdered ginger
1-2 T of Real Salt
gallon sized glass jar

Soak cabbage in salt water overnight or until the leaf bends without snapping. Chop onions, garlic, and shred radishes. Wearing gloves, mix the spices, onion, and garlic with the shredded radish. Since I use more radish than cabbage, I line the bottom of the jar with cabbage leaves and pile in hefty layers of radish, interchanged with cabbage leaves until all of the product is used up. Let sit overnight or 2-3 days and move to refrigerator.

And before you say anything, yes, I know my kimchi looks....pale. In my defense, I'm trying to svengali the Hobbits into eating this probiotic powerhouse. Bug is inhaling the garden pickles, but I'm trying to use the Asian panache to lure in Dog, who loves stir-fry. I even had him shred up some of the radishes with me. Cross your fingers!

While my mentor and we students were busy shredding, chopping, and prepping, it was enjoyable to discuss the process and learn things that aren't in recipe books. Nothing can substitute for one generation of hands teaching another. As we sat on the floor and were finishing the project, she looked around at all of these jars and laughingly said, "When I see all of this kimchi around me, I feel rich!"

Friday, August 3, 2007

Fifty Ways to Tweak a Cake

I'm looking forward to August as a month when I can actually rest. I have an entire stack of Victorian murder mysteries in sequential order piled up next to my bed, calling to me. I'm still tying up loose ends from last school year and beginning to fray the first threads of next. Yes, Kim, I promise to have my homeschooling co-op return packet to you by the end of the week. Cross my heart and hope to die. Hold that spot for me! As the fruits of the garden begin to flood in, I'm daily crawling through the bolt holes between the plants, groping for heavy fruit. And our buying club order has been put to bed for the month, so begins a whole new cycle of meditating and purchasing.

An interesting article flashed across Yahoo, stating that the weight of one's friends has a large influence on one's own personal weight and perception of what is an acceptable weight. Makes a lot of sense, though. As a buying club coordinator, I see how much influence the members have over each other in the purchases we make and the products that become popular. Like iron sharpens iron, we rub off on each other and encourage each other to think critically about what we buy and what we eat.

On the other hand, chocolate is chocolate and so requires no meditation. Just open that wrapper and enjoy, right? Endangered Species: It isn't junk food. It's a handful of anti-oxidents. Heh.

Interestingly, there are more and more people cropping up in my life who are re-evaluating what they eat, the value of it, and whether what we take for granted as being nutritious is actually such. It really challenges my own way of doing things, how we eat and how that is perceived. Some of my closest friends are starting to do the same and it is very rewarding to walk with them, exploring these topics. Everyone has their own baby steps and it's encouraging as more and more people around me start to take them.

My party planner just wrapped up another wonderful celebration of Dog and Bug's birthday. It was a Buzz Lightyear theme, which was a wonderful platform for every home educator's dream of weaving fun with learning. She set up game stations for each planet of the solar system...and we universally agreed that Pluto is a planet, thankyouverymuch. Each station had a task to accomplish, a fact to collect toward earning a prize for each planet. The yard was scattered with string, scraps of planetary factoids, games, scrambling, screaming kids and a boisterous good time.

How can you thank a friend for such meticulous planning, set up, and coordination? Well, when she's taking her own baby steps toward changing things, you do some baking for her. One of her own hobbits is coming up on a birthday and needs an almost everything-free cake. Well, have I got a recipe! One friend of mine said it reminded her of the German "schlopp" cake recipe provided to new brides as a vehicle to learn to bake on, a guaranteed success. This is one of those impervious recipes that can be stretched in fifty different directions and it will come out edible each time. It has a substitution option for almost every ingredient. Depending on the substitution, the texture, loft, and consistency may change some. Instead of a light, fluffy cake, you may get a dense, moist fudgy cake. Any way you jumble the combinations, it has lots of wiggle room.

Red Devil Cake

2 cups flour (I used 1.5 cups rice, 1/4 tapioca, 1/4 potato starch)
1 c sugar (I used 1/2 c date sugar, 1/4 c vegetable glycerin)
1/2 c cocoa powder or carob powder
2 t double acting baking powder (I used cream of tartar)
2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 eggs
1 t guar gum or xanthan gum
1 c diced cooked beets (I used pear puree)
1 c water or water to appropriate consistency (My uses average 1/4 cup)
1/3 c olive oil
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
2 t vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350* F. Lightly oil or spray two 8" square baking pan (I used a 9" round). Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in bowl, combining well.

If using flax instead of eggs (see substitutions below), grind to meal in coffee grinder. Place 1/3 cup water in blender, start blending while adding flax meal. Blend 30 seconds. To flax mixture or to eggs in blender, add beets, 1 cup water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla. While mixing, add guar or xanthan gum. Process until frothy and well blended.

Pour this quite thick liquid mixture into dry ingredients. Mix quickly just until everything is moistened and incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pans and immediately bake for 35-40 minutes or until tester comes out clean. Watch carefully as it may take less time.

Frost when completely cool.


Add more cocoa/carob and chips to get a richer flavor
Sub 2 eggs with 2 T flax and 1 cup water
Sub 1/3 c mashed banana instead of eggs or flax
Sub carob instead of chocolate
Sub sweet potatoes, yams, squash, pears, or pumpkins for beets
Make cupcakes instead of cake (approx 15)

I've started hunting around for and collecting antique cookbooks. So much of what is published today bids the "assembler"--as opposed to "cook"--to open a box of this or a can of that. Old-fashioned cookbooks were textbooks in chemistry and explained how to make even the ingredients to put in the recipes. One such treasure came to me by way of my mother who, as a young wife, had been gifted this cookbook by a friend who had used it in her early years as well. The American Woman's Cookbook by Ruth Berolzheimer published in 1938, pg 481, provided me with the perfect almost everything-free frosting, which I tweaked slightly for us:

Maple Sugar Frosting

3/4 cup maple-sirup [sic]
1/4 cup sugar (I used maple sugar)
2 egg-white beaten
1/4 cup carob powder

Cook the sirup and sugar together until it spins a thread (220*F.), remove from the fire and cool while the egg-whites are beaten stiff and whipped with carob powder, then pour the sirup in a thin stream, over the stiff whites, beating the mixture until it is thick enough to spread. A rough surface may be obtained by spreading the top of the cake with the back of a spoon before the frosting is set.

Oh, yeah. Be careful. Hot maple syrup burns. Ask me how I know.

The frosting, too, is tweakable since the carob powder to color and flavor the icing was my addition. When Princess turned three, she decreed a pink birthday. Scrambling around a bit, I was able to juice a beet sufficiently to color the icing pink without adulterating the flavor. The smaller male Hobbits were put off by the knowledge that the pink had come from beets, but I was unabashed by their reluctance since that left more for the larger Hobbits to polish off with relish and aplomb.

I'd love to give credit where credit is due with regard to this marvelous cake. Alas, however, it is much like the urban legendary Neiman Marcus cookie recipe: it has made the rounds of the internet so many times that it seems impossible to trace where it came from. Someone out there definitely deserves kudos.