Chocolate-Coconut Gummies

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I’m back! Well, sort of–I’m working a full-time job now, so posts will likely be few and far between, but I hope to continue to blog about my endeavors to remain a healthy, motivated mom despite being back at work and pursuing a doctorate.

The transition to me working again has been the hardest on my oldest daughter (now 3 1/2), who is the more sensitive of my two girls. To let her know I’m thinking about her during the day, I’ve been making a batch of these gummy hearts each week so that I can put one in her lunch every day. They’re super simple, taking about 10 minutes to make, and the ingredients are filling and nutritious.

Ingredients:

4 squares dark chocolate (about half a bar)
1 can full-fat coconut milk
1 T. maple syrup
4 T. grass-fed gelatin
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 T. chia seeds (optional)

Instructions:

Pour the chia seeds into a small dish along with an equivalent amount of water (this will allow them to gel while you proceed with the rest of the instructions). Melt the chocolate in a saucepan, then add the coconut milk and syrup; warm over low heat. Add the gelatin one tablespoon at a time and stir in thoroughly, then stir in the gelled chia seeds. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour into a glass dish, cover, and refrigerate.

I use Great Lakes brand unflavored gelatin, which is sourced from grass-fed animals. Gelatin is essential for joint and tissue health, so it’s not just fun to use but also good for you and your little ones. The coconut milk adds enough fat to make these snacks more filling than their juice-made counterparts, and the chia seeds add a few extra vitamins and minerals (and, purportedly, an energy boost). The maple syrup and vanilla help to bring out the chocolate flavor, which can otherwise be overtaken by the gelatin, which has a slight flavor of its own.

If you’re making these for adults or older children, an entire bar of dark chocolate will taste wonderful; I use half a bar for my girls simply to minimize the amount of caffeine in the treats.

Happy eating!

Bone Broth: A Super-Cheap Superfood

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What on earth is that clearish, goopy stuff in my crock pot? Only one of the cheapest, easiest superfoods known to man, of course! Why is it so amazing? What can you use it for? And how do you make it? I’ll answer all of these questions and more in this post.

Like many “new” health fads, bone broth is actually an age-old tradition aimed at extracting as many nutrients as possible from every portion of an animal’s body, allowing nothing to go to waste. It is made by boiling the bones and/or carcass of an animal in an acidic medium for hours or even days at a time. As the bones stew, the minerals, amino acids, and collagen that comprise the bones leach out into the water, creating a nutritious beverage or base for other dishes.

Collagen is essential for healthy bones, tissues, joint, skin, hair, and nails. When cooked, collagen turns into gelatin, which is why the bone broth pictured above looks so jiggly. If your bone broth turns into a bowl of jelly once refrigerated, you know you have a collagen-rich supplement to consume! Note that your broth won’t always turn out this way: it depends on the amount of collagen in the bones you’ve used as well as on the length of time you’ve boiled them. I always source my bones from the same ranch yet sometimes the broth is jiggly and sometimes it’s simply a thick liquid; even as a thick liquid, it contains a beneficial amount of gelatin and other nutrients.

So what can you use this stuff for? Almost anything! I use it instead of water when I boil rice, beans, lentils, or veggies, adding extra nutrition to my dishes. I also use it as a base for soups and as a hot drink when someone isn’t feeling well. When my girls were infants, I used it along with veggies, squash, sweet potatoes, and/or meats to puree homemade baby foods. Now that they’re older, I add several ounces of bone broth to their milk or water as a natural supplement–and they don’t even know it! (Note that this will only work with bone broth made from beef bones–chicken bones lend too strong a flavor to blend with other beverages, at least in my experience).

When you make your own bone broth, you’ll also be able to scrape off the layer of fat that forms on the top once refrigerated. Since only saturated fats are stable at high temperatures, I use this fat to grease my pans when frying eggs, tortillas, or stir-frying meats and veggies; unsaturated fats such as vegetables and olive oils shouldn’t be heated (for more on this topic, see this post and related links from the Healthy Home Economist).

Unless you live in New York City or one of the other metropolitan areas where trendy bone broth shops are popping up (check out NYC’s Brodo Broth Company), you’ll need to make your own broth. Fortunately, doing so is super simple and cheap. The hardest part will likely be sourcing your bones if you’re not already familiar with a place to procure organic, grass-fed animals. If you’re wondering why the way the animal was raised matters, see my post on non-pastured meat and eggs.

I purchase my bones from my local food cooperative for $2.29/lb, meaning I get about 5 quarts of broth for $4-$5. I’ve also found them at health food stores and butcher shops (just make sure to inquire about the way the animals were raised). During hunting season, our local meat market will give away deer and elk bones for free. You’ll want to ask your grocer or butcher for the bones to be cut into sections that will fit into a large pot (ask for cuts that weigh 1-3 pounds). If you have no idea where to find bones for your broth, you can visit eatlocalgrown.com or contact your local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation for suggestions.

Once you’ve sourced your bones, you’ll want to place approximately 2 pounds in a 6-quart crock pot (or similar size). For instructions on chicken broth, see my earlier post on utilizing a chicken carcass. For bone broth from beef or game bones, follow the instructions below.

Once the bones are in your slow cooker, add a few tablespoons of vinegar along with enough water to fill the pot within two inches of the top (or whatever your max fill line is). Allow the bones to soak for 30-60 minutes before turning your cooker on low; this will help to maximize the amount of nutrients released from your bones. Once on, leave your cooker on low for 24-48 hours, adding water as needed to keep the pot filled to the max. After 12 hours, you can begin using the broth for cooking or consumption, making sure to replace the amount you consume with an equal amount of fresh water (I try to time my broth-making for days when I’ll be making the dishes mentioned earlier).

During the first few hours, you may need to skim off any scum that forms along the top of the pot (it will be dark and foamy). The bones I use rarely produce much scum, if any; if your bones produce large amounts of scum that you’re constantly having to skim off, consider sourcing your bones from elsewhere.

At the end of your 24-48 hour period, turn off your crock and allow the pot to cool for an hour or two before handling (unless you have a pair of oven mitts with really good grips). Pour the broth through a strainer into another large pot or bowl to remove the bones and any pieces of meat and marrow that have fallen off of them (eat these–just like the broth, they are full of nutrients!). Then store the broth in your refrigerator overnight to allow any fat to rise to the top and solidify.

Once the fat solidifies, skim it off using a slotted spoon to drain off excess liquid (it’s okay if some liquid remains); store it in a container in your fridge for up to a week or in your freezer indefinitely. Pour the broth into glass containers and likewise store it in the fridge for up to a week or in the freezer indefinitely. In my experience, Mason jars are more likely to crack if used for freezing; I’ve found that using glass jelly jars, peanut butter jars, coconut oil jars, etcetera, works better (you could also use plastic jars, but I am wary of the plastics leaching into the broth). In either case, place the jars in the fridge for several hours before moving to the freezer, which will help prevent cracking; when defrosting, do so in the fridge as well rather than on the counter (faster temperature changes are more likely to induce cracking).

With so many uses for bone broth, I almost always use up a full pot of broth within a week. Once you get used to substituting water with broth every chance you get, you likely will do so, too!

No-Bake Mint Chocolate Pie

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This dessert was such a hit yesterday at Thanksgiving dinner that I decided to share it with everyone in time for Christmas, when it would make a great addition to holiday traditions. Sprinkle this little piece of delectable pie with some crushed candy canes and you’ve got yourself a festive treat that’s actually pretty good for you!

I’m proud of this pie because it’s my own creation, whereas many of my other recipes are modifications of meals I’ve come across elsewhere. The amounts in the recipe below are approximations since I’ve never actually measured anything when making it:

  • 1 14-ounce can full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 bar dark chocolate or about 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips, melted
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
  • 18 mint-chocolate sandwich cookies (I use Newman-O’s)
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted

To make the crust, crush the sandwich cookies and mix with the melted butter. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch pie dish. For the filling, combine the first four ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Pour the filling onto the crust and refrigerate for several hours until the filling is firm. It’s THAT easy!

Not only is it easy, it’s pretty healthy as far as desserts go. In my post on chocolate brain pudding, I mention the health benefits of dark chocolate and coconut. If you really want to make this pie good for you, skip the crust and pour the filling on its own into a pie dish; you’ll eliminate the refined sugar and carbs found in the cookie crust. Another alternative would be to cut the number of cookies in half, in which case you’d have less of a crust and more of a light cookie crumble embedded in the pie; or simply sprinkle a handful of crushed cookies on top of the pie as a decoration. There are lots of possibilities!

Frozen Banana “Ice Cream”

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In my post on sugar, I mentioned that my girls don’t know the word “dessert” because we don’t eat dessert in our household. While that is absolutely true, it is absolutely NOT true that we don’t enjoy a variety of tantalizing foods that could easily be classified as desserts were it not for their dearth of sugar and depth of nutrients.

Frozen banana “ice cream” is one of those foods. Sometimes we eat it as a snack and sometimes it is simply part of lunch, but one thing is always for certain: the bowls are licked clean! It is one of the easiest treats in the world to make: simply peel 2-3 bananas, cut or break them into 1-2 inch pieces, freeze the pieces, and put them in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth (this amount will make about 2 servings).

If you have a single-serving processor such as a Magic Bullet, like I do, you may have to puree, then stop and shake the container, then puree, then shake the container, and so on until all of the bananas are blended. It’s a bit annoying, but I prefer it to cleaning out my full-sized blender every time I make the ice cream, which is almost daily.

It will take the banana pieces at least 4 hours to freeze, so I generally put them in a container in the freezer the day before I plan to make the ice cream. If you’re not the plan-ahead type, simply cut up several bananas once you’re done reading this post and store them in the freezer so they’ll be ready whenever you want to give it a try! Once you use up those banana pieces, refill the container with more pieces and put it back in the freezer for the next time you get a hankering.

My girls and I love to add nut butter to our banana ice cream; we’ve discovered peanut butter and sunflower seed butter to be especially delicious. Adding a tablespoon or two of nut butter to the blender along with the banana pieces adds a bit of fat and protein to make the snack more satiating. Half an avocado, virgin coconut oil, and/or coconut flakes will have the same effect. Other frozen fruits such as blueberries and strawberries taste good, too. If you’re sticking with plain bananas, adding a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract and a touch of heavy cream or whole milk will enhance the flavor.

Frozen banana ice cream is an excellent alternative to sugary desserts for those who’d like to transition their children to a lower-sugar diet. The natural sugars in the bananas make it sweet enough to pass as dessert for those used to eating sweets, while the complete lack of processed sugars makes it better for our bodies. Try some of the different flavor combinations above–or invent your own!–until you find one that you and your kiddos like. You will be so thankful to have a food that your kids crave and is actually good for them!

Homemade beef stroganoff

The Best Beef Stroganoff

Homemade beef stroganoff

Beef stroganoff is a staple in our household. Everyone in the family from my kids to my husband devours this dish and asks for seconds–and sometimes thirds and fourths! We had to avoid it for a few months when the mangy munchkin was healing her leaky gut (she had a sensitivity to dairy and gluten that has now cleared up) but it’s finally back in the rotation and making everyone smile–especially me because it’s so easy to make!

My basic recipe incorporates the following ingredients:

  • 1 pound ground beef (preferably grass fed)
  • 10-15 crimini mushrooms, chopped (any small mushroom is suitable)
  • 8 tablespoons butter (also grass fed)
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (use a full teaspoon if using unsalted butter)

If you prefer a thicker sauce, you can also add 1/4 cup of flour to the list, stirring it into the butter/cream mixture at the end. I leave the flour out because we try to minimize sources of starchy carbohydrates in our diet. In fact, we often eat this dish without the bed of pasta underneath, supplementing the meal instead with sides of squash and veggies, which are healthier sources of carbohydrates that contain other important nutrients as well.

To make the stroganoff, begin by melting the butter over low heat in a saucepan. While the butter is melting, begin browning the ground beef along with the mushrooms in another pot or pan (I use my cast-iron frying pan). Once the butter is melted, add the chopped onion and turn the heat up to medium-low, allowing the onion to turn translucent before adding the garlic. In the meantime, continue browning the beef until it is thoroughly cooked, stirring occasionally. Once the onions are translucent and the garlic has been added, stir in the heavy cream, pepper, and salt, continuing to stir until all is well blended with the butter. Combine the sauce with the ground beef and mushrooms and serve.

If you’re worried about the calories in this dish … don’t be! Butter is actually an extremely healthy source of essential fatty acids as well as vitamins A and K. Ground beef, when sourced from grass-fed steers, is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids as well as important minerals such as iron.

Every cell in our body requires fat in order to carry out its functions, and our brains are actually 50% fat. Young children, whose brains are developing rapidly, especially require healthy portions of fat in their diets, including saturated fat. More and more evidence is coming to the fore that the low-fat fad of the 1980s and 90s was in fact terrible for our health and has only contributed to the rise in diet-related diseases rather than ameliorated them (carbohydrates, especially refined ones, are turning out to be the real villains). Furthermore, fat is necessary for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K, and E. According to Dr. Mercola,

In order to absorb fat-soluble vitamins from our food, we need to eat fat. Human studies show that both the amount and type of fat are important. For example, one study showed that absorption of beta-carotene from a salad with no added fat was close to zero. The addition of a lowfat dressing made from canola oil increased absorption, but a high-fat dressing was much more effective.

So smother your salad with dressing, butter up your bread, and enjoy a handsome helping of rich, creamy stroganoff every so often. Every cell in your body will rejoice!

Chocolate Brain Pudding

Brain pudding ingredients

I just came across the most wonderful news last night as I was reading through the eighth chapter of Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life by David Perlmutter, MD. The chapter on “Feeding Your Microbiome” lists dark chocolate–along with coffee, tea, and wine–as Key #3 to maintaining a healthy microbiome based on the latest science.

Researchers have long found that flavonoids, compounds prevalent in the plants used to produce these products, provide numerous health benefits for those who consume them (in moderation, of course). What scientists are now finding is that flavonoids also feed the friendly bacteria in our guts, which may in fact account for the other benefits associated with these compounds such as reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, which in turn reduces risk for cardiovascular and other diseases.

Reading this fantastic information reminded me that it had been awhile since I’d made one of my favorite snacks, which I’m now deeming Brain Pudding. The ingredients are shown in the photo above. Full-fat coconut milk serves as the base for the pudding along with a tablespoon of honey, a dash of vanilla extract, a few pinches of cinnamon, and 4-8 squares of melted dark chocolate (how many you use will depend on the size of the squares and how chocolaty you want your pudding). Coconut fat contains brain-boosting beta-HBA while the flavonoids in the dark chocolate feed friendly gut bacteria–and as Dr. Perlmutter’s book reveals, what is good for the gut is good for the brain.

To make brain pudding, simply add all of the above ingredients plus 1/4 cup of milk (we use hemp milk since the mangy munchkin can’t drink cow’s milk) to a small blender or food processor (I use my Magic Bullet) and whip until smooth. I melt my chocolate in a small saucepan on the stove over low heat (the lowest level possible–otherwise it burns) and scrape it into the blender with a spatula. Once the ingredients are blended, pour them into a pint-sized glass jar or container and refrigerate for a few hours to thicken. If you don’t mind the consistency of tapioca, you can also stir in a handful of chia seeds after the pudding has been blended for added nutrition.

Although I haven’t tried it myself since I’m currently a stay-at-home mom, I bet you can make a great to-go pudding snack out of this recipe if you have single-serving containers to pour the pudding into. You’d need to keep an ice pack with your pudding so it doesn’t liquify before you get a chance to eat it, or if you have access to a fridge at work you could store it there (it won’t soften much in the time it takes to get from home to work, and even if it does, it will re-solidify in the fridge).

Chocolate brain pudding is an easy, satisfying, delectable, healthy snack or dessert that you can actually feel good about eating. Isn’t that some of the best news of your day, too?!

Slow-Cooker Chicken and Broth

Slow-cooker chicken broth

If ever there was a busy mom’s meal, this is it! I am forever indebted to my friend Talitha for turning me on to the fact that whole chickens can be cooked in a crock pot rather than the oven because it makes at least one meal each week a cinch.

My kids love chicken, but baking it without a slew of sauce leaves it dry and tasteless–especially when using the boneless, skinless breasts most commonly sold in supermarkets. A whole chicken baked in a slow cooker, on the other hand, turns out tender, moist, and full of flavor. It also makes purchasing organic chicken affordable since whole chickens are much cheaper per pound than individual cuts.

Slow-cooker chicken can be as simple as placing a whole chicken in your crock pot in the morning, setting it on low for 6 hours, then enjoying it for dinner. But the real beauty in this method is the fact that it can become a whole meal–not just the meat–by simply adding your favorite flavorings and veggies to the pot along with the chicken.

Here’s what I do:

  • Place a 3.5-4.5 pound bird in my 6-quart crock pot;
  • Pour 1-2 tablespoons of cooking sherry over the chicken;
  • Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and some chopped garlic and/or onions;
  • Stuff my favorite veggies down alongside the chicken in the bottom of the pot;
  • Place the lid on top and turn the pot on low for 6 hours to perform its magic!

I’ve used chopped carrots (baby carrots would also work well), beets, beet greens, rutabagas, kale, chard, sweet potatoes, and half a dozen other veggies in various combinations to create my meals. If you’re a working mom with little time to spare in the morning, you could cube a few veggies the night before so they’re ready to dump in your slow cooker in the morning. This will be a quick process because the cubes can be large, up to several inches wide, since they will have all day to cook. Greens are best tucked way down towards the bottom of the pot so that they simmer in the chicken’s juices; if they’re placed in the crock last and set on top of the bird, they will end up crispy and dried out.

Another great thing about this meal is that it is very forgiving. A chicken is done when its internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but I’ve let my birds reach up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit when I’ve lost track of time (my cooker doesn’t have a timer) and they’ve still turned out tender and juicy. The chicken can also be cooked on high for 4 hours if you forget to prepare it in the morning as I often do.

Now here’s for the bonus broth:

Once you’ve cooked and consumed your chicken, you can place the bones and any remaining skin, meat, and fat back into your crock pot along with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, any veggie scraps you have lying around (beet tails, celery leaves, etc.), plus about a teaspoon each of salt, pepper, and any other spices you like (I often add coriander). Fill the pot up with water to about an inch from your lid and turn it back on low for 8-24 hours to make your own chicken broth. When you can dedicate about 15 minutes, turn off the pot, pour the liquid/bones/veggies/etcetera through a colander to separate out the broth, then pour it into glass jars for future use (a canning funnel is extremely helpful during this step).

Whenever a recipe calls for a cup or two of chicken broth, pull it out of the fridge (it will last about a week here) or freezer (it will last up to a year here) rather than using the nasty, preservative- and sodium-laden stuff they sell at the supermarket. I also use mine in place of plain water whenever I boil rice, lentils, or beans; the grains and legumes will absorb the nutrients from the broth as they simmer, enriching your meals with extra vitamins and minerals. When someone is sick, heat up some broth for a soothing, nutrient-filled drink or simmer some chicken and noodles in it for homemade chicken-noodle soup.

A note about storage: I’ve tried to store my bone broth in mason jars but the glass has sometimes cracked while thawing after I pull it out of the freezer. I’ve found that using the glass jars from other items I’ve used up such as coconut oil, peanut butter, jelly, etcetera, works better (for some reason, these jars don’t crack). It also helps to first place the broth-filled jars in the fridge for several hours before freezing so that the initial temperature change is more gradual.

So there you have it! A super easy chicken dinner that will feed the whole family with just a few minutes of prep, plus leave you with yummy homemade broth for recipes down the road. The only downside I’ve yet discovered with slow-cooker chicken is that the skin doesn’t get crispy, but with so many “upsides,” I’ve been more than willing to learn to love moist chicken skin as much as the crispy kind. Okay, maybe not as much as the crispy kind–but it no longer bothers me at all, and if it bothers you, simply pull it off and save it for your broth 🙂