Friday, February 27, 2009

The Elusive Black Currant

I confess. I'm a nut for black currants. Popular and actually quite common in Europe, the black currant berry has been extremely hard to find in the US. Seems that someone decided they promoted a pine blight and they were subsequently banned from the US. Fortunately, some states are overturning the ban and we'll be seeing more of them.

Packed with antioxidants, more than blueberries even, black currants are tiny dark berries with a distinctive tart taste. Right now, they're usually found in jam or juice form in the US, but rumor has it that we'll be seeing the fresh and dried versions in stores soon, too. Fabulous in sauces to accompany meats, it also makes delicious desserts.

Five cupcakes!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tired of Winter?

It's the time of year when mud dominates and nothing is blooming. The crocuses haven't poked their little heads out yet and the daffodils are just hints of green. But it's easy to bring a breath of spring indoors.

The forsythias in your yard might look dormant, but they probably have buds by now. Cut a handful of the branches (that you probably should have pruned last summer anyway) and plop them in a vase with water. Once they're in your warm house, the buds will open into sunny blooms. Be patient. It can take a few days or a week, depending on how far along your buds are.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Avoiding Sugar

It seems like everyone is trying to use less sugar. In that quest, I tried Agave. This liquid sweetener is derived from the agave plant, a succulent that, oddly enough, also gives us tequila. It tastes a lot like sugar, without any odd aftertaste or peculiar nuances. Licking a drop is like licking something sugary. It's supposed to be one and one-fourth times sweeter than sugar. That may be true in a laboratory test, but I didn't find it to be true in my tea. To me it seemed to be about the same as sugar in sweetness.

The huge benefit to using agave is that it doesn't cause blood sugar to spike. It has a low glycemic index, which means it's absorbed slowly, which may be extremely beneficial to diabetics.

Otherwise, it's really not all that different from sugar, except that it's a whole lot more expensive.

Three cupcakes. Pass the sugar, please.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Krista's Blueberry Reduction

If you're a fan of shows like Top Chef, you're heard the contestants talking about reductions. It seems like at least one or two of them make a reduction on every show. Reductions aren't complicated. In fact, they're exactly what they sound like -- liquids that are reduced. In other words, they simmer until they cook down, leaving a more intense flavor.

I've been experimenting with a blueberry reduction. It's very simple, almost no-brainer cooking.

Krista's Blueberry Reduction

2 cups frozen blueberries
1/2 cup sweet red wine
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup water

Place all the ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and let simmer, uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour. Stir occasionally.

That's it. Couldn't be easier. Equally delicious with meats, vanilla ice cream, and pudding.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Breakfast on the Go

Daryl Wood Gerber is an aspiring novelist. She has won awards for her screenplays and was one of the creators of the popular sit-com, "Out of this World." Visit Daryl at to learn more about her.

For those of you who need to eat breakfast--I know I do or I don’t feel well all day--but you don’t have time for it because you’re in a rush, and you really don’t like a protein drink, here’s a quick, yummy way to get going. A breakfast sandwich that is gourmet delicious.

Daryl’s Tomme

Take two pieces of bread or ciabatta.

Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Layer with:

Two to four slices of prosciutto, ham, or spicy salami.

One hard-boiled egg sliced thin.

One slice of Tomme Crayeuse or any Tomme Savoie.

Slide the sandwich into the microwave for ten seconds just to give the cheese a chance to melt and voilá. A sandwich to go. Wrap in foil if you want to let the cheese melt that much longer and eat on your way to work!

By the way, Tomme Crayeuse is a cheese from the Savoie regions along the Swiss-Italian Alps. It is a mild cheese that pairs well with picnic fare. “Tomme” simply means piece, but in this case means wheel. The rind of Tomme Crayeuse is grayish brown with yellow moldy patches. Make sure you don’t get a cheese that is over-aged, which would show cracks in the rind, indicating dryness. The taste has hints of citrus and the earth. It’s fabulous.

And if this becomes dinner or lunch instead of breakfast, consider pairing it with a glass of a light red wine, like a pinot noir.


Friday, February 20, 2009


I know what you're thinking. One more piece of junk that you're sick of seeing advertised on TV. Wrong. This is a cheap little product that actually works.

It sells for $9.99 almost everywhere these days -- Bed, Bath & Beyond and WalMart, for instance. But this little gem really does transform feet.

It's a simple concept. It looks like an egg, but the top comes off to reveal a little grater. You rub the grater on the rough parts of your foot, and it shaves the dead skin off. It doesn't hurt at all, and when you're done, your feet feel completely smooth. Just be careful not to grate too far down. Take it from someone who has tried special creams, lotions, pumice stones, and files -- this little PedEgg is the only thing I've ever found that actually conquers the worst rough feet imaginable.

Five cupcakes!

Thursday, February 19, 2009


You've walked by Kefir in the dairy case a million times. What is that stuff anyway? Turns out it's been around for a very long time. Remember those commercials about the Russians who ate yogurt and lived long lives? They probably drank Kefir, too. It originated in the Caucasus Mountains, and its history goes back 2000 years.

Kefir is a fermented milk, very much like yogurt. And it tastes a lot like liquid yogurt. So much so, that if you like yogurt, you'll probably like Kefir.

Lifeway Kefir contains 10 live and active cultures. Ten! Like yogurt it's supposed to be great for our digestive and immune systems. And because it's based on milk, it's a great source of calcium. It comes in all sorts of flavors like raspberry and blueberry. A very tasty way to get our daily calcium.

Five cupcakes!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

DogZymes Phyto-Flex CCM

Lorna Barrett writes the Booktown Mystery series. The latest, Bookmarked for Death, has rocketed straight to the New York Times Bestsellers (extended) list. Check out Lorna’s website and blog.

Last fall, my parent's dog Jessie was really suffering with arthritis--to the point where they were considering taking her on that final trip to the vet. Prior to that, their vet suggested meds that made Jessie physically ill, but they also told my parents there wasn't anything else they could do.

I found that pronouncement unacceptable, and asked a friend of mine, whose dogs participate in rally and agility trials, what we could do for her. She suggested a product called Dogzymes Phyto-Flex CCM. It's a digestive/vitamin mix for joint health she uses for her own (aging) dogs. She said we'd see a difference in about two weeks. Darned if she wasn't right. Okay, Jessie is still 12 years old, but she can not only get up the steps once again, but she can run.

I bought it online at Nature’s Farmacy West. It’s not a cheap product, but a four-to-six month supply is about $21 (with a whopping $10 for shipping). Seeing Jessie happy again is well worth it.

Five Cupcakes for DogZymes
No cupcakes for shipping

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

All Laundry Detergent

I once had a professor who insisted that we were all being duped by commercials for laundry detergents because they were all the same. I've never quite bought his claim, since I tried to save money with a cheap brand and watched my whites go yellowish, but I never could convince him.

Like everyone else, I'm trying to save some money wherever I can these days. I have to say that it was with some trepidation that I tried this gigantic 4.43 liter bottle of All Laundry Detergent. For just under $13.00, it's supposed to handle 96 loads of laundry. I can't say that I counted the number of loads it cleaned, but it lasted for months.

It says it's recommended by dermatologists for sensitive skin, and it claims to be free of perfumes and clear of dyes. It's essentially colorless, and has a very, very faint scent that reminds me a little bit of Play-Doh.

It comes in a clever bottle with a spout. You loosen the cap on the top so air can get in, and you push the little blue button to dispense the detergent. Very practical. It works in both standard and HE machines.

Five cupcakes.

Monday, February 16, 2009

How I Pretend I'm Not Eating Sugar

Janet Bolin's short stories and humorous essays have been published in literary journals and the anthology Dear Sad Goat, and have been read aloud on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio programs. Janet works as a slave to three dogs who exhibit strong herding tendencies.

If you're like me, you love sugar. And you binge on it in hopes of fooling your body into thinking you've only had a little when you've really had a lot.

It took me awhile, but I finally discovered savory muffins. No added sugar.

Okay, okay, I cheat. I really, really like Craisins, the dried cranberries from Ocean Spray, and cranberries by themselves are tart. Ocean Spray adds sugar. I figure that's okay. Since I'm not the one adding it, those calories can't count, right?

Here's my Craisin muffin recipe, but feel free to experiment. Sun-dried tomatoes are yummy, too (then I use olive oil instead of grapeseed oil.)

Savory Cranberry and Ricotta Muffins

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

Cinnamon to taste

4 large eggs (splurge to 5 if you like your muffins really eggy, almost like crullers - I do.)

6 tablespoons milk

6 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1/2 cup light ricotta cheese

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 cup Craisins (I know, I know, that's a lot, cut it back if you must…)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Sift the flour with the baking powder and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, and oil. Stir in the ricotta. Add half the liquid to the dry ingredients, stir, then add the rest and stir more. I'd say beat the batter, but my attempts at beating it cause blobs to fly around the kitchen (and I'm not using an electric beater, only a wooden spoon). Add the rolled oats and Craisins and stir until well mixed. Divide batter into nonstick muffin pan and bake 20 - 25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

Makes 12 muffins.

These are sophisticated muffins for grown-up tastes, but if your children insist on helping eat them, they'll be filling up on fairly nutritious ingredients (and as I said, the sugar doesn't count since you didn't add it yourself.) Maybe the kids would like them in their school lunches. Maybe you'd like them for those mornings when you have to grab something in a hurry on your way to work. They're also great for road trips, and may actually stave off that moment when you really must stop at the fast food place to prevent everyone in the back seat(s) from starving.

Or, you could just take along a package of Craisins and eat them by the handful. That wouldn't be counted as binging, would it?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Heart Healthy Chocolate

So you're standing in the store, staring at an assortment of chocolate that can only be described as mind-boggling. Our natural instinct is to go for the prettiest one. Especially at Valentine's Day, glitzy or cute packaging can make that decision for us.

But the heart-healthy chocolate might just be the quiet, unassuming one in the plain wrapper. Scharffen Berger is an American chocolate company that is turning out products that can rival European chocolate. Made in small batches on vintage European machinery, Scharffen Berger uses methods that produce incredible heart-healthy chocolate.

Dark chocolates are loaded with anti-oxidants and have even been shown to lower blood pressure. Basically, dark chocolate means there's less or no milk involved. Scharffen Berger offers dark chocolate for every taste. The bars are labeled with percentages -- 62%, 70%, 82%, 99% -- which indicate the percentage of cacao bean in the chocolate. The higher the percentage, the darker and less sweet the chocolate.

I admit that 82% and 99% are a bit high for my taste, though they're wonderful cooking chocolates. Semisweet at 62% and bittersweet at 70% will appeal to more palates for noshing. And to make it more celebratory, enjoy a glass of red wine with your chocolate. Who knew being healthy could be so much fun?

Five cupcakes!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Carrot Love

By now, you've probably seen half a dozen complicated dishes for Valentine's Day. Okay, so sometimes it's fun to prepare something that takes hours, but other times, we just have too much to do. Here's an easy way to inject a few hearts into your Valentine dinner.

Wash and peel carrots. Then, using a bottle opener (yes, I've tried other gadgets, but a bottle opener is easiest), lay the carrot flat on a cutting board, hold it firmly, and run the bottle opener beak along one side of the carrot to carve out the top of the hearts. Don't do this in a rush or the bottle opener will slip and carve a finger. (No fingers were injured in the making of this dish.) The first couple might be a little funky, but once you have the hang of it, this really doesn't take very long.

Flip the carrot, and shave strips off the bottom side with a peeler to make the bottom V of the hearts. You can be as perfect about this as you want. Use the strips and curly bits in a tossed salad.

Slice the carrots into hearts and cook. If you're bored with your carrot recipes, cook them in water until tender, then pour out the water, and add a couple of tablespoons of apricot jam. Mix and heat for a few more minutes, until the jam dissolves. Stir and serve.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bleeding Hearts

I wasn't going to blog about this, but I just saw these again in a magazine, and they were adorable. That little handle lifts up, and the idea is that you place the heart flat on a pan, and pour in pancake batter or a raw egg. Voila! You serve a cute heart. They come in all sorts of shapes, and like many things, I'm sure the quality varies. Mine weren't terribly expensive and came in a set of two. Two that were a total waste of money.

As you can see in the photo to the right, it doesn't lay flat -- there's a nice gap in the back of the heart. A gap that eggs and batter run right through. Which means the food doesn't look like hearts, it looks like bleeding hearts. Could I cut off the part that leaks out? Sure, but the pancakes and eggs don't look cute like they do in the advertisements, they look like someone cut them, which I could do without the little forms. Mine are only four or five inches in diameter, but the shape prevents me from making more than two at a time, so be prepared to spend some time cooking breakfast if you're cooking for three or more. To be honest, they're just a nuisance, cluttering up my kitchen drawer, because I never use them.

If you have some of these and you love them, I hope you'll comment. Maybe I got the only lemons.

No cupcakes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pass the Peas, Please

It's that time of year again. We're reaching into the freezer to eat the last of the summer's harvest. And even though grocery stores have a remarkable variety of fresh produce for the middle of the winter, we mosey on over to the frozen foods section anyway.

So while you're over there browsing, check out the steam-style vegetables. They taste so good that if I were blindfolded, I might have trouble distinguishing them from their fresh counterparts.

After all the bad news about plastics, I don't cook them in the bag. I pop them into a pot, add a little water and bring them to a boil. The key is to get them off the stove as soon as they start to boil, and pour the whole thing into a colander to drain. They're crisp, not at all mushy, and you can dress them up any way you like. When they taste this fresh, though, they're terrific plain.

The peas in the picture are from Private Selection, which is a Kroger brand. I'm big on organic food, but I've noticed these steam-style veggies available in non-organic versions as well. I haven't tried them, but I'd be willing to bet they're pretty good.

Don't like peas? The steam-style green beans are super, too!

Five cupcakes.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Quick Kid-Friendly Potatoes

Cascadian Farm has been around for a couple of decades and is known for their premium organic products. Their spud puppies are one of my personal favorites. Pour a few on a baking tray (use aluminum foil if you want to cut down on clean-up time), pop it in the oven, and 15 to 20 minutes later, it's Spud Puppy time. Delicious with a sprinkle of salt, or dipped in ketchup. They're crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and popular with kids. A fast side dish for those busy nights when everyone is on the run.

Five cupcakes!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Have Your Steak and Eat It Too

Every day seems to bring new revelations about what's bad for us. For a very long time, we've been hearing that beef is bad news. Cholesterol, heart attacks, cardio-vascular disease -- they're all frightening. But beef is also a terrific source of B vitamins, protein, zinc, and iron. And let's face it, a lot of us love a juicy hamburger, or a medium rare steak.

To be honest, I never thought I would eat a particular brand of beef. But in my search for organic beef, I tried Laura's Lean Beef, which is not organic, but is from cattle raised without added hormones or antibiotics. Laura's has the distinction of being approved by The American Heart Association because the meat is lean. They use special types of leaner cattle and farming methods that result in lean beef. Now that I'm used to it, a regular organic steak I recently bought felt far too greasy and heavy. It's easy to be spoiled by Laura's Lean Beef. And now I believe I'll go eat a burger with all the flavor and none of the guilt.

Five cupcakes for heart healthy beef!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Noble Orange Juice

We all know someone who is particular about orange juice. In our dreams, someone would squeeze fresh oranges for us every morning, and even better, would clean up the mess afterward. But in real life, we're the ones pouring orange juice for ourselves in the morning.

My personal preference is for Noble Organic Orange Juice, usually found in the organic dairy section, or with other juices in the produce section of the grocery store. If you haven't tried organic orange juice, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. For some reason, organic produce is sweeter. I've read various explanations, but I'm not sure any of them are conclusive. I do know that Noble Organic Orange Juice is sweeter and tastes better than other orange juices. Without fail, when I offer it to someone, they always ask what brand it is.

Noble also makes a Tangerine Juice that's a refreshing treat. Check them out at

Five cupcakes!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Support Small Businesses

Lorna Barrett writes the Booktown Mystery Series. Her latest novel, Bookmarked for Death, has just been released by Berkley Prime Crime and is available in most chain and independent bookstores. (And if not--can be ordered!) Lorna also writes mysteries under the name L.L. Bartlett.

The economy is in the toilet. There’s no denying that. Budgets have been stretched to the limit as corporations continue the unemployment bloodletting. Just Monday the Macy’s department store chain announced job cuts of 7,000.

Worse, hundreds--and likely thousands--of small businesses have already closed and many more will close before the US economic crisis evaporates and we can all go back to business as usual.

The truth is, many more people are employed by little Mom and Pop establishments than all the Fortune 500 companies.

My Booktown Mystery series features a little village in New Hampshire that was brought back to life by inviting used, out-of-print, and antiquarian booksellers, each based on a particular subject or genre. Haven’t Got A Clue is the mystery bookstore at the heart of these stories.

But small bookstores, gourmet markets and specialty stores are in peril if all you want in the way of choice is Wal-Mart. I admit, often they are the cheapest choice--but don’t always offer the best quality. (Read the labels -- why does fresh meat need additives anyway?)

Okay, small (Mom and Pop) businesses can’t pass on the savings that a conglomerate can--but more often than not, the little guy can give you superior customers service, as well as better quality products. Because they are small, they can’t buy products in the quantity (and lowest price) as a global mogul.

When you can, please buy local. Support your hometown businesses; you’ll keep the local economy going, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re keeping your neighbors in jobs. Please support your local booksellers, coffee shops, non-franchise restaurants, delis, pizza parlors, bakeries, etc. Otherwise you may find that cheap, while fitting your budget, does nothing for your soul.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dishwashing Liquid With No Smell

I've been trying out various dishwashing liquids, after all, I dip my hands in them every day, and the residue goes back into the water table, so I would like to use something that's good for me and the environment. Seventh Generation has been on the shelf at my natural food store for years, but now it has also turned up in my chain grocery store. At $3.29 a bottle, the price is certainly competitive with other brands.

The first thing I noticed was that the label claimed it was "free & clear of perfumes and dyes." When I got it home and opened it, I sniffed. Nothing. I dipped my nose closer. Still nothing. Thinking my sniffer might be broken, I asked a couple of other people to smell it. No one smelled anything. It's not like there's a mild little smell -- it just has no smell at all. I don't know how they do that, but I do know it will be welcome news to a lot of people who are sensitive to scents.

It's also colorless. That would appear to back up their "no dyes" claim. According to their label, the cleaning agent is plant-derived. In fact, they say "If every household in the US replaced just one bottle of 25 oz. petroleum-based dishwashing liquid with our plant-derived product, we could save 86,000 barrels of oil, enough to heat and cool 4,900 US homes for a year!" Wow. Pretty impressive. If that's not enough, the bottle itself is 25% recycled plastic, and they donate 10% of their profits to charity. Seems almost too good to be true. Want to know more? Check them out at

Ah, you say, but how well does it wash dishes? Very well! I'm quite pleased with its performance. I don't feel like I have to rinse forever to get it off, and it seems to go a little farther than some brands I've used.

I plan to report on other brands, but Seventh Generation's non-toxic, biodegradable, and hypo-allergenic Natural Dish Liquid is a top contender for daily use in my house!

Five cupcakes!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Say Cheese!

Daryl Wood Gerber is an aspiring novelist. She has won awards for her screenplays and was one of the creators of the popular sit-com, "Out of this World." Visit Daryl at to learn more about her.

I’ve recently gotten into cheese. I’ve always liked cheese, sharp flavors being my favorite, but I didn’t realize there was so much to learn about cheese. For instance, did you know that you could visit France and sample a different cheese every day of the year? Did you know that cheese and wine are soul mates? Also, if you eat a cheese from a specific region, usually the wine from that region is the best pairing. Why? Because both come from the earth. How does cheese come from the earth, you ask? Well, you probably know that cheese is made from the milk of cows, goats and sheep. Did you know that what the animals eat affects the flavor of the cheese? Did you know that the grasses of a season affect the flavors of the milk, and therefore, the cheese? A cheese made from milk drawn in the early summer differs from one made late in the summer because of the maturity of the grass. Makes sense, right?

I am not an expert in cheese, but perhaps one day I will be, all because of a visit to a cheese shop in Darien, CT [Darien Cheese and Fine Foods]. I had a unique experience. Tasting. And they like you to taste. A slice
of this, a nibble of that. My favorite cheese of the day was Tuscan Tartuffo, a pecorino cheese [raw sheep’s milk] from Italy, with real black and white truffles laced through it. Yummy, rich, melt-in-your-mouth musky. I’ve heard that this cheese drizzled with hazelnut honey is a flavor that makes people swoon. I purchased a jar of the honey, but I about fainted without it. Can’t wait to try the combination. I must warn you, this cheese was not cheap.

But for a budget-wise treat, here is a tip for the day. Did you know you can make a wonderful appetizer out of leftover cheese? That’s right. Never discard those little leftover pieces. The French call this concoction
fromage fort or strong cheese.

Gather one pound of leftover cheese, three kinds is enough but six kinds would be superb. Trim off any mold or rind or dried parts. Put the cheese in a food processor. Toss in three to four cloves of garlic smashed up. Chop for a few seconds. Add one half cup of dry white wine and one teaspoon ground pepper. Puree until creamy, about thirty seconds. Remove and transfer into a crock or bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Let warm to room temperature to serve with crusty bread or crackers. Yum!

I’d probably pair this with your favorite white wine. For an inexpensive treat, try Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. Always consistent. Enjoy!

Daryl Wood Gerber

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