Many moons ago when I was in college, I somehow got recruited to help out with the production of the Senior Class Film. (At Wheaton College, where I went to school, every class made a film each year…some better than others…most better than this one.) I remember being really eager to be a big part of the production–after all, this was film we were talking about. Stardom! Fame! Playing to an audience of 2,000 who would promptly forget your class’s really bad movie! Yeah, it sounded awesome. In the end, though, I made no appearance in the film and for some reason the only thing I was called upon to contribute was a batch of fake blood.
What self-respecting college student wouldn’t take a picture like this after making fake blood?
What stood out to me about making fake blood was how easy it was. Surprisingly easy…sinisterly, wickedly easy. The only ingredients were water, corn syrup, food coloring, and corn starch. You don’t even have to go to the store to make blood!
Years later, as I became an adult trying to whip up meals for my family instead of bowls of fake blood for a class film, I realized a similar truth about condiments–those flavorful accompaniments that meals so much more enjoyable. Most condiments are made of very basic ingredients, meaning that when you run out of the pre-purchased kind, they aren’t usually too hard to throw together with things you already have on hand. Additional bonus: if you don’t like added sugars/chemicals/preservatives in your food, making your own condiments makes you the chef calling the shots.
Some condiments are, of course, more complicated than others. I’ve made teriyaki sauce from scratch and it was a paaaaaiiin. (Though it tasted fantastic.) So I thought I’d share four common condiments that are super simple to make from ingredients you probably have on hand–and taste a whole lot better than the store-bought version.
Since we just talked about fake blood, let’s start with ketchup, shall we? If you’ve never had homemade ketchup, you’re missing out. I made this not long ago when to accompany meatloaf and was amazed at how much more flavorful ketchup can be when you make it yourself and add your own mixture of spices. Since it uses tomato paste as its base, here’s a tip that has saved me many a can of wasted tomato paste: if you can’t use a whole can, freeze the remainder in 1-Tablespoon portions. So easy to pull out of the freezer when you just need that little bit!
Look at the baby tomato paste plops!
(Adapted from Allrecipes.com)
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
2 Tbsp. white vinegar
1/4 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. corn syrup
3/4 c. water
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over low heat. Simmer gently until you get the consistency of ketchup, 5-10 minutes.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever getting through an entire jar of tartar sauce before its expiration date. Mixing it up in a single-serving quantity is now my modus tartarus sauce-i. Fresher, tastier, and all-around better!
1 c. mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish
1 Tbsp. minced onion (or 3/4 tsp. onion powder)
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
salt and pepper
In a small bowl, mix together mayo, pickle relish, and minced onion. Stir in lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Makes 1 cup.
Here’s an interesting blog post about the ingredients in Hershey’s chocolate syrup. If you get to the bottom of what Hershey’s and other companies put in their chocolate syrup, you’re kind of ruined for ever wanting to purchase it again. When I think of stirring chocolate syrup into my milkshake or drizzling it over ice cream, I for one am not thinking Mmmmm….Polysorbate 60. I’m thinking of cocoa powder, sugar, and vanilla, which is what this homemade version contains. It’s definitely thinner than the commercial version, which may take some getting used to, but it sweetens and chocolifies just as well (and you can keep thickening it with corn starch).
(Adapted from Allrecipes.com)
scant 3/4 c. water
3/4 c. white sugar
1/2 c. cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbsp. corn starch
Combine the water, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt in a small saucepan over low heat. Whisk constantly until the mixture thickens and begins to simmer. Stir in vanilla. Slowly whisk in cornstarch until syrup has reached desired thickness.
Makes about 1 cup.
I’ve been using this taco seasoning mix for years and have no intention of ever going back to the store-bought kind. When I start running low on it, I just set out my little assembly line of spices, systematically go through them with my measuring spoons, and ta-da! In moments I have a little snap-top Ziploc container (the size I used to cart my kids’ pacifiers around in) filled with taco seasoning. A good rule of thumb for using this mixture is 3 tablespoons per pound of meat.
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. paprika
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
In a small bowl, mix all ingredients. Store in an air-tight container.
Makes 1 ounce.
Once you start making your own condiments, there’s no going back. Don’t be surprised if you find the cleaner ingredients and better, bolder flavors of the homemade versions keep you coming back to make just the little more effort it takes to whip them up yourself.
As I mentioned last time I posted, this past week I had the incredible opportunity to attend the 2014 Nutrition and Health Conference in Dallas. The conference is put on by the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, the groundbreaking holistic clinic/research/training center founded by Dr. Andrew Weil 20 years ago this year. I have followed Dr. Weil’s work for quite awhile now and have even visited the Center’s clinic as a patient (which, by the way, was the greatest health care experience of my life so far). Last year when I first heard about the conference, I applied for one of the limited student scholarships to attend, but did not receive one. Then this year it was like a little alarm went off in my head around February saying, “ding-ding-ding-Nutrition-and-Health-Conference!” I looked up the conference and sure enough, applications for student scholarships were due in two days. I wrote my 250-word “this is why you should choose me” statement and sent it off. Much to my surprise and delight, the next week I got the wonderful news that I had been given a scholarship!
The conference was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Addison and lasted two and a half information-packed days. It’s hard to even know where to begin to describe all that I learned–I only hope I can retain it! If I had to distill it down to a sound byte, my parting impression of the conference as a whole can be described with these two phrases: the cutting edge and the common sense. Yes, I heard about a lot of trials/journal articles (even research that has yet to be published–cool!), but I also heard a lot of simple, practical advice that could apply to anyone seeking a healthy diet. I attended lectures on everything from the benefits of the polyphenols in blueberries to managing pain with diet to using guided imagery to treat diabetes. Because I know I can’t record anything close to a comprehensive inventory of all I learned this week, I thought I’d give a summary of my biggest takeaways, along with a few random interesting facts.
One of the most frequently addressed topics throughout the conference was the importance of “gut microbiota” (also known as intestinal flora or the bacteria in your belly and bum) for overall health. As a population, our gut microbiota has been compromised over the years by a variety of factors, including
- overuse of antibiotics
- rise in processed food
- increase in C-section deliveries
- decline in breastfeeding
These little buggers have an astoundingly powerful affect on so many aspects of health, from the obvious (the GI tract) to the surprising (mood and behavior; obesity) to the scary (Western diseases). Thankfully, we have a large measure of control over our gut flora through
- diet, such yogurt (not the super sweet kind) and other fermented foods, as well as fruits and vegetables
- pro- and prebiotics
- fecal transplants (this is for the very ill–don’t worry)
In the future, we will probably see probiotics custom-made for individual GI tracts. Until then, we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat by eating a diet rich in probiotics and taking them in capsulated form, as well as increasing our fiber intake.
A second big takeaway from the conference was putting the nail in the coffin of the myth that saturated fat is a culprit in cardiovascular disease. Recent studies have shown that saturated fat is not responsible for cardiovascular disease. In fact, the low-fat diet push of the ’70s through ’90s is probably one factor that has driven the obesity epidemic–in the absence of satiating fats, people turned to increased carbs–which has only increased the incidence of CV disease. This isn’t a reason to eat cheesecake with abandon (darn) but it is grounds to stop demonizing fat.
In addition to taking the focus off of fat as a dietary bogeyman, presenters at the conference repeatedly stressed the importance of viewing overall dietary patterns, rather than nitpicky numbers and percentages. For the average layperson who wants to lose weight or simply be healthy, this kind of myopia is unnecessary and burdensome.
So what do we tell that layperson who wants to lose weight or be healthy? In the midst of a million diets, cookbooks, blogs, and self-proclaimed experts, is there a one-size-fits-all piece of advice? Well, probably not. But the one recommendation that seemed to come through from most presenters as a great place to start was the Mediterranean diet. It’s plant-based, low-sugar, and healthy-fat-focused. I call that common sense.
And now that we’ve talked Big Takeaways, it’s time for the…
Random Interesting Stuff:
- Calorie intake in the U.S. has increased around 400 calories/day since 1970
- Nutrition facts about nuts are deceiving (in a good way). Because the body only digests about 70% of a nut, you only get 70% of the calories. Also, eating a handful of nuts decreases caloric absorption by 3% over the next 24 hours. So go nuts!
- When Taco Bell recently ran a commercial depicting someone being embarrassed by bringing a veggie tray to a Super Bowl party, all it took was about 40 tweets decrying the ad for Taco Bell to pull it off the air. Grassroots nutrition advocacy, man!
- The top source for omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet? Italian dressing (because of its soybean oil content). Make the better choice and get them from fish and nuts!
- Despite the 18% rise in food allergies from 1997-2007, there are promising treatments for food allergies. The idea of building up an immunity to something is not new, but it can work when applied very gradually. If a child with, say, a peanut allergy eats incrementally larger and larger amounts of peanuts (starting, of course, with a teeny-tiny amount), s/he can eventually become asymptomatic to peanuts. Kinda like…
Interestingly, most people who go through this process then have to eat some small amount of peanuts (or whatever the food may be) every day to maintain their immunity.
So there you have it. What a whirlwind of information my two and a half days in Dallas were. I’m already looking forward to next year, when the conference will be held in Phoenix!
For a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I really love to throw parties. Giving other people a good time (and feeding them fabulous, fun food) is one of the most satisfying experiences in my life. Do you feel that way? Or do you feel intimidated at the thought of feeding a crowd? It’s only natural–I mean, what if it all goes screwy? What if nothing’s ready on time, or you put too much gorgonzola in the cheese dip, or aliens beam down and eat your Christmas turkey like the Bumpus’s dogs in A Christmas Story? I can’t help you with the aliens scenario, but as a veteran party-thrower (and menu planner and cook) I’m happy to offer a step-by-step guide to party menu planning. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Plan Ahead.
Planning a party menu is like planning your wedding. It can be slapped together last-minute, but you’re gonna get a sleazy Vegas chapel with pink plastic flowers and Elvis as the best man…when you might really have wanted a tasteful affair with all your loved ones in attendance. Like anything else worth planning, a great party menu requires a solid stretch of time ahead to prepare. My suggestion is at least one month.
2. Determine your Food Event–and tell your guests what it is in the invitation.
What do you plan to offer your guests, food-wise? A meal? A snack? Dessert? Drinks? If you’re hosting a dinner party, the answer is obvious: dinner. Other events can be less black and white, but typically start time is one key to making this determination. For a bridal shower at 10:00, guests are likely to expect a brunch. Cocktail party at 5:00? Drinks and appetizers. I get frustrated when I go to a party at 7:00, say, without knowing what to expect. Is it dinner? Or do I eat dinner first? Then, if I already ate dinner first, I don’t really want to eat mozzarella sticks and crab dip–I want dessert! (First world problems, I know.) Essentially, you don’t want to mess with people’s whole daily food schedule by giving them food they weren’t prepared to eat.
3. Determine a serving style and/or theme.
Okay, so you’ve decided to host a dinner party for ten. Now think about whether you want to plate all ten of those meals yourself in the kitchen, pass dishes at the table, or serve buffet-style. How fancy is the party? (And how fancy are the people coming?) What kind of serve ware do you own?
Secondly, a theme narrows menu planning down considerably, which can be extremely helpful in the overwhelming tide of ideas from Google and Pinterest. Mad Hatter tea party, Asian buffet, and ’80s party are all party menus I’ve had fun planning because they’ve given me parameters to set a scene.
4. Variety is the spice life…and of a party menu.
Our annual Christmas party–a buffet of dinner appetizers–is the one party I don’t typically choose a theme for. I guess it’s just too much fun scouring the internet and my cookbooks for a wide range of recipes. Certain guidelines do help me hone down the menu, though. I always try to offer a variety of meat dishes (beef, chicken, bacon, etc.) alongside several vegetarian options. Some are hearty, some are light. Some are carb-laden, others are mostly protein. Some dishes are old standbys, while others pack an element of surprise. A playful menu is a fun menu–and a memorable one, too.
5. Don’t do it all yourself.
For any party of more than a handful of guests, it’s dang hard work cooking enough food for all those people all by yourself! This is where your dear friends Costco and Trader Joe’s lend a helping hand. Interspersing ready-made dishes with homemade ones lightens your load and allows you to actually sleep the night before your event. Alternatively, if you feel truly compelled to make everything in your own kitchen, consider hiring a friend or your kids’ babysitter to come over the day of and do your culinary bidding.
6. Consider your budget.
For most of us, budget is always a consideration. While I might like to go crazy for my husband’s birthday and get him a cheesecake flown in from the Carnegie Deli in NYC, that would pretty much shoot my whole budget (plus it wouldn’t get here in time–his birthday is tomorrow). Despite the conventional wisdom that making food yourself ends up being cheaper, my experience has generally proven the opposite. Take spanakopita, for example. You can either purchase the phyllo dough, the spinach, the ricotta, the feta, etc. or you can purchase the frozen pre-made version for $4. Some very simple, minimal-ingredient party foods are the exception.
7. Figure out how much food to serve.
The best way to do this is to get yourself a cheat sheet, like the one here. Thanks, Cooking for Crowds for Dummies! It comes down to simple math: take the number of guests you expect (never hurts to pad this number a little if you don’t know exactly how many people will make it), multiply it by the amount listed on the cheat sheet, and plan to make that much.
8. Get cookin’!
And don’t forget to do whatever you can in advance, using your freezer if necessary. And don’t stress–remember, this is for fun! And even if you burn the rolls (or the brains, as the case may be) your friends will still love you and are sure to have a good time.*
*As long as you provide alcohol.
You might already have two questions about this post:
(Read these in your best Jim Gaffigan voice-in-the-audience’s-head tone)
1. Why is she talking about the holidays? It’s only November 3rd. Is this going to be one of those “Christmas Creep” things where we’re supposed to pretend the Christmas season starts the day after Halloween?
2. Does this have to do with food? If not, why is it on this blog? I thought the name was “A Love Letter to Food.” If it doesn’t have to do with eating, I’m going back to Paula Deen’s Miracles of Cool Whip on Food Network.
Well, that was significantly more than two questions, but the short version of the answers goes like this:
1. No, I am not participating in Christmas Creep! I am participating in the opposite! (Which for the sake of this blog, let’s call “Christmas Drag.”)
2. No, it doesn’t particularly have to do with food, but It’s my blog, so I can still write about it. 😉 But I promise this won’t happen too often.
The reason I bring all this up in early November is that this weekend I went clothes shopping at a couple of department stores and was totally overwhelmed with the craziness of Operation Christmas In Your Face. You know about this, right? As soon as the doors close on the trick-or-treaters, stores all around the country haul out their holiday bells and whistles and start trying to brainwash you into believing Christmas is just around the corner. Which, okay, it sort of is–but going into these stores seriously stressed me out. I felt like it was December 23rd, not November 3rd. The lines were long, there was Christmas music playing, Christmas decorations and ads everywhere, AND the lady behind me in line banged her cart into my ankle so hard I almost started crying in line.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.™
I came home with a resolution to simplify my holiday season this year. No one wants to feel harried, stressed, and bossed around by someone else’s agenda–commercial, familial, or otherwise–at the time of year that’s supposed to be about peace on earth and goodwill toward men. I know this is not a new story. It’s a repeat problem, one we all lament year after year. But my sense is that the lamenting doesn’t get us very far. This thing has to be approached with a PLAN.
So I gave it some thought and here are 9 of things I plan to do to this year to keep the sugar plums dancing in my head from driving me nuts…unless we’re talking about candied almonds. Then I’m on board.
1. Shop Online (aka Stay Away From Retail Stores in November/December)
No parking, no crowds, no lines, no annoying music, no overtired children (except for my own, but I can just put them to bed since, hey, I’m at home). Buying online, you are less likely to make impulse buys like those Godiva chocolates that seem to be at so many registers. Plus, I’ve learned there is SO much more selection of original gifts available online than at the mall. Etsy.com is one place to start; also check out the personalized gifts at Zazzle.com.
2. Plan Ahead.
It is only still November! If you get shopping and planning done little by little starting now, you have a guarantee of less stress down the road.
3. Keep an Excel Spreadsheet of Gifts and their Cost, Recipients, and Total Spending.
For me, part of the stress of Christmas gift-giving is the feeling that I’ve spent too much–though I don’t really know how much. Ugh, that’s a bad feeling. So this year I’m keeping tabs with a simple Excel spreadsheet. I enter the above four categories and it not only calculates my total, it helps me track who I’ve purchased for.
4. Buy handmade / local / edible / experiential / second-hand gifts, rather than STUFF.
Another part of negative emotion that can cloud Christmas is the feeling that you’re merely contributing to the overproduction/overconsumption cycle we Americans are so famous for. Buying gifts that don’t come from a department store and won’t clutter up someone else’s home helps you opt out of that. Plus, supporting local businesses, artisans, farmers’ markets, etc. helps your community.
5. Make Your own Simple Gift Wrap.
This may sound like a small thing to stress over, but buying gift wrap is one more expense around the holidays, and using it can be one more waste. This year I plan to follow the example of my inventive neighbors and take apart Trader Joe’s paper bags to use as wrapping paper (blank side out), stamping the front of each gift with an inexpensive but pretty Christmas stamp from Michael’s. The stamp will be reusable in years to come. This may not be practical with gifts for someone you really want to impress, but for any like-minded recipient (like my husband) it should be fine!
6. Pare Down the Decor
As Dr. Suess once said, “If decor is a chore, less can be more.” No, he actually didn’t, but if he ever wrote a children’s book about lowering stress levels at Christmas, this is what he would have said. Pick some of the your beloved decorations to put out and leave the rest in the garage this year.
7. Opt Out.
If your office / play group / 75-person extended family / Lithuanian Kazoo Players’ Guild does an annual gift exchange, would it really be so bad to opt out? Certainly most of us want to give meaningful presents to the people in our lives who mean the most, but if you’ve been invited to do a gift exchange with people you don’t see that often and/or aren’t major players in your life, maybe opting out is the lesser of two evils.
8. Limit to 2-3 Top Activities for December.
The great thing about Christmas is that it comes around every year. Sometimes we can feel the need to pack every fun Christmas-y experience possible into those three to four weeks leading up to the big day. But at a certain point, it simply becomes busyness. Pre-selecting only a small handful of activities to commit to (a performance of A Christmas Carol, ice skating, and one party, let’s say) adds more breathing room to the season. There’s always next year for the life-size gingerbread house making extravaganza.
As you limit your calendar in December, take advantage of the extra time to find a way to serve others in need. There’s nothing like it for putting Christmas craziness in perspective. You can be sure local homeless shelters, St. Vincent de Paul, nursing homes, and those they serve will be thankful for your help–and have lots for you to do.
On that note, I’ll leave you with a song that captures my point with this post:
The partiers (minus a few who had gone home for naps)
What do you get when you combine Halloween costumes, spooky treats, crazy games, and 20 preschoolers? Chaos! A whole lotta fun! (And one pretty exhausted mama.) This morning was our play group’s annual Halloween party. For the last four years, I’ve been a member of the East Valley Catholic Stay-at-Home Moms’ Group (yeah, we have a long name) and had attended this annual event at my friend Marsha’s a couple of years ago. Her effort and creativity are the envy of everyone in the group…and oh yeah, she’s also an environmental scientist. Did I mention she’s awesome? Last year she made 40 Halloween gingerbread houses for the kids to decorate. Dedication, I tell you! So this year, since she moved into a new house only weeks ago, I volunteered to host the party at my place–with a lot of help from Marsha, thankfully! I have to say I think the event was a success. (And get ready–this is a long post.)
Once the dozen or so moms and their little ones gathered at our place at 10, we started out with a craft. For preschoolers, I’m a believer that simpler is better. This craft was decorating an orange paper plate with stickers to make it look like a jack-o-lantern.
Or at least an approximation of a jack-o-lantern…
Next, we headed to the backyard for some games. The lineup was:
1. Pumpkin Penny Toss
This is basically skee-ball on a much smaller (preschool) scale. Have the kids stand behind a line and do their best to toss pennies into the different point level spaces. Super easy!
2. Pin the Nose on the Pumpkin
It’s not rocket science, but it sure is fun! This game was store-bought, but you could easily DIY with some tagboard, markers, and double-stick tape.
3. Tootsie Ghost Hunt
The Halloween version of an Easter egg hunt! Kids searched for Kleenex-wrapped Tootsie pop ghosts hidden throughout the yard. The good thing about this kind of hunt is that even if you find the missing Tootsie pops 6 months later, they won’t be rotting in a pile of stinky goo like eggs.
4. Mummy Surprise
What, you may ask, is mummy surprise? Good surprise or bad surprise? For this activity, I wrapped prizes (small Halloween foam stamps) in strips of an old white sheet, trying to make the wrapping as convoluted as possible. Kids had to unravel the strips to reveal their prize.
5. Donut Dare
This was, without a doubt, my favorite part of the party. I played this game at camp in junior high and have wanted to play it again ever since. Tie a donut on a string, then hang it from the ceiling with a thumbtack. The idea is for the kids to eat it without using their hands–it’s harder than it sounds and hilarious to watch!
After the games were done, everyone headed inside for a lunch of creepy Halloween-themed treats. (I said the donut game was my favorite part…but this might actually be my favorite part.) Dividing the work with Marsha made for a much lighter workload when it came to feeding 20-25 people a themed lunch. So let’s get down to the real business: the food!
Pumpkin-Shaped Cheese Ball with Crackers and Veggies (recipe here)
Spider Deviled Eggs (recipe here)
Pumpkin-Sage Flatbread (recipe here)
(No pics of any of these–sorry! I guess I was busy supervising children eating donuts on strings.)
These were adorable…yet tragic. I had pre-made these and frozen them. In getting ready for the party, I unwittingly set them out too early and they got bent and slimy and basically inedible–more like banana worms than banana ghosts. Lesson learned: either eat these fresh or, if you freeze them, eat shortly after taking them out of the freezer.
To make these, slice a banana in half and insert a popsicle stick. Press two chocolate chips in the top for eyes. For presentation, I wrapped blocks of flower foam with patterned scrapbook paper and stuck the boo-nanas into them.
Eyeball Grape Salad
Cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, vanilla, grapes–that’s all it takes to make Eyeball Grape Salad. (Adapted from allrecipes.com)
Ham and Cheese Pumpkin Pockets
I got several recipe requests for these, so I’ve posted the recipe here. They were a hit!
Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes (pictured on the left)
I baked this delicious recipe in a pumpkin-shaped cake tin. Yeah, it was apple in the shape of a pumpkin. You got a problem with that?
Witch Hat Cookies
Super cute and super easy: take an upside-down Keebler chocolate shortbread cookie, frost with a little bit of peanut butter or orange frosting, top with a Hershey’s kiss.
Chocolate Pretzel Fingers
For this one, you need a mold to get the bony finger effect (pictured above on the right). Experience has taught me that any time you use a mold, SPRAY the dickens out of it with cooking spray before filling. I used chocolate with a little vegetable oil to fill the mold, then added a pretzel rod and coated with the chocolate mixture.
Whew! You still with me? Hopefully this crazy-long post provides some inspiration if you’re looking for Halloween treats and activities. Our little party was some good, wholesome fun for some adventurous preschoolers. And if you ask me, that’s way more enjoyable than the give-you-nightmares-for-a-week variety of Halloween. I’m for it. 🙂