Give Your Food Some Culture

Thanksgiving 2020 ain’t what it used to be…So we ignored the turkey and fixings and smoked a big chicken for the two of us. We’d already decided to forego traveling, and now we’re quarantined anyway, so that just verified that we’d all made the right decision.

I’m thankful for a lot this year. For the fact that we are both healthy, that Joe Biden is president, that we have time for little things, for Instacart and delivered groceries, and my kefir grains that (I believe) are helping to keep me healthy. There’s no time like now to try a new hobby…

If a person paid attention to “experts” telling you what to eat, there would probably be nothing on your plate but organic greens. With a cup of green tea for dessert. No flours, rice, pasta, or beans because they are dangerous carbs. No red meat, pork, or eggs because of cholesterol. No fish because of mercury; no poultry or dairy because of the hormones fed to the animals; indeed, no animal products at all because of the cruelty of eating animals; fruit is too high in sugar; sugars and fats have been known to cause cancer; tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are part of the deadly nightshade family… Are you exhausted yet?

I’ve always tried to ‘eat healthy’. But sometimes it’s hard to tell what is just a nutrition fad and what is truth. In the sixties Adele Davis said “Eat Liver”; in the seventies Frances Moore Lappe said be a vegetarian and eat complementary proteins; in the eighties and nineties fat was the monster to cut completely out of your diet; in the oughties carbs became the villain. Yes, I’ve lived through decades of contradictory advice. So here I am writing a nutrition post on cultured foods. Is it a fad? I don’t know. Am I a nutritionist? Nope — not even close. All I can tell you is that these foods have made me less tired, less crabby (Mr. H.C. might disagree on that one!) and helped with both stomach issues and eczema.

These are the two different kinds of kefir I have culturing on my counter right now:

These foods give you probiotics, or healthy bacteria that your gut needs. Desperately.

I’m not a scientist, and there’s no point for me to go into all that when others have written about it much more fluently than I could. If you need info, try these three articles: Your Gut Bacteria and Your Health ;  Can Gut Bacteria Improve Your Health?  ;  How to Have Healthy Gut Bacteria

There are two kinds of kefir: dairy and non-dairy. They are both so delicious and different from each other, that they really deserve posts of their own. So today I’m writing about non-dairy kefir, similar in benefits to kombucha, but making it requires kefir grains, rather than a scoby.

Water Kefir, Kefir Soda, or Tibicos

These are grains that contain a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts. You add the grains to a sugar-water mix; the grains feed off the sugar and produce lactic acid, alcohol, and carbon dioxide, which makes the drink fizzy. (The alcoholic content is negligible — about .5% to .75%.) This is so much  fun to make! It makes you feel like a mad scientist…. I make it a quart at a time with filtered water and 4 tablespoons of raw sugar. You can use brown sugar, coconut sugar, molasses, or maple syrup, but honey and agave syrup are not recommended. It sits on the counter for a day or so to ferment, and then you strain the liquid from the grains. You can drink it at this point, but next is the fun part. Get yourself some fermenting bottles–these are 16 oz. bottles.

Add two ounces of fruit juice (you can also add flavorings here too — ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom…) and fill each bottle with 12 ounces of the fermented liquid. Cap it and wait a day or so. It will carbonate, so you probably want to open the cap once every few hours to let it breathe. I have had explosions, but the bottles don’t break.  I have had to use a mop and a sponge on the floor and on the cabinets (Yes, it looked like a kid’s science project on how to make a volcano, gone awry).

After it sits on the counter for a day or so, refrigerate it, and drink it over ice. This was my summer-time-afternoon-pick-me-up, and I liked it so much, I’m still drinking it. Make it with cider and warm spices. Make it with cranberry and ginger. Make it with pineapple juice and cardamom. It is not sweet–the bacteria feeds on the sugar and so depending on how long you let it ferment, there is almost no sugar left. There is a small amount of alcohol present, as with any fermentation, but it’s minimal. It’s a great substitute for sugary soda drinks, and it is low calorie. My calorie counter, Lose It clocks an eight ounce glass at 10 calories; My Fitness Pal gives the same glass 45 calories. Here’s the thing: No two fermenting times or juices or sugars are the same, so it’s difficult to tell exact calories.

I ordered my grains at Cultured Food Life but there are other places to order it also. Here’s another good site: Cultures for Health and don’t worry, complete instructions come with your orders. And if you know someone who makes water kefir, chances are they will be happy to share some grains with you. Happy grains produce more grains.

Salud! Here’s to health and a happy stomach! And only 35 more days until 2020 is over…

These cookies walk into a bar: you need this recipe during your quarantine …

Two days ago found me taking everything out of the freezer so I could see what the heck was really in there. Actually I was looking for one last bag of frozen cherries from  summer’s bumper crop. There were no cherries left, but I did find two jars of frozen raspberry puree that were dated two years ago. They had been meant for jam, but, well, jam is not really my thing, and Mr. H.C. has been too busy to make jam. Yeah, for the last two years…

I took one jar out and let it thaw. Yesterday I used some in my breakfast smoothie, but these were quart jars, folks. Then I thought maybe I’d make a raspberry rhubarb pie, because, yeah, I found some rhubarb too. But the thought of making a pie crust was too daunting. I’ve been cooking a lot. I’ve been eating a lot. And I’ve been adventurous in trying out new recipes, but yesterday just wasn’t a day for pie crust. I’m sure you know what I mean.

During this quarantine, we’ve been working on the bathroom. Mr. H.C. has been doing the lion’s share of the work. I’ve been doing what I can, when I can, but today he is taking out the old toilet and probably replacing some of the floor that has rotted around it. That seemed like a rotten one-person job, so I thought I would make him a treat out of this raspberry puree. After all, he picked the berries, he made the puree, and he’s taking out the old stinky toilet; it’s the least I can do.

It took me awhile to find a recipe that passed muster. Quarantine kitchens are odd to cook from, you know. Some things you have, some things you don’t. And we’ve been trying to be good, and only go to the grocery store once a week. So when I found this recipe, it seemed to be a basic bar cookie recipe that could take a lot of changes. Feel free to change it up if you don’t have a jar of raspberry jam or puree in your pantry; but I just gotta say, that the raspberry and chocolate combo is REALLY DELICIOUS. Plus, I really like bar cookies. So easy. No spoons. No baking sheets. No 8-10 minutes and then do it all again. I really like bar cookies.

This is an old Cooking Light recipe. Here are the ingredients, with comments on how you can make this your own. This has no eggs, so it could easily be vegan if you use coconut oil instead of butter.

  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 cup flour (I used regular unbleached because I had it, but often I use almond flour or coconut flour as a substitute, and I think that would work here too.)
  • 5 T. softened butter (I used 3 T. ghee and 2 T. coconut oil–any combo would be good.)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar (Sugar. Ahem. I lost 25 pounds last year by not baking much, and when I did, I used Swerve or Lankato as a sugar replacement. I’m currently out of all sugars except some organic cane sugar I get from Aldi. So that’s what I used. I cut it back to 1/2 cup in the crust though, with no problem and I added a teaspoon of molasses to give it the brown sugar feel and taste.)
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 t. vanilla, or almond, or whatever goes with what you are making…
  • 10 oz. raspberry jam (So…I had puree. Which is runnier and unsweetened. So I took that 1/4 cup of sugar that I left out of the crust, and added it to the puree. It tasted good, so I went with it. The runny bit I just hoped wouldn’t matter, and it didn’t… Feel free to sub here. I think this was originally a type of date bar cookie, so you could add any kind of jam you have, or pumpkin, or applesauce, or cooked dates, or raisins… it can be your own jam…)
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips (Yeah, I didn’t have chocolate chips either… But what I did have was a Moser-Roth dark chocolate and sea salt bar from Aldi. I chopped up three of those little individually wrapped bars and got a heaping half cup. This is a lesson in using what you have. If you’re using applesauce or pumpkin, nuts would be good…)
  • I added 1/4 cup shredded coconut to the flour mixture. Cacao nibs would be good too if you like crunch.

Lightly grease an 8×8 pan and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix together the flour, oats, salt, and soda and set aside.

Mix the softened butter/oils and sugar until well combined. Add the vanilla, and then add the flour/oat mixture and stir well. It will be crumbly.  Take out 3/4 cups of the flour mixture and add the chocolate chips. Here is where you can make any other additions as well–coconut, cacao nibs, nuts, etc.  Press the larger amount of the flour/butter mixture into the pan. Reserve the part with the additional ingredients–this will be the topping.

Pour the jam, fruit puree, applesauce, pumpkin, whatever you are using for the filling on top of the pressed in crust. Then sprinkle the reserved topping all over and pop into the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes until lightly browned or bubbly. Cool on a wire rack and cut into 16 squares for nice dainty bites, or 9 squares for a good dessert-sized bar. If you used chocolate, I would recommend serving after 30 minutes, while the chocolate is still melty…

I’m thinking that this recipe is going to be different each time I make it. The texture of the chocolate-raspberry is almost like a moist brownie. But with no eggs, I had to think about what gives it that deliciousness. The liquidity of the raspberry purée ran down through the crust and changed the texture in a wonderful way. I’m pretty sure the texture and thickness of the raspberry jam called for in the original recipe would give these bars more of a traditional date bar type feel.

In the interest of not wanting to give you all disinformation (Ahem. I could go into a rant here…) I made this same recipe the next day with my frozen pumpkin purée. This might indicate to you that, yes, we ate the whole chocolate raspberry pan very quickly. What else is there to do?

So I can verify that this recipe can take whatever substitutes you want to throw at it. The pumpkin version was made with half almond flour and half unbleached flour. The crust was delicious. Again, I only added 1/2 cup sugar and added the other 1/4 cup into the pumpkin puree. I did not add anything else to the pumpkin (except spices) but I’m also pretty sure, you could add eggs and cream and make it a pumpkin pie bar…)

I added cashews to the topping but any kind of nuts would be good. Except sunflower seeds. Don’t add sunflower seeds. I made that mistake earlier in my quarantine baking experiments. They turn your baked goods green. It doesn’t taste bad, but it looks moldy and unappetizing.

I think my next experiment with this recipe will be rhubarb/raisin. But peanut butter and grape jam might be good too… Hey, we’ve got time to try lots of combinations, don’t we?

Happy Soup for February

The twenty-eight long days of February inspire me to find beauty in the ordinary things of the day.
Today’s inspiration is Happy Soup. It’s perfect for beginning a Valentine’s meal, and it’s also perfect for lean days of Lent. It’s also a soup that can be made start to finish in about an hour. It’s filling, delicious, and beautiful to serve. That’s why I call it Happy Soup. The real name is Roasted Beet and Carrot Bisque.

Yes, I didn’t tell you that at first because I know many of you will stop reading at the word Beet. But just look at how lovely it looks in that little soup bowl. Add a dollop of Greek yogurt and swirl it around? Mr. H.C. was dubious, but two spoonfuls later, he exclaimed, “This is delicious!” (in a surprised voice…)

The last of the garden beets were looking sad in the fridge, so they inspired this soup day: four beets, three carrots, one large potato, and one large onion, broth, and herbs and spices is all you need. (You could substitute parsnips for the potato if you have some). But the one ingredient that you might not have, and is really critical to the taste, is Zatar.

It is a middle eastern spice blend; you can order it online here if you don’t have a Middle Eastern market or a Penzey’s nearby… This is not some odd spice that has one use — truly, it is delicious, and can be sprinkled on vegetables, chicken, breads, sauces, soups, rice… Zatar (or Za’atar) has a tangy, salty, earthy taste that you really need to try.

So, get your Zatar, and try this Happy Soup with bread and a salad.


Have on hand: 4 beets, 3 carrots, a large onion, and 1-2 potatoes or parsnips, depending on size. Enough broth to cover vegetables; 2-3 tsp. Zatar; assorted spices (salt, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, 2 T. honey or agave syrup.)

Chop the vegetables into small cubes of a similar size and toss them in 2 T. olive oil, 2 T. balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. Pour them on to a baking sheet and roast in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes; take the veggies out, stir them around with a spatula, and roast again for 10 minutes longer, or until they are fairly soft. (You are still going to cook them for longer, so they don’t have to be totally done.)

Here are the vegetables prepared for roasting. I have about 4 cups, and that made enough for 4 servings. How big or small you cut the vegetables will determine how long you have to roast them.

Scrape the veggies from the pan into a soup pot. Add a sprig of fresh rosemary if you have one, 2 tsp. Zatar, and cover the vegetables with broth. I used chicken broth because that was what I had, but vegetable broth would be just as good. Simmer the vegetables until really soft –about a half hour — but don’t cook down all the broth, because you need it in the next step.

Pour the vegetables and hot broth into a blender (carefully) and puree. Alternately, you could use an immersion blender, but I can’t say how that would work, because I don’t have one. If you need to add a bit more broth to blend the vegetables up well, go ahead. I added an extra 1/4 cup.

Pour the blended bisque back into the soup pot and add 1 t. cardamom, 1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg, 2 T. honey or agave syrup, salt & pepper to taste. Simmer and stir gently just till all is mixed in. Keep tasting and adding spices to taste. Ladle into soup bowls and add a dollop of Greek yogurt. Sprinkle with more Zatar, and serve.


…to this — in about 40 minutes.






Sit and enjoy the brilliant red color in your bowl, the warming earthiness in your mouth, and the filled feeling in your stomach.
And be glad.