Oct 29, 2014

Stuffed Winter Squash Recipe

Winter squash is a wonderful thing. It's filling and packed with good nutrients; it's easy to grow; it's prolific; and it keeps for a long time without freezing, canning, or dehydrating (just keep it in a relatively cool location). But because I did not grow up eating any type of squash, I've been working on trying every variety I can find. (Hint: Try farm stands for better variety than grocery stores offer.) From there, I can determine which variety I want to grow in next year's garden.

There are lots of ways to eat winter squash, but it's pretty hard to beat eating it stuffed. And here's a simple, easy recipe that works with any type of winter squash. (I happened to use it with carnival squash, which has a very mild flavor.)

Stuffed Winter Squash Recipe

1 medium sized squash (like butternut, delicata, or carnival squash)
1-2 teaspoons butter, melted
Garlic powder
2 bacon strips
1/2 small onion, diced
1/2 lb. ground beef
4 oz. fresh baby spinach
1 garlic clove, minced

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Cut the squash in half. Some winter squash, like butternut, are easy to cut open carefully with a sharp knife. Others, like the relentless tough-skinned hubbard are really, really difficult to cut open. (But the hard outer skin is part of what makes winter squash store so well.) For toughies, carefully use a hatchet or powered saw to cut the squash in half.

Removing the seeds and "slop."
3. Scoop out the stringy inner part of the squash, along with the seeds. (But be sure to save the seeds! They are highly nutritious and easy to roast for a yummy treat. Learn how to roast squash seeds here.) Place the squash, cut side up, on a rimmed baking tray.

4. Brush melted butter all over the "meat" of the squash. Season with a little garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Place in the preheated oven and bake for about one hour. (Larger squash will take longer to bake; smaller will be ready in a shorter amount of time.) You'll know the squash is ready when it is fork tender.

Freshly roasted carnival squash.
5. In a skillet placed over medium heat, cook the bacon. Transfer to paper towels and set aside.

6. Pour all but about 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings out of the skillet. Add the onion and saute until golden brown. Transfer the onion to a small bowl with a slotted spoon; set aside.

7. Add the ground beef to the skillet and cook until no longer pink. Return the onion to the pan. Add the garlic and season with salt and pepper. Add the spinach. Cook, stirring often, until the spinach is wilted.

8. Spoon the beef stuffing into the cavities of the squash. Sprinkle crumbled bacon on top. Serve.

Oct 27, 2014

Honey as Medicine

Since biblical times, honey has been used as medicine. The first written record of it's medicinal use is from 1900-1250 BC. Today, doctors - even conventional ones - are coming back around to using honey as medicine. That makes honey an excellent addition to the home medicine cabinet.

Raw vs. Pasteurized Honey

First, it's important to differentiate between pasteurized honey, which is typically what you purchase in grocery stores, and unpasteurized or raw honey, which mostly is available at farmer's markets or direct from those who raise bees. For medicine, most experts recommend raw, unpasteurized honey. Pasteurization kills most of the medicinal properties of honey.

Honey for Wounds

Honey is well known as an excellent treatment for wounds. In particular, Manuka honey, which comes from bees who feed on New Zealand's Leptospermum scoparium plant, is well studied. A layer of good honey helps protect and seal the wound while it kills bacteria. (Specifically, the honey makes the area too acidic for bacteria, plus it produces hydrogen peroxide to kill bacteria...and it probably has other antibacterial properties that scientists are only beginning to discover.)

The FDA has approved MediHoney - sterilized Manuka honey, which many doctors consider safer than raw honey. Many wound centers use MediHoney. Some doctors claim that, unlike untreated Manuka honey, it burns while going on.

Most studies have found that cleaning the wound first, applying a thick layer of honey, then wrapping the wound in gauze works best. However, it's probably a really bad idea to treat anything other than minor wounds yourself - so consider using the honey's natural healing powers for things like cracked skin (including nipples - but please be sure to thoroughly wash off the honey before nursing *), and minor cuts and mouth ulcers.

Honey as an Antibacterial

Scientific studies have proven honey is an effective antibacterial. It's known to fight E. coli, salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa in the laboratory. However, the antibacterial qualities of honey varies depending upon what kind of pollen the bees were using, and perhaps other unknown factors. Generally speaking, though, the darker the honey is, the better medicinal properties it has. Once again, Manuka honey, which has been well tested over the years, is a reliable source for antibacterial honey.
Honey for Stomachs

Taken internally, honey is scientifically proven to prevent the growth of Helicobacter pylori  - an organism that causes ulcers and much abdominal discomfort. It's also known to ease some stomach pains.

Honey for Allergies

If you or someone you love has seasonal allergies, you may have heard that eating raw local honey can relieve symptoms - and in fact, some studies back this up this claim. Some doctors are skeptical because bees don't collect pollens from ragweed and grass (the two most common seasonal allergies). Others argue that while bees don't intentionally pick up these pollens, they "accidentally" do - and it's already proven that small doses of an allergen builds up resistance to it in your body. Skeptics say honey gets broken down too much in the stomach to benefit allergy sufferers.

Honey for Coughs and Colds

Taking a tablespoon of honey when your throat is sore can feel soothing and help slow down coughs. There is even some evidence that honey helps reduce inflammation in membranes. In one study with "139 children, honey beat out dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant) and diphenhydramine (an antihistamine) in easing nighttime cough in children and improving their sleep."

Honey to Decrease Harmful Effects of Carcinogens

Honey is an antioxidant, and studies suggest ingesting honey decreases the cancer-causing effects of many carcinogens - and may even have potential as a cancer vaccine.

Honey as an Anti-Inflammatory

Studies also show that honey works as an anti-inflammatory, reducing pain from inflammation when taken internally.

Honey for Burns

Treating burns with honey works better than using OpSite dressings, according to the British Journal of Plastic Surgery.  This treatment also makes the burns less painful and leaves less scarring behind. MediHoney and Manuka honey are considered the best for burn treatment.
Honey as a Moisturizer

Honey works well for adding moisture to dry skin. Just a small amount massaged into a dry area provides instant relief, and over time, may eliminate dryness.

*A Word of Caution

Small children should not consume any type of honey. Infants don't have a well developed immune system, and if the honey has botulism spores in it (and it often does, even with pasteurized honey), adults are typically fine, but infants are likely to suffer serious health issues, and may even die. Jatinder Bhatia, MD, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition, says: "It's been shown very clearly that honey can give infants botulism," a paralytic disorder in which the infant must be given anti-toxins and often be placed on a respirator in an intensive care unit."

Lead photo courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilian and FreeImages.com.

Oct 24, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum: Andy Warhol

Two of Andy Warhol's most famous works.
Andy Warhol: b. August 6, 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA (find it on the map) d. February 22, 1987 in New York City, New York, USA (find it on the map)
Style: Modern, Pop

See some of Andy Warhol's most famous works here.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: What's the first thing you notice about Andy Warhol's work? How is his work different from other artists' we've studied? How is it similar? What do you think the artist was thinking and feeling while he worked? What do you think he wanted to say with his art? What sort of colors did he like to use? What kind of subjects did he prefer?

* Biography of Andy Warhol
* Another bio of Warhol
* Facts about Warhol
* Coloring page: Soup can * Coloring page: Einstein
* Coloring page: Warhol
* Check out a children's book illustrated by Warhol
* Activity: Create soup can labels
* Activity: Warhol-inspired resist art
* Activity: Warhol like portraits (see also)
* Activity: Warhol handprints
* Activity: Create a Warhol-like cat
* Video: Why is this art?
* App: Free Andy Warhol app for kids

Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.

Oct 22, 2014

Why Nitrates Aren't Evil

Go to just about any cancer organization's website and you'll find information claiming nitrates - which are found in cured bacon, lunch meat, hot dogs, and many other meats - cause cancer. Go to any grocery store and you'll find products bragging about being nitrate-free. But, truth be told, the healthier you eat, the more likely it is you have nitrates in your diet.

What Are Nitrates?

Potassium nitrate (often shortened to "nitrate") has been used to preserve food since the Middle Ages. In the old days they called it saltpeter (Latin for "rock salt"). In the early 20th century, scientists discovered what made saltpeter an effective preservative, and it no longer became necessary to use saltpeter - a pure dose of nitrate was now known to do the trick.

Nitrates work by causing a reaction in the meat that creates nitric oxide. This, in turn, binds to the iron atom in the myoglobin in the meat (the stuff that makes raw meat look bloody even though all the blood has been drained off). This keeps the iron from causing the fat in the meat to oxidize - and it happens to cause cured meat to look pinkish-red. In addition, nitrates give meat a sharper taste and keeps certain pathogens, like botulism, at bay.

Why Nitrates in Meat Aren't Scary

Nitrates, my friends, are everywhere. You can't avoid them. Your very saliva makes up "93% of the total daily ingestion of nitrate" in your diet (your saliva reacts with bacteria in your mouth, creating nitrates), and "foods account for a very small portion of the overall daily nitrite intake."

When it comes to food, you can't avoid nitrates even by eating vegetarian. Vegetables actually make up the largest part of our dietary intake of nitrates (about 87%). The highest offenders are the very same foods health experts tell us to eat more of: spinach, beets, broccoli, leeks, radishes, lettuce, celery, cabbage, fennel, and cucumbers. In fact, one serving of arugula has more nitrates than 467 hot dogs.*

"One serving of arugula has more nitrates than 467 hot dogs."
Are Nitrate-Free Foods Really Free From Nitrates?

Read the label. It usually says something like "No nitrates added." The food itself may naturally have nitrates - and the manufacturers of the food probably have substituted pure nitrate with celery powder or celery juice. Since celery is high in nitrates, food made this way certainly isn't nitrate free.

As an example, a recent look at hot dogs found that "natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite than conventional hot dogs contained. Natural bacon had from about a third as much nitrite as a conventional brand to more than twice as much."

So Why Are Nitrates Supposedly Bad?

In huge amounts, nitrates are toxic. But to get enough nitrates to poison you, you'd need to eat thousands of hotdogs in one day.

In 1971, one study concluded that nitrate-preserved meats could cause cancer - "only under special conditions amines are present, nitrite is available to react, near neutral pH is found, and product temperatures reach greater than 130°C, such as during the frying of bacon." In reaction to the study, new laws were passed, lowering the amount of nitrates allowed in foods. Today, ascordbic acid (vitamin C) is used to inhibit the chemical reaction that could lead to nitrosamines. For bacon, regulations are tighter, and inhibitors for preventing nitrosamines during frying must be present. This resulted in an 80% reduction in nitrate levels - and since the 1980s, every decent scientific study (at least 80 of them) has found no link between nitrates in food and cancer.

So Are Nitrates GOOD?

Maybe. They do keep dangerous bacteria out of our food - and scientists are now looking into the idea that nitrates are beneficial to humans' immune system - and maybe even our cardiovascular systems.

Does That Mean Preserved Meats are Healthy?

All this isn't to say we should gorge ourselves on cured meat. There are indications that preserved meats cooked at high temperatures may lead to higher levels of colon cancer, for example. And there is (very flimsy) evidence that nitrates may react with natural amines found in some foods, forming a carcinogen called nitrosamine in the stomach. But, despite what you may hear, nitrates are not to blame.

So while it's probably smart to limit your intake of cure meat, at least now you know not to waste your money on supposedly "nitrate free" foods that aren't really free from nitrates at all.

Oct 20, 2014

When You Just Want to Quit

It's no secret that being a stay at home mom is not for wimps. In fact, very probably, it's the toughest job ever. I'm the first one to admit that some days I just want to quit - run away from home and let someone else deal with the children and the housework. I'm sure you've been there, too. But a Proverbs 31 Woman knows she can't just give up. So what should she do when she just can't take it any more?

1. Pray. Stop everything and go find a quiet place to pray. I know that's easier said than done (!), but as the Nike ads used to say, "Just do it." If the kids are likely to hurt each other or themselves, separate them in their own rooms, or put some safely outside in the yard and some in their rooms. Or, stand in the midst of the chaos and pray aloud. You need Jesus. Right. Now. Pray for help, certainly. Pray for a new perspective, too. But also just dwell in God's presence and focus on the blessings he's given you.

2. Examine your self talk. Our thoughts about our situation and ourselves are often downright mean.Our self talk can also be accusing, which means it's directly from Satan, not God. But when we're stressed and exhausted and the kids are making us crazy, we need to stop and THINK about what we're thinking. Acknowledge parts of your self talk that aren't from God, drop them, and meditate on what God really says about your situation.

3. Focus on others. If we're feeling sorry for ourselves, we are too self focused. If we are mad at others, we are probably too self focused, too. The Bible tells us to have the heart of a servant. This isn't easy, but we can train ourselves - with God's help - to think of others before ourselves.

4. Focus on serving God. This is the ultimate goal of a Proverbs 31 Woman - and, thank goodness, God doesn't expect perfection.

5. Immerse yourself in God's word. This can be really tough if your children are little, but it's vital to being a good mommy, wife, and daughter of God.  Click here for tips on finding time to read the Bible; also be sure to read this post about a Proverb 31 Woman's priorities.

6. Ask for help. If you're like me, it's really, really hard to ask other people to help you. But it's just flat a myth than women can "do it all." Lean on your friends; that is part of why they are in your life. Ask your parents or in-laws for help. Ask the church for help. Ask for a few hours of alone time to sleep, pray, have peace. Ask for help cleaning your house. Ask for help because you are depressed. Help. Is. Out. There. Take advantage of it.

What do YOU do when you just want to quit?

Oct 17, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum: George Seurat

George Seurat's most famous painting is Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte.
George Seurat: b. December 2, 1859 in Paris, France (find it on the globe) d. March 29, 1891 (age 31) in Paris, France

Style: Pointillism, Neoimpressionist

See some of George Seurat's most famous paintings here.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask:  What's the first thing you notice about George Seurat's paintings? Do you see all the little dots he used? Look at them up close. Now look at the painting from far away. What do you notice about the dots? How is Seurat's work different from other artists' we've studied? How is it similar? What do you think the artist was thinking and feeling while he painted? How do his paintings make you feel? Be sure to take an especially good look at Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte; there are many details in this picture. Can you find the monkey? The solider? How many dogs and boats are there? Who looks relaxed? Who doesn't? What do you think the artist is trying to say about the many different people in the painting?

* Biography of George Seurat
* Longer bio of Seurat
* Coloring page: Sunday Afternoon detail
* Coloring page: Sunday Afternoon (see also; this, too)
* Coloring page: Bathers
* Video: Artregeous with Nate: George Seurat
* Great art is often mimicked; see this muppet version of Sunday Afternoon
* Activity: Easy pointillism for kids
* Activity: Q-tip pointillism
* Activity: Sticker pointillism
* Activity: George Seurat online jig saw puzzle

Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.

Oct 15, 2014

Improving Crock Pot Food: Making Better Recipes

As a busy mommy, you better bet I use my crock pot. But both my husband and I agree: Meals from the slow cooker are not our favorite. They tend to have a certain sameness about them - and often the flavor is a bit more on the bland side. Still, the crock pot really saves the day when I know I won't have time in the evenings to cook dinner, so I've been researching and experimenting with ways to make our slow cooker meals taste better.

* Saute! A lot of crock pot recipes call for throwing onions, garlic, and bell peppers into the crock pot raw. For much better flavor, saute them first: Melt some butter in a skillet. (If you prefer, use olive or coconut oil.) Once it's melted, add the onions and saute until transparent. (Or, for even more flavor, saute until they are caramelized and brown.) If the recipe calls for bell peppers, add them to the skillet and saute a minute or two. Finally, if the recipe calls for minced garlic, add it and saute until it's golden. Then and only then should you add these vegetables to the crock pot.

* Brown first. Most meats should be well browned before putting them in the crock pot. (An exception is poultry.) This adds flavor, and it gives the meat a better texture.

* Go bold with seasonings. With crock pots, your finished meal will come out much more tasty if you use at least double the seasonings. For example, if you have a stove top meal you've converted for the crock pot and it calls for 1 teaspoon of chili powder, use 2 teaspoons when you cook it in the slow cooker. And if you try a crock pot recipe that seems bland to you, go ahead and double the measurements for all the seasonings.

* Go last minute. Last minute additions to the crock pot can add a lot of flavor. For instance, if a recipe calls for cilantro, don't add it until a few minutes before you're ready to serve the meal.

* Garnish. Using fresh garnishes can also add punch to crock pot meals. For example, try using a few fresh herbs, just chopped, on top of each serving. Or use fresh salsa, just-chopped green onions, or just-grated cheese.

* Go for crispness. If you're using root veggies like carrots, cut them into large pieces. For other vegetables, try adding them about a half an hour before the crock pot meal is done cooking. These tricks keep the veggies from getting mushy and bland.

Do you have any tips for making crock pot meals better? Tell us about them in a comment!

Oct 13, 2014

How to Make Small Batch, Fermented Sauerkraut

Earlier this year, I read that fermented foods contain 100 times more probiotics (substances that stimulate the growth of microorganisms that have great health benefits once consumed) than probiotic supplements. I knew then I really needed to try my hand at making sauerkraut. The happy news is, making fermented sauerkraut is really, really easy. Even though fermented foods may seem strange and new to us today, the fact is that people have been making and eating fermented foods for thousands of years - and without a bunch of fancy gadgets!
I considered buying a fermenting crock for this project - but frankly, they are pricey. And no one in my family had ever eaten fermented sauerkraut before (the stuff you buy in the store is heated and canned, and therefore all the probiotics are dead). If it turned out no one would eat my sauerkraut, I didn't want to spend much money on it. So I decided to use what I already have on hand - canning (mason) jars. (Don't have canning jars? You can use any clean glass jar - for example, an empty mayo jar.) A bonus to using mason jars is that the kraut ferments more quickly - so you can have ready-to-eat food within just a few days.

The results were terrific. Everyone in my family - including the kids! - loved the sauerkraut. I'll definitely be making more.

What You Need to Make Small Batch, Fermented Sauerkraut

Cutting board
Large bowl
Wide mouth quart mason (canning) jar
8 oz. jelly jar
Marbles or clean pebbles
Cloth (I used cheesecloth, but a clean dishtowel or large fabric scrap works, too)
Rubber band or string

1 cabbage head, any type, approximately 3 lbs., hard outer leaves removed and set aside (If you buy your cabbage without the harder, outer leaves - which is common if you're shopping at a grocery store - that's fine.)
1 tablespoon canning or kosher salt

How to Make Small Batch Sauerkraut in a Mason Jar

1. Make sure everything you use - from the Mason jar to the cutting board - has just been cleaned in hot, soapy water. Or, you can run all your tools through the dishwasher.

2. Cut the cabbage head in half, then cut each half in half again. Cut away the core, then slice the quarters thinly. (You can use a mandolin or cabbage slicer for this job - but from experience I can tell you that mandolins with plastic spikes in the handle don't work well with cabbage; they simply don't hold the cabbage firmly enough to make using the mandolin safe.)

The cabbage after slicing.
3. Place the cabbage slices into a large bowl. Sprinkle the salt on top. Use your hands to massage and squeeze the cabbage. Within 5 - 10 minutes, the cabbage will look limp and there will be liquid in the bowl. The contents of the bowl should look something like coleslaw.
The massaged coleslaw will produce liquid in the bowl.
At this point, you may add seasonings, if you desire. I added 1 tablespoon of caraway seeds; next time I'll reduce that amount by about half. Other common sauerkraut seasonings include mustard seeds, bay leaves, and coriander. But remember, seasonings are totally optional.

4. Pack the cabbage into the mason jar. I found it was easiest to pick up about a tablespoon of sliced cabbage at a time, then drop it in the jar. Occasionally, press down firmly on the cabbage in the jar. You want to get as much as possible in there - without making the juices (or the cabbage) overflow the jar. My cabbage head was a bit larger (about 4 lbs.), so I had a little too much for one mason jar. If you have this problem, simply use an additional jar for the excess.
The sliced cabbage, packed in jars.
5. Pour the liquid in the bowl over the cabbage in the jar. Press down on the cabbage again.

6. If you have the harder, outer leaves of the cabbage, place part of one over the top of the sliced cabbage in the mason jar. This step is optional, but does help keep the sliced cabbage under the liquid in the jar - the key to getting fermented sauerkraut and not moldy cabbage.
Covering the sliced cabbage with a hard, outer cabbage leaf. (An optional step.)
7. Fill the jelly jar with marbles and place the jar inside the larger mason jar, on top of the cabbage. This jelly jar will weigh down the sliced cabbage, keeping it under the liquid in the mason jar.
Jelly jars filled with marbles or clean rocks keep the cabbage under the liquid.
8. Cover both jars with a cloth, secured in place with a rubber band or string. This keeps bugs, dust, and so forth, out of the sauerkraut.
Keep the jars covered.
9. For the next 24 hours, check on the sauerkraut occasionally and press down on the jelly jar. This helps release more liquid from the cabbage. I used a just-harvested cabbage, and had plenty of liquid in my jars. But if, after 24 hours, liquid does not cover the cabbage in the jar, make your own liquid: Dissolve 1 teaspoon of canning or kosher salt in 1 cup of warm water and add it to the mason jar. Again, keeping the cabbage under liquid makes sure it's fermenting, not rotting.

10. Ferment. When the sauerkraut is done is mostly a matter of personal taste. Because you're fermenting in a small jar, your kraut might be done in as little as three days. Mine took a little over a month before I was satisfied with it.
During fermenting, keep the sauerkraut out of direct sunlight and at a cool temperature - about 65 - 75 degrees F. Check the jar every day to ensure the cabbage is under the liquid. (If it's not, press down on the jelly jar until the liquid rises, or add more liquid, as in step 9.) It is normal - in fact, a sign that the cabbage is fermenting - to see bubbles in the jar and white scum on top of the cabbage. You should not see mold, however. (If you do, scoop it out right away and discard the cabbage that touched it. The rest of the kraut is fine.)

11. Refrigerate. When the sauerkraut tastes good to you, remove the jelly jar, put a lid on the mason jar, and refrigerate it. The sauerkraut will stay good in the refrigerator for at least a couple of months.

You can also make larger batches of sauerkraut - with more mason jars, or with a fermenting crock. Just be sure to keep the proportion of cabbage and salt the same.

What about Canning Sauerkraut? Kraut can be canned - but canning it kills all those good-for-you bugs. And since sauerkraut lasts a long time in the fridge (and since cabbage keeps for many months in the fridge or a cool location), I prefer not to can it.