The Leap

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It’s amazing how the smallest of steps can change the very course of our lives. Five years ago when we first started this blog, we started our quest to eat healthier foods by making two decisions. First, we wanted to eliminate high fructose corn syrup from our diet. Second, we wanted to reduce the amount of processed foods we ate and try to eat more “real” food. We had no idea how those two decisions would snowball into a complete lifestyle change for our family.

As I type this we are now living in a completely new state. Three months ago, thanks to a promotion for Ryan, we relocated to the Midwest and bought a home that has a small bit of land. We are getting in chickens in less than three weeks and bees in less than six. If you had told us what our life would be like now when we first started our blog, we probably would have laughed.

Our new zip code, thanks to a promotion for Ryan, is in Saint Charles, IL, about forty-five minutes outside of Chicago. GMO corn and soybean fields surround this area and we turned some heads when we started asking people where the farmer’s markets are and where the best place was to buy organic.

Way back at the beginning, the changes we made started as switching to healthier products and experimenting with making things from scratch. Slowly but surely it’s grown to trying to be more self-sufficient and trying to do things ourselves instead of purchasing them. When we got the news about the promotion and needing to move, we had one week to travel to IL, find a house and put an offer on it. The number one desire in our hearts: land. Land to grow. Land to roam. Land to play. Land to work. Land to be. Just be. Space to sit and dream and be.

We were incredibly blessed to find nearly three acres of land that is bordered on three sides by giant, evergreen and pine trees, standing guard around our home and our lovely flat, usable land. Twenty minutes away from Ryan’s work, ten minutes away from a grocery store and modern conveniences. Perfect. Offer in. Closed. Packed. Moved. We are here. We. Are. Here.

In this home that is older than us, functional, freshly painted and updated on the inside, dated on the outside, has the gentlest of sunrises, stuns us with beauty in snow and ends each and every day with the most breathtaking of sunsets, we find ourselves on a whole new adventure. We are thankful and blessed beyond measure.

For four years or so we have been itching for chickens. Called our town back in NY. No chickens allowed. Sigh. Bought our new house. It has a chicken plot. Doesn’t it just tickle your senses how God just blesses his children with such knowing gifts. How he knows the desires of our heart and when we least expect it, he just wows us. Incredible.

Two dollars and eighty-nine cents- that is the cost of a baby chick. Seriously. We bought ten. We go to pick them up in a few weeks and the air around here is brimming with excitement. Supposedly chickens can live ten to twelve years. We have our doubts. But, if they do, what value for a mere two dollars and eighty-nine cents! Yes, we know we have to buy their feed (but we’ve been told they do quite well on garden and kitchen scraps during the summer too) and such, but two dollars and eight-nine cents! For a live animal that gives you food! Who knew?

Eight dollars and twenty-nine cents. Turkeys. When he found out we could buy a live baby turkey, Ryan was all for it. His enthusiasm waned a bit when he was reminded of three little ladies who would be heartbroken when it came time to feast on Mr. Turkey who we would have raised from a hatchling. Let’s start with chickens, I suggested. Yes, he agreed. Let’s start with chickens.

We don’t really have any idea what we are doing. It’s not like we were raised on a farm or with innate chicken rearing skills. But, we like chickens. We LOVE eggs. We don’t mind work. We like to learn. Perfect.

The other lovely experiment we’ve undertaken is bee keeping. There were bees here when we put an offer in on this property and Ryan thinks it will be stellar to have bees to help our little grove of fruit trees. I think it will be grand to have large quantities of honey around. Win. Win. We have no idea what we are doing with beekeeping either. Ryan is reading “Beekeeping for Dummies” so I sure hope that helps. The previous owners of this property have been wonderful and are giving us tips along the way and letting us use some of their beekeeping equipment.

One thing is for sure; we are most definitely on a whole new path than we ever thought we would be. Life is like that sometimes. It surprises you with the most fascinating adventures you had never imagined or dared dream for yourself, but one baby step at a time, you all the sudden find yourself there. Right there. And somehow you have found the courage to leap into whatever it is that God has led you to. And so, we did.

 

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Jam-bo-ree!

We turned these delicious peaches into 15 pints of jam!

This summer we turned these delicious peaches into 15 pints of jam!

We use a lot of jam. We use it on toast. We use it oatmeal. We use it to make pb&j sandwiches. Jam is a great way to flavor foods without getting all the sugar found in processed, industrialized foods.

Our decision a few years ago to eliminate high fructose corn syrup from our diet soon evolved into eliminating as much sugar (e.g. highly processed sugar) from our diet as well. Simply put- sugar is just not good for you. Now we keep three sweetening agents in our home: maple syrup, honey and Rapadura. Rapadura is a dried cane sugar. Think of it as unprocessed white sugar. Since it is not as processed, it retains many of the minerals naturally found in sugar cane. So, you are getting a sweetener plus a few other things, like potassium and iron, that are actually good for you. For a more detailed post on wholesome sweeteners, see here.

Most store-bought jams contain HFCS, large amounts of sugar and/or genetically modified fruits (among a host of other potential ingredients). Store-bought jams that have healthier ingredients are often much more expensive. So, in order to more easily afford a regular supply of jam with wholesome ingredients, we make our own at home using locally sourced, non-GMO fruits. To avoid the large amount of refined white sugar called for in most boxed jam recipes, like Sure-Jell, we use Pomona’s Pectin, which is a low sugar alternative. Pomona’s Pectin allow us to use roughly one fourth the amount of sweetener called for in most other brands. It also allows us to use a variety of sugar alternatives like honey or Rapadura. This makes the jam less sweet and allows the natural flavor of the fruit to shine! Most fruits are naturally quite sweet (if properly ripened before picking) and do not require a lot of sugar to make a delicious, flavorful jam.

Each summer and fall, we take family adventures to go pick (preferable) or purchase (let’s be realistic about the amount of fruit we need to make a year’s worth of jam for our family) fruit from local farms. This year you will find strawberry, blueberry, strawberry-rhubarb, blueberry-strawberry and peach jam in our pantry. We are hoping to add raspberry jam to our stock pile as well. Right now, we have over twenty-five pints of jam to get us through till next picking season. Since we usually go through at least one pint of jam every other week, I am hoping to have at a least thirty pints of jam by the end of this year’s picking season.

If you have not made jam before, it is a very simple process. You will need a sweetener, fruit, and whatever type of boxed pectin (Sure-Jell, Pomona’s, etc.), you prefer. Certain fruits require lemon juice as well. All you do is follow the directions included in the package, which usually includes mashing the fruit, adding sweetener and pectin, heating up the fruit and sweetener/pectin mixture, filling up jars and then giving them a boiling water bath for about ten minutes. No fancy canner is required, just a large stock pot for the water bath. Once all the fruit is picked, it usually takes about an hour to whip up a batch of jam (6 pints or so).

Here are some ideas for ways to use jam:

  • Add to oatmeal
  • Use to make pb&j
  • Add a bit of water or maple syrup and warm for a fruit syrup for pancakes, waffles or french toast
  • Add jam to plain yogurt to flavor it (have you ever seen how much sugar is in store-bought flavored yogurt?!!!)
  • Add to quick bread recipes (muffins, etc.)
  • Use on toast or scones
  • Christmas or birthday presents

Jam making is a wonderful family activity with scrumptious results. Toddlers, preschoolers and kids of just about any age love to help pick (and eat) the fruit. We often bring along a picnic lunch and make a morning of picking fruit. It is a great way to show your children where their food comes from. Once it is time to start making the jam, kids really enjoy mashing up the fruit! Of course, once the jam is done, everyone savors the results! Happy jamming!

Seed Surprises and Scarecrow Stories!

This is our third year now being part of a CSA (community supported agriculture). We have slowly, but surely developed a seasonal eating mindset and can even now recall, for the most part, what is in season at what times here in upstate New York. We’ve gotten used to eating oddly shaped fruits and vegetables that are much smaller than their grocery store equivalents. We are always amazed to see the differences between our farmer’s food and our grocery store’s food.

This summer for the first time we got a watermelon as a part of our CSA share. We have had other melons from our CSA before and they have all been wonderful. We excitedly brought the watermelon home and cut it up that very day.

I eagerly cut the melon open and was stunned to discover it had seeds inside! I tried to remember when the last time I had a watermelon with seeds in it and regret to admit, it was probably when I was a child. That’s twenty years ago! It has been twenty years (give or take a few years) since I have had a watermelon with seeds! How crazy!

It's got seeds! What?!

It’s got seeds! What?!

The whole time I was cutting our CSA watermelon up, I was having a mental discussion with myself. It went something like this…

“It’s not a big deal that it has seeds. It will still be delicious. Watermelons are supposed to have seeds. It’s not a big deal, really. You just need to get over it.”

So, I decided to not let the seeds bother me and just eat it with seeds. I cut the melon into slices and took a huge bite only to nearly choke on it. It was awful! I just couldn’t wrap my brain around eating it and either swallowing or spitting out the seeds. (Pathetic, I know!). So, I did the only thing I could think of to remedy the situation. We enjoyed our watermelon in chunks instead of slices and I picked out every little seed from every singe chunk. The melon part was incredibly delicious, but I doubt I am going to get another watermelon from our CSA. Next time, I will just stick with a honeydew or cantaloupe, at least those seeds are easy enough to scoop out!

Isn’t it crazy how spoiled most of us have become with all the food modifications that are now considered normal? After three years of eating fruits and vegetables from a local farmer, one would think our family would be used to eating food in its naturally grown (not genetically modified/no pesticides, etc.) state. I am ashamed to admit, I was repulsed by the seeds in the watermelon. Over the past twenty years, I have grown so accustomed to what, in my mind, was “normal” watermelon. So when I saw all those seeds, instead of focusing on the delicious melon, I was aghast and somewhat put-out that I either had to spit out the seeds or swallow them. Isn’t it interesting the way our mind and food tastes are shaped by the food we may have always thought of as “normal”?

A friend of mine recently sent me the following video. The video itself is an advertisement for a new Chipotle app/game. The video shows an interesting perspective of our commercialized food system and, at the very least, is quite thought-provoking. Hats off to the company for continuing to raise awareness of the unhealthy, commercialized food practices found in America today. If you have never heard of Chipotle, it is a mexican grille that unabashedly announces its dedication to “Food with Integrity”. It is a fascinating company to look into. You can find lots more information about them at their website. So, without further ado, here’s the video:

Scoot Over Farmer’s Market!

Our two-year old loves to smell all the flowers at the Saratoga Farmer's Market!

Our two-year old loves to smell all the flowers at the Saratoga Farmer’s Market!

Every Saturday morning our family goes to the farmer’s market. We roll out of bed, munch on a light breakfast, gather our reusable bags and empty glass bottles, and head to the market, our eyes still gritty with sleep. It’s our family tradition. Our girls eagerly anticipate going to the market each week. They delight in choosing the fruits and vegetables for the week and later timidly ask for their special weekly treat from Miss Linda, one of our favorite vendors. Their excitement over seeing their favorite vegetables appear throughout the different seasons, like tomatoes or strawberries, explodes from their little bodies as they excitedly beg to eat “just one” cherry tomato, sweet pea or strawberry before we have even left our favorite farmer’s stand. In the summer, we typically get our items and settle down in a warm sunny spot to enjoy our weekly treats and maybe snitch a few veggies from what is supposed to be our weekly (not Saturday morning) supply of CSA veggies. We love our Saturday morning tradition. It works for our family. But, we know it’s not something that works for everyone.

We have shared at length about being a part of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Essentially, we pay for our year’s supply of veggies (occasionally we get a few fruits too) in advance. This helps us because we do not have to budget for veggies each week and we get a discounted rate by buying everything in advance. It also helps our farm because they get a large sum of money from numerous CSA members, which they can then use to buy larger items for the farm and better budget/plan out their year. Most of the CSA’s around this area are designed to get picked up at a farmer’s market. There are several different markets in the Albany region. At the Saratoga Farmer’s Market, where we go, there are three or four farmers that offer a CSA option. As wonderful as it is to get veggies at a cheaper rate, it can be difficult for some to get to the market to get those veggies, especially when the market is only once or twice a week.

Thankfully, there are other options available to people who want to get fresh fruits and veggies that are non-GMO and locally grown. Often, especially in the summer time, farms have farm stands where they sell their crops. Additionally, some of the farms that offer CSA’s will let you pick up shares at their farm or at an alternate location. Often, just a quick email or phone call is all it takes to set it up.

Other services are cropping up around the country that deliver fresh crops directly from the farmer to you or to a set location that is not a farmer’s market. One such service is available here in the Albany region. It’s called, “Field Goods.” (Click here to access their website) Field Goods takes fresh crops from a variety of small local farms and distribute it as shares (small, standard and family-sized)  throughout our community. In addition to the usual fruit/veggie CSA, they also offer a bread and herb/allium CSA. They deliver year-round to numerous locations throughout the Albany region, including many apartment/housing complexes and work places. For a list of all their delivery locations, click here. This is a great option for those who may not live near a farmer’s market or are unable to attend their market when it is open. A friend of ours is a member of Field Goods and has her fruits/veggie CSA delivered right to her workplace!

Finally, Local Harvest is a wonderful resource for putting people in touch with their local farmers. It has a terrific search option that allows you to search for CSAs, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, farms, and even meat markets that grow/sell sustainably grown food in your area. There are even some farms that allow you to purchase items online at Local Harvest and have them delivered right to your home!

So, if, for whatever reason, farmer’s markets are not an option for you and/or you are unsure of where to get wholesome, local foods, take heart! There are lots of other options out there and, if your area farmers are anything like the ones I know, they’d be more than willing to work with you on the best way to get their delicious food to your door.

And we’ve got life!!!

So, after our last garden failure a few years ago, today I am pleased to report…WE HAVE LIFE in this year’s garden!!! Hurray! Last time around, despite planting a wide variety of seeds, we only grew one measly tomato (that then fell on the ground and proceeded to rot). This time around we only decided to grow four things: Cantaloupe, squash, tomatoes, and radishes. Instead of planting directly into our soil (which we have now figured out is not the greatest quality), we planted in a raised bed. We have seen a huge difference this time around!

Here’s the first sprouts of this year’s garden popping up!

The first sprouts have sprung!

The first sprouts have sprung!

Now a month or so later, we are so very tickled to announce….our squash have their very first flower, which means, the squash are soon to follow! Check it out!

Here's the very first squash blossom!

Here’s the very first squash blossom!

It’s been wonderful to watch our garden grow (and continue to grow) this time around. We can’t wait to taste the food from our family’s very first harvest! It’s looking like we will have a good amount of squash, which means I’ll have to come up with some tasty squash recipes. If you have any favorite squash recipes, please share! We’d love to add them to our recipe collection!

Coconut Curried Shrimp Salad

In the summertime we do simple meals. Our upstate NY home does not have central air conditioning and the heat often seems to drain the life out of us. Cooking in our kitchen during blistering summer heat is definitely not an enjoyable experience.

Summers are also busy. Between vacations, time at the pool, exploring the outdoors, gardening, and outdoor home improvements (because those are definitely tough to do in the wintertime in NY), it’s a hectic season. Maybe God knew we’d all be so busy outdoors in the summertime and that is why most of fruit and vegetables are ready then. We don’t have to cook, we just go pick our food right off the plant and eat it. It doesn’t get much easier!

So, in the summer, we opt for simple whole foods. For lunch today, I munched on some pistachios, cherries, yogurt, kale chips and a banana. Simple. Easy. Delicious. For summertime dinners, our family adores salads. Even our two year old eats her salad with gusto. So, today we are sharing a recipe for coconut-curried shrimp salad. It is one of our favorites. We hope you enjoy it too!

Coconut Curried Shrimp Salad

Mix together: 1/2 teaspoon of curry, 1/2 teaspoon of paprika, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon garam masala, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, a pinch of black pepper, and 1/4 cup of unsweetened shredded coconut. Once mixed, toss the spice mixture with 1 lb of large shrimp (peeled). Coat thoroughly.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat until melted. Add shrimp (in a single layer). Cook shrimp for four minutes on one side and flip. Then, cook for another three minutes on the other side. Remove to a plate and set aside.

Prepare a salad with toppings of your choice and add the shrimp on top. Enjoy!

Affording Wholesome Foods

This year's garden!

We are giving gardening another try this year…

As our children grow, it is becoming more and more expensive to buy organic and/or wholesome foods for our family. We just had to raise our food/grocery budget again and we are already trying to plan how we are going to afford eating wholesome foods next year. We are a part of two different CSA’s. One is a meat CSA and the other is a vegetable CSA. We save a lot of money by paying for our meats and veggies a year ahead of time. We pay for our share of meat and veggies once per year and then get the items directly from our farmer on a weekly or monthly basis, depending on the type of share.

Even with the money we save by being a part of a CSA, it is still difficult to afford wholesome foods. We buy a lot of items in bulk online. This requires a fair amount of planning. We did not start out buying everything in bulk, but gradually over the past few years, we buy just about everything in bulk, aside from a few perishable items. It does take some time to research the best prices, but the savings are well worth it.

We recently added a resources page where we list some of our favorite online sites for purchasing items online, as well as for information. Be sure to check it out here when you can. We would also love to hear some of your favorite places for deals.

In the summer, we try to stock up and preserve seasonal items since it is when these items are cheapest. Typically, we take our girls berry picking and come home with enough berries to make jam to last us till next season. In addition to doing some canning, we also freeze many items. We puree and chop tomatoes for use throughout the winter. We roast and puree pumpkins in two-cup increments to use in smoothies and for pumpkin bread. We make a few jars of lacto-fermented vegetables, which are an excellent source of probiotics, enzymes, and other nutrients.

This year we are trying to grow our own garden…again. If you remember, we tried to have a garden three years ago. It failed miserably. Now, three years later, we have finally worked up enough courage to try it again. This time around, we are using raised beds and have planted cauliflower, radishes, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and cantaloupe. We have also arranged for someone to come water our garden while we are gone on vacation this year. Three years ago our only harvest was a single tomato. We are hoping to at least surpass that meager crop. If we can figure out gardening, it would definitely help our food budget, as we are finding we eat more vegetables than our CSA provides.

Even though we just had to raise our food budget, it is interesting to note we still fall below what the national average is for a thrifty family. According to the USDA (2013), the average “thrifty” monthly cost for a family of four (two adults and two children ages 2-3 and 4-5) is $551.60. We now spend roughly $520 a month and that includes both our CSA shares (veggies and meat) and buying wholesome foods (organic fruits and miscellaneous other organic foods, whole grain flour, Rapadura, grass-fed butter, little to no processed foods, etc.). If you are curious where your family falls in the USDA rankings of thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal family food budgets, you can find their chart here. They also have food budget charts available here for past years as well.

I was surprised where our budget fell on the USDA chart. I often think we spend an exorbitant amount of money on food. I am always looking for ways to cut our costs while still buying wholesome foods. There are things we could have in our home or things we could do as a family that we do not. Our family simply values what we eat over other things. Every family has priorities and when we look at where money is being spent, it is a clear indicator of what is valued in a home.

It can certainly be difficult to afford wholesome foods. Even if one can afford to plan ahead, buy in bulk, etc., often the significant savings comes from doing things from scratch. Not everyone has that kind of time or desire. For families in which the adults work full-time, it is tough to find time to cook or preserve wholesome foods. It is hard to maintain a garden, make every meal from scratch or go to a farmer’s market, which may only be open once a week to buy in season fruits and vegetables. More and more grocery stores are offering more wholesome processed food alternatives, but those options are typically more expensive than making meals from scratch. Every family is unique and needs to work together to find a balance of food choices that fits within their budget and desires for wholesome eating.

What about you? How do you make buying wholesome foods more affordable? Do you try to make everything from scratch? How do you fit wholesome foods into your lifestyle? Is it do-able?

*This post is shared at Cultured Palate.