Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pizza Fusion

Is there a Pizza Fusion near you?

Pizza is one of the most desired foods by Americans.  I can't tell you how many times I have thought about where the ingredients on my pizza come from when I consume a slice from XYZ company.

Like a lot of restaurants, most pizza places are most concerned about the bottom line.  They offer a lot of food at the cheapest price and highest margin.  And factory farms fit neatly into this equation.

I have been looking at a few business models/opportunities that match my interests and came across Pizza Fusion last week.  The nearest one is quite a distance away, but I like their business model and based on the online reviews, many like the food.

Here is what they serve:

  • Various traditional and unique flavor pizzas with organic ingredients
  • Vegan, Vegetarian, and Gluten-Free pizza options
  • They serve a nice selection of organic wine and beer
  • A variety of salads and a few sandwiches
  • A selection of appetizers
  • Natural colas and teas
  • A couple of desserts

Other than quality, local (as much as possible) and organic ingredients, here is why I like their concept and mission:

  • The person who makes the pizza signs his/her name on top of the box (a matter of pride)
  • The buyer can return the box for recycling and a $.25 credit
  • The empty glass drink bottles are used to create the counter tops for new stores
  • The buildings they lease/buy are LEED certified (think recycled jeans as insulation)
  • The pizzas are delivered by hybrid vehicles
  • The pizza oven can make up to 18 pizzas with one heat source
  • The pizza oven's heat is used to heat the water
  • All of the electricity is derived from wind power sources
  • And my favorite -- they have kids organic classes every third Saturday morning of the month

If you've eaten at a Pizza Fusion, let us know what you liked.  If you like the concept, let us know why?  And if you think it would be welcomed in West Michigan, I want to hear from you too!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Microplane Graters

While not one of the most revered kitchen tools, a microplane grater or two will make your home cooking easier.

I had purchased my share of box graters and the sort at kitchen stores over the years.  When I read about the microplane grater in cookbooks, I assumed it was a style of grater and that it couldn't work any better than what I was using.

I researched this kitchen tool while looking for a zester, discovered how inexpensive they were, and decided to give one a try.  I also found that microplane is a brand not a style of grater.

I first purchased the classic zester.  I have since added the spice grater, but don't use it much.  I wish I had chosen a larger microplane grater over the small spice grater as the zester is sufficient for most spices too.

The Microplane company is based in the USA and the graters are produced here -- I assume in Arkansas, where they are based.

Grating with a microplane requires less effort as the blades cut so nicely.  And these are so much smaller than most graters that they save significant amounts of space in your drawers.

Give them a try.  Grate some fresh Parmesan, nutmeg, or zest an orange or lime.  I'm certain you will never regret making this small addition to your kitchen.  It's a workhorse in our kitchen.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chemical in Candy Set Off Airport Alarm

Does anyone find this news heading alarming?  A chemical.  A chemical in candy!?

In the candy you eat or perhaps hand your children are chemicals strong enough to set off an airport security alarm?  Are you alarmed?

This is a paragraph from the article:

"It was later determined that the candy, which was harmless, contained a chemical compound that triggered the alarm. "

I guess the candy was harmless in that it presented no terrorist threat.  But why isn't a chemical compound in candy considered harmful to one's body?

The article never states what the chemical was exactly, but I have two posts on the issue of candy pollutants and alternatives here and here.

Leftover Holiday Ham Split Pea Soup

If your family is like mine, every holiday get-together involves some ham.  And there are always leftovers sent home with various recipients.

And, if your like me, that ham sits in your refrigerator for a day or two waiting for a decision.  You can have ham-on-bun for days on end (I've recently done that and it wasn't pleasant), throw it in the freezer and parcel it out, have it for dinner with a different side for several days or make soup!

I've been reading a slow cooker (or crock-pot) recipe book titled, "Make it Fast, Cook it Slow", by Stephanie O'Dea and used her recipe (pg. 208) for split pea crock-pot soup as a guide.  The only change I made was to use leftover ham slices rather than the bacon or ham hock she suggests.

These are the ingredients I added to the crock-pot:

I started with a pound of organic split peas from our local health foods store for about $2.75 and soaked them with water overnight in the refrigerator -- though soaking isn't necessary if you plan to have them in the crock-pot for 8 hours.  For soaking, I placed mine in a large bowl and covered with water about 2 inches deep.

Next I diced up 1/2 a yellow onion, 1 potato (peeled), and 1 cup of carrot.

 I didn't have vegetable broth on hand, so I used 4 cups of organic chicken stock from Costco.

 I cut the leftover ham slices into chunked pieces reserving some ham to add in later.

Next, I threw it all in a 6-quart crock-pot along with an additional cup of water a tsp. of salt and a bit of fresh ground black pepper and cooked it on low for 6 hours (you may need two more hours if you didn't pre-soak your peas).

After six hours of low and slow cooking, I ladled the ingredients into the Vitamix Blender and blended on high for about 20-seconds before returning the smooth and creamy soup to the crock-pot.

I then added some additional ham chucks to the soup for texture and put the crock-pot on warm until we were ready to serve it!

A delicious and satisfying post-holiday soup for those cold winter days!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gluten Free Gingerbread House

The fun of building a ginger bread house is a tradition for our family, but our son (see about) always vomited on them after taking a few bites and my wife has a gluten sensitivity.

Given that these boxed creations were designed to sit on store shelves for 5 months, it's no wonder the preservatives and chemicals set him off.

So last year I set out to find a solution that would allow us to enjoy making a gingerbread house and that could be gluten free and contain only natural ingredients.

I discovered a gingerbread house bundt pan that would allow us to use a gluten free cake mix and better yet, use our own ingredients.  I was able to get ours at Michaels on clearance for $12 in the days following Christmas.  Given that this will see many many years of use the actual cost of creating a gingerbread house will be much less than buying a kit every year.

The kids helped in a whole different way this year creating their house.

We first, carefully greased the inside of the pan and in all the crevices using a sandwich bag over our hand.  After the greasing, scatter flour throughout the inside of the pan and shake out any access.  This will allow the finished cake to fall right out when it is done.

Then, let the kids fill in the ingredients and mix.

Pour the batter (9 cups or a traditional cake mix worth of ingredients) in to the bundt pan, give a quick shake side-to-side and it's ready to go in the oven.

We found that it took a few moments longer than a traditional cake to fully bake.  We inserted a skewer stick  into the center and pulled it out.  If no cake residue remains, it's done!

Wait a few minutes and then turn over on a cooling rack and the cake should fall right out.  And it looks beautiful!

 After the cake has cooled, you may decide to cut any bumps off the bottom for a flat presentation.  We just used a nice bread knife for this task.

Next, give the kids some frosting (we made our a bit runny for icicle/snow effect) and let them place an assortment of candies on and around the house.  We used M&M's, but get as creative as you want.

We do this more for fun than presentation, but I have seen some pictured from others that are impressively decorated.  I have also seen just a simple dusting of powdered sugar over the house.  Do as much or as little as you want.

Finally, enjoy your creation!

Picture on the Nordic Ware Bundt Pan.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Angie's Kettle Corn

Yep!  The whole 6 oz. bag is gone!
Our family went to the mall yesterday to look at an impressive train display that has become an annual tradition.

After seeing the trains, we went to the Mall grocery store for a panini lunch.  I wanted a side to go with the panini's that the kids would enjoy and we would too.  This can be a difficult task given the need for gluten free for my wife and all natural for my son.  We don't buy the pre-made sides at the grocery store because we can never tell what the ingredients are and we can't risk my son getting sick.  I started looking around at bags of typical sides (potato chips, corn chips, etc.) and was pleased with what I found.

I picked up a bag of Angie's Caramel Kettle Corn (on sale for $2) fully expecting to read an ingredient list a mile long.  To my pleasant surprise there were only a few items and all things I could easily accept.

The ingredients:
So how did it taste?   Amazingly good.  The caramel corn has a light coating so we didn't end up picking the caramel our of our teeth all day. The sweet salty taste was perfect and satisfied the kids and parents too.  So good that on a return trip to another grocery store later that day I purchased another bag.

Have you heard of Angie's Kettle Corn?  If yes, you understand.  If not, try it, you won't be disappointed. And it's good for your family too!

Oh!  And Dan and Angie are real people too!  Gotta love honest marketing (see here)!  They have a great success story.

Ode to the Vitamix -- and free shipping offer

I was going to title this "Why we love the Vitamix", but that will become obvious in my writing and I knew my wife would prefer the "ode!"

Anyway, this is it.  The King of gadgets in our kitchen and number one appliance we couldn't/wouldn't do without.

We've had our share of blenders during our marriage but they either didn't produce the results we wanted or simply broke with use.

We always wanted a Vitamix, but never wanted to spend the extra money.  In the end, we spent as much or more experimenting with other brands, so this time we did it right and bought the Vitamix 5200.

We had no idea was we were missing!  Here are a few features we absolutely love:

  • Total speed control
  • It can demolish anything and make is creamy (another blogger described it as powerful enough to blend a cowboy boot.  I haven't tried, but don't doubt it.)
  • It self cleans (one small drop of soap and a quick swirl on high)
  • It breaks down whole foods into such fine particles you don't see any chunks
  • It can truly make "snow" out of ice
  • Is completely reliable (it comes with a complete 7-year full warranty!)

We use ours at least once daily and often several times each day.  We use it to make whole food smoothies (no need for the preservative laden pre-mixed stuff with this baby), sauces, dressings, soups, peanut butter (to die for), ice cream, powdered sugar, mixed drinks, pancake/waffle/crepe batter,  hummus, salsa, and jam just to name a few.

I am proud that Vitamix agreed to be affiliated with us a couple days ago and am even more excited that as a reader of this blog, we have arranged for free shipping on your purchase, just click this link or call JP Minard, account manager at Vitamix, at 440-782-2303 or 800-848-2649 (ext. 2303) and mention discount code 06-006899.

Bring your family health and whole foods this New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Making Homemade Bagels using Non-Diastatic Malt Powder

I really enjoy bagels and making them at home is quite easy -- and delicious.

I began with a couple of key *ingredients:  1.)  King Arthur Flours "Sir Lancelot" flour with a high gluten content that makes the bagel have a nice chew and 2.) non-diastatic malt powder to give the crusts a nice shine.

*If you don't have these exact ingredients, don't worry.  Use the best flour you have and replace the non-diastatic malt powder with brown sugar and you will still have a very nice result.

 We have a busy house, so I let the bread machine (and its dough setting) usually do the work.

I used the dough recipe on the back of the Sir Lancelot bag (8 Bagel Yield):

  • 1 Tbs Instant Yeast
  • 4 Cups Sir Lancelot Flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbs non-diastatic malt powder (or brown sugar)
  • 1 1/2 Cups lukewarm water (a bit more during the winter or in dry climates)

Mix the ingredients making a stiff dough and let rise in a covered bowl for 1 - 1 1/2 hours until puffy -- though not doubled.  I let the bread machine handle all of this step.

 Next, divide the dough into 8 round balls, cover with loose plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.  I lightly spray the inside of the plastic wrap with a canola spray so that it doesn't stick to the dough when I later peel it away.

While the balls are resting, preheat your oven to 425 degrees F.   Get a large pot of water (about 2 quarts), along with a 1 TBS of sugar and 2 TBS of non-diastatic malt powder (or brown sugar), boiling.  The bath gives the bagel its shiny crust and chewy texture.  Most commercial bagels are produced with steam, but lack the texture and taste of the traditional method.

After 30 minutes of rest, and with the oven and water bath ready, take each ball of dough and poke a hole in the center and set in a greased baking pan or parchment lined baking pan for 10 minutes of rest.

After 10 minutes, gently place each one into the bath for two minutes on each side.  Place as many in the bath as you can with crowding them.  After two minutes of bathing on both sides remove and replace on the baking sheet until they are all finished.

I made an egg wash (1 egg and 1 TBS of water blended) and brushed the egg wash over each bagel followed by a sprinkling of sesame seeds.  Feel free to add no toppings or any toppings of your choice. The egg wash helps keep them in place.

 My bagels were slightly over-done before 20 minutes, so watch them carefully and pull them out of the oven when they get a nice sandy-brown on top.

These were delicious -- and gone in two days.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Piloncillo or Panela = Unrefined Whole Cane Sugar

I was walking through our local grocery store (Meijer) the other day and saw a bulk bin of Piloncillo.

Never one to refrain from learning a new food (new to me), I stopped to explore.  Further grocer information about these cone shaped hard crystallized whatevers turned out to be small chunks of unrefined whole cane sugar for $1.99 per pound.

Not one to trust anything on first try, I only purchased three "cones" for about $.60.

I found that there are many names for this product including panela, rapadura, chancaca, papelon, panocha, atado dulce, gur, jaggery, nam oy or empanizao.

Why the cone shape?  There are actually many forms in which this can arrive and it depends largely on the mold used by the maker.  Watch how this natural product is traditionally made here:

The cones are very hard.  I read that in many cultures they hit these pieces of sugar with river rock to break them into smaller usable pieces.

Not wanting to risk breaking anything in our home I skipped the rock smashing and went for a fine grater we have and achieved a decent amount of sugar (think tea or coffee addition here -- not baking or jams).  If you try this you will notice a very strong -- but pleasing -- aroma of molasses as you grate the larger piece of sugar.

For larger quantities I decided to use our Vitamix dry blend container and it quickly pulverized the cone within a few seconds into a fine readily usable sugar.  I don't know that I would attempt this with an everyday blender.

Why Panela?  It isn't processed.  The vitamins, minerals and molasses are not removed and it contains natural proteins, calcium, iron and ascorbic acid.  Typical brown sugar has been processed and then had some molasses added back in to regain its brown color.

You probably won't want to use this for everything, but it is a great replacement for traditional brown sugar.  Look for it at your grocer, world market, or here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Annie's Organic vs. Natural Macaroni and Cheese

I love what Annie's Homegrown provides for our family, trust what they produce, and appreciate that they champion healthier foods and environmental protection.

When I went to buy more Annie's Macaroni & Cheese I noticed two things:  A changed exterior appearance and that it had the Organic Valley logo on it.  So, I thought, what does this mean?

After some quick research, I discovered that there hasn't been a change but that Annie's produces two different versions:  The natural version I had been purchasing at our local grocery store (1 box for $1.79) and Amazon, and the organic version I picked up at Costco (15 boxes for $14.79).

So what's the difference?  The identical photo on the outside of the box showed the organic version having a darker orange color that I thought was just an issue with the printer, but after dumping both cheese packets side-by-side in the bowl (pictured), it really is a darker cheese powder.

Next I looked at the weight and both boxes offer 6 ounces of food.  Then I looked at the ingredient list where I did notice some minor differences (other than being organic) that I have highlighted:


Nutritionally, there are a few small adjustments in protein and sodium and a couple of other things, but nothing substantial enough to warrant attention.

The only real difference between the organic and natural products is that the all organic version offers organic cheese and the natural one does not.

I did like the overall appearance of the organic version best, but we've used the natural version for a couple of years with never a thought about color.  If your only option is the natural mac and cheese, I would be confident with that choice, but given that Costco provides us an almost 50% price reduction over the grocery store for an all organic version, that is what our family will choose.

P.S.  A longer blog on Annie's will be forthcoming.  As a quick note of interest, unlike other companies who pick a random name to market their product (see more here), Annie really exists!  Meet her in this video.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Don't be a Dum Dum, Try Yummy Earth Lollipops

If you've been a kid, you've had a Dum Dum sucker -- the giveaway candy of choice for offices across the country.  They taste great and are just big enough for little hands, but are loaded with artificial ingredients.  The ingredients according to Spanglers web site, include:

"Sugar, Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Malic Acid, Salt, Artificial Flavor, Color Added (Includes Red 40, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Blue 1). There is a trace amount of soy oil in the lubricant that we use in our cooking kettles. This soy oil has been refined, bleached, and deodorized and all of the proteins have been removed."

Our family was at a consignment store earlier this summer when the clerk asked if she could give the kids a sucker -- the corporate world's pacifier of choice.  Most hard candy in our house gets tossed, so I cringe with these offers of chemical-laden kindness, but decided to allow it this time.  To my delight, she handed them an organic Yummy Earth Lollipop.

Why hadn't I thought of this?  I looked up the company when I got home and discovered that two guys with children -- who wanted something better for them -- set out to make a naturally colored and flavored candy and succeeded.  Here is there story:

The best part (other than the childlike fun they seem to be having) is the ingredient list:

Organic evaporated cane juice, organic tapioca syrup and/or organic rice syrup, citric aid (from beet sugar), natural flavors, may contain organic black carrots, organic black currant, organic pumpkin, organic apple, organic carrot, organic alfalfa.

Doesn't that put a smile on your face?  I purchased a resealable bag of 50+ lollipops at my local grocery store for $4.99.  If they can't be found by you, try Amazon or buy direct from Yummy Earth.  Note that they also sell gummy bears/worms, sour beans, candy drops, and artisan candies now too!

The Yummy Earth flavors include:  wet-face watermelon, too berry blueberry, sour apple tart, pomegranate pucker, mango tango, googly grape, strawberry smash, and very very cherry.

To the families and businesses out there -- we can now do better!  Our kids can have chemical free treats!  Adults love them too!  These are the best tasting lollipops I have ever had!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Ingredients Lurk in Your Hot Chocolate?

Cold West Michigan winters + kids + love of chocolate = hot chocolate!

Last winter our family came in from an hour of cold snow play to cups of hot chocolate.  We weren't a few sips in and our son had a stomach spell -- again.  I flipped over the store brand package and read an extensive list of things I couldn't pronounce or even begin to understand.

Not to single out any particular brand, as all cheap hot chocolates mixes have a similar ingredient list, but really think about the stuff that is in typical hot chocolate.

My brief research led to to learn that all you really need for hot chocolate in a scoop or two of unsweetened cocoa powder of your choice along with an additional scoop or two of powdered sugar.  Perhaps ad a splash of vanilla, a dash of salt, cinnamon, Cayenne, nutmeg or flavoring of your choosing and you're good to go.

This is when I also found that it is natural in the process to have a bit of chocolate sludge at the bottom of your cup that you can choose to consume or discard because natural cocoa doesn't dissolve.

This year, I found a large pre-mixed container of Starbucks natural hot chocolate at our local Costco for $12.99 and containing 55 servings.  A serving is 2 TBS and has 80 calories, but I have found my "diet version" of 1 TBS and 40 calories to be adequate.  It really depends on the size of your cup and chocolate intensity desire.

So, we will gladly trade in our 17+ ingredient (see list on can above) stuff for a *3-ingredient (sugar, cocoa, vanilla) natural cup of hot cocoa.

*Processed with alkali is in reference to Dutch Processing and includes an acid reducer such as baking soda.  Dutch Processing greatly reduces the antioxidant power of chocolate.  To keep more of the antioxidants or avoid the alkali process, mix your own using Ghirardelli brand unsweetened cocoa powder.  They developed the Broma Process that leaves everything in its natural state resulting in a bit darker chocolate and significantly more anti-oxidants.

Monday, December 12, 2011

How to Make Gluten Free Hot Dog Buns

It took a while to crack this one.  And I suspect, if you are reading this, you've been looking/trying too!

Gluten free hot dog buns at the store are extremely expensive and taste a bit powdery and bland.  And, if you've ever baked with gluten free flours, you can forget about forming the dough into anything meaningful.  So my wife has been eating the occasional hot dog or chicken brat on a hamburger bun for the past year or so -- until now.

I recently discovered there are different hot dog bun designs such as the New England style hot dog bun.  I found a baking pan for the task that I acquired from King Arthur Flour.

I prepared an entire package of King Arthur Gluten Free Bread Mix I purchased at our local grocery store ($5.49) and poured it into the mold being certain to smooth out the top with a damp spatula.  The consistency of this mix is a bit like cake batter -- perhaps a bit stickier.  Cover the batter with a greased (I use a bit if cooking spray) plastic wrap and let rise for 30-60 minutes -- though most of the rise from gluten batter will occur in the opening moments of baking.

Once the batter is smooth, grease the underside of a baking sheet and lay on top.  This prevents too much rise and over browning.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 25-30 minutes.  Remove the baking sheet after 20 minutes to get the top a little browner before the baking has finished.

Use an instant thermometer to check the temperature.  The baking process is done when you reach an internal temperature between 205-210 degrees -- higher than the typical 190 degrees for standard wheat baking.

Remove the buns from the oven and let rest for about 5 minutes, then flip the bun loaf out and let cool (about 45 minutes).  Cutting into it sooner will risk losing moisture and creating a dryer result.

After the loaf is cooled, use a good bread knife and cut along patterned lines.  This will give you 10 hot dog buns.  Take each bun and make a slice down the middle, about 75% of the way down, being careful to not cut all the way.

There you go!  Fresh gluten free hot dog buns!  Or, promptly freeze them in a good freezer bag or container and reheat when needed in the microwave.

Finally -- a real bun for brats and hot dogs!