Thursday, January 31, 2013

Immune Support with Elderberries!


I recently read some interesting information about elderberries.    The black elderberry has been used medicinally for hundreds of years.  

The berries are used for their antioxidant activity, to lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system, improve heart health and for coughs, colds, flu, bacterial and viral infections and tonsilitis.  The ingredient of focus is the anthocyanins, which are potent purple pigments (say that three times fast!).  They have more antioxidant capability than vitamins C or E.

I actually stumbled upon this information when I found someone flavoring kombucha with the berries.  It peaked my interest, and I read some more about it.  That led to finding a recipe for elderberry syrup that you could easily make.  I thought would be good to have on hand during winter. It is supposed to help shorten flus and colds and even can be taken proactively, a little each day, to help boost the immune system. 

I actually can't recall the last time anyone in our family had the flu (I know Rich and I have not had it since before I was pregnant with Emma and that was 20 years ago).  However, since the flu has reached epidemic proportions this winter, and so many are getting hit, I want to do everything I can to help my family's immune systems fight and to have something to use in case we do get it, to shorten the duration.  While I believe a strong diet, exercise, and a little sunshine are of foremost importance, I figured a boost can't hurt!

So, I made some elderberry syrup.  It couldn't have been easier.  I started with dried organic elderberries which I simmered in water.  I smashed them a bit, and then strained out the berries.  I stirred in organic raw honey to some of this "juice" to thicken it to a syrup (and help it taste better).  The honey will act as a natural preservative, and the syrup will last 2-3 months in the fridge.  I had some extra elderberry "juice" left that I decided to leave plain and have been adding some to our morning smoothies (see my recipe below). 
 the juice and the honey

labeled jars, ready for the fridge

Here's the recipe I used for the elderberry syrup.  
I found my dried elderberries here.

"Morning Boost" smoothie
 (you will need a high powered blender for this)

1 cup milk (raw whole milk preferred; or use a non-dairy choice like fresh almond milk, or diluted canned full fat coconut milk)

1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice, or two peeled seedless oranges

1 large frozen banana 

A good handful of frozen berries (I love Costco's frozen organic antioxidant blend -a wonderful mix of strawberries, pomegranate  seeds, raspberries, cherries and blueberries)

A few chunks of frozen pineapple 

A couple generous handfuls of fresh spinach or kale

A handful of ice

2-3 Tbsp. elderberry "juice" (not the syrup)

Blend on high for about 30 seconds. 

Serves 2-3 

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reasons why I really like Sprouts market

There really is no perfect one stop shop, is there?   

I shop once a week, and I balance taking care of my family’s household needs by visiting Costco (about every 4-6 weeks to stock up on certain things), and a combination of Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, the local farmer's market, ordering some things online (like bulk wheat berries, oats, raw honey, nuts, etc.), and by receiving my weekly farm box. Occasionally there will be a trip to Whole Foods, and even rarer, the regular grocery store.  I don't get over to Whole Foods so much because of its distance from me (and while I think some things are great buys, and I love all the eye candy there, I don’t really like to do my full weekly shopping there  because of the high prices).  And the regular grocery store, well, suffice it to say, there really isn't much real food there.  Lots of pretty packages, but not a lot of food.  When I walk in, I say to myself, "welcome to the downfall of American health." 

The first several times I went to Sprouts I wasn’t interested in it at all.  I actually even wondered why such a store would exist.  It seemed like a Trader Joe's in some ways, but not as good.... and also sort of like a Whole Foods, but not as extensive.  But, slowly over time, I started to discover more and more things that I really liked about it.  First of all, my store in La Canada is small and uncrowded, so I enjoy shopping there.  Plus, I have discovered that they really do carry many of the products that are most important to me, and those things are at good prices. 

Here are some things I really like about Sprouts:

-Raw milk products from Organic Pastures (milk, cream, butter)

-Organic, grass fed meats & organic Rosie's chicken (and a butcher that will cut up a whole chicken that's on sale!)

-Fresh heads of lettuce & greens like kale (washed & bagged ones are convenient but seem to get slimy fast.  Fresh heads have a longer shelf life)

-Fresh bunches of herbs (not expensive/small plastic pkgs)

-Loose raw beets – both golden and red – love those for roasting, juicing

-Fairly good organic produce selection – I can find celery, large bags of carrots for juicing, mushrooms, cucumbers, beets, lettuces and greens, herbs, tomatoes, apples, pears, radishes, even red cabbage. 

-Full fat canned coconut milk, and unsweetened shredded coconut (love my coconut products!)

-Ezekiel sprouted breads

-Whole grain sourdough bread

-Kombucha!  (I make my own, but sometimes it’s fun to drink one on the way home from shopping!)

-Great selection/prices on or organic teas and organic decaf coffee beans

Then there are a few things I really don’t like....

-The bulk food bins.  They make my skin crawl!  Just think about it for a minute.   How clean (and fresh) do you think they are?  My favorite is watching someone reach inside and help themself to a "sample."  And, not really all that healthful when you scrutinize the labels.  I once was looking to get some of their roasted peanuts for making peanut butter when I read the ingredient label:  peanuts, salt, canola oil.   CANOLA oil?  Whaa??   And everything else in that section is pretty much red dye #40... or full of sugar and unhealthful oils.
Exhibit A.  What is this employee doing with his hand?

-Organic red bell peppers.  Sounds funny, but I always get bummed that they don’t carry organic red bell peppers- they are one of the things I like to buy each and every week and miss if I can’t get.  I really, really wish they would have them.  Maybe someday. 

-Dry goods.  Their prices on packaged grains, flour, sugar, and other baking goods are very high.  I try to just keep stocked up from other places.

So... do you like Sprouts?  What kinds of things are your favorite finds?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Natural Skin Care


I don't know about you, but this crazy January weather has been tough on my skin.  Drew mentioned to me that it has been both the hottest AND coldest January on record, all in the same month.  We've had ice on our cars and have visited the beach in our shorts & flipflops, and now it's raining!  Anyways, with the dryness, it's good  to refresh and rejuvenate with some all-natural, easy to make "products" that you probably have in your kitchen right now.

I don't have much of a fancy skin routine.  And I don't spend much money, either.  To buy good quality, organic, natural products, it costs an arm and a leg, so why not just make them instead?

In the morning, I basically just wash my skin with my homemade soap (in the shower), and use this homemade lotion to moisturize.  In the evening, I remove any make up with my homemade eye makeup remover, wash with soap again, and instead of a night cream, I just slather on plain grape seed oil.  My esthetician/friend Jen told me about it, and I've been loving it on my skin.  I used to use coconut oil, but the grape seed oil absorbs more quickly and feels less greasy (and I don't crawl into bed smelling like a coconut!)I got a large bottle of it on Amazon for about $9 (and free ship of course with AP!)You don't use much, so it goes a long way, too.  Sometimes I add a few drops of the grape seed oil to some moisturizer in my hand, mix a bit, and apply.

But when I need a little more care (and can't get to Jen for one of her amazing facials!), I just mix together equal parts brown sugar and melted coconut oil and use as a moisturizing scrub.  The brown sugar granules gently remove any dead skin, and the coconut oil leaves your skin deeply moisturized.  And I must mention, the aroma is amazing!  When you rinse your face, it feels silky and smooth, and looks fresh.  This is a great scrub for your feet, too.

Today, I used the scrub, and then followed that with an extra-moisturizing avocado/honey mask.  All you do is mash 1/2 of a very ripe avocado with 1/4 cup honey and leave on your face for 10 minutes.  A good time to do this is before a shower so you can rinse your hair too, as it gets a bit sticky from the mask. :-) The steam is nice after a mask, too.  After the scrub and mask, I put on a generous amount of the grape seed oil.  It felt really good!

I hope you enjoy trying some of these easy and inexpensive skin treatments.  It will make you feel like you've been pampered without even leaving your home.  :-)

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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Homemade Kombucha


 My homemade kombucha next to GT's.  I did it!

You could say I have a bit of a reputation in my family for being a bit too much of a do-it-yourself-er.   My poor children have often been left wondering why they can’t have blue Windex or store bought soap like the rest of the world.   They know (and fear) that if I can figure out a way to make something better, healthier, cheaper (especially CHEAPER!) then I’m on it.  :-)   I actually enjoy the challenge, research, etc. of a new project.  

I do wonder about this strange anomaly in my personality.  Sometimes I think it’s because I dropped out of design school long, long ago, and my creative cravings were left unfulfilled.  On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if the money I’ve saved in making homemade things will need to go towards my children’s future counseling needs. 

Just kidding, they are totally great about it (well, maybe except for the Windex.)

So, the latest thing I’ve been making at home is kombucha tea.

Let me just say something up front:  I LOVE KOMBUCHA.  Have you ever had it?

I know some people think it’s strange, or even downright nasty… that it tastes like carbonated apple cider vinegar.   But,I happen to think that it’s one of the most delightful drinks on earth.  It’s sweet/tart & bubbly.  It's very special to drink.

As I mentioned in past posts, Emma actually turned me on to kombucha tea, as she started drinking it after her TMC prof gave a lecture on the goodness of probiotics.  At first I thought it seemed kind of new-agey and weird, some silly drink that had crazy health claims that came with a hefty price tag ($4-5 a bottle!).  But she kept urging me to try it, so I did.  

At first I thought it tasted a little odd, but soon I found myself appreciating its flavor and effervescence.  Before I knew it, I was treating myself to a bottle when I was out shopping at Sprouts or WF, but alas, I knew this could not become my habit.   I started entertaining the idea of making it at home, but was rather terrified, actually.   You, perhaps like me, may have done the whole “friendship starter” thing back in the day and having something bubbling and fermenting in my kitchen just is not appealing to me.  The idea of a culture growing in liquid in a jar on my counter top didn’t excite me much either.   That, along with some online research, planted a pretty good apprehension of making Kombucha in me. 

However, one fateful day in November... a friend/client of Emma’s gave her a bottle of her own homemade kombucha (orange/ginger to be exact) and THAT did it.  Wow was it good.  Fresh, fruity, delicious, carbonated…I was now officially on a serious mission to make my own kombucha!!

So, I started researching more, watching lots of YouTube videos, and talking with Emma’s friend a bit about her experience.  I soon realized that this craft was something to be respected and needed to be done safely and properly, so it took me some time to gather my data, equipment, muster up some moxie (don't you just love that term?) and begin.   

I am happy to report that I have had quite good success right from the get-go.  It took a week to brew my first gallon and 4 days more to carbonate it (more on that later).  Now I’m actually brewing two gallons every week.  

I guess I should stop for a moment and explain what exactly kombucha tea is.  Then I will get on to the method I used.  Kombucha is basically an effervescent fermented probiotic tea (the jury is still out on the benefits of probiotics, but they are thought to boost our immune systems by adding beneficial bacteria. You can read more about it here.)   

Kombucha most likely originated in China long ago, and was brought to Russia somewhere around the year 1900.  It then spread to Germany and Europe and made its way to the United States somewhere around 1970.   Just in the past few years it has shown up in the refrigerated section of health food outlets.   The most popular commercial producer of kombucha is GT's.

Many claim that kombucha is a very healthy drink.  Analysis of the contents of kombucha does confirm that it is rich in amino-acids, probiotics, antioxidants, glucuronic acid, trace minerals, B vitamins and more.  It is a living, enzyme-rich drink. Just about every established medical research university claims that all these things are excellent for your digestion, immune system, and in the case of amino–acids, glucuronic acid and antioxidants, potentially cancer preventatives etc.   Who knows if any of it is really true, all I can say is it tastes great and that’s why I drink it.

But kombucha is not without controversy. The Mayo clinic discourages the intake of it, and one of the more respected health gurus Dr. Andrew Weil sees no special health benefit unique to it and advises against its use.  There was a report about 20 years ago of two women (one died) who drank home-brewed kombucha (though from what I read, in those couple of cases there wasn’t any actual proof that Kombucha was the culprit.  The cultures used were analyzed and nothing abnormal or toxic was found).  All that said, I am concerned but I am taking every safety precaution in making it, and have gathered enough information to be able to ascertain if my home brew has gone wrong. 

Kombucha tea is actually in the same category as sourdough bread, kefir, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kimchi, pickles, and other fermented/cultured foods that have safely been consumed over the ages.  Now, I’m not promoting the use of Kombucha or any of these foods, just pointing out both sides.   There are a lot of studies done on fermented foods and their health benefits, and I think it’s an interesting thing.

Anyways…kombucha tea is made by adding a culture to sweetened tea and letting the mixture ferment.  The culture is known as a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast).  As you’ll see in my photo below, a SCOBY is, well… it's probably best described as DISGUSTING, SLIMY, and GROSS.  :-)   

I admit, that I had a great aversion to the SCOBY at first  (I was certainly NOT going to touch it and gingerly dumped it straight from its bag into my brewing jar).  But, I soon got over it and actually got excited to see it thrive in the tea as the days went on.  By the time my first batch was ready, I removed the SCOBY with my bare hands and I was barely squeamish at all.  :-)   It’s really kind of cool to me now.  I have divided my original scoby from its "babies" and have kombucha brewing in another jar as well.  

  My scoby and it's first baby after first batch.  You can sort of see a smaller, darker round shape on the top right side- that was my original "mother."  After my first batch this is what grew from it. That stringy brown thing underneath is actually yeast strands.  Gross, huh?  Rich fondly calls my scoby by the name "Scoby Bryant."  Ha! 

So how do you get started making your own kombucha?  Well, first you need to get a SCOBY.  Each batch of kombucha produces a new scoby which can passed on to someone, so you can actually get one from a friend.  I wanted to start out as organic and clean as possible so I ordered mine from a reputable company called Kombucha Brooklyn.  I actually ordered their starter kit, which included a one gallon glass jar, a temperature strip, an organic cotton lid cover, organic tea and sugar supplies to make my first batch, and most importantly, a SCOBY in 1 cup of starter fluid (basically kombucha tea).   I think it was about $50.  I got my second jar at Smart and Final –as a bonus it even came full of pickles. At only $6, it's about the cheapest & easiest way to get a glass gallon size jar.  And if you really like pickles, that's even better!

Good deal – transfer out the pickles and use the jar for Kombucha!   

To keep making kombucha, you just need a good supply of organic black and green teas, and organic sugar (I use evaporated cane juice).   It probably costs about $1 a gallon at the most once you get started.

There are many recipes that I have come across, but I like this one.  

1Boil 4 cups of water in a large saucepot.
2Add 6 tea bags and steep 20 minutes. I use 3    organic green tea bags and 3organic black tea bags. 
3.  Remove tea bags and add 1 cup organic sugar and stir to dissolve.
4.  Pour this mixure into your brewing jar and add about 9-10 more cups filtered cold water (start with 9).
5.  Attach a temperature strip to the outside of the jar (you can get these at aquarium supply or order online). 
6.  Be sure the tea mixture is under 80 degrees, then gently add the SCOBY and 1 cup of starter tea (reserved from last batch – or from a friend or company).  Add the 1 cup more water if there is room - you don't want the jar to be too full.
8.  Cover top of jar with a piece of clean, breathable cotton fabric and secure with rubber band.
9.  Let sit undisturbed in a clean, well ventilated place for about 6-7 days.  I keep my kombucha between 76-80 degrees (I wrap a heating pad around my two jars and to keep the heat in I insulate them with a large towel).  I find that mine is ready in about 7 days.  I take it out while it’s still just the faintest bit sweet (but kind of tart as well) because the second fermentation process (aka carbonation process) removes some of the sweetness.  If it tastes like vinegar, you’ve gone too long, so it’s important to taste it each day.


My first batch ready to ferment.  I was like a proud mother taking pictures.  :-)

Here's my current little set up of two jars with the heating pad.  I wrap the towel all the way around and secure with a clip to keep the heat in.   Does this make you laugh?  It's like tucking babies into bed  :-)

After brewing is done, you can simply bottle and refrigerate if you like.  However, if you want to add flavor and or carbonate your kombucha, you want to do what is called secondary fermentation (see below). 

Before you bottle, though, you must gently remove your scoby with clean hands (I place on a clean plate, and cover with another plate) and set aside about 1 cup of the tea for your next batch.  After bottling, simply clean your brewing jar with very hot water (no soap) and repeat the process, adding in the scoby and reserved kombucha.

About secondary fermentation:
To have good success with carbonation, it’s important to use EZ cap bottles.  I use 16 oz size ones which I got on Amazon.  I have used recycled commercial kombucha tea bottles and Perrier bottles but they are not as airtight and therefore don’t produce as much carbonation.  They are more convenient to drink from, so after the secondary ferment you can transfer the tea to those bottles.

I like to flavor my kombucha by adding freshly grated ginger or chopped candied ginger along with frozen fruit or fresh juice to the container.     I put some ginger in each bottle (about 1/2 tbsp. per 16 oz), along with a secondary fruit such as chopped or pureed frozen pineapple, peaches, raspberries or blueberries (about 1 tbsp as well).  You can use dried, fresh, or frozen fruit or even fruit juice.  I have used some fresh squeezed OJ and that's really nice. You can read more about flavoring online – the possibilities are endless.    After filling your bottles with kombucha and flavorings, cap the lids, put in a box, cover with a towel, and place in a dark, warm place for 3-7 days.  Burp the bottles daily (open and let a bit of air out) so they don’t build up too much pressure and spray you when they open.  

When they are carbonated to your liking, strain and refrigerate.  Or, what I like to do is strain and then let sit out a couple more days, then refrigerate. The reason I do this is so the fruit doesn't ferment into more alcohol but the tea gets more fizzy with a couple more extra days. It seems like the fruit flavor develops quickly, so 1-2 days is enough, but the carbonation is not quite enough for me.  However, if it sits too long in the fruit, it can become more alcoholic.

The bottles above are from my first batch, using recycled kombucha bottles.  You can see the fruit.  These didn't turn out so fizzy, but were good tasting.  The bottles below are from my most recent batch - strained and ready to be refrigeratedI now prefer to use the EZ cap bottles for my second fermentation - better fizz.  :-)


It’s fun having a refrigerator full of kombucha!


These little reusable chalkboard stickers are great for labeling your bottles. 

A bit of warning.  If you have never drank kombucha, before making it I highly recommend buying a commercial brand (GT's is my fave)and trying it.  Its flavor is definitely not for everyone, but to make it you must be familiar with what it should taste like.  Everyone in my family likes it except Drew.  He does try every flavor I make, but each time he says he can’t get past that “kombucha” flavor, which is definitely something you love or hate.   A tip:  begin by drinking only 4 oz of Kombucha a day for the first few days you try it; sometimes starting by guzzling an entire 16 oz KT bottle is a bit much for some.  It can upset your system. 

About the alcohol.   Yes, Kombucha contains a trace amount of naturally formed alcohol, about .05%.   That amount still classifies it legally as a non-alcoholic beverage, but if that bothers you, then don’t drink kombucha.  I don’t drink alcoholic beverages at all (and assume I’d be a lightweight if I did), and I’ve never had any weird feelings or a “buzz” from drinking kombucha.  I normally limit myself to around 6-12 oz a day (though I can drink an entire 16 oz GT in one sitting) and I feel no effects.

Here are some of the websites I have found helpful:


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