Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Wonders of Witch Hazel

The wondrous witch hazel.  One of nature's most powerful healers. Witch hazel, or Hamamelis, is a low growing shrub native to North America.  It has been used for thousands of years to treat everything from inflammation, to laryngitis, and is shown to speed recovery from bumps and bruises.  The entire witch hazel plant, including the bark, leaves, and twigs are all high in tannins, which are responsible for the astringent properties of this plant. Astringents are used to tighten and harden tissues, making witch hazel highly effective at tightening pores and removing excess oil.  Witch hazel contains flavonoids and procyanadins which contribute to its anti-inflammatory properties, making it helpful in relieving pain from hemorrhoids and varicose veins as well.

I first learned of the healing ability of the all mighty witch hazel quite some years ago, but it wasn't until recently that I put it to good use.  After the birth of my son, I started experiencing breakouts, especially at that magical time of the month.  Here I was, in my early 30's, dealing with my first wrinkles and now I had to worry about pimples too?  I thought those were supposed to be saved for the lucky adolescents and pre-puberty crowd.  But no, as cruel luck would have it, I was stuck dealing with fine lines AND pimples.  It was embarrassing to say the least.  

In this society, we have a pill for virtually every ailment.  While some conditions do require a visit to the doctor, there are many that benefit most from nature's cures.  When I started looking for an all natural cure for my annoying problem, I knew it would most likely come from a plant, not the dermatologist.  Enter witch hazel.  It was shown to treat a variety of conditions, most recognized was its ability to treat problematic skin.  I began using it regularly, once a day after I washed my face and I was astounded with the results.  My skin was clear without feeling dry.  Witch hazel is known for its gentle cleansing properties, so it can reduce breakouts without stripping the skin.  Once again, Mother Nature has done what she does best- provides.  No toxins, no chemicals, no labs required.  Just pure, natural relief.  Read on to find more uses for this all natural, inexpensive liquid.

Blemish and spot control
This is the remedy Witch Hazel is most known for.  Naturally and quickly helps clear up problem skin without over drying.  Apply to a clean cotton ball and wipe over entire face.  Can also be dabbed on pimples to facilitate the healing process.

Speed healing of bruises and swelling
Witch hazel has been proven effective in reducing the healing time of bruises and bumps.  The reason?  It constricts blood vessels, helping to reduce swelling.  Soak a cloth in witch hazel and apply to affected area twice a day.

Treat Diaper Rash
Baby's diaper rash hanging around longer than you want it to?  Looking for an all natural remedy?  Try witch hazel.  Apply to cloth or cotton ball and dab on affected area, and you will see immediate results.

Varicose Vein Relief 
Witch hazel has been shown to reduce the pain associated with varicose veins by shrinking blood vessels.  Soak a lint bandage in witch hazel and apply to area.   Some studies show witch hazel to be effective in treating spider veins as well.

Shrink Bags Under The Eyes 
Stayed up too late last night?  Got bags under your eyes?  Soak a cotton ball in witch hazel and apply to under eye are for 5 minutes, taking care not to get solution in your eye.

 Soothe and Reduce External Hemorrhoids
Witch hazel not only tightens skin, but it provides anti-itch relief as well.  It has been used to treat hemorrhoids naturally and quickly.  Many over the counter products contain witch hazel in them.  Combine witch hazel with aloe or petroleum jelly and apply to external hemorrhoids and you will significantly reduce itching.

Soothe Chicken Pox Blisters
To soothe painful chicken pox blisters, soak area in vessel filled with witch hazel.  You can also soak a cloth in witch hazel and lay over affected areas.  Witch hazel can also be combined with honey, a few essential oils, and aloe vera gel to make a spray that will not only reduce the itching associated with chicken pox, but also help to dry the blisters quickly.  
1 T honey
15 drops lemon essential oil
30 drops lavender essential oil
15 drops bergamot essential oil
1/2 c aloe vera gel
Mix all these together and then add 1/2 c distilled witch hazel and mix again.  Pour into a spray bottle and use on affected areas, avoiding eyes.

Soothe and Prevent Razor Burn
The anti-inflammatory properties of witch hazel make it great for soothing razor burn.  It not only alleviates the burning sensation but speeds healing time as well.  Apply to cotton ball and wipe over affected areas.

Speed Healing of Cuts and Bruises
Witch hazel is not only an anti-inflammatory and astrigent.  It is also an antiseptic and has been referred to as nature's Neosporin.  Witch hazel can be applied to minor cuts to cleanse, provide protection from infection, and encourage rapid healing.  For bruising, witch hazel reduces swelling and speeds recovery time.  Apply to a cloth or bathe area in witch hazel.

Soothe a Sunburn
Witch hazel is known for its skin soothing abilities.  It can be very helpful in alleviating the pain associated with a sunburn.  It provides long lasting anti-inflammatory relief and is one of the most effective home sunburn remedies.  Soak a cloth with witch hazel and apply to sunburned area. 

Heal Bug Bites
Again, witch hazel's anti-itch and anti-inflammatory abilities make it a great choice for soothing irritating bug bites.  Apply with a cotton ball to relieve itching from mosquito bites, bee stings, and other bug bites.  Provides immediate relief from the itching and swelling. 

Refresh Tired, Red Eyes
Maybe you're a sleep deprived new mom, or just had a long crying spell.  No doubt your red, puffy eyes tell the story. Apply witch hazel and cold water to a cloth and apply over eyes for 10 minutes to experience soothing relief.

Other uses for witch hazel include helping soothe dry skin, healing rashes from poison ivy and oak, and witch hazel can also be used in homemade deodorant.



Sunday, December 19, 2010

Romanesco Salad

I know what you're saying.  Roma- what?  Romanesco.  Also known as Roman cauliflower.  The name may not be familiar, but it's flavor profile will be.  It tastes like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower, but a bit more delicate than either.  It is the edible flower of the species Brassica oleracea.  It is available only for a brief time of the year, between September and December.  It is easily the most stunning vegetable I have ever seen.  A whole head of romanesco looks like something out of an art museum.

I blanched the romanesco and paired it with crunchy carrots, crisp cucumber, and bright red pepper for a healthy, refreshing, and beautiful salad.  The dressing is inspired from a cucumber dish I love called Sunomono.  The acidity from the rice vinegar and the sweetness from agave nectar pair beautifully with these veggies.  Serve this salad as a side to any Asian cuisine or alone as a healthy, nutrient packed snack.

Romanesco- a relative of broccoli and cauliflower, it subsequently contains most of the vitamins and minerals found in them.  It has high levels of vitamin C, fiber, and potassium.  It cooks up beautifully when steamed, just take care to not overcook it, as it can become mushy.  Usually it will steam to al dente in 4-5 minutes.  It is a marvel for the eyes, no doubt the most intricate and beautiful vegetable on the planet.

Romanesco Salad

1 head romanesco, cut into florets
1 bunch carrots, sliced thin on the diagonal
1 cucumber, cut in half lengthwise, peeled, de-seeded and cut into half moons
1 red bell pepper, minced
1/4 c thin sliced red onion
3 T chopped cilantro

4 T rice vinegar
2 T peanut oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 t fresh ginger, minced
3 T agave nectar
1/2 t salt
1/4 t white pepper

Prepare the dressing by whisking the ingredients together in a non-reactive bowl.  Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.  Set aside.

Blanch the romanesco in boiling water for 1-2 minutes.  Immediately transfer to a bowl filled with ice and water to stop the cooking process.  Drain well.

Put romanesco, carrots, cucumbers, onion, and bell pepper to a bowl and pour dressing over them.  Toss well, making sure all the veggies get coated with the dressing.

This salad is best if prepared several hours before you want to serve it, allowing the vegetables to marinate in the dressing. 

Stir in cilantro just before serving.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

I wasn't kidding when I said I was in the midst of a cookie baking frenzy.  So far this week I've made ten batches of cookies, and these here my friends, are the indisputable champion.  These oatmeal chocolate chip cookies have won the hearts of many over the last few years.  The secret to their unworldly goodness is the ground oats.  It gives them a chewy, irresistible texture.  Add chocolate to them and they really are the ultimate cookie.

Some people will argue that nothing can beat the classic chocolate chip cookie.  Maybe not, but only if you've never tried these.  Not only do they taste better, and have a superior texture, the addition of oats ups the health quotient considerably.  Oats are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, and baked into these cookies, well, they are just plain heavenly.   Don't get me wrong, these are still cookies, and should be enjoyed in moderation (if you can muster the willpower!) but I am satisfied knowing that they are more nutritious than most of their cookie counterparts.  These oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are requested more than any other I make and once you bake a batch, you will understand why.  

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/2 c old fashioned oats
2 c flour
1 t non-aluminum baking powder
1 t baking soda
1 t salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c sugar
1 c packed brown sugar
1 T vanilla
2 free range, organic eggs, room temperature
12 oz. mini chocolate chips

Pulse 1 c of the oats in a food processor until fine.  Mix ground oats, remaining 1/2 c whole oats, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl.

Using a Kitchenaid or handheld mixer, beat butter and sugars until fluffy.  Add vanilla.  Add eggs, one at a time and mix until incorporated.  Gradually add flour mixture and mix until combined.  Fold in chocolate chips.

Cover and chill 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 325.  Roll dough into walnut sized balls and place 2 inches apart on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat.

Cook 15 minutes.  Cool on racks.

The Perfect Molasses Cookie

Ahh yes, I have entered into the crazy, blissful state that is Christmas cookie baking.  There is nothing I look forward to more during the holidays than baking goodies with my loved ones.  Usually I do all my baking with my mom, but since she couldn't join me today, I baked these cookies with my son and his little buddy.  Albeit a little messy, (as cooking with two year olds can be), it was a joyful experience nonetheless.

Growing up, I had the consummate grandma.  She, like many other grammies, knew how to cook and bake everything perfectly.  Her fudge was the fudgiest, her cakes the fluffiest, her homemade bread so delectable.  I remember how she would laugh as she talked about "spanking the bread dough so it would grow up right".  Silly ol' Gram T.  Even as the years passed and our family became smaller, she always put out an impressive feast for us, enough to feed an army, I used to joke.  She was a woman who wore many hats, and excelled at each one.  Selfless, humble, quirky, strong, caring, and peaceful, she truly was a remarkable woman. 

I used to park myself in the kitchen and just watch her make her magic.  I remember with fervor the sights and sounds of her kitchen.  It was like an orchestra, the sound of bacon crackling, the constant thud of her wooden spoon against the bowl, the warmth of the oven, the tantalizing aromas drifting about, it seems like only yesterday.  I learned many things from my Gram T, and can only hope I turned out to be a glimmer of the woman she was.  One of the greatest things she taught me was to put family before everything else and to make as many memories together as time would allow.  She showed her love in a multitude of ways, none more sweet than through her cooking. 

She was the master of cookies.  She made every kind and she made them well.  Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, and molasses.  I knew if we were going to Gram's, she would have a plate of fresh baked cookies waiting.  She even made an extra batch of cookies without nuts especially for me because she knew that's how I liked them.  I don't know where she managed to find the time to make a special batch just for me, but she always did.  Just one of the perks of being the granddaughter of this amazing woman.

It's been over a decade since she's been gone, fifteen years to be exact.  Seems hard to believe.  Every time I step into the kitchen I am reminded of her.  Every batch of cookies I pull out of the oven makes her spirit shine a little brighter.  Thankfully, my mom and I have slipped into her role, baking and cooking together as much as we can.  Sometimes, when mom and I are in the kitchen, and I'm enveloped by the sights and smells of the season, I can feel her presence and I know she's looking at us... and she is proud.

Molasses Cookies

3/4 c butter, melted
1/2 c white sugar
1/2 c packed brown sugar
1 organic, free range egg
1/3 c unsulphured molasses
1 1/2 c all purpose flour
1/2 c whole wheat flour
2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t ground cloves
3/4 t ground ginger
1/2 c white sugar

In a medium bowl, mix together the melted butter, sugars, and egg until smooth. Stir in the molasses. Combine the flours, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger; blend into the molasses mixture.  Cover bowl and chill for one hour. 
Preheat oven to 375 . Roll dough into walnut sized balls, and roll in the remaining white sugar. Place cookies 2 inches apart onto baking sheets lined with a Silpat.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until tops are cracked. Cool on wire racks.

These are even better the next day!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chicken Tortilla Soup

Chicken tortilla soup.  This one has to be my all time favorite, which is no small feat because there are quite a few soups in the running for that title.  This one just has it all.   It has all the familiar flavor profiles of Mexican food, which just happens to be my family's favorite cuisine.   This soup is hearty and filling without being overloaded with fat or carbs.  

I've tried countless tortilla soup recipes over the years, and it wasn't until I combined about six different recipes that I finally found my soup.  I took the best components from each one, married them together, and found perfection.  I think you'll agree, this soup is divine.  I am sure it will find its way into your dinner rotation in no time!

Chicken Tortilla Soup

3-4 organic, free range chicken breasts
32 oz. organic chicken stock ( I use Pacific Natural Foods Low Sodium)
3 c water
2 c cilantro stems and sprigs- tied with kitchen twine, plus 3 T chopped cilantro
2 T vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 each red and green bell pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded, cored, and diced
1/2 t ground cumin
1/2 t chili powder
1 can organic black beans, drained
1 can organic fire roasted tomatoes  ( I used Muir Glen)
salt and pepper
8 corn tortillas cut in 1/4 inch strips

1 avocado, diced
4 green onions, sliced
shredded cheese ( I used pepperjack)
sour cream 

Preheat oven to 375.  Place tortilla strips on baking sheet and toss with 1 T oil and sprinkle with salt.  Bake until golden and crispy, about 14 minutes, turning a few times to ensure even cooking.

In a large stock pot, combine chicken, cilantro bundle, stock, and water.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until chicken is cooked through- about 10 minutes.  Transfer chicken to a plate and let cool.  Dice or shred chicken when cool enough to handle.  Remove cilantro bundle and strain broth through a strainer lined with cheesecloth.  Pour broth back in pan and turn heat to low. 

While chicken is poaching, heat remaining tablespoon oil in a large saucepan.  Add onion, bell peppers, jalapeno, garlic, cumin, and chili powder and cook over medium heat until veggies begin to soften, about 6 minutes.  Add beans and tomatoes and cook 1 minute more.  Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer half of veggie mixture into blender or food processor along with a ladle full of reserved broth.  Blend until smooth.

Add both veggies mixtures into broth.  Add chicken back in and simmer 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle soup into bowls.  Garnish with tortilla strips, cilantro, cheese, avocado and green onion.  Serve and enjoy immediately! 

* The broth and poached chicken can be done up to a day ahead, refrigerate until ready to use.

Toothpick Snowballs

Let me start by saying I am the quintessential crazy Christmas lady.  Some might find being called crazy offensive, but when it precedes the words "Christmas lady", I actually consider it somewhat of a compliment.   I can barely get through Halloween before I'm thinking and talking about Christmas. Yes, I'm one of those people.  We get our tree the day after Thanksgiving.  By evening, the lights are up around the outside of the house.   I drag my husband out first thing in the morning and by the end of the day our house is transformed into a winter wonderland.  Lights are strung, stockings hung, holiday music blaring. He might be inclined to say that my holiday spirit borders on annoying, but year after year, he begrudgingly appeases me. 

The holiday season is only a month long and I squeeze every possible second out of it that I can.  Decorating my house for the holidays is one of the many things I enjoy this time of year.  Twinkling lights, sparkling silvers and golds, the fresh smell of pine.  It is a magical season, and by far my favorite.  My son is old enough this year to really get excited about the decorations and festivities and I love that he is almost as enthusiastic about it as I am.  I make lots of crafts this time of year, and although I made these snowballs over seven years ago, they are still one of my favorite Christmas decorations.  They have held up beautifully over the years, in fact this was the first year that I applied a fresh coat of "snow" to them, other than that they have required no maintenance.

These "snowballs", although time consuming, are very economical and easy to make.   Being that I'm obsessed with all things Christmas and crafty, I derive lots of joy from making decorations, especially ones as cute as these.  I originally made seven balls and this year I plan on making a few more for the mantle.  The materials used in this craft are not suitable for young kids but older ones can help push the toothpicks into the styrofoam balls and apply the snow.

Materials needed:

white Styrofoam balls  ( I used a few different sizes, 2", 4", 5")
white spray paint
snow spray

Start with one ball at a time.  Push toothpicks into styrofoam until ball is completely covered.  I inserted toothpicks about every 1/4 inch.  Cover your work surface and make sure you are in a well ventilated area.  Apply white spray paint making sure to thoroughly cover toothpicks.  Allow time to dry.

Hold can of snow about 12-18 " away from snowballs.  Apply snow until desired look is achieved.  If you hold the can too close to the styrofoam, the force of the air will make an indentation in the styrofoam ball.

Storage:  After the holiday season, store balls in plastic bins with cardboard pieces separating each one.

Maintenance:  Occasionally you will need to reinsert some toothpicks that have fallen out.  Additionally, an extra coat of snow may be required from time to time.

Variations:  Using smaller styrofoam balls, 1",2",3" make balls as described above.  After spraying on snow, sprinkle glitter on balls while wet.  Attach a ribbon and use as ornaments!
                                    Happy Holidays!


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Asian Lettuce Wraps

Asian lettuce wraps.  Crunchy and soft.  Cool and warm.  Spicy and sweet.  The contrasts of flavors and temperatures are what makes these little bundles irresistible.  The crunch of the fresh veggies, the heat from the sambal sauce, sweetness from hoisin.  I make these at least once a month and they always receive the highest compliments.  They are not only delicious, but they are visually appealing as well, which is important because we eat with our eyes first.  I love that I can get these from cutting board to pan to table in under 30 minutes.  Wraps are great because you can fill them with almost anything your taste buds desire, and I loaded these up with lots of nutritious vegetables and mouth watering sauces.

I like these wraps in particular because they work well with a variety of different veggies.  Tonight I added red bell pepper, mushrooms, bok choy, and green onion.  I have also used bean sprouts, chopped broccoli, edamame, and cabbage, all were scrumptious!

Asian Lettuce Wraps

1 lb. ground turkey
1 T non-GMO canola oil, (or other vegetable oil)
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 slices of fresh ginger, minced
3 green onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, diced
10-12 cremini mushrooms, sliced (any mushroom would work)
1 baby bok choy, sliced
1/4 c low sodium soy sauce
2 T rice vinegar
1 T corn starch
1 T water
1 t sambal sauce  (if you like it hotter like we do, add up to 3 T )
3 T hoisin sauce ( I use a brand called Lee Kum Kee)
1 head of butter lettuce, leaves washed and carefully separated

Add oil to large pan.  Heat over medium high heat.  Add garlic, ginger, and white part of green onions.  Cook 1 minute until fragrant.  Do not let garlic burn.  Add turkey and cook thoroughly, about 6 minutes.

Remove turkey from pan and set aside.  Add bell peppers and mushrooms into pan.  Add soy sauce and vinegar and cook 4 minutes, or until veggies begin to soften. 

Make a slurry with the cornstarch and water.  Add to pan and bring to a boil.  Add turkey back to pan, along with bok choy. 

Add sambal and hoisin sauces.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add rest of green onions and serve warm into prepared lettuce cups.



Friday, December 3, 2010

Chewy Cereal Bars

Chewy, sweet, wholesome and satisfying.  These cereal bars are great for kids and adults alike.  They are packed with whole grains, heart healthy omega 3's, lots of fiber, and an array of vitamins and minerals.  They are great for an afternoon snack or as a quick breakfast on the go. Looking for a perfect post-workout munchie or an after school treat for the kids?  Look no further- you've found your recipe.

I love bars.  Granola bars, protein bars, cookie bars, the list goes on.  They're portable and delicious.  Unfortunately many of the bars out there aren't the best choice if you're trying to reach for a healthy snack.  Most are filled with refined sugar and hydrogenated oils.  Even worse are the fruit filled garbage disguised as a quick, healthy breakfast.  These cereal bars however, are great because they are full of nutritious little goodies like dates and walnuts.  The sweetness comes from honey, brown rice syrup and dried fruits.  The protein from walnuts and nut butters.  Whole grains come in the way of puffed cereal, lending it's delightful chewiness to these snacks.  It goes without saying that kids love treats like this.  My son was begging for a bite before he even knew what it was.  They just look good.  And since they taste great and are good for you, you can't go wrong.  I recommend making a double batch, they will disappear before you know it!

Brown Rice Syrup- is produced from brown rice that has been ground and cooked.  It has the consistency of honey and is about half as sweet as sugar.  It has a flavor profile similar to a less sweet butterscotch.  Since it is made from malted grains, brown rice syrup retains some of the nutrients found in the whole grain as well as complex sugars which take longer to digest, which means it does not cause the huge spike in blood sugar as with refined white sugar.

Its glycemic index is a 25 compared to 64 in white sugar and 96 for pure glucose. You can substitute brown rice syrup in recipes that call for corn syrup.  Lundberg makes a non-GMO, organic, gluten free brown rice syrup called Sweet Dreams, which is what I used in this recipe.

Chewy Cereal Bars

3 c puffed whole grain cereal ( I used Kashi's 7 whole grain puffs)
1/2 c walnuts, chopped
1/4 c chopped pitted dates
1/4 c dried tart cherries
1/4 raisins
1/3 c organic, all natural nut butter ( you can use almond or peanut- I used a combination of both)
1/4 honey
1/4 brown rice syrup (you should find it at most grocery stores on the baking aisle)

Preheat oven to 350.

Spray 9" square metal pan with nonstick spray. 

Mix cereal, walnuts, dates, cherries, and raisins in large bowl.

Combine nut butters, honey, and brown rice syrup in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly until mixture bubbles and thickens slightly, about 1 minute.

Pour over cereal mixture and stir until cereal is well coated.

Press into pan and bake until golden around the edges, about 10 minutes.

Cool completely and cut into bars.

Store at room temperature in airtight container for 3-5 days, if they last that long!

* I love buying my dried fruit at Trader Joe's.  If you have access to one, I recommend going there to buy all your nuts and dried fruits.  Their selection and price can't be beat!