Monday, March 24, 2014

Quick Facts: Cholesterol

Today I am [finally] tackling the issue of cholesterol...not with any finesse, I expect, but tackling all the same. Let me just put it out there in simple black and white that I am in no way an expert on this topic, but I've learned enough to know that we really need to be questioning our obsession with cholesterol as an easily definable issue, and we definitely should be thinking HARD before turning to statins, under any circumstances.

This post will be longish, and will be comprised of two parts: part one will be the quick five facts that will give you something to think about. Part two will be basically a spewing of info for you to think about, followed by a myriad of links for you to follow and do more of your own research. It will NOT be complete info on the topic because not only is the topic incredibly complex, but it is still in the process of being understood even by those who are questioning the conventional viewpoints on it. I am in no way telling you to defy your doctor "just because", but I do want to provide some info that can help you make more informed choices and do some thinking about what is really a pretty important topic.

  1. Cholesterol is not evil. It is not the arsonist who started the fire; it's the fireman who showed up to help fix the damage, and got blamed by association. Correlation is NOT causation, and in fact cholesterol is crucial for turning our sun exposure into Vitamin D, making all of our sex hormones, building our cell walls and helping them maintain their structural integrity, and it helps make bile for proper digestion. For a larger list of cholesterol benefits, please click through to this article, and scroll down to the "sidebar" list.
  2. LDL cholesterol is not necessarily bad. It's considered bad because it is the "vehicle" that transports cholesterol to the body, whereas HDL transports cholesterol to the liver for recycling and elimination. The problem with this is that if you view cholesterol as crucial to your body's functioning (which it is), then the job of LDL is no longer a bad thing. It's a balance-- LDL takes cholesterol where it's needed, and HDL cleans up extra and returns it to the liver.
  3. Dietary cholesterol does not affect blood cholesterol. Remember the egg/cholesterol scare? Totally irrelevant. Your liver produces as much cholesterol as your body needs, and that's regardless of your dietary intake. If your numbers are too high (and you need to realize that these ranges are not necessarily healthy in the first place), you might need to look at WHY your body thinks it needs so much cholesterol. Cholesterol soothes inflammation, which is why it's found at the site of arterial ruptures or tears. Inflammation is caused by too many things to count, but you can make a pretty good bet that the excess of sugar, acidic drinks (coffee and soda), and our lack of exercise (allowing acid to build up in our body), are huge culprits in our culture. Oh, and stress.  :-) Lowering cholesterol via drugs only takes away our body's ability to help fix the problem, but it leaves the problem, leaving you vulnerable.
  4. A whopping 25% of your body's cholesterol levels are found in the brain. Our brain needs cholesterol, and if we drug our numbers into submission, you'll find all sorts of mental issues coming your way. One particularly well known statin is infamous for its side effects of drastic memory loss, because cholesterol literally help synapses form and function. In fact, the older we get, the more we need our cholesterol. I'm not saying statins are the only cause for issues like Alzheimers and dementia, but since statins are a multi-billion dollar industry and older folks are a lot of the market, there might seriously be some things to think about here. On top of this, cholesterol can function like an anti-oxidant, and naturally older folks have more need of this as their bodies break down.
  5. Cholesterol lowering drugs have no benefit to women of any age (although they have loads of downsides), and are only a help to men who are middle aged and have already had heart attacks. The reason statins are helpful to this small minority is more likely due to their ability to help thin the blood, since having had a heart attack means arterial clogs somewhere, and thinner blood can get through  more easily. On top of this, statins not only reduce the production of cholesterol; they actually inhibit a bodily process that makes other beneficial things too, such as Coenzyme Q10, which is crucial to cellular functioning and the immune system, but more importantly for this discussion: your heart! Read about how important CoQ10 is to your heart health here.

Again, let me make ABUNDANTLY clear that this is just the tip of the information iceberg. This topic is so immense and complicated that despite having read several books and even more articles on it, I still feel completely inept to write even a basic post on it. I've been putting this post off for months because of it. It's a serious topic, so I don't want anybody making life choices based on this post, but I do hope that you'll be shocked enough with some of this info that you'll start digging, yourself.

If you're still with me, then here's a whole bunch more info, in no particular order.

Dietary cholesterol in the form of oxidized cholesterol can be problematic, because it introduces free radicals into your system. Oxidized cholesterol is found in powdered eggs and powdered milk, which themselves are found in a myriad of products, including liquid milk, box mixes, and protein powders.

Lower cholesterol has actually been associated with drastically higher cause of all deaths in several studies. This isn't the info you'll receive when you read statin literature; often statin studies can show a lowering of death due to one type of incident, such as heart disease, but those taking the statins have a drastically higher death rate from all other causes. As in, statins cause problems in your body that cause you to die more quickly from other issues. This is a trick of studies: since you died from something other than heart disease, the studies point out only the benefits (less people died of heart disease!) and ignore the other info (more people died sooner from problems caused by statins!).  For a truckload of info on the fallacies of the studies that are behind the current cholesterol mentalities, check out this book.

I don't think we've gone into a super amount of detail on the issue of different types of fats, except to point out that saturated fats are not bad. Well, poly-unsaturated vegetable oils are NOT good for you. They're a man made product that are extremely inflammatory, never mind the nastiness that goes into producing them. So why do these oils seem to lower cholesterol? Well, leaving aside the fact that lowering cholesterol really shouldn't be your obsession, the reason that poly-un-sats lower cholesterol is because people eat them instead of saturated fats. Saturated fats are crucial for cell wall integrity, where they give the wall sturdiness but also flexibility. If the body doesn't have saturated fats to hold up cell walls with, they'll try to use poly-un-sat fats. But these fats are oils, and they don't have the ability to make a wall "stiff" enough. So the body shoves cholesterol into the cells to fill them up and make them sturdier. The result: blood levels of cholesterol go down. It's not a good thing, folks, even if this description is massively simplified.

The above book is one of the easier reads I've found about cholesterol. It's still a lot of science to wrap your head around, but it's pretty reader friendly, and very helpful. In addition to explaining the world of cholesterol, it also describes how to track info that's more relevant to your heart health than cholesterol numbers, such as if you have excessive arterial calcification.  One of the components of this is excess calcium taken without the necessary Vitamin K2 (not K1) to help deposit it in proper places. This ends up causing arterial calcification (amongst other things) instead of stronger bones! K2 is found in pastured products, so pastured eggs, pastured butter, raw milk (to a minor extent since it's less concentrated), etc. My favorite source for it is a fermented butter/cod liver oil blend...we do work hard to get K2 in our diet via decent products, but it's just hard to measure. Plus, the vitamins A&D in the cod liver oil work synergistically with K2 as well as helping ward off winter blues, which I'm prone to. Check out this post for an overview of Vitamin K2.

For more resources, click the links and pictures below:

Benefits of High Cholesterol
Myths and Truths About Cholesterol
General articles on heart disease
Cholesterol and Health: Functions of Cholesterol
Cholesterol and Disease: Myths & Truths
"Why I've Ditched Statins For Good"- a vascular surgeon's story

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bran Muffins you like bran muffins?

Me neither. 

I know that sounds a little weird considering that the topic of this post is how to make them, but let me explain. I don't like any bran muffins...except these. They hardly taste like they're healthy! And heck, maybe they're not, but they're so good. Our family grew up on these, and the mornings that the scent of hot muffins wafted up the stairs were guaranteed to be the only days all four of us got out of bed on time. I don't know what it is about them, but they have a certain quality about them that makes me not want to share whenever I make a dozen. 

So here's the recipe:

Bran Muffins
2 c boiling water
4 c All Bran
1 c shortening or butter, softened
1 1/2 c sugar
4 eggs
1 qt buttermilk
5 c flour
5 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

Begin by measuring out your All Bran into a small bowl, or a measuring cup, as is pictured below.

Once the water comes to a boil, pour it over the cereal, covering every inch. The purpose is to make it nice and soggy, which, while it doesn't sound terribly appetizing, greatly assists in mixing it into the batter later on. Set it aside for now.

In a large mixing bowl, add sugar and shortening...

And cream them together.

Add the eggs and beat well.

Acquire one of these, and add the whole thing to the shortening mixture. Incorporate well, making sure to scrape the bottom repeatedly. The funny thing about mixing solids into liquids is that the solids tend to sink, making that rather difficult.

Next up: dry ingredients!

Technically, you're supposed to sift the dry ingredients together before adding them, but...well, basically, I don't like making extra dishes for myself, so I just dump it all in. I haven't had any trouble with it yet.

Mix until it forms a smooth batter.

Note: At this point, you could really add any ingredient to make a variety of muffin flavors. Blueberry, chocolate chip, maybe pumpkin (you'd probably have to fiddle around with that one a bit)...the opportunities are endless! But this is a great muffin "base", for future reference.

Add your soaked All Bran, which should be suitably squishy by now, and mix on a low speed for about 3 minutes. I recommend letting it run for quite a while, because since the bowl is so deep, it takes a while for the cereal to get fully incorporated. Scraping from the bottom helps a bit, but endless amounts of mixing will eventually get it done, too.

Lay out muffin wrappers in your pan, or grease each one with butter or a non-stick spray.

Using a large spoon, fill each cup about two thirds of the way full.

Yes, you will have a ton left over. Each batch of batter makes five to six dozen muffins. By the way--see the white streaks in the batter below? That's because I didn't let it mix long enough. I just used a spoon to mix it in at this point, but a couple muffins did end up with white spots in them!

Bake at 400 for 15-20 minutes. These are great with a number of toppings. Butter is generally agreed upon, but honey and cinnamon sugar are also divine. While they're the best fresh out of the oven, left-overs also make a great snack at room temperature!

This post is hosted by the Craft-O-Maniac MondayMix It Up Monday, and Inspiration Monday blog hops.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

DIY Ranch Dressing Mix

5 t. granulated onion (2 t. if using powdered; do not mistake the two!)
7 t. parsley
3 t. salt
1 t. garlic powder

OR for a quart jar:

1 1/4 c. granulated onion (or 1/2 c. onion powder)
1 3/4 c. parsley
3/4 c. salt
1/4 c. garlic powder

Shake well and store.


For dressing:
Mix 1 c. milk or buttermilk with 1 c. sour cream or mayonnaise, depending on your preferences. Add 2 T. ranch mix.

For dip:
Mix 2 T. mix with 2 c. sour cream.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Simple (But Delicious) Tortellini Soup

My cousin gave me this recipe a while back (because I begged it off of her after having sampled it at her house..thanks Kaylee!), and last night I finally got around to making it, because I finally remembered where I had written it down! It's one of my favorite soups, and since it was a gross, muddy, rainy/snowy day outside, I thought Tanner might appreciate something of its nature when he came home after a long day of working in said elements. I was definitely was a hit! And, delicious as it is, it's much simpler than it tastes!

I got this at Sam's Club back when I first got my membership (don't ask me how long ago that was...I'm just glad freezers are so good at keeping things from going bad!), and it was perfect for this soup. Now, if you want to go all pro-chef with this, feel free to make your own. But as for me? HA! I'll stick with frozen.

Aside from that, these are the ingredients you will need for the actual soup:

2 cans tomato soup, condensed
2 cups broth (it originally calls for vegetable broth, but I only ever have chicken on really doesn't make a difference. Bone broth would work great here, too.)
2 cups half and half (although, you'll notice I used cream and milk instead. Milk, cream, and half and half can be used for all or part of the two cups in any ratio, and it really won't make a difference. I used about two thirds cream and a third milk.)

Mix together over medium heat.

Then add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon each of onion powder, garlic powder, and basil. I used quite a bit, 'cause I love them all! Also salt to taste, which should only take about a half teaspoon.

Now the recipe says to prepare tortellini before you add it to the soup by boiling it for about five minutes. Seeing as I'm efficient to a fault, I decided not to make more dishes for myself by using a second pot. When the soup started to simmer, I just dumped them in frozen! I figured it couldn't hurt, as they're full of cheese (as in you can't get salmonella if you don't cook them properly) and the noodles weren't dry, like spaghetti. All they really needed was heat, so heat they got!

As soon as it came back up to a boil, I turned down the heat to low and just let it simmer lightly. The tortellini only needs to cook for about five minutes after it boils to heat through, but mine got cooked for about twenty, as Tanner ended up working a little late.

At this point, your soup is basically done, but adding some shredded Parmesan can kick it up a notch (it also makes a nice garnish if you're serving the queen of England or some other fancy company. In-laws, maybe)

And there you have a marvelous bowl of soup! It's also scrumptious reheated the next day, so feel free to send some to work with your hubs for lunch!

By the way...a great side to this soup is a piece of cheesy garlic bread. Slather (and I mean slather...don't just spread skimpily) butter on a piece of bread, sprinkle some garlic salt over it, and top with more shredded Parmesan. Broil on the center rack for three minutes. It's wonderful, and way better for you than the garlic spread French bread that can be found at every grocery store in town. Try it out!

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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Make Ahead Breakfast Casserole #2 (Egg, Bacon, & Potato)

A couple weeks ago I posted a recipe for the first of two make ahead breakfast casseroles I've invented lately. The first one (you can find it here) is a meat and potatoes concoction that has been wildly popular in our household, even for me, who is pretty much nauseated by the thought of food in the morning. The second casserole is a more traditional breakfast mix, since it contains eggs and bacon and cheese. It's really pretty awesome, even to weirdos like me who don't like eggs.

As with casserole number one, this one is easy to make the night before, then slip into the oven the morning you need it. SO. AWESOME.

1 lb. diced potatoes
8 eggs
1/2 c. cream
1/2 lb. bacon, cooked and broken into pieces
2 t. Lawry's
1 t. salt
2-3 c. shredded cheddar

Okay, word to the wise. If you're using home diced potatoes, pop those suckers into a frying pan with some bacon grease for about 10 minutes before dumping them into the casserole. Store bought frozen potatoes are blanched before freezing, which means they cook more quickly. I learned this the hard way, so take it from me!  If you like to dice and freeze your own (I do; then I don't have to peel them every time I make something with them) then add a blanching step in there so you don't have to deal with partially cooking them next time you need them in a casserole.

So. Dump your potatoes into a greased 8x8 pan.

Then get out a big measuring cup (2 cup will barely work; 4 cup is better) and dump in 8 eggs.

Pour in half a cup of cream, and add your spices (2 t. Lawry's, 1 t. salt). Yes, my salt is pink. Also, if you don't like to use Lawry's because it has MSG in it, you're not alone. I make my own, and while you can find loads of recipes for it on the internet, I'll get one posted here soon, too, so it's easy to find.

Stir the bacon bits into your egg mixture. You can come by these however you want; I take a pair of scissors to a package of raw bacon and cut them up small, then fry them. It's easier to get them small that way than after they're cooked. You can go light (1/2 pound) or heavy (1 pound); it turns out fine both ways.

Pour the egg mixture over your potatoes, spreading to coat evenly. Top with 2 cups of cheese. Cover it with foil. At this point you can stick it in the fridge overnight or in the oven, but you want foil for both routes.

Bake @350 for 60-90 minutes. Honestly, if you leave the foil on, it's a pretty forgiving dish, so you can start it a little earlier (planning for 90 minutes) and be sure to have your potatoes soft enough, and it won't burn. I usually get back out of bed when it's been baking for an hour, so that gives me 30 minutes to get the table set, get some coffee ingested, and some teeth brushed, and in that time frame I can check on it and make sure it's doing okay. If it's browning too much, just turn the oven off and leave it in there until you're ready for it. Casseroles are slightly awesome that way.


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Friday, March 7, 2014

DIY Upcycled Garden Cloches

In Montana, gardening is never, shall we say, a done deal.

See, the thing is, that spring arrives in all of its gorgeous blue skies and placations for cabin fever. We lumber out of our winter caves and look incredulously up at the blue sky and the grass that's beginning to turn green.

Then we promptly go back inside and un-earth all of our gardening supplies. We pull out all the stops, planting more starts than necessary, not even getting irritated at the dirt under our nails, and we start nagging our husband about getting the garden rototilled. (Because it has to be rented, and that's a truck job, not because women can't rototill gardens.)

We dutifully mark the day on our calendars that marks the "last" frost date, which we all know is almost entirely arbitrary and the weather pays no such attention to such rules. But since in our neck of the woods the last frost date is the last weekend of May, we just can't hold out any longer. I'm already starting to resent blogs that are posting about their  garden planting-- it's not even halfway through March yet! So here, when Memorial Day comes, it is PLANTING time.

Of course, sometimes this results in nights of nail biting, when late windy rainstorms or even frost come through and play havoc with tender young transplants.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Well, there's many solutions, but a lot of them require purchasing infrastructure like PVC pipe, and wind tunnels, and all sorts of fancy stuff. I'm not gonna lie, I would love to have such things sitting in my garden shed, but as of yet I haven't convinced myself to spend the money on them. Thus far I have made do with whatever containers we can find (usually half gallon mason jars) when bad weather hits, but they're limited in their usefulness, especially once the plants get taller/bushier.

Solution: vinegar jugs.

If you're a weirdo like me, you might find yourself going through gallons of vinegar a year. I use it for cleaning, for dishwasher rinse aid, for breaking down deposits in the toilet, making homemade weed spray, and sometimes even for cooking. (Shocking, I know.) This site has an exhaustive list of vinegar options to dig through, if you're interested. The thing is, vinegar is super cheap. You can buy two gallons of it for about $3.00 at Costco, and then use the containers afterwards.

Why not milk jugs, you ask? Well, I wouldn't completely oust milk jugs from the running, but the problem I have with them is that they're pretty flimsy plastic, and they don't stay upright as well as vinegar jugs. Vinegar jugs are sturdier plastic, so you can kind of "screw" them into the ground around a plant and they'll stay put. Milk jugs mostly bend when you try to push them into the dirt.  Vinegar are taller, which is great for more mature plants. And, of course, they have a handy little attached lid at the top for letting the plant breathe during the day.

Really, this trick is almost laughably easy, and I'm a little irked at myself for not figuring it out about three years ago. But this year will be the Year of Vinegar Jugs! They're easy to store: just string a bungee cord through their handles and hook it to a nail on a shed or basement wall somewhere, and save on shelf or floor space.

So next time you empty out a vinegar jug, slice around the bottom of it and throw the bottom away, run it through the dishwasher (this works fabulously for getting the label off), and add it to your growing stash!

Bonus: if you're slightly OCD like I am, you will delight in having an entire series of cloches that all look exactly the same. My initial dream was to have those fancy glass cloches like the Victorians had, but I had to give that up. Not only are they $20-30 apiece, but can you imagine trying to store 30 of those suckers? That wouldn't happen without a huge Victorian gardening shed on an estate somewhere.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bittersweet Chocolate Cake

My husband is not a big cake fan, and when he does eat cake, he prefers white. But I made this the other night, and one of the two rounds I made were gone in ten minutes, I kid you not. And this time, it wasn't just my gluttony to blame! This recipe came from our dad, who got it from a culinary class he took a few years back, and I have never tried one that's quite as good. It isn't even that complicated!

Most chocolate cake is so rich it leaves you chugging a full gallon of milk with each bite, it seems, but not so much with this recipe. Like the title says, it's almost bittersweet, which makes it stand apart from any other cake.

I hope you have a scale. There's no getting around it with this need one.

Bittersweet Chocolate Cake

9 oz All Purpose flour
3 oz cocoa powder
14 oz granulated sugar
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
5 oz vegetable oil
8 oz buttermilk
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
6 oz hot coffee

I'll write amounts into the instructions so that you don't have to keep scrolling up...that drives me nuts when I'm trying to follow a recipe on a blog.

Sift dry ingredients (9oz flour, 3 oz cocoa powder, 14 oz sugar, 2 tsp soda, 1/2 tsp salt) into mixer bowl. Mix for about thirty seconds on a low speed until they are well combined. I learned today that the sifting is very much a good idea. I'm all for cutting corners on occasion, but if your cocoa powder is lumpy like mine from sitting in the cupboard for so long, do yourself a favor and sift. Get the chunks out to make sure your batter will be silky smooth.

This is the cocoa powder that I used, and I bought it because of Dad's recommendation. Something about the combination of natural and Dutched cocoa really works for this cake (but I don't think it'll ruin your cake if you don't feel like making a special trip to the store for it). Almost every grocery store I've been to has it.

Whisk together all liquid ingredients except coffee (5 oz vegetable oil, 8 oz buttermilk, 2 tsp vanilla, 2 eggs). Blend well.

I realized as I was getting ready to pour everything together that I used up all my buttermilk making a batch of muffins, but I remembered (thank goodness) a little trick for replacing buttermilk when you're baking. It works in most recipes, but I'd be careful using the substitution if buttermilk happens to be one of the main ingredients. Common sense and all that.

Anyway, to make "buttermilk", simply pour a tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar into the measuring cup and fill it the rest of the way with milk! Stir to incorporate well, and let it sit for about five minutes to let all of the magic happen, then add it to your recipe like the real thing! I've done that twice now with this recipe, and I can't tell the difference

Add about three quarters of the wet mixture to the dry, and mix just to incorporate. Scrape the bowl really well, then add the remaining. That's a big thing with this cake. Don't be a sissy scraper! Get everything from the bottom of the bowl every time you add something in. Otherwise, half of your batter will be too thin and half will be gloppy when you go to pour it into your pan(s). Most batters are like that to some extent, but this one is an exceptional pain in the tush in that regard.

After the rest is incorporated.

3/4 Buttermilk mixture added.

 Finally, add the coffee (6 oz) to the batter. Pour it in slowly while the mixer runs on the lowest setting, and stop about halfway through to scrape the bowl. The batter will be very runny, so don't get too worried.

It should run off the spatula in a pretty thin stream when it's finished. Note the little lumps on the spatula? I shoulda sifted the cocoa powder...

This is a very moist cake, so extra precautions are needed to make sure it doesn't fall apart when you take it out of the pan. Start by spraying your pan(s) with a good non-stick spray, or grease them with butter. Make sure to get the sides really well! I discovered recently that Pam makes a spray specifically for baking, instead of just general cooking, and it works incredibly well.

Then trace the bottom of the pan onto a sheet of parchment paper and cut it out. Lay it along the bottom of your pan. If you feel like it, go ahead and cut out strips to line the sides, but I haven't had much of an issue with that, because you can cut along the sides with a knife.

Once you're done with that, pour your batter into your pan(s), making sure to divide equally if you're using more than one pan. This recipe makes exactly three pounds of batter, so weighing out one and a half pounds into each pan works perfectly. I used ten inch pans, so they came out considerably thinner than they would in, say, eight inch rounds. They baked in 25 minutes, but thicker will need upwards of 30, with the oven set to 350.

Voila! It doesn't seem to matter if you take them out of the pan before or after they've cooled. I've done it both ways, and because of the parchment paper, it slips out of the pan easily both ways.

Frost with your favorite frosting, dish up, and serve to the people you like best!